Slinkily Dressed Women = Empowerment

What feminism really means continues to confuse me. Edward Wyatt’s article titled "Dolls Clad in Feminism, and Hardly Anything Else" begins:

“Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll,” which is to have its premiere on Tuesday night on the CW network, may look like just another reality show with attractive, slinkily dressed women preening for the camera in the hope of a shot at stardom.

But “Pussycat Dolls Present” is about female empowerment, the show’s producers explained to a group of television writers and critics here in January…

“There’s a reason why people like Scarlett Johansson, Gwen Stefani, Cameron Diaz have all been so interested in what Pussycat Dolls is all about,” she said. “They feel that it is empowering to get up there and dress up like a Doll. It’s fun, and it’s something that every girl in the world — she may think one thing, but I think inside every girl in the world wants to do it.”

Empowerment? This is what Ariel Levy of Female Chauvinist Pigs would call: bullshit. I continue to be miffed at how Girls Gone Wild and its kin, according to many women, represent some step forward for feminism. Why can’t we call raunch culture what it is which is women presented as sex objects to a primarily male audience? Why do we accept the bullshit lines about "empowerment" from strippers and hookers who are clearly just trying to make a living?

29 Responses to Slinkily Dressed Women = Empowerment

  1. Rockwell says:

    There’s a funny South Park episode about this:

    link to en.wikipedia.org

  2. Jude says:

    In my youth, it *was* fun to dress somewhat like that. Back then, we wore halter tops and short shorts or mini skirts. I was cured of ever wanting to show off bare skin by seeing my exhibitionist beer-and-pretzels grandmother in a halter top, her wrinkled fat oozing out from under it. It’s not exactly “empowering” to be young, beautiful, and talented–but it feels good. It’s like getting the lead in the school musical when you’re a freshman in high school, and never again reaching that pinnacle of accomplishment. In other words, when their bodies become wrinkled and fat, which happens to many bodies in the United States with age, they’ll figure out what would have truly empowered them.

  3. matt says:

    The answer to your question is simple. It’s a matter of economics and marketing. Sex sells, but we have come to accept that it’s not acceptable to sell sex under that name any longer, so now we call it something that dilutes the raunch a little bit. Words like *feminism* and *Empowerment* will draw a more respected crowd than *Slinky* and *Sexy* will. So, realizing this, someone repackages sexy into the new and improved empowerment flavor.

  4. I couldn’t give two shits about feminism. I care a lot, though, about individual freedom. It seems to me that you value the ideology more than you do the concept of personal liberty, Ben. That’s fine (I mean, you’re wrong, but you should be free to make that choice ;-)), but just be clear about what you value and in what priority.

  5. You get a sense of how pathologically repressive and hypocritical cultural attitudes in the U.S. are when you visit Europe.

    Even in nominally Catholic countries like Spain or Portugal, it’s commonplace to see billboards with nursing women’s breasts on prominent display.

    Here, puritanical prudes are grossly offended if a woman actually dares to breastfeed an infant on an airplane.

    In the thin atmosphere of our twisted culture, sex has been monetized in a way that mirrors our society’s materialism.

    I say that it’s unnatural to demonize the nude human body.

    It’s absurd that we live in a place where a man who walks down the beach in white jockey shorts might be arrested for public indecency (and possibly even made into a sex criminal), yet it’s acceptable for a man to walk that same beach in a skimpy bikini that reveals far more.

  6. krishna says:

    It’s a clever marketer that invents terms like `empowerment’ when it suits to sell something that looks great in `skimp’ – clearly to avoid getting caught.

    The wearer often has a great bod which (s)he likes to flaunt and get wowed.

    The prude / culture police hate it often because they seldom had one to flaunt in skimp, ever. It’s that deprivation which drives their ideology.

    That’s about it. All else is BS.

  7. Jesse says:

    What you’re calling the “raunch culture” is really just a fancy word for an outdated morality. How can you, or a feminist, or anyone else for that matter, tell a stripper/pornstar/whatever, that they’re lifetsyle choices are psychologically repressing to them? No doubt some of the women involved in such things have some issues–just like some of the female entrepeneurs, CEOs, etc. Fact is, this is what you want to believe because it strikes you as wrong or improper. And it’s really kind of silly.

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Jesse — good comment. My point here is that any woman can be a stripper or hooker if they want, or dress up like dolls, but they shouldn’t do it under the banner of empowerment or under the banner of some great leap forward for women’s sense of self and freedom in the world.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Of course they have a RIGHT to, but *I* think it’s wrong. We need to draw the line between what anyone CAN do — and I support, generally, anyone doing / believing whatever they want so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else — and what someone SHOULD do.

