Jan 23, 2013

Empowered, but empowered to do what?

I don't know why I've been thinking about this today - maybe it's the Israeli elections and the fact that I had an opportunity to use my right to vote for the first time in over a decade (Israel doesn't have overseas voting) - but I've been thinking about the way feminists use the language of empowerment.

To empower someone is to give them power. So to empower the public via suffrage, for example, is to literally give them the power to hire & fire their political leaders (let's ignore for the sake of argument the incessant meddling with this power that the elites have always brought to bear in order to protect for their own vested interests). to empower a student to take control of their education is to give them a real right to choose certain subjects & drop others.

In other words, empowerment is dependent on action: once someone has been empowered they then exercise their new power to effect some kind of change in the world that would benefit them.

in the context of feminism though, we talk about empowerment of a very different kind. the most common way of coming across the discourse of empowerment is in discussions of sexualisation. To take control of the presentation of one's sexual display is, on this view, empowering. So make-up, sexualised clothing, sexy poses in photographs, glamour modelling, stripping and so on are defended as feminist acts in the language of empowerment more often than in any other form of discourse.

But the question has to then be asked, empowered to do what? I can understand (and have myself experienced) the rush of power that comes from feeling all male eyes on you & being able to inspire sexual desire at will. But then what? Once you get off that stage, or take off those clothes or whatever, there is no power that you take away with you that you can sue to effect real change in the world.

so we have this strange situation in which it is feminist to feel a temporary rush of power, and it is seen as anti-sex and anti-woman to think that this rush of power is a form of self-objectification that really panders to the male gaze and to patriarchal views of women as sexual playthings.

I think it's very important to protect omen's choices; and if they choose to dress a certain way or work in certain professions then we should make sure that they are safe and have all the same human rights & protections as all other workers & employees. So this is not some call for banning make-up and closing all strip clubs. But I think we do need to acknowledge that performing to the expectations of the male gaze doesn't do anything for the advancement of women as a class or to the advancement of the specific women who practice it.

I also just want to quickly touch on the issue of women who say the wear make-up or heels etc. "for themselves" and not because of social expectations and male approval. To gage whether this is really the case, ask yourself: do you still do it when you are alone at home? And, do you perform femininity in a way that is culturally specific to your culture? So to give a hypothetical, a woman like myself (white, living in the West) doing the housework in a sari is performing (a particular kind of) femininity "for herself". A woman who "puts her face on" to look like the culturally dominant idea of an attractive & professional UK woman before going to work is not really doing it just for herself.

So in the same way that there is a sense of power too be had from playing with sexual presentation, there is also a genuine sense of fun and pleasure to be had from performing the standard rituals of femininity as defined in our cultures. but just as the one is not truly empowering (because it doesn't offer any residual ability to influence the world around us), so the other is not really a choice in the sense of freely engaging in creative self-presentation for artistic & aesthetic reasons divorced from patriarchal expectations and the male gaze.

Personally this leads me to reject make-up and other details of "proper" femininity, and it makes me reject the idea that there is anything empowering in conventional sexiness, pole dancing, corset wearing and so forth. I think this is a fairly reasonable conclusion and I hope Iv'e argued it out logically; it's not about being anti-sex or anti-fun, it's just about really engaging critically with the language we use to find the oppression that's sometimes hiding behind seemingly positive words like choice and empowerment.


  1. I agree so much with this! I also think re the idea of exerting sexual power as being empowering in any meaningful way, it's hardly a "feminist" act or anti-patriarchy to do something that men have, since the dawn of time, encouraged women to do. Even in oppressive cultures where women are banned from expressing THEMSELVES sexually, there are prostitutes, strippers, porn etc in some form or other. Men in those cultures often don't want "their" women from doing those things but to my mind to do something that most men encourage, celebrate, think is fun, and don't find threatening, then go ahead, but don't kid yourself that you're somehow empowering yourself from a feminist perspective.

    When asking if something is anti-patriarchy (or anti-kyriarchy or anti-anything basically) I think it's helpful to ask: is this DIFFICULT? Are people trying to stop me doing this? Do sexist men get angry at me and feel threatened by this? When I write an article saying raping a woman in her sleep is wrong I get rape threats and abuse. When I say I used to go to strip clubs because I liked watching the women I get a high five. It's not threatening. If it's easy, if the dominant forces in society encourage it, if it gets you social kudos, if the people who judge you are women/feminists, and the people who celebrate you are sexist men, then maybe that should give you cause to stop and pause, and think about why that might be the case.

    Men have ALWAYS allowed women that "power to withhold sex" and the "power" to tease/be a sexual object/etc, ALWAYS, ALWAYS ALWAYS. Far from being a modern liberated freedom from patriarchy. this is the only form of power women have been allowed, and I believe that this is because it doesn't actually exist. Men can, if they want to, force sex on us anyway. And often in a patriarchal culture they can get away with it. So the power to withhold/give sex etc only exists as long as the man/men in question are generous enough to not rape you, and, again, in a patriarchal society not raping a woman who sexually teases you etc seems to get you some kind of gold medal.

    So I think it's 100% for women to sexualise themselves etc til the cows come home... but feminist and empowering and anti-patriarchy? I don't buy it.

    From LouMcCudden

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  4. I think this is just as much a misunderstanding of what people mean by "empowerment" means as a simplistic "stripping is empowering"!

    When women say that they find high heels or sex work or whatever empowering, what they usually mean is "in a cultural context which says I'm not supposed to enjoy this or find it a positive experience, I am choosing to do it and find that that's a good decision for me". It doesn't ever mean that it is empowering for all women (although some women phrase it that way - I think they're wrong.) It's a bad thing that patriarchy tells women that certain activities are not allowed or not respectable or not to be sought: it's empowering to rebel against that. When feminism mimics patriarchy by describing some decisions or activities as "unfeminist", then of course for the people who do want to do those activities it's empowering.

    Most women don't distinguish between "patriarchy tells me I shouldn't do X, even though I feel that X would be right for me" and "feminism tells me I shouldn't do X, even though I feel that X would be right for me." It's all just the same sense that you're not supposed to, and pushing against that is an empowering feeling, whether it's me holding hands with my partner in the street, wearing red lipstick or my friend choosing to adopt her husband's name.

    Besides which, you can claim all you like that patriarchy approves of women stripping and accepting the male gaze: we all know that patriarchy has always simultaneously demanded that women accept the male gaze and that women make sure not to appear to court or encourage it. Stripping is just as much a rebellion against the traditional patriarchal idea of "good girls don't do this" as it is against the more modern one of "good feminists don't do this", and both are equally oppressive to people who enjoy exhibitionism. Or for the women who don't necessarily enjoy it but find it empowering to be able to pay the rent and feed their children.

    Once you get off that stage, or take off those clothes or whatever, there is no power that you take away with you that you can sue to effect real change in the world.

    I don't agree. Activists who engage in sex work and sex workers who engage in activism have made a huge difference in my life by explaining Plenty of sex workers take that experience and use it to inform a powerful critique of patriarchy, class prejudice and capitalism. I've learned a huge amount from sex worker activists.

    (And plenty don't. But many women don't: sex workers aren't particularly culpable in that regard.)

    (Sorry, reposted as I was logged in on a different ID.)