Paradox That Leaves Girls Powerless
by Miranda Gershoni
Recent movements continue to shed light on a prevalent rape culture which relies on age-old gender norms and expectations. The specific culprits behind this culture have been prodded and discussed, but what is mostly left out is a discussion of the more subtle causes: the daily behaviors that aggregate into our cultural fabric. What I find particularly interesting are the contributions the feminist movement has made to widening divides and disparities in an attempt to reconcile them.
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. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it much; I took unbalanced gender norms for granted. 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 make change.
While getting ready for the Women’s March last January, I had friends get ready the same way they got ready for a music festival. The fashion choices 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. The word seems to be the appropriate buzzword of the 2010s, but has reappeared in the last five years. A Google search defines the word as “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” On one hand, women and girls are becoming more empowered, and there is evidence to prove it — girls are starting to outnumber boys in college, campaigns to get more girls involved in STEM fields is slow but increasing, and national movements for gender equality like the Women’s March and #MeToo movement have emboldened once-silent women and girls to speak out.
However, on the other hand, even though we are seemingly moving in a linear direction of progress, the “empowerment” we promote is still inextricably linked to one thing: sexuality. Sexuality shouldn’t be shunned as a metric of power; empowerment can certainly come from a healthy, evolved relationship with one’s sexuality.
But 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 credible validity they possess, whether it be intelligence, ambition or ingenuity, with an appropriately high level of sex appeal.
Fourth wave feminism has been marked by a resurgence of energy toward alleviating rape culture and has no patience for antiquated inequalities like the pay gap. But we seem to blindly accept detriments that are less visible but in some ways more harmful.
One obstructive aspect of today’s feminism is the body positivity movement.
There is certainly value in the rejection of impossible beauty standards and the proliferation of these images through mass media and advertising. Women and girls should not feel less valuable because they don’t match up to the photoshopped version of human beings on billboards or Instagram, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin is certainly a form of empowerment. 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. Talk about being “body positive” and “not caring,” seems to be more of a defense mechanism than a means of empowerment. 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 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.
Another aspect can be seen in the private lives of today’s young women. While social scientists and critical culture writers pick apart and obsess over the “hook-up culture” of today’s teens, 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.