Mistaking degradation for empowerment in feminism

By Maral Margossian

Courtesy of Garry Knight/Flickr

“Remember the ladies.”

This is what Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams in a letter on March 31, 1776. Even before the conception of America, Abigail understood that the role of women in society needed to change. Nearly 150 years later, the 19th Amendment passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

In the past, the goals of feminists were more apparent because of the blatant prejudices against women in society. Today, the definition of feminism is more ambiguous, meaning different things to different women. This ambiguity has led to increased contradictions within the feminist argument. One of the more controversial contradictions is the sexualization of women’s bodies as a means to empower other women. Feminists strongly oppose the objectification of women, yet many, though certainly not all, argue that by willingly choosing to portray their bodies in a sexualized manner, they are acting as strong, empowered women.

While women should embrace their sexuality rather than regard it with shame, the hypersexualization of women, by women, acts not as a force of empowerment, but poses a risk for greater acceptance of sexual violence by perpetuating the objectification that feminists work so hard to fight.

As I’m sure you all know by now, a little over a month ago, Miley Cyrus made waves with her provocative performance during the Video Music Awards (VMAs). Her performance involved racially derogatory actions, a barely-there flesh colored costume, lots of ‘twerking’ and a giant suggestive foam finger. Soon after, Cyrus released her new album “Bangerz,” and the music video of the song “Wrecking Ball,” in which she swings around naked on a wrecking ball and licks a sledgehammer.

I am not saying that these performances were acts of feminism, or that Cyrus is in any way a symbol of feminism. However, her performances reveal that women who sexualize themselves do not serve empowering purposes. After the VMAs, people focused not on her talent as a performer (whether or not you believe she has talent), but on her body. Her body even eclipsed the raunchy content of Robin Thicke’s explicit song “Blurred Lines.” She sends a message to young girls aspiring to be artists that they can achieve their goals by using their bodies.

Moreover, upon the release of the music video “Wrecking Ball,” Cyrus stated in an interview with Rolling Stone that she was inspired by artist Sinead O’Connor’s song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” After O’Connor learned of this interview, she published a letter to Cyrus on her Web site urging her to stop prostrating herself and begin respecting herself.

In the letter, she writes, “…you will obscure your talent by allowing yourself to be pimped, whether it’s the music business or yourself doing the pimping. Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”

Granted, Cyrus’s actions are likely PR stunts, and whether or not you agree with her actions, they are gaining publicity. However, PR stunt or not, it proves that the consequence of sexualizing women leads to their objectification. Music agencies and advertising companies know this and use it as a means to make more money. If the purpose of sexual empowerment is women’s declaration of ownership of their bodies and their control over their actions, then overtly sexualizing one’s body is not the answer. It’s not the answer for Miley Cyrus, and it’s not the answer for Vanessa Omoregie.

Vanessa Omoregie, former student of London College of Fashion, created a blog on Tumblr called “Camgirlsproject,” where she attempts to reinvent the image of camgirls: women who perform sexual acts on the internet. Using photographs voluntarily submitted by camgirls, Omoregie fuses the photographs of the camgirls’ bodies onto historically famous nude paintings, such as Botticelli’s “Venus.” Although Omoregie’s motive to change society’s perception of camgirls is a noble one, her project elevates the act to a form of art, whereas in reality, the women are subjugated into pleasing the desires of men.

In the BBC article, “Number of Webcam Models ‘On the Rise,’” Anna van Heeswijk, a member of Objects, an organization that fights against the sexual exploitation of women, explains, “It is the man who decides which women he wants to choose, depending on what she looks like and how she’s willing to behave sexually. This puts enormous pressure on women within the industry to perform more and more extreme versions of pornography in order to attract men, in order to make a living.”

While it may sound counterintuitive, women can be sexually empowered without sexualizing themselves. The strongest form of empowerment comes from confidence. If a woman feels comfortable in her own skin, than she has already won the game. Against the forces of advertising constantly trying to convince women of their inadequacy, feeling self-assured proves the power of women.

Maral Margossian is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]