    I don’t want to throw strippers or hookers into jail, or make a law saying women who believe Playboy represents a step forward for the equality in women in society should be stoned to death; however, I do want to participate in the intellectual debate over whether those opinions are sound.

    It has nothing to do with “individual liberty” — it has to do with taking a stand on an issue and debating its merits.

  10. I understand that you don’t want to make laws against being naked, but I’m asking you a different question: Why do you think that “any woman can be a stripper or hooker if they want, or dress up like dolls, but they shouldn’t do it under the banner of empowerment or under the banner of some great leap forward for women’s sense of self and freedom in the world”? Precisely what is it you find objectionable? (I’d add that if making a living isn’t empowering, I don’t know what is.)

  11. Ben Casnocha says:

    Some ways of making a living are better than others. I can make a living by robbing houses or hawking sham self-help services or whatever. I can make a living selling my body to male patrons. Fine, if you choose to live this life. But I don’t think it’s as noble as other paths according to MY value system.

    What I find objectionable about strippers who call their profession empowering is that they are lying — to themselves and to other young women. Why not just say it’s a way to make a living?

  12. See, I wouldn’t put stripping or hooking on the same level as stealing and scamming people, because…Well, I think it’s obvious.

    I would be wary of calling people liars just because you personally can’t relate to their choices and feelings, though. Your inability to relate to what peoples’ feelings doesn’t invalidate them, and it seems awfully nasty even to try to invalidate them. I mean, I don’t find it empowering to wear a burkha, but if some woman tells me she feels that it is FOR HER, then I’m not going to call her a liar. I just would choose differently.

  13. Also, I’m assuming you’ve never stripped or hooked. I haven’t either, but I know a lot of men who have patronised prostitutes, and I have to say, considering how many women are giving away their bodies for free (and getting their hearts broken by jerks who treat them like crap for some free sex), I think there is often a lot more dignity in getting paid to do it in a straightforward voluntary exchange of services and funds.

    (I read an interview with a beautiful French woman who worked as a prostitute and also had sex with hundreds of other men for free, just because she loved sex, and she says she was never as happy as when she was a prostitute. I wish I could remember her name, and the name of the book she wrote about this experience, but I believed her.)

  14. I don’t think we should judge people for how they choose to make an ‘honest’ living, but surely we can make personal value judgements about their chosen livelihoods.

    I would call bullshit on a prostitute or a stripper who tells me that her vocation is a performance art, although I must admit there can be art in the performance.

  15. Jason says:

    Very interesting debate going on here.

    I think it’s interesting that the conversation went from The Pussycat Dolls to “strippers” then to “hookers.”

    First things first, pop stars — no matter how “slutty they seem — are not strippers and they are certainly not porn stars. There’s a huge difference between the three, and I don’t view any of them as particularly empowering really, they’re just earning a living like anyone else.

    I’ve seen the Pussycat Dolls live and I must say they put on a great show. It’s somewhat a throwback to the old-school burlesque shows of decades past, only modernized with a bit of an R&B edge. I don’t remember any names in particular but whatever lead girls I saw had good voices — not Christina Aguilera territory — but good enough to have a show.

    What’s also funny is that everyone assumes this kind of work can be taken on by anyone. Sorry to say, but those Pussycat Dolls, Playboy Playmates and the like are very, very rare indeed. Maybe 1 in 10,000 will make it to that kind of level; even fewer will have a successful career. So no, I don’t view any of these girls as objectified or victimized, because I know firsthand how hard it is to get to that level to begin with.

    I’ll also echo Jacki’s comments that here in the USA we have issues with sex. Call me crazy but there are far less offensive things than seeing an attractive, bikini-clad/topless/nude woman in an ad. Are we so uptight about sexuality that we will watch night after night of violent news coverage and then be offended when the smallest amount of female sexuality is brought to our eyes?

    Last but not least, all of this talk centers around women and how their role in “raunch culture” is demeaning. I ask you Ben (and everyone else) does the same standard hold true for men?

    Are male strippers “victimized?” How about male porn stars — gay or straight? Or even a male model clad in nothing but a pair of Calvin Klein jeans while his body drips with water and the look in his eyes screams “FUCK ME NOW!”

