A Feminist Issue – Culture or Contract?

Posted by on January 19, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 14 comments

What exactly is “feminism” anyway? No this is not a flippant question, and it in no way demeans women, equality or feminism itself. It’s an honest question, and one I think we should all consider. I raised the question this week on Twitter, sparked by an article I had read which condemned Beyonce Knowles for posing “nearly nude” in this month’s cover of GQ magazine. The controversy came from a statement from an interview which Knowles says she sides with feminist issues. An issue was taken with the apparent disparity between Knowles’ seemingly feminist attitudes, and the fact that she posed on the cover of a men’s magazine, right next to a headline for an article “The 100 Sexiest Women of the 21st Century”.

From the interview in question:

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? … I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

The responding article was called “Beyoncé: being photographed in your underwear doesn’t help feminism”  written by The Guardian’s columnist Hadley Freeman.

As a result of reading the disparaging article, I asked Twitter this:

“Self-professed feminist Beyonce Knowles posing nearly nude on the cover of GQ magazine – discuss.”

This tweet was an honest discussion point. I was neither condemning Knowles, nor questioning her dedication to women’s rights and equality. What I wanted to know is, what does this do for feminism, if anything, and where does feminism stand? (I have to clarify at this point, because I later found out that Knowles doesn’t actually consider herself a feminist, but given her comments, I’d say she has a certain amount of empathy for the feminist causes.)

The responses varied from disgust at Knowles’ cover photo, to statements declaring that women can do whatever they want with their bodies, so who am I to judge?

But the discussion soon ran out of steam, as often they do on Twitter, when my followers found out I wasn’t condemning her myself. It’s much easier, it seems, to deliver a knee-jerk overreaction to a statement than to think through, discuss and arrive at a well though-out conclusion. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What does it mean, for modern women, when someone like Knowles poses in her underwear on the cover of a men’s magazine, yet talks in the containing article about “men [having] the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine.”? Sure, Beyonce is sexy, there’s no arguing about that. She’s fit, she’s attractive, and beyond all that, she’s very talented. She is a role-model for women and girls all over the world, as a strong and independent woman. And she’s ever-so successful. Knowles’ position is also seen by women and girls as something to aspire to. Does posing in your underwear for the pleasure of the male gaze undermine any of this?

My problem with this situation is not that Knowles has decided to do this cover-shoot (and the accompanying photo-shoot, all in her underwear). No this is completely fine, she has the right to do whatever she wants, and to present herself however she wants. And there’s nothing wrong with nudity either. The human body is beautiful, and we find it so because of our own DNA; We are programmed to respond positively to the human form, especially when it’s fit and flawless, as Knowles’ seems to be in this touched-up cover shot. Nobody should tell women what they can and can’t wear either, it’s none of anyone’s business. Slut-shaming has no place in modern society, and prudishness is the problem of the prude, not the society.

Knowles is part of the music/fashion/celebrity machine. She has contractual obligations to fulfill, and no doubt the GQ shoot was part of this. She makes money from her music and her body. She is the product, and we are the hapless consumers of this industry. We are constantly bombarded with images of scantily clad women (and men) on the covers of magazines, all designed to get us to fork out a few dollars to buy them. The images are deliberately sexy, they deliberately set out to make us want to consume the product. Sex sells, and even if the reward for gazing upon Knowles’ is an imaginary one, or a chemical release in the brain, we respond as if it were real.

So what does this have to do with feminism? Can a man comment on this topic without being a hypocrite?

Feminism, for me, is simply an extension of my humanist ideals; men and women worldwide should be treated with respect and dignity, and nobody should be discriminated against based on anything but their deeds, and even then, with caution. I walk into relationships with nothing but respect for the person I’m meeting, and it is up to the person to show me whether they are worthy of it. If they show themselves unworthy of respect, so be it, but respect is a starting point, not something that needs to be earned. Although feminism is just an aspect of humanism, it is a big part, and one that deserves to be acknowledged, given the way women are treated, both historically and presently. A part of feminism is women’s rights to do and be whatever they want, within the bounds of the law of course (of course in some cases the law is arbitrarily meted out by men who want to control women, but that’s another topic).

