A Feminist Issue – Culture or Contract?
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:
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:
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:
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.