    If you’re answer is “no, but they’re men and that’s different” it’s almost like saying women are inherently inferior and therefore cannot exploit their own sexuality for whatever gain it may be. Kind of dubious, wouldn’t you say?

    So Ben my advice is to just let it roll off your back, it’s honestly not that big of a deal. And just think, if one day Forbes magazine put you under “Sexiest CEOs”, would you be offended?

    I thought not.

  16. Andy D says:

    I don’t think it’s even necessary to disapprove of sexualized displays of women’s bodies to question the rhetoric of empowerment around a show like this.

    What lifestyles/behaviors is the show likely to present and promote? Ones for which there is already plenty of visibility and incitement in popular culture.

    What effect will the show have on people with moral objections to the behaviors presented? Little to none–the show is entertainment, aimed at those who already buy into its values.

    Good or bad, this show looks like more of the same–so, not empowering.

    Conversely, making a show about, say, a female biker gang might contain morally questionable behaviors, yet be empowering in the sense that some in its audience might never have considered such a lifestyle possible for women.

    I think the value of individual freedom increases as we develop a richer sense of life possibilities, and contracts as a society fixates on a very limited subset of those possibilities. This show seems likelier to contract than to expand its viewers’ horizons; in fact, the producer is almost explicit about this when she says,
    “I think inside every girl in the world wants to [dress up like a Doll].”

    Thus skepticism about a show like this need not be a matter (simply) of morality vs. freedom, and I don’t think Ben intended his as such.

  17. I disagree with Jason’s premise that:

    “…pop stars — no matter how “slutty they seem — are not strippers and they are certainly not porn stars.”

    I think that the sluttier pop stars ARE stars of a pernicious kind of porn much worse than images of naked people having sex for hire.

    They’re peddling a false, destructive image of ‘success’ that’s marketed to young girls.

    Most disgustingly, it’s served up to them in seductive packaging that entices the most vulnerable to believe in possibilities that are unattainable for almost all.

    McG, executive producer of “Pussycat Dolls Present” gave his game away when he interpreted the Dolls’ musical question, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend could be a freak like me?” as:

    “Don’t you wish your girlfriend could be free and comfortable in her own skin like me?”

    Reading self-serving bullshit like this makes me want to vomit.

    The people who produce this sort of socially damaging lies are nothing short of evil.

  18. Ulla says:

    I can not think of one woman who would defend girls gone wild. The man who created it is, in my opinion, pure evil.

    I agree with you that over sexaulization of women is a problem, and it is nice to see a young man saying it!:)

  19. krishna says:

    I think this debate has veered way off the track. The crux of Ben’s original post I thought was whether it’s ok to fit slinkily dressed women under the social hat of `empowerment’.

    Going by the comments, Ben should retitle it as “how best to legitimise and glorify hookers and pornstars” !

    But I must admit some of the insights are thought provoking and presented eloquently in the form of some very readable literature. Keep it coming, fellas.

  20. maria says:

    Wow, what an interesting debate.

    I think that stripping, as a profession, is not particularly empowering (and certainly deepens men’s perception of women as sex objects, which sets back the efforts of women in other professions).

    On the other hand, stripping on the amateur level can be fun, and even confidence-building for women who don’t do it for a living. Hence the rise in strip-to-fit classes. I think women go to amateur night to feel desired/attractive, and in many cases they do, even when they don’t have the typical stripper physique. I don’t know if you could call this “empowerment”, but I consider it a positive thing.

    When I was around your age (and in the best shape of my life) I went to an amateur night and had a blast. But I’ve been to strip clubs other times and noticed how deathly bored the strippers are. In short, it’s fun as a hobby, but nothing to aspire to.

    Anyway, stripping/hooking will be around forever…so maybe it’s more productive to direct your efforts towards something else, Ben!

  21. Toli G. says:

    While I’m glad that many of these comments try to challenge your beliefs (and that is the purpose of a good discussion) it is also important to remember that the comments on this post are not “typical” in the sense that they are not representative of the population at large and on the commonly-defined grounds of feminism.

    A rule of thumb for this, as something that I have observed and studied for a few years, is that feminism is a group of naturally masculine women getting together and saying, “Yes, we’ve been exploited by men for years, now where going to flaunt it on OUR terms.” And that’s cool. Men have been sexually repressing them for a long time, and taking all the jobs and the money. Good for them.

    However, the typical woman who believes this is not “typical” at all: a friend once suggested to me that only about 20% of females have masculine qualities in their personality, while the rest that have purely feminine qualities will likely deride and ridicule any “empowerment” notion and call it objectification. And that’s cool too.