The crux of the situation is, what is acceptable as empowerment of women and what is exploitation? Knowles is in a position of power, and yet her management and her contractual agreements tell her she has to be “hot”, otherwise the product (her) is no longer a valuable commodity. Is the fact that she is ‘sexy’ seen as helping or hindering any feminist progress, or is she simply part of the machine of modern consumerism?

All of this seems trite when we consider what is happening to women worldwide. In Afghanistan, for instance, women are fearing they will lose their newly-found freedoms if the troops from the West pull out, as they are slated to do in 2014. Rape and sexual abuse is rampant in India. The right for women to have an education is constantly being taken away in Iran. Muslim women are told what to wear by men for fear of arousing unwanted sexual attention. These are just a few examples of what is going on, so Knowles posing in her underwear on the cover of GQ is not of any real significance, in that sense. It’s a scantily-clad storm in a consumerist teacup by comparison.

The significance lies in the west’s culture, where the idealised woman is criticised for what she wears, how she presents herself, and on her opinions about women. There is a certain disconnect here that I’m not sure I fully grasp. I support Knowles’ as a woman, and admire her for her success, but I wonder, given her status as a pop icon, whether she could use this fame to try to smash some of the myths around the objectification of women by not posing in her underwear. Is this overly idealistic? The positivity that can be gleaned as a result of fame is enormous, but is this contradiction too great to overcome?

As Hadley Freeman points out:

To complain about the sexualisation of women in men’s magazines may seem like complaining about the weather. But as Knowles rightly says in relation to the pay gap, the status quo should not just be shruggingly accepted if it is wrong. I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, and these covers are, to my eyes, becoming increasingly close to porn. In the past four months alone we’ve had Cameron Diaz bending over in a pair of mesh pants; topless Mila Kunis in leather trousers (while inside she writhes naked on a bed); Rihanna naked save for a mini leather jacket; Lana Del Rey also naked except for some jewellery (that was on GQ’s October issue, which had four alternative covers that all featured men. All of these men, funnily enough, were clothed).

Of course, this is increasingly what the industry expects.

Another commenter on the GQ cover was enlightening, this time in The Independent by Aisha Mirza:

“Is this what western feminism has come to? Asks the amazing Hadley Freedman [sic] in her damning column. No. It isn’t. This is that cheeky duo, capitalism and patriarchy, doing what they do – and they have been doing it a lot longer than Beyoncé has been providing the beats. Western feminism is amorphous, innovative, and becoming more receptive to individual experience, and more understanding of intersectionality (the radical notion that not all women are not the same). Despite austerity, George Galloway and drinks called Pussy, there is so much out there.  We mustn’t waste time or energy picking each other to pieces. We must support and congratulate each other at every opportunity.”

Before I dig myself deeper into this hole I’ve created for myself, I just want to say that Knowles is not to blame for this disparity. It’s part of her job, and she’s very good at it too. The culture we live in fosters this disparity, it even demands this of us. It’s part of the falsified consumerist society we have created. To break free from this problem will take more than a few words of encouragement inside the pages of a magazine, more than just a half-assed blog about it by me, more than just criticisms within the newspapers. It will take a paradigmatic shift in perceptions about what is best for for women and people in general, and a dedication to see this shift happen.

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  1. Ironic that in an age where individualism apparently came to prominence, what we wound up with was really just a perpetuation of the same oppressive, hetero-normative garbage. Ironic, but not unexpected.
    “You are free to be yourself. Here’s how:”

    The only footstep I’m going to take into this shitstorm on a Pale Blue Dot is this: Let’s not forget that Knowles didn’t reach her current celebrity and THEN become part of The System. (SCARE CAPITALS!) Destiny’s Child didn’t wear pantsuits. There, I said it. Sometimes, probably just me, but it reads like people think she JUST DID THIS NOW. Like WOAH FEMINIST MAKES RADICAL FAUX-PAS! NEWS HEADLINES! No. A pop star did what she’s done the whole time she’s been performing. Play the game, and be played by the game.

