Tag: feminism

On Self-Objectification

Woman on a red bed taking a selfie for Selfies and Self-Objectification by Malin James

Selfie by Malin James

I’m a contrary person. If there’s a popular take on something, I tend to play devil’s advocate, if only for the sake of discussion. The idea that selfies are a form of female “self-objectification” is one of those issues. The only difference is that, in this case, my objection is rooted in actual disagreement, not just the spirit of debate.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on selfies and their social impact. A lot of articles voice a concern that selfies foster poor self-esteem in young women and a reliance on external validation. Others protest that selfies as narcissistic, vain and shallow—also as regards women. Still others point out that posting selfies can make a woman vulnerable to bullying, predation, anxiety and stress.

All of these concerns are valid – in some cases. In others, selfies are a source of healthy self-expression, positive reinforcement, memories and the basic human drive to exclaim Hey! I was here! It all depends on the person and their motive for taking the selfie, and that’s far too contextual a thing to usefully question or protest.

What I take issue with is the assertion that selfies are a form of self-objectification, ie: that women who take selfies have unknowingly drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid.

So, what ‘self-objectification’ and why I have an issue with it?

Before we can deal with self-objectification, we need to start with objectification as a concept. Objectification is a theory that refers to the treatment of a person, usually a woman, as an object, stripped of autonomy and subjectivity. (For a detailed definition, click here). Objectification is usually assumed to be sexual at its core.

According to feminist theory, sexual objectification is a symptom of the male gaze, a way of seeing everything, including women, through a male, often sexualized, lens. According to critics, the male gaze has led to internalized misogyny – that’s the drinking of the patriarchal Kool-Aid I mentioned earlier. It’s the idea that women have been subjected to the male gaze for so long that we’ve internalized an objectifying view of ourselves and other women.

While I do believe that internalized misogyny can manifest in all kinds of subtle ways, it isn’t, and can’t be, inherent in selfie-taking. Here’s why.

Objectification is something that is done to you. It’s the lens through which you are viewed. Even if you wear nothing by fuck me pumps and a smile, you are not objectifying yourself. You might be inviting objectification, but odds are you aren’t viewing yourself an object devoid of autonomy and reason. You’ve simply presented yourself in a sexualized way. Objectification is the step other people take when they see you.

So, is it possible for women to self-objectify? Can a woman see herself as a thing stripped of personhood and subjectivity? Can a woman view herself as an object? Well…while it’s possible, especially in cases of abuse, but casually speaking it isn’t likely.

When a woman takes a selfie, she’s acknowledging that she has a body. She isn’t stripping herself of intelligence, resilience, bad-assness or anything else. Those qualities still exist in the way she sees herself, regardless of how she angles her body. She is simply asserting her physical presence for reasons of her own and that is what subjectivity is all about.

Whether you like it or not, inviting objectification is a legitimate, autonomous choice. Whether or not it’s a symptom of internalized misogyny is as unique to the individual woman as is any other motive for selfie-taking, which brings me full circle.

People take selfies for all kinds of reasons. Judging those reasons as shallow, vain, dangerous or anti-feminist is as useful as judging someone’s motives for eating an ice cream cone. Sure, you could eat ice cream for unhealthy reasons. You could eat ice cream to excess. Or you could just eat ice cream because it tastes good and you want ice cream. There are too many possible motives to warrant casting it in a reflexively cautionary light.

The same thing goes for selfies – protesting on the grounds of internalized misogyny discounts the many reasons she might have for taking the picture. It denies her the ability to make an autonomous choice and strips her of sovereignty over her image and how she uses it. That’s anti-feminism dressed up as real feminism, and it’s much more dangerous than the hottie in your timeline.

Selfies are a curious thing. As a species, we are preoccupied with our presence in the world. It’s why we have cave paintings, graffiti, art, and most other forms of human accomplishment. They are an assertion of presence – a huge I WAS HERE shouted into the void of existence. Selfies are just another way to shout into the void. It’s an assertion of presence, regardless of the reason, and that makes selfies important. The fact that women use them to assert their presence in the world for reasons of their own is a devil worth advocating for.

In Praise of Feminine Things (A Rant)

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Things have been a bit serious around here lately, so I wanted to do something light and simple. Sadly, bunnies have been well and truly covered (thank you, Easter) and the killer risotto I made last week won’t fill a whole post. So. Setting aside the adorable and delicious, how about we talk about lipstick and lingerie and that dress that makes you look like you belong in a Hollywood film. You know – feminine, pretty, girly things, and our somewhat conflicted relationship with them.

