It didn’t start with her, but Ariel Levy certainly did
package it: the “I’m not my mother’s
anti-porn feminist but I still think what you do is WRONG!” feminist who apparently still can’t stop watching the Pussycat Dolls, Girls
Gone Wild, and reading Playboy (I guess all in the name of research). And—I
really feel bad for her—she still thinks that every single girl in the world is
trying to look like the latest Hollywood It Girl and/or Fashion Model who is …
finish my sentence … SKINNY and WAIFISH!
Since her “groundbreaking” book Female Chauvinist Pigs, it’s as though a whole new generation of
writers have found their favorite point of reference. I’ve heard an endless
barrage of the same tired clichés about bored strippers, Pussycat Dolls who
think they’re empowered (God forbid!) and Playboy Bunnies who—get this—still
like themselves. Thanks, Ms. Levy.
In the otherwise fantastic new book Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Power & A World Without Rape,
Javancia N. Harris writes the following in her essay “A Woman’s Worth”:
“Don’t get me wrong, if a woman
wants to strip, pose nude, or whatever else, it’s her prerogative, but don’t be
oblivious about what’s really going on here. No matter how good you feel about
your body or how comfortable and fun your photo shoot may have been, a Playboy
spread is simply old-fashioned objectification of women, not a new wave of
feminism.” She goes on to say, “Women are in these magazines to help ‘readers’
enjoy themselves sexually. The woman is not a participant, only a tool, and for
me, there’s nothing empowering about that.”….
Well I have a proposal for us feminists. I think we need to
get away from talking about what IS and IS NOT empowering. We need to stop
thinking we know who IS or IS NOT empowered, especially since the conversation
usually centers around women who are naked on camera/use our bodies
sexually/participate in sexualized contexts and doesn’t talk about all the
other jobs women can do that could also be disempowering or destructive (um,
CEO of evil petrol company anyone?!?).
We can’t speak for or
from other bodies and there is no one answer about what IS empowering.
We may even need to get away from talking about
“objectification” at all. Some of this talk is becoming simply mundane. Some of
it is downright offensive—as if we could speak for other bodies at all, as if
we that right. Instead, I think we need to talk from our own bodies about what we know
and what is challenging and empowering to us. ….
Let’s consider that everything a human produces is art (from
porn to commercial MTV videos to Hollywood films to gallery art—it’s all
“art”). The interesting question is not: Is
this art? Or: Is this empowering?
The interesting questions are: How does
it make me feel? Does it challenge me? Can I see how it might challenge others?
How does it contribute to our human development—even if it is regressive or
The word “objectification” is used so often, in so many
various contexts, that the definition has become assumed, or not even
considered. But what are we really talking about? A simplistic understanding of
objectification would imply that it is degrading/immoral/improper to think
about someone in a purely sexual way. But is it really wrong? Does it negate
the fact that we can also be aware and respectful of a person’s intelligence,
their gifts? It is “wrong” to get off on a hot picture of a person—of anyone—in
A more complex understanding of objectification views it as
a structure where women are constructed as objects (as opposed to subjects) of
patriarchy. But I rarely see writers make the distinction or unpack what they
mean when they talk about “objectification.” The term has been used so broadly
(or so poorly defined), and, in the process, so vilified, that as a society we
have incurred the idea that it is wrong to view someone “sexually” at all. We’ve
set up a dichotomy between viewing someone sexually and viewing them as a whole
person, when in fact it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that in one moment we
can think of someone in a purely sexual way and in the next, or, at the same
time, in the back of our minds, also be aware of their “wholeness.”
I’m beginning to think that some writers’ concept of “objectification”
has become entirely subjective. It’s as though authors who use the word and
consider objectification versus empowerment are really just talking about
themselves and their own comfort, their own idea of “object,” but veiling
these subjective views behind the guise of speaking for the betterment of
“Women.” This broad use of objectification implies that the thing “objectified”
lacks “meaningful” sexuality (for the writer) and fulfills age-old stereotypes
that they, simply, dislike. From what I gather this means that sexual “objects”
also have taken on shape: they are biologically female, skinny, with big tits
and bouncy asses. Gay men? Transgendered persons? Men in drag stripping for a drooling
and cheering queer audience?—“Objectification” no longer applies.
Is this really fair?
There is something obviously simplistic and problematic
about this type of thinking. Yet time and time again, I’m finding feminist
writers—who by nature of their topic I want to support but sometimes disagree
with—who resort to the same tired clichés about objectification without further
investigation. Thus the unfortunate tendency to reference the same pop cultural
“blemishes”, e.g. Girls Gone Wild, Playboy, Suicide Girls, and Pussycat Dolls.
While I don’t discount their writing or necessarily disagree with their overall
arguments, I find this use of cliché to do a disservice to what should be our
larger goal as feminists—that is, to make it clear that feminism IS inclusive,
diversely defined, and bridges divides between women (and men).