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  2. Posing in positions of power or coy sexuality, such images hold power- who has that power can shift. I posed in a nude calendar, fully exposed, and it was one of the most liberating and powerful feelings I’ve experienced; and when, on the big screen in Washington, DC- when Darrel Ray used my image in his American Atheist talk about sex & religion, and I stood up to acknowledge my participation in the project, I could not have been more proud and empowered, filled with positive congratulations from those around me. Whatever the pose, the purpose and message is important. If Knowles posed for a men’s magazine that consistently presented women as equals, and not as toys, it would be a positive and empowering statement- but this one simply isn’t.

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    • emilyhasbooks
      What does presenting as equals mean? Not in a state of undress? I don’t think anyone forced Knowles to get photographed in her underwear. That was all her. Therefore the choice to be photographed in her underwear was an empowering one. She made it; no one else.
      Also, you say posing for a nude calendar and you say it was one of the most liberating and powerful feeling you’ve experienced. What makes you think this, for Knowles, wasn’t? Isn’t it incredibly condescending to say it wasn’t, especially by another woman? And that nude calendar you posed for, was it a one-time thing or was it a regular feature? If so, does it consistently present women ‘as equals’ or women as ‘powerful and liberating’? I think you need to look at feminism and consider all facets, not just the one that says ‘equality.’ As I say, I think it’s condescending.

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  3. We talk about these choices and judge women for which ones they take, but I think we often do so without understanding that everything we do as women costs. Beyonce won’t wear undies for that cover shoot? Her message about pay doesn’t reach that audience. Take some strong stances on feminist issues? Everything else you do is ignored. 
    It’s a rigged game. If we’re going to play at all, the best we can ever accomplish is to be aware of the trade-off we’re making.

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    • Stephanie Zvan
      Ignoring, of course, that the person who wrote that article criticising her decision to be photographed in her underwear was a woman. So what moral can we draw from that?

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  4. This doesn’t surprise me, and reminds me of the photo shoot in Playboy by Priyanka Chopra who apparently considered it breaking new ground as the first Indian to appear in it, while receiving some criticism from her country’s feminists about it.
    Whether it’s a step backward for women’s rights, appearances in publications like this, as with Knowles in GQ, reinforce the image the media’s crafted about what sells to its target audience, and I don’t think that this will change without real changes in the culture.

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  5. If feminism is about equal rights, then it seems difficult to substantiate a claim that the Knowles’ exercising their American rights are significantly hindering (or reversing) the desired advance of womens’ rights globally, or some specific legal jurisdiction.
    It might be the prevailing wisdom out in the public square (though not inside the Australian Sex Party, I imagine) but until it’s evidenced with some credible trend data, perhaps we ought to remain skeptical that nude popstars are undermining feminist activists… ?

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  6. I think about this issue a great deal, especially given my background as a practicing Muslim. Back then, I believed that covering up was an escape from and a way to rebel against Western beauty norms. I now think that deferring to any sexist norms for their own sake, be they Islamic or American, is a bad idea, but there’s always that question nagging the back of my mind: How much of what we do is really based on choice/agency?

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    • futilityfiles Lots of choice seems to be a reasonable way to organise a legal system. At least according to liberals.

      Wrt your nagging question, if my personal choices are –in fact– significantly more influenced (by norms) than I currently imagine them to be, then it’s likely just another fact of life I’ll have to accept, not a personal problem left for me to “choose” to solve.

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  7. I can see you don’t understand much about women or feminism.   For feminism, look up feminism 101.  I can’t cover it all here and it’s not my job to spoon feed it to you.  On women, well, we’re all different.  As for Knowles, you already answered you own question.  She is, “simply part of the machine of modern consumerism.”  She is the product.

