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.