For the fourth day of the Blogging “Yes” project I read “A Woman’s Worth” by Javacia N. Harris. Harris, a feminist journalist, talks mostly about raunch culture and different trends that tend to be linked by some with feminism and empowerment: female pro wrestlers, the Pussycat Dolls, restaurants with scantily clad waitresses, and equally unclad women in rap videos, namely. I didn’t agree with Harris on every point, but I do think her essay raised some interesting questions about empowerment and what that word means for women.
First, I don’t think anyone can say that a given act is or is not empowering except the woman performing the act herself. I think we can fall into a trap when we immediately reject women’s claims that they feel empowered when performing an act, whether it be stripping, modeling, sex work, dancing, or whatever else. It’s easy to say “no, that’s not empowering, that’s just what the mainstream culture wants you to believe,” and in using such rhetoric to talk down to women. If an act makes you feel powerful, then awesome. Claim that. One of my audio yoga classes uses the phrase “I claim my personal power,” and I think that’s an apt declaration here. No one can tell a woman what her personal power is except that woman herself.
Second, though, the correlary to this is that you don’t get to run around telling women that a particular act is empowering. Harris makes some great points in this regard, pointing to places where acts have been described as “feminist” because they “make women feel sexy,” “give women confidence,” etc. Some women may indeed feel more powerful when they serve burgers to men in a restaurant in bikinis, but that doesn’t mean that the enterprise or its owner are feminists. It also doesn’t mean we should ignore the abuses that often do occur in sex-centered industries. I’m strongly pro sex-work, and also strongly pro-regulation of the sex industry. I think that those holding the purse strings, often men, can exploit the idea of empowerment for all its worth, and feminism can’t just be used as a shield against claims of exploitation.
Third, while supporting individual women’s right to feel empowered in diverse ways, I think we also need to take a hard look at cultural norms and how they impact a woman’s sense of self. I grew up on “girl power” and the Spice Girls. I remember thinking Victoria Beckham was just so fucking sexy in the Spice World movie when she slammed down the accelerator of a bus with her five-inch silver stiletto heel, wearing her miniskirt. And while there’s nothing wrong with thinking that ass-kicking in glamor wear is sexy, I can also look back and interrogate those feelings in myself and recognize them as based in a heteronormative culture. I felt most confident about myself as a teenager when I “cleaned up” (wore a bra, shaved, found “sexy” clothes that showed off my breasts, had a chic haircut, etc) and didn’t recognize the roots of those feelings in a culture that tells women we have to look good for men. So, while supporting individual women’s rights to feel empowered in diverse ways, we also need to think about the underlying culture and what we do and don’t like about it.
Fourth, and finally, a related point. Harris talks a lot about sexuality in this essay, about women feeling sexy for different reasons. I think we need to embrace women’s sexuality, rather than saying that when sex makes a woman feel empowered there’s a problem at work. I think that part of this is providing new outlets for women’s sexuality, new ways that individual women might have an empowering experience. Harris mentions her dance aerobics classes as an alternative to more sex-based beauty standards. I think more overtly sexual examples would also be appropriate here, such as independent producers of pornography made by and for women, presses that put out erotica collections written by women (including queer and transwomen), and sexuality-focused community groups and conferences. Though many women may still feel empowered by more traditional sexual enterprises, and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do think that many women in this culture lack for options when it comes to expressing sexuality. More options can’t be a bad thing.