Moreover, we’re making it difficult for those who don’t want
to apologize for the things they like (i.e. Pussy Cat Dolls) to call themselves
feminists. The divide is becoming ever greater, even though feminism could be,
and is, an inclusive movement.
Furthermore, there are many other things that could be
critiqued in pop culture that affect our ideas of binary gender, sexual
orientation and other forms of structural violence that don’t overtly have
anything to do with sex. If you turn on the television or open the newspaper, you
are likely to find a series of ways in which the media reinforces a structure
of violence that paints not only women as objects (in the structural way)—but
also people of color, immigrants, “Third World peoples,” poor people, disabled
people, queer and transgendered persons, the list goes on. Why focus
unnecessarily long on Girls Gone Wild—insinuating that somehow this show is so
much worse than any other—or that everyone in the world has a television. The
insinuation merely reinforces the idea that because women have consented to
their appearance on the show, or perhaps because they are so “brazen” about
their sexuality that this is an especially terrible show—as compared to
anything else offensive, racist, or sexist one might see on TV. Please, give me
Even women who DO consider themselves feminists sometimes
fall for “bad feminist” shows and products they see in pop culture, which puts
them in the bind of having to shamefully “confess” that they are indeed “bad
“I have another confession,” writes Javancia N. Harris, “I
like the Pussycat Dolls. I mean, I’m not president of their fan club or
anything, but some of their songs are on my iPod because they really get me
pumped when I’m cleaning my condo or working up a sweat in the gym … I’m pretty
familiar with the lyrics of the PCDs’ hit song, “Don’t Cha.” In fact, it used
to be my cell phones’ ring tone for my ex-boyfriend. (Yes, I’m ashamed.)”
Well I have two things to say. One, most of the people in
this world don’t own iPods, condos, or gym memberships. Second, we are complex,
hypocritical, walking balls of contradiction. That’s partly related to the fact
that we all have our own processes, we all have different levels of what feels
empowering and good. We all make our own steps. American society is not very conducive
to subtlety and nuance; we’re always being asked to take sides, or thrown in
one category or the other. It’s hard for most people to see how a situation can
be both GOOD and BAD, PLEASURABLE and ICKY, and even if we see it, we’re
pressured into assuming a side to “save face”.
I don’t know whether
the Pussy Cat Dolls are or are not being “objectified,” or do or do not feel
“empowered” whatever that means to each of those women, anyway. I don’t know if
I can say posing in Playboy is just
“old fashioned objectification.” And I don’t really care. The potential power
in any action lies two-fold: one, in the individual’s personal process towards
finding their own power and working to challenge themselves day to day (a
process that takes a lifetime). Secondly, power lies in how others view them.
If there is anyone out there who finds power, enlightenment, sanctuary and
inspiration in the words and bodies of the Pussycat Dolls, then essentially
they have contributed something positive.
I would argue that whether or not the Pussycat Dolls are being
“objectified” is irrelevant. One person thinks she’s hot, another doesn’t, and one
dumb ass is stupid enough to think that because this one woman looks like such-and-such this means that all women should look like her (I pity
the fool, but enough about him). What do the Pussycat Dolls think—about
themselves, their sexuality, their self-worth? Who are they? Is it possible
that some young girls look at them and see them as positive role models and
somehow make a difference in how women learn to assert themselves in their
daily navigation of patriarchal culture? Probably.
These are the more important questions when we look at
anything we see, whether it has to do with women or any other marginalized
group of people. These questions don’t
arrive from one person’s point of view about what “IS” empowering; this is far
too subjective. Rather, artistically—how does this art make me feel? Do “I”
like listening to it? Not particularly, but some people do? How’s the
production? Okay; not bad. Does it get people to dance, does it motivate
people, does it get us up and moving? Fine.
Intellectually – the truth is, this group may very well have contributed
to a larger and more interesting overall movement in the way that society sees
and understands what women “can” do. Albeit, it might not be the most radical change.
But if you think about a mainstream audience, perhaps some lyrics are radical
for some women.
We each have to decide what drives us and makes us feel
passionate. If selling “me, as a product” really feels good to a particular
woman, so be it (even Harris had to admit that some “so-called video vixens”
have been empowered in the rap industry and cites video model Melyssa Ford,
author of Calendar Girl, as one of
them). The fact is, Melyssa Ford, as a self-described “full-figured Black
woman” probably is contributing to a dialogue about various images of female
sexuality and femininity, albeit not necessarily the same one I contribute to,
or you do, but isn’t that what makes life rich? Sure, you’d rather write books
and you’d rather work in a rape crisis center and I’d rather be a performance
artist—or vice-versa. But who can really say who contributes “more” to an
overall change in the way that “Society” perceives women.
