Empowered Objects: A Feminist Paradox

I didn’t come to Duke with rose-colored glasses. I knew about the plethora of silenced sexual assault cases on elite college campuses, I knew that the hook-up culture from high school would only grow in a new environment of complete independence, and I expected the unequal treatment of women and girls to remain about the same. But if anything, I assumed that in a place that boasted a certain intellectual and social maturity of the so-called “best and brightest,” there would be an elevated awareness and more energy to enact change.

While getting ready for the Women’s March last January, I had friends get ready the same way they did for a music festival. The fashion picks were always celebrated as a choice, and the choice was always one of empowerment. This word “empowerment,” is what I’ve struggled to grapple with this past year, as I transitioned to college while coping with the reality that seems to worsen with each #MeToo confession.

A buzzword of the 2010s, “empowerment” continues to reign as a prominent cultural symbol and go-to brand strategy, especially as companies embrace and co-opt social movements. A technical definition of the word calls it “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” We clearly need to take a step back and figure out what we mean by this. We have to check ourselves when we may be claiming empowerment while acting from a patriarchal mindset, from the perspective of the male gaze. True empowerment is doing what we want, when we want, and how we want it, without fear of taking up too much space, but so often we confuse the default existence that is expected of us with choices we actually make.

Much of the “empowerment” we promote today is still inextricably linked to sexuality. Sexuality is a crucial factor in creating a more loving, empowered relationship with a woman’s self and her body. Women and girls are shamed and put down throughout their lives, mostly relating to their bodies and how they look, are represented, used, or interpreted by the male gaze. We must reclaim our sexuality by getting to know ourselves and creating a healthier relationship with our bodies, accepting rather than rejecting or ignoring our bodily form, experiences, and needs. And we must demand pleasure, not just consent.

There’s nothing wrong with a woman celebrating her body in the name of empowerment by posting bikini photos online. Many girls do genuinely feel self-empowered by embracing their bodies through images online, and they shouldn’t be slut-shamed or treated as “bad feminists. ” But as girls, we shouldn’t feel that we can only be empowered and validated by displaying our bodies to the public for them to see and approve. We shouldn’t teach girls that the only — or at least the most relevant, widely-accepted—source of empowerment is how they look and appeal to others, especially men.

The issue is that so-called “empowerment” for women and girls still comes from their ability to appease the dominant culture that profits from the objectification of the female body.

In order to advance in any way, personally, socially or professionally, girls are still expected to match whatever credibility, intelligence, or ambition they possess with an appropriately high level of attractiveness and sex appeal.

Fourth wave feminism has centered on alleviating rape culture and has no patience for the pay gap and other antiquated inequalities. But we seem to blindly accept the idea that we are empowered when we are hypersexual and confident in our appearance, enough to post images of ourselves and our bare bodies often.

In trying to trace the origins of this association, the body positivity movement comes to mind as a cultural moment that solidified the importance of beauty in female empowerment. The movement is positive in many ways — in its celebration of all shapes and sizes and rejection of the impossible and excessively Eurocentric beauty standards that ads and the media perpetuate. But looking deeper, it’s clear that the importance is still placed on beauty. We should see all bodies as beautiful. This is definitely a true statement, we should. But the movement fails to separate itself from the flawed notion that the value of a woman is based on how she looks. The message is that everyone should be seen and appreciated as beautiful, but the question of why women even need to be beautiful in order to hold value is never asked.

Should we as women choose beauty as the characteristic to measure ourselves on, to celebrate as a variable of progress in the feminist movement? Is adding more variations of “beauty” to what it means to be a woman really how we should be spending most of our energy?

Instead of focusing mostly on equalizing society’s views on beauty (which, again, we still need to do) why don’t we focus on dismantling the cultural norms and institutions that demand beauty from women? Why don’t we question why we are expected to prioritize our bodies and beauty as our main assets and ways of interacting with the world? Why aren’t we asking why we do this, and who we do it for?

Especially since starting college, I’ve witnessed just how these mechanisms seem to operate. Most of these behaviors are so ingrained in the female psyche that by the time young women reach college, so it can be difficult to identify them, much less cast them as abnormal. One of these is the pressure many women and girls feel to constantly portray at least a certain degree of sex appeal. This may seem extreme and outdated, but a closer look at the day-to-day dress and behavior of women proves this point more often than not. It’s not enough to be prepared and professional, young women must exude girlish enthusiasm and present their appearance in the most alluring way possible, while at the same time taking care to not look “too much” — too desperate or too revealing.

