Taking a closer look at the way feminism and publicly embracing sexuality fit together.
When Emma Watson publicly voiced her concern about Beyoncé’s feminism being “very conflicted” because of the “male voyeuristic experience of her” earlier last year, even the last person had to admit that she still had a long way to go. The interview let loose a discussion about not only white feminism and Emma Watson herself but also about sexual freedom, and it’s one which sounds oh so familiar that a more current if not ongoing example could probably have been found within a heartbeat.
The discussion surrounding Emma Watson didn’t fundamentally change the way we view the omnipresent issue of women’s sexuality and sexualisation, but it serves to show that there is great necessity to talk about the false perception of fighting for equality and wanting to look or feel sexy, (whatever that is to the individual), not being able to coincide. Because isn’t that true? How can the world listen to Beyoncé singing ‘Yoncé/Partition’, (“I do this all for you, baby”; “I just wanna be the girl you like”), and still consider her to be a role model for gender equality and the empowerment of women? How could that possibly fit together? And what about Nicki Minaj? Rihanna? And all the other feminists that choose to present themselves in a way that embraces their sexuality as such a primary character trait of their work?
It might be easier to answer this question without the added factor of fame, so let’s look at the way this issue makes itself known in an everyday context. Thinking about the ways this affects every female on a day-to-day basis, one gets the feeling that only showing as much as a bra strap or bare knees is enough to turn even a young girl into a sexual object that caters to the male eye, and is effectively labelled as ‘playing into the male gaze’. Making grown men think it’s appropriate to sexually assault girls that are barely in middle school.
Our Western society is so heavily oriented towards men and patriarchal power structures that everything that isn’t specifically labelled as otherwise is made about men, for men, in favour of men. This also affects the female body, which it seems still is an object that men can claim. Everything we are doing with our bodies is made about attracting their attention, we apparently put on makeup to fool them into thinking we are pretty enough for their affection, dress to impress potential boyfriends. If you are wearing makeup, chances are that at least one of your male friends has told you that, “men like natural girls better”, either as a compliment or as a ‘suggestion’. If you’re tall you’ll get the advice to not wear anything with a heel, because men don’t want girlfriends that are taller than them. Curvy girls are great, but not because they simply are, but because men want someone they can “grab onto”. Targeting towards male attention is still seen as the default – unless stated otherwise, it’s all about men.
Historically, everything is catered towards the men, and it’s merely a matter of habit that women as the less privileged are more restricted in their sexual expression. In contrast to men relying on their sexuality, (which is obviously more about their own ego than about the attraction of partners – exhibit a: male musicians, be it rap or rock), women apparently only use their sexual behaviour to please men. And so, almost everything ‘sexy’ a woman does is seen as ‘playing into the male gaze’.
Here’s the thing though: A woman can actually act in a sensual or sexual way without it being for men, without it being for anybody else in general. Groundbreaking, I know. The difference is whether you are acting sexy for yourself or for male pleasure, not whether men, (or anyone else), see it as something you do for them. While that sounds pretty straight forward, it’s also the point at which it gets difficult – if you are doing this for your own pleasure, what makes you enjoy it so much?
Is it that it makes you feel good to make other people see you as desirable? Or just because you feel sexy and empowered enough to not give a shit about what others think of you? It’s probably very seldom that someone presents themselves demonstratively sexually without intentions that are at least rooted at the thought of being wanted. Whether that is problematic is another thing entirely, since trusting yourself to be perceived as sexy by others needs a confidence that can also be interpreted as a strong sign of empowerment. The definition of what exactly ‘playing into the male gaze’ means definitely is something worth collectively taking a look at, both to avoid false labeling and to make light of how often women’s bodies get treated as if they weren’t their own property.
It generally feels a lot like double standards to talk about empowerment and freedom if women are only ‘allowed’ to act in a way that leads to absolutely no other conclusion than the one that they are not interested in pleasing anyone else but themselves, or are restricted to doing the things that make them seem empowered in an ‘independent’ way. Women – people of all genders, really – should be able to do both, to please themselves but also to maybe please others, as long as it is their decision to do so. This freedom of choice is what is so vital for sexual and bodily empowerment, and that means the one restriction in this case is that you only ever decide for yourself and not for others.
This is what makes it empowering for female vocalists to walk around in lingerie in their music videos or live performances, but problematic and sexist to have a close-to-naked girl pose on an album cover or as a prop if you are a male performer, (or only parts of her body, without the face being visible), because that concept is not one the woman came up with, she wasn’t the one bringing it to life. Whether someone wants to embrace their sexuality or not, it doesn’t indicate how much of a ‘good ‘ feminist they are.
And, because we were talking about Beyoncé at the beginning here, let’s end with her own opinion about it: “I don’t, at all, have any shame about being sexual. I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me, because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have.”
Words by Anna Lina Weiß