And all that said, who can predict was a sudden regression
will happen? Do the women of the late teens and twenties in Bohemian Greenwich
Village and Harlem who dressed provocatively, mingled freely across racial and
gender lines, drank illegally, created surrealistic and abstract art, sang the
blues and were generally “ill-mannered” ever expect the thirties, forties and
fifties? When that puritanical return came, forcing them back into more tightly
managed gender roles, was it the fault of an overly sexualized society and
products equivalent to the Pussycat Dolls or Girls Gone Wild? No … quite the
opposite. And perhaps this is why the idea of “Raunch Culture” just doesn’t
have me worried about the state of women.
In her essay, “Queering Black Female Sexuality,” Kimberly
“Fans and detractors these days uncritically call women who perform in
music videos “hoes,” “ho’s” or “hoez.” No matter how it’s spelled, the intent
is still the same: to malign black women who use their bodies in sexual ways …
They wear very little clothing (it might be generous to call a thong
“clothing”). The camera shots are either from above, (for the best view of
silicone breasts) or zoomed in (for a close-up on butts). And the butts! They
jiggle! They quake! The make the beat go boom, papi! As Karrine Steffans tells
us in Confessions of a Video Vixen, these black women are pliable and willing
to serve as props in music videos.” ….
She goes on to write,
“This combination Jezebel/Sapphire is hot and always ready for sex …
but she just might rip your dick off in the process. Is this empowerment?”….
Why are modern, intelligent women giving any credence
whatsoever to what women wear? If women don’t believe that what we wear should
affect whether we get raped or not, we shouldn’t be critiquing women who pose or
appear nude, either. (Nor, for that matter, women who wear “too much” clothing,
i.e. women that veil themselves).
I’ve been naked onstage, “sexy,” “ugly,” dirty, clean,
punky, femme, and fully clothed … and everything in-between. What I’ve
discovered is that every audience, and every person in the audience, has a
different reaction. Each person’s boundaries are different (relative to each
other) and relative to different times in their lives. “Shock” or feelings of
“wrongness” or “immorality” are learned, unlearned, and really has nothing to
do with anything about what IS and IS NOT empowering, feminist, moral, or
immoral. An individual’s reaction has nothing to do with how the dancer onstage
feels. It has to do with what we’re used to and what we’re open to. What is
shocking has no empirical value. It has no “Thingness,” (a great term I’m
borrowing from writer Hanne Blank from her essay, “The Process Oriented Virgin”).
It—empowerment—or disempowerment—is not delivered by God.
Showing a boob is completely contextual. An African woman is interviewed on BBC
and her bare breast swings freely. She is not “sexualized” (we “know” that
because BBC didn’t censor her breast) but that’s not her prerogative—that’s how
we view her. A butoh dancer bears her breast—eroticism may or may not be her
purpose, but her intention has no bearing on how the audience views her. A stripper
bares her breast. She wants to be sexualized because that is her job and it
makes her money. But still, this has no bearing on how she is viewed by her
From my vantage point, it feels ultimately no different to
be onstage with clothes or without. My feelings of embarrassment or modesty
have to do with what I’ve been trained to feel and subsequently
learned/unlearned … not whether I actually
“innately” feel myself to be an object (which I don’t). Despite what we may
have read in the Bible, as a woman I feel no “innate” embarrassment about
nudity. This is a socialized and learned understanding of ourselves (it’s
called shame), and again, it has no “Thingness”. Thinking or believing oneself
to be an “object” if one shows one’s body is not an innate feeling, it is a
learned one. In fact, I never feel as though I am an object, if for no other
reason than: I AM NOT ONE. I am a complex interesting human being with a brain
encased in a body.
Javanci Harris writes, “Plenty of women saw they feel a
sense of power when men long for them sexually. But is this real power? And
just because an individual woman enjoys something like posing nude doesn’t mean
that it’s a feminist act that’s empowering for women as a gender.”
There’s a misunderstanding here. Not all empowerment is
derived from the idea that “my body is so beguiling that I’m able to seduce men.”
Speaking personally, my empowerment has to do with the fact that I’m finally
discovering that all this talk I’ve heard my whole life about what I do with my
body is a whole bunch of crap!
If I feel like being in the rawness of my naked body, so be
it. If I feel like having a shaved head, so be it; and if I feel like licking
my asshole and stuffing mud in my mouth at the same time, great! There is
nothing that I can’t do with my body so long as I am doing it passionately and (hopefully)
creating some good art out of it: something that is interesting, something that
projects a new idea of sexuality, and more importantly, since it’s virtually
impossible to do anything that’s never been done before, something that simply pushes
ME from where I WAS yesterday. That’s all I can really expect. Something that
pushes ourselves as artists or social workers or writers or whatever it is that
we are; whatever role we are playing. Isn’t the point to be challenging to ourselves?
Ironically, the dialog that all this Raunch Culture hype is spinning
has become just as bad art as the art produced by the Pussycat Dolls. There are so many more interesting icons out
there for young people to emulate (but some of them will learn that and some of
them won’t). But it’s okay! We can influence and share with the young people we
know. We can present alternative histories to them, alternative examples of
style, of beauty. We can be ourselves.