While social scientists and critical culture writers pick apart and obsess over the “hook-up culture” of young people, they focus more on what they deem as the detrimental effects, and not enough on the genuine experiences of young people, especially young women. The question of whether this generation’s evolving sexual habits are healthy or not is debatable, but it certainly does reflect changing views about traditional taboos like casual sex and monogamy. These actions on their own aren’t necessarily negative; the body positivity movement and the protest of the hyper-sexualized female body by normalizing more skin-showing is valuable. There’s also nothing wrong with embracing one’s sexuality by engaging in frequent, casual sex. This is indeed the message behind movements like the “SlutWalks,” where activists protested the flawed claim that sexual assault would be decreased if women wore less revealing clothing. There certainly is validity in the third and fourth-wave feminist doctrine that girls should be able to wear whatever they want and act however they want, including engaging in casual sex and wearing revealing clothing, rather than succumb to the patriarchal expectations of being ladylike and passive.

However, it seems that many girls feel that they must engage in this behavior in order to be taken seriously or valued by their peers, romantic interests, and even potential employers. Girls are expected to play out all of these behaviors with an air of carelessness and self-righteousness as if they are natural, inevitable courses of action. Women and girls should be able to decide for themselves when they want to dress a certain way or engage in a certain behavior rather than feeling pressured into it. While many of these behaviors can certainly be empowering, they will only be so if they are chosen genuinely.

When perverse norms are forced upon young women in the name of “empowerment” — the assumption being that one will become empowered by rejecting traditional gender norms that say girls should be picturesque porcelain puritans who obediently follow society’s guidelines — the progress toward true empowerment suffers.

Women and girls should be able to ditch these anachronistic customs, by means of embracing their bodies, sexuality, or otherwise, to take control of their own lives. But when these genuine modes of empowerment are exploited, when the value of a woman is continuously reduced — whether consciously or not — to how well she can sexualize and objectify herself, the power being gained actually leaves the woman less autonomous, because she’s simply playing into a two-dimensional role that offers no room for individuality and true control. By pretending that our culture has no effect on us, that all we need to do is become hardened feminist crusaders who trudge blindly forward, we are moving backward rather than forward. Maybe the thought is that if you objectify yourself before anyone else can, you feel more in control. In the coming years, I’d like to see the feminist movement be less accommodating toward the backward norms in place and focus more on creating a new culture of true empowerment for women and girls.

Those who disagree with this notion have good reason to. The more obvious, striking sexism of the 60s and 70s may not be the reality, but just because a “Mad Men”-esque depiction of gender hierarchies is waning, doesn’t mean women and girls won the whole sexism thing. Today’s gender disparities may be even more dangerous because they are so elusive, so well-guised in a mirage of “empowerment,” that has the full support of many feminists.

When we have conversations about “toxic masculinity” or the rape culture it contributes to, we must not make the mistake of attributing it solely to anything unique at Duke, the south, Greek life, or any other sole perpetrator. These factors may light the fire, but the fire is everywhere. If we act like these are isolated incidents, we’re pushing them to the margins, making it seem like these issues aren’t the modern manifestations of the wide-spreading, age-old schisms of our patriarchal society. But it does make sense to focus on the changes that can be made to larger, systemic issues on a local level. Especially at institutions of higher learning, where young women study alongside young men in historically male-dominated fields, where women and girls of the highest ambition pursue their career goals unapologetically, it is upsetting that other forms of empowerment are still taken for granted.

In an attempt to “empower ourselves” as quickly and efficiently as possible, we are actually making ourselves less powerful by using the same mechanisms that disenfranchise us to do it. This makes sense because it is the system we exist in, and adapting to it is much easier than overhauling it and creating a whole new system.

But if we want to be truly empowered — if we want to reclaim control over our bodies, our salaries, and our day-to-day sanity, we must dare to look outside the oppressive paradigm we’re in and reimagine what would really empower us.

It makes sense why more women and girls haven’t done this; you get rewarded for playing along, for dancing to the mind-numbing tune. Stepping out and denouncing the culture could be risky, but it would be worth it in the end, especially if a critical mass of people did it together. It may seem like there’s no way to win. But I think there is, and it all has to do with coming back to the true definition of empowerment. Being empowered has to do with what choices one has the freedom to make. It has to do with the autonomy one has to make choices that will give them more power and fulfillment. It’s all about awareness and intentionality. It can seem like a hard balance between truly empowering oneself and pretending to while succumbing to societies’ predetermined expectations. But it’s a balance we must try harder to reach, because our lives depend on it.

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