Young women, feminism, and expectations

If you don’t yet follow the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, you should. Yesterday they shared this article, which brought up some memories, some questions, but not a lot of answers for me.

The Memories

I think a lot, if not most, young women end up going through a period of time where they assert “I’m not a feminist.” Because they’ve been told that feminists don’t want equality, they want to tear men down and usurp the power for themselves. Because they’ve been told, over and over and over, that their value is tied to their looks and how appealing (aka “nice”) they are. “To men” is implied but never outright stated, so that part typically flies right past them. This has certainly been true in my own experience as a young woman. In college I was “not a feminist” because “I believe in equality.” Evidence, clearly, of the cultural narrative that feminism is just a bunch of strident, angry women wanting retaliation. I believed at the time that we were already “post-feminist,” that things were pretty equal and we didn’t need a whole lot of agitation to keep an even playing field. I was insulated from things like income disparity. I didn’t even notice that women in summer blockbuster movies were few, young, and pretty, while men were many and encompassed a very wide age range; despite the obvious impact it would have on my future performing job prospects. Nor was I yet sophisticated enough to draw the connection between sexism and domestic and sexual violence. They were just bad individuals, not the outcome of something more systemic, right?

Eventually, I grew up, went out into the world, and began having experiences of personal and institutionalized sexism that, after so many repetitions, I really couldn’t deny were happening anymore. I imagine a lot of young adults go through the same thing; when only hearing about it, it’s easy to assume that a mountain is being made of a molehill. Cultural expectations creep into the mind silently, hidden from conscious awareness; and when trying to conform to the mixed messages of “be yourself” — what is said — and “be what we expect from you” — what is shown — it’s no wonder so many young women spend a lot of time trying to resolve that confusion and figure out who they are. When experiencing those attitudes and expectations, and sharing experiences with people you know, and reading about it, over and over again… eventually you realize that this stuff is happening to you, it’s happening to people you know, and people you don’t know, and it still happens a lot. We’re not there yet. We still need feminism.

The Questions

This article raises another question: where’s the line between objectification and sex-positivity, especially in media and entertainment? IS “over-sexualized content” de facto an “objectifying stereotype”? Doesn’t that also imply slut-shaming, i.e. that a women expressing sexuality is objectifying herself — and has no purpose beyond pandering to the “male gaze” — and is therefore a “bad feminist”?

It’s a very fine line to walk, and I, personally, don’t have any easy answers. I don’t believe that the cultural double standard between men and women expressing themselves as sexual / sensual beings is a good thing. Neither is objectification. Defying the first allows women the agency to make decisions about their personal lives, but the prevalence of the second undercuts that agency. I don’t believe it is mentally, emotionally, or spiritually healthy to repress one’s sexuality; neither is it healthy to define your sexuality by what other people — men or women — expect from you.

While the commodification of women into products meant to appeal to men and separate them from their money is both a common and insidious problem in the media and entertainment we consume, leading to our cultural “default” attitudes which perpetuate the vicious cycle —  it treads into dangerous territory to assert that women in the public eye must behave in a nun-like, non-sexual manner in order to be acceptably feminist enough. Reclaiming our sexual power is how we root out objectification. Meekly behaving in a “suitably chaste” manner because someone else said so is not. Virgin / whore is a false dichotomy to begin with — but isn’t the point to be able to freely choose our own path, demure, wild, or in between?

So when is it objectification, and when is it asserting personal agency? Thoughts?

About Kat

Artist, actor, photographer, singer. Seeker of truth & beauty. Bringer of light to the shadows. Co-founder and instigator of Burning Brigid Media.

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