Warning – this may turn into a bit of a rant. I just had a maddening conversation with a woman who claims that “girly-girls are weak, lame tools of the patriarchy”. I’m a femme in every sense of the word, but I am anything but weak. Loving the fact that my panties (I actually hate that word – alternatives anyone?) are shell-pink lace, doesn’t make me any less of an intelligent, autonomous, ass-kicker of a woman.

Here’s the thing. Despite what many would say, the relationship between women and beauty is not simple, nor is vacuous, silly or something to be dismissed. It’s a cultural reality, one that is complicated and intensely specific to every woman who engages it. Given that I’ve already written about my passion for corsets, let’s take, for example, red lipstick.

I love red lipstick. I always have. I love the ritualistic process of putting it on and the subtleties in the shades. I love the unapologetic artifice of it and the fact that, when I wear it, my partner is very likely going to end up wearing it too. Same goes for anything that touches my lips – every glass I take a sip from will have my mark on it, like a pretty, blooming kiss.

Do I do it to attract men? Nope, though I don’t mind if I do. Ironically, I’ve been with more than one man who wished I wouldn’t wear it. Apparently, it’s hard to get out of collars. I also don’t wear it to impress or intimidate other women. I don’t want to intimidate anyone, though I also won’t stop wearing something I love because it might.

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

So, why do I have six different shades of red lipstick even though most days I wear peppermint chapstick (it’s delicious, okay?). Because it makes me feel sexy and feeling sexy pleases me, just like wearing garters under a plain black skirt pleases me, or slipping on a ridiculously expensive silk something under jeans or wearing my favorite perfume. These things, as frivolous as they seem, are an expression of my femininity, and I find great power in that.

Dismissing or marginalizing a woman’s attraction to feminine things is not only judgmental, it’s counterproductive. It suggests that a woman can’t be more than one thing at once – smart or pretty, kind or sexy, feminine or powerful – and it’s indicative of a trap we’ve fallen into as a culture. Yes, women need to aspire to more than just beauty – that goes without saying and, as the mother of a daughter, you can bet I put way more emphasis on how well she prints her name than on the hair clips she wants to wear. I want her to kick the ball and build the tower and make the puzzle, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have pretty hair clips too.

Our standards of beauty are maddeningly exclusive and women shouldn’t be made to feel that there is one objective ideal to which we must all aspire. My emphasis here is on FEELING beautiful and the fact that it’s okay to want that. It doesn’t make you weak or vacuous. It just makes you someone who loves a gorgeous bit of lace or the perfect pair of heels.

Wanting to feel beautiful doesn’t make you a tool either. It doesn’t mean you’ve drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid and chosen girliness over ambition, influence or power. That’s like saying a woman can’t have a PhD. and rock her FMP’s. The desire to enjoy feminine things does not negate intelligence, ambition or strength. In fact, I would say that there is a very real power to be had for women in the things that are often dismissed as “girly”.

There is power in femininity, just like there is power in masculinity. The interesting, and often overlooked thing, is that they are complementary powers. Women don’t need to give up certain signifiers to hold their own with men. In other words, you can skip the pantsuit and still be a bad-ass. Yes, that means you might be sexualized, but a pantsuit isn’t necessarily going to protect you from that. If the sleek, black skirt makes you feel powerful, wear it and use your intelligence, wit, skill and ambition to assert your presence in that room.

It’s all about the effect these feminine things have on you. If you wear the sexy lingerie to impress someone else, you may or may not be satisfied with the results. Wear it to please yourself and baby, you’re gold. You’re a goddess and nothing can get in your way.

Some women don’t want or need “the trappings of femininity” (as my absolutely fabulous grandmother called them) and that’s fine. It doesn’t make them any less of a woman, nor does it nullify their physical or sexual beauty. But it also does not make them superior, more confident or more powerful than women who enjoy some or all of the trappings.

There is power and confidence to be had everywhere, from the perfect white tee-shirt to the prettiest, most expensive silk stockings. Do what makes you feel like a gorgeous, fucking Amazon of a person. Do it and do it a lot. Walk into a room so happy with your perfectly straight seams or your glossy hair that your confidence make you 10 times your physical size. Do it regardless of your weight, height or ethnicity. Do it whether you’re flat-chested or apple-thighed. If it pleases you, do it. Rock those feminine things.

Ownership: On Sexuality & Feminine Relations

Black and white image of nude woman sitting up proudly

Photographer’s model, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about ownership—ownership of myself, or rather, of my sexuality – and how it affects the way I engage the world and other women.

Even as I write this, I realize that I’m walking a fine line. What I want to say is so specific that it goes well beyond splitting hairs, so before I jump in without a foundation, I’d like to take a look at the culture of female relations. I want to look at how women treat other women, because whether it’s in the name of decency, religion or gendered feminism, women tend to treat each other like shit.

