Right now, I am not, strictly speaking, “helping feminism”. Indeed, if you knew which café I was sitting in to write this, you’d say I was complicit in all sorts of badnesses. An absence of active feminism-helping is just the tip of the iceberg. All the same, by ‘fessing up to this, I am at least making a show of solidarity with Beyoncé, who currently stands accused of having let the sisterhood down.
In an article in today’s Guardian, Hadley Freeman tells the singer / entrepreneur / superstar that “being photographed in your underwear doesn’t help feminism”. Got that, Ms Knowles? You’re dead fit and everything, but the