The hotly debated notion of ’empowerment’ is often conflated with whether something is ‘feminist’ or not. I have had numerous arguments with other women who believe that because they feel ’empowered’ by X (insert activity that would traditionally be seen by feminists as a product of patriarchy), then it is good and therefore feminist. This has been applied to prostitution, burlesque, wearing make-up, having lots of promiscuous sex and pole dancing at various times in my arguing career. I’m sure you’re familiar with the argument which usually runs thus: Well, I really like pole dancing/watching burlesque/shaving my legs and I don’t do it because I care about what men think and it’s not up to you to tell me that I do. Feminism should be about letting women do what they want, not telling them that what they do is wrong. I feel empowered by X, so go away.
As a woman living in a society that constructs femininity around looking sexy, feeling sexy, and being sexy, I can completely understand why lots of women feel some power in achieving this. I like to get dressed up, wear make up and generally look hot. As a reasonably attractive woman, I know that this is often the only power I have, so who could blame me for wanting to keep hold of this power, for wanting to justify it to myself, to rebrand it as a positive thing, a feminist thing even?
But the thing is, I would also feel quite empowered if I ran round hitting misogynists in the face with a baseball bat. Satisfying though this might be, I am not sure it is the kind of empowerment feminists are talking about. The idea that because something we do makes us feel good, it is therefore empowering, is a symptom of the individualistic society in which we live. The women that make these arguments, are not wrong, but they are overlooking a huge part of feminism which is a structural analysis of society. They are privileging their own sense of power over the rights of others to live in a world which sees women as more than objects. Yes, I feel good when I wear make up, but I can not escape the fact that I am bombarded with idealistic images of beautiful make-up wearing, photoshopped women wherever I go. I am constantly given messages by TV, magazines, newspapers, social media, films etc etc ad infinitum that this form of femininity is acceptable, this form isn’t. Although I still wear make up and I have no plans to stop doing so, I am aware that I am recreating a certain ideal of femininity every time I do. I am reconstructing patriarchy with my actions. This doesn’t mean that other feminists who point this out to me have the right to judge me. This isn’t about judgement, but rather about questioning our assumptions and employing a feminist analysis of the world.
We live in a complex world and are subject to a myriad influences from the moment we open our eyes. I can not choose to step outside of the patriarchy, and I am not immune to the oppressive ways in which femininity is constructed. If you are one of those women, as I am, that enjoys wearing make up or pole dancing, then please think about why you enjoy such things. Would you really enjoy it if you lived in a world where you were not judged by your sex appeal? For every woman that finds prostitution or pornography empowering, there are many others that have to live with the consequences of living in a world that objectifies and commodifies women. For every woman who dreams of becoming a glamour model, there are many others who are not pretty/white/thin enough to be able to make this choice. When feminists speak out about these subjects they are often then in turn accused of being oppressive, of slut-shaming or not thinking intersectionally. My feminism is about trying to create a world in which women are not judged by what they do, a world in which they can truly choose to do anything they want to. This means a world in which we are not solely judged on our appearance but are seen as capable, intelligent, and equal human beings that actually have some free choice that isn’t informed by a sexist patriarchal culture. Whilst women continue to reinforce the idea that being judged on our appearance or sexiness is ’empowering’, then we run the risk of never achieving any other form of real power. If you’re not sure whether something you do is truly empowering, in the feminist sense of the word, then here’s a simple test: Does the thing I do reinforce patriarchal ideals? eg I enjoy burlesque dancing. Does it reinforce patriarchal ideals by objectifying women? Yes. Not empowering. Feel free to go and burlesque dance to your heart’s content but please don’t claim it’s a feminist activity.