Now, there are massive exceptions to this. I am lucky enough to be close to women who are extraordinarily supportive, accepting and kind, and I’m intensely grateful to have them in my life. They are the sort of women who don’t like being told that their friendships with men are suspect; that submission in a woman is an insult to feminism; that sexual agency is a threat. They use words like “cunt” and “slut” with broad, unconstrained grins, or decline to use those terms as a matter of personal taste without taking offense when others do; they talk about sex with frankness and curiosity. They don’t weight their worth by who, or when, or how they fuck.

I’m hardly the only woman who enjoys healthy, caring, supportive friendships like these. And yet, women exist in a self-imposed hierarchy, one where sexual agency is often viewed with suspicion. Women long to be “perfect,” and yet we secretly hate the sexy doctor who is both an excellent mother and a wildcat in bed, (though perhaps not at the same time). The mere existence of this idyll is often viewed as a threat – a condemnation of other women’s failure to achieve perceived perfection. But rather than turn the focus inward, to ask ourselves why this woman’s status should affect our own, feminine culture teaches us to get catty and bitchy and cliquish. And that’s before you even start to deal directly with sex.

A woman’s sexual agency directly engages male sexuality, so the pervading notion in our culture is that a woman in full command of her sexuality is, by extension, a sexual threat, not to men, but to other women. How can you trust a woman who might just fuck your man? It’s an ancient anxiety that has thrived within the parameters set by gender, (rather than equity), feminism, and which now greatly influences the manner in which women police other women.

This is where my thoughts on sexual ownership come in. It still seems that to be strong, feminist, and thoroughly modern, a woman should play down her sexuality. Granted, it’s all right for her to have one now, but really, many women would prefer not to have it made plain. When she does not temper herself for the comfort of others, she is often labeled a slut and a whore, judged with immediate, knee-jerk invective and distrust, not so much by men, but by other women.

I’m thinking here of the girls who watch with grim satisfaction as the class slut is sexually assaulted by a pack of alpha males; or of good, Christian women who assert that a whore cannot be raped. The office slut… the waitress who holds your boyfriend’s gaze rather than demurely look down… the woman with whom your husband is friends. All traditionally suspect.

This is a very old phenomena. It’s The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible. It’s Vanity Fair, The House of Mirth and Anna Karenina. It’s the in-built cultural assumption that a woman in full possession of her sexuality is somehow a threat, always and still to other women.

I’ll be honest. I’m tired of women looking at each other with distrust. I’m tired be being evaluated not by what I say or do, but by the tenor of my sexuality. It’s the tradition of female relations that has been passed down for generations. It’s the reason my mother tried to steer my away from Marilyn Monroe. It’s why she always hated Angelina Jolie. They are figures of unabashed female sexuality, and of course, “sweetheart, that’s not the sort of girl you want to be.”

Well, actually it is. It is precisely the sort of woman I’ve become after years of apologizing and placation. And I will not pass that legacy, the one that shamed me for being sexually appetitive, on to my daughter. I will not teach her to value other women’s comfort over her own authentic nature. I will teach her not to worry about what other women do with their bodies, because being secure enough not to judge is the height of self-possession and therefore of power. I will teach her to own herself.

This is what I own:

  1. I own that I don’t know how many sexual partners I’ve had. I lost count in my twenties and have never much cared.
  2. I own that whatever that number is, I wouldn’t mind if it were higher, nor to I care if it doesn’t budge until the day I die.
  3. I own that I don’t care too much what other women think of me. That concern burned itself out after much pain and confusion over many, many years.
  4. I own that I do care very deeply what my friends think, as my friends judge me on the basis of my actions, not by who or how often I do, (or do not), have sex.
  5. I own that I have issues with power and control, and that I inflexibly protect my autonomy.
  6. I own that this inflexibility is the result of damage incurred when I was very young, and compounded by experiences later in life.
  7. I own that I am a good woman, not because it comes naturally to me, but because I care enough to try.
  8. I own that I will be goddamned if I inadvertently teach my daughter to weigh her own worth against any measure but her own.

This post is not meant to be prescriptive. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to suggest that anyone should engage their sexuality in the way that I have deemed appropriate for me. I would however suggest that perhaps, we might be happier as a culture if we concern ourselves less with what other people are doing, and instead spend our energies and attentions on own behaviors, insecurities, sexualities and loves. There is enough love and self-possession and joy for everyone.

I dream of a day when women stop reflexively seeing a woman in full possession of her sexuality as a threat. I would like women to feel secure enough with each other to simply enjoy their own lives. I would like to see that day, but if I can’t, I hope my daughter does.

© 2017 Malin James

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