    So something like twenty percent of women will defend stripping and prostitution as “empowerment” to their death (and of course, many men will not stop them, because it plays into their fantasies).

    In my opinion, I think it’s TOTALLY OKAY for us, as men, to get in touch with the side of us that is PISSED OFF with this behavior. While I understand how much they have suffered throughout history, using youth, looks, and sexuality to arrogantly display their superiority are not the marks of mature women. Women wearing shirts that say “Bitch” are off my radar.

    So in trying to come up with your elusive definition, it may be helpful to remember that the more something is called “feminist,” the more masculine qualities it probably has.

    This is absolutely true for men as well. According to my friend, the “men’s movement” seems to be a bunch of the more naturally feminine men getting together and saying “It’s all right to have feelings.” While that’s perfectly cool as well, it’s important to realize that only a minority have these more feminine qualities.

  22. Jesse says:

    Of course they have a RIGHT to, but *I* think it’s wrong. We need to draw the line between what anyone CAN do — and I support, generally, anyone doing / believing whatever they want so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else — and what someone SHOULD do.

    Right, but what one should do has nothing to do with what empowers them, Ben. The classic portrait of a rapist is that the act empowers them. The classic portrait of a defense attorney is that their activity in court empowers them. This does not mean that the two are equal. The ethic is separate from the empowerment.

    Now, independent of the sexualization of women, independent of your personal views, Ben, independent of anything else, stripping or dressing in a provocative fashion can, indeed, be empowering to a woman (or man, for that matter). You really can’t tell me what is and is not empowering to anyone besides yourself. (This is something that feminists are frequently struggling with.)

    I also fail to see how a woman using her body to strip or prostitute herself is any more or less shameful than…say…a male model. Both are appealing to our sense of aesthetics/beauty/whatever. Both are typically provocative. It seems that there’s some fine line here where nudity becomes taboo, which is a fairly arbitrary line of acceptability.

  23. I take issue with Toli G.’s black/white view of gender-based emotional responses.

    As a gay guy, I can assure you that there are many hyper-masculine men who are quite capable of expressing emotions that a myopic culture labels ‘feminine’.

    Your comment suggests that you may not have experienced (especially if you weren’t looking for it) all the permutations of male libido in its various shades of gray.

    ‘Gay’ and “straight’ are useful, but not accurate, shorthand for sexual preferences. The mix of human sexual response is more complex than this black/white dualism suggests.

    The same applies to emotional responses that are stereotypically, but not always accurately, assigned to males or females, regardless of any “feminist” ideology.

  24. Toli G. says:

    Vince,

    I did not mean to make it a black/white gender-based view, but there is naturally only male/female.

    ALL humans have at least some structures of the opposite sex present inside them. According to Carl Jung, there’s an Anima (the female archetypal structures in the man) and the Animus (the male archetypal structures in the woman). I’m not only talking about emotions here: I’m talking about our deep structures.

    So we all have these structures inside us. And yes, you may think that I haven’t experienced the permutations because as straight men we are taught to repress the Anima inside us. But you must know, as many others do, that if we repress it, it will come back to haunt us. We all know that if you try to fight or even deny your own nature and drives, it will come back to bite you in the ass later. I am actually proud that I can use the “female” structures within me to become a better man (what constitutes “feminine” and “masculine” structures you’ll have to take up with Jung, as there is scientific evidence that certain drives and emotions have historically been more present in women than in men, and viceversa).

    At the same time, let us not repress the Animus either – let us embrace the fact that we are men and have a nature, and let us harness our power.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, that I should experience the wide gamut of permutations. I have many gay friends in whom I’ve observed the more subtle emotions. But I’m also saying that it’s okay to be a man, and I think our society has tried to make us unconsciously ashamed of it to the point that if you ask a question about prostitution being an empowering thing, some people will slam you. I just wanted to make the point that this is a minority (and the more vocal one at that.) It is not representative of what the majority of women think.

    In the end, I think we have to integrate our “feminine” and “masculine” structures to become whole. Let us accept, integrate, and then transcend them to become complete human beings.

    Of course, the gay and lesbian community is more acutely aware that sexual polarity is independent of gender, but I wanted to use those two poles (masculine and feminine) to make the point that, like it or not, feminists and men movement supporters represent maybe 10% or 20% of the actual population.

