Jan 30, 2015

Fear or Revere?

I recently wrote a piece on the historical and contemporary controversy surrounding female flesh and why it continues to be a point of contention for Escapade Magazine, an inter-university magazine based in Oxford. 

Read on for the full text below!


 From Helmut Newton’s ‘Sex and Landscapes’, to schools banning female students from wearing shorts or leggings because they would be “too distracting” to their male peers, the furor over Rihanna’s practically naked dress at the CFDA awards, and most recently, the leaked nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Uptonit’s obvious the female body holds a lot of power in society, both positive and negative.

So why does the female body hold so much power? And why are the reactions and emotions elicited such polarizing ones—shame at times, admiration at others?

Freud may be one of the most debunked social scientists of all time, but he shed light on this when he wrote, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love". Not because it’s impossible for love and sexual desire to go together, but because he elucidated a cultural malaise—the virgin/whore dichotomy—and introduced it into popular culture and discourse.

The virgin/whore dichotomy insisted women who chose not to marry and have children within the confines of marriage must remain sexually or symbolically virginal, or otherwise lose respect in society. A woman who expressed her sexuality outside those confines was a bad girl—a slut, a whore. You could either be the virginal, pretty, but not overtly sexual woman who makes for “girlfriend/wife material”, or an overtly sexual “slutty” woman. You just couldn’t be both. This dichotomy is still very present in society today. This is why there was outrage when Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos were leaked and nowhere near that scale of reaction when Miley Cyrus’ were.

The virgin/whore dichotomy points to an underlying deeper issue of male entitlement to female bodies. While we live in a world that (at least in most parts of the developed world) secures women’s basic rights, the patriarchal structures in society take time to dismantle, especially in our subconscious.

Since patriarchy is a social system where males are the main figures in power, the sad truth is that the default perspective in society is still that of a heteronormative male.

Great progress was made in the sixties and seventies. Our mothers’ generation benefited from educational and career opportunities denied to their predecessors. With the advent of reliable contraception, so came more choice. Choice over their sexual mores, their careers, the balance between career and family. They could also decide to have sex outside marriage and not be condemned for it. For the first time, women could progress alongside their male counterparts in education and their careers.

That’s not to say there wasn’t still prejudice; the “glass ceiling” still exists today and the success of books like ‘Lean In’ show that women are still struggling with the choices they make and fighting gender stereotypes. However the success of women in every field from academia to medicine to law to global business to politics shows that despite facing prejudice and bias they can and do excel in every arena.

The question remains: why does a woman’s sexuality so often shape how she is perceived?

Why is it, in 2014, after all the advances of the last century, when a woman is preparing for a job interview or an important presentation, she has to consider her appearance? She must not appear too feminine, too attractive or this might detract from her seriousness of purpose. Why is it that when commentators remark on an important woman, all too often they focus on her appearance – Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, Michelle Obama – as well as on her agenda? How often does that happen for a man of similar status?

We start off with male as the norm, the default.

When the default way of seeing the world is a male one, visual culture corresponds to that by catering to the male gaze. John Berger, in his book ‘Ways of Seeing’ wrote, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”.

The female body and its flesh hold power because men have awarded it power by sexualizing the body and objectifying it as an object for their consumption—shaming at times, coveting and admiring at others.

Some might say this means women have the real power, in using their sexuality to gain favours from men. But power where a woman uses her sexuality is not real power. That power simply means that, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hilariously puts it in her TED talk, “ a woman simply has a good root to tap into, from time to time, somebody else’s power. And then of course, we have to wonder what happens when that somebody else is in a bad mood, or sick, or... impotent”.

What happens then, when a woman like Rihanna flaunts her sexuality openly? 

Sadly, we often shame them. As Adichie also brilliantly said, “We teach girls shame. Close your legs! Cover yourself! We make them feel as though by being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot see they have desire”.

Is revealing female flesh and openly celebrating women’s sexuality empowering in itself though, or is that simply playing into patriarchy and what men want from women?

I don’t believe the mere act of revealing female flesh is empowering in itself. Rather, awarding women autonomy over their own bodies and respecting their choices as adults is. Madonna and Britney Spears, both magnets for controversy, are good examples of the impact that having personal agency to their sexuality had.

When Madonna released her single Like A Virgin in 1984, P.H Davies writes, “the world sniggered with titillation, but again, the message was far subtler than many gave her credit for. Parading in a wedding dress in both the video and her notorious MTV performance, Madonna was underlining the hypocrisy inherent in her name – that women had to be either the virgin or the whore, never both”.

On the other hand, according to an exposé by Rolling Stone Magazine of the media storm and whirlwind (remember bald Britney?) that is Britney Spears’s life, tells us of a sexualisation not autonomous, but manufactured,  “Although the world thought Britney was an innocent sexed-up for the cameras, she was always lobbying to appear sluttier, which she thought would make her appear more mature.

Her managers didn't want to scare off her fan base. ‘These middle-aged guys were so intense about her not being sexual that they pushed her the other way,’ says the friend. ‘They'd tell her to put on a bra or that her lip gloss was too dark. They were literally picking out her panties for her’”.

Madonna challenged the juxtapositions that women worry about every day, and the notion that women can only be one thing, while Britney was manipulated into sexualized performance by her male managers. Not her vision of how she should be, but of their version and vision of sexuality for her, designed specifically for the male gaze.

In a truly gender-equal world, Rihanna would be able to wear whatever she wants to without having her intelligence, morals, or values questioned. If Rihanna wants to wear a nude Adam Selman dress, the problem isn’t merely the question of if she’s playing into patriarchy or self-objectification, but the policing of her sexuality, and the shaming and put-downs that come with it.

Sexuality is a wonderful thing and is to be celebrated, but people don’t see men’s sexuality as the first and defining feature about them in the same way they frequently first define a woman in terms of her sexuality. Society values men for their intrinsic qualities. It all too often takes longer to appreciate those in women. However, human beings are complex and multi-faceted. We are all much more than one thing.

The modern woman shouldn’t have to choose between being the virgin and the whore anymore.

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