    Media and popular culture are very toxic to women.  The images of women portrayed in media are “touched-up” and photo shopped to the point that in Europe it is required by law to note it on photographs in magazines and ads.  Europeans seem to be a little more concerned about healthy images for women.
    I was actually surprised that Beyonce is white.  The last time I saw a Beyonce on TV two or three years ago, she was black. I’ve stopped watching TV and movies because I am so sick of the way women are portrayed.  I do watch some BBC productions.  The women and men on them usually look like actual people.  I don’t even watch US news, especially not cable.  The anchor women all have to have long, flowing, preferably blond hair and wear fuck-me clothes a size too small and spike heels.  I know tailoring and believe me, when you see creases around the armpits and across the crotch area, the clothes are too small.  The male anchors are not dressed in such ill fitting, uncomfortable looking clothes.  Why, it certainly can’t be cost.

    If you want an actual study outlining the harm that media does to women check out the following article:

    From the article  Media Exposure as Harmful Cultural Practice (http://radfemimages.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/media-exposure-as-harmful-cultural-practice/)

    ” a study conducted by researcher Ann Becker where television programming was “naturally” introduced into a
    population for the first time, and within 3 short years, (between
    1995-1998) nearly 70% of the female population were dieting to lose
    weight, and nearly 75% “felt too fat.” ”
    For the sake of brevity and courtesy, I will not comment in depth about your total cluelessness (sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, it’s the most accurate term).   I will say that feminism used to be about the liberation of females.  Now it seems younger feminists will settle for equality.  The difference is that liberation requires a paradigm shift from using male as the norm to something that allows for fairness and justice.  This will require something other than the male norms or definitions.  For example women need maternity leave to go through labor, birth,  and physical recovery from having her body messed up for the better part of a year.  But we got family leave so “parents” can bond with their children.  I know they threw in taking care of a sick family member to sweeten the pot (women are usually the ones who do this anyway), but the whole thing is unpaid.  Women have to take time off to give birth and recover from pregnancy (many women’s health is permanently changed by pregnancy and giving birth).  Men can choose or not to take unpaid time off to bond with an infant.  Most don’t.  Getting the idea of what a paradigm shift might entail?
    Another important point:  Just because a women does something doesn’t make it feminist.  Lots of women claim to be feminist to justify things they do.  If those things perpetuate stereotypes or set back the rest of us females, then it isn’t feminist.  Women should own up to this.  Posing in your underwear may be personally empowering (if you want to believe that, I’ve got a bridge to show you), but it is not feminist.  It is not empowering any one else and certainly not women in general.  It is not feminist.  These women should own that.


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    • Celia Jane Yes I agree our culture is very gender focused (yes probably “too” focused for our own good) and that our laws ought to be a better mixture of “gender blind” (equal-rights feminism) and “male-female asymmetrical” (positive discrimination).
      I’m unsure changing the paradigm is as much of a live option as simply changing the laws. Hopefully changing legislation helps encourage these paradigm shifts, but changing unreasonable primate brains is something reasonable primate’s find profoundly difficult ;)

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      • blamer Celia Jane A paradigm shift may not be possible in my life time, or the next, but it is the only thing that will bring about fairness and justice.  You may accept legislative changes that nibble around the edges, but as a man you are not personally faced with the major damage our culture does.  Being female, I can accept no substitute.  I will not be able to say that I live in a just or fair world until this paradigm shift happens.  
        Primate brains have little to do with this.  Other primates do not kill and rape the females of their kind.  They don’t have deliberate fatal fights between the males of their kind either.  This is a strictly human trait among mammals.  I don’t hold out much hope things will change soon.  It will take generations.  The more women become self sufficient from men, the more men will be forced to change if they want women in their lives.  Anything I can do to help in the meantime….

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    • Celia Jane A google search for ‘feminism 101’ gives me 5million hits, looking through some of them i am finding contradictory ideas. Do you have an approved 101 i can go to?

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