    – Toli

  25. maria says:

    Toli G, I think that you seem to be conflating feminists with people who believe that stripping/prostitution is empowering. I don’t think that one equals the other necessarily.

    I also believe that most women are feminists to some degree, it’s just that some people are more vocal and visible than others.

  26. Toli G. says:

    Indeed, Maria, you are correct that one doesn’t equal the other necessarily. I’m talking more about that segment of feminists that think stripping/prostitution is empowering.

    And yes, the feminist movement rings true for all women (and all people) at some level, but they also generate more insults, sarcastic remarks, and cynicism that anything else, probably in the ratio of 80%/20% or so (an unofficial estimate, by the way).

  27. Toli G. says:

    I think we’d all want to see THIS kind of empowerment:

    link to news.yahoo.com

    UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world body on Thursday to create a single agency to empower women and girls and fight for their rights.

    In an address to mark International Women’s Day, Ban said the 192-member
    United Nations should take the lead in the global battle with a fully funded new agency that combines the work currently done by three different U.N. bodies.

    “Such a new body should be able to call on all of the U.N. system’s resources in the work to empower women and realize gender equality worldwide,” Ban said. “It should mobilize forces of change at the global level and inspire enhanced results at the country level.”

    A U.N. panel recommended in November that the U.N. Development Fund for Women, the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women, and the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues be combined into one ambitiously funded agency.

    The combined budgets of the three units is currently less than $80 million annually.

    Ban said much more needed to be done in the fight for women’s rights, particularly in combating violence against women and girls around the world, which is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day.

    “Most societies proscribe such violence — yet the reality is that too often, it is tolerated under the fallacious cover of cultural practices and norms, within the walls of the home,” Ban told a U.N. International Women’s Day event in New York.

    “Or it is used as a weapon in armed conflict, condoned through tacit silence and passivity by the state and the law enforcement community,” said Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister who became secretary-general on January 1.

    Ban also suggested that the U.N. General Assembly discuss the problem of violence against women and girls once a year and that the Security Council establish a formal monitoring of violence against women and girls.

    Sheikha Haya Rashed al Khalifa, the president of the General Assembly, said the burden is “on our shoulders to guarantee peace and security for all women” and that urgent action is needed.

    “We must demonstrate once and for all that there are no grounds for tolerance and no tolerable excuses,” she said.

  28. Dani says:

    There was an article in the NYT awhile back that talked about female dancers in clubs in some parts of India.

    These women danced for men in male-oriented clubs. Their clothing covered all the way to the wrist and ankle, and I think even part of the face. The men are not allowed to touch the women, and the women always dance at a distance.

    The dancing was deemed suggestive by the local law enforcement and efforts were made to ban the dancers from performing. Then, something unexpected happened: the women started a major outcry.

    It turns out, laws of tradition in the area kept women out of many professions. They were expected to care for children and their husbands. But, most of the female dancers had been abandoned by their husbands, and were receiving no money to care for their families.

    Dancing in these clubs was their best way to keep the families out of poverty. When testifying against the proposed indecency law, woman after woman tearfully explained how there weren’t any other options to keep her family afloat, because they had no education and no way of making that sort of money elsewhere. Some explained that if they were not allowed to dance, their children would have to drop out of school and work.

    This article left me conflicted in these ways: I don’t want to transpose my morality onto a more traditional society to simply say “that dancing wasn’t suggestive” because the women were fully clothed. But I also want the women to be able to care for their families when society has let them down. I also have a hard time reconciling a morality that wants to dictate what is appropriate entertainment, but does not adequately care for children, or women’s education.

    I do tend to think, though, that a woman who has no education and no traditional breadwinner in the family but children to care for might indeed feel empowered by her ability to care for her family by herself, dancing or no. I don’t want to believe that it’s simply false consciousness–that dominant society, at least in America, has proclaimed naked-ish dancing okay, and the women simply don’t know any better–or, on the flip side, that paternalism ought to take hold and simply say “you cannot dance.”

    My readings in qualitative research this quarter have led me in new directions of thinking about pride and self-belief for those working in jobs we might frown at in general. I am finding myself, more and more, willing to take those at face value who say they enjoy their work and find it personally empowering. I do still tend to find it unfortunate that single, uneducated mothers all over the world might find themselves with the same choice, however–whether or not to dance for men for more money. I’m idealistic–I hope for better options for them. I don’t want it to be “dance/strip, or allow your family to be poverty.”

    As I recall, that indecency ordinance in that part of India passed. I haven’t followed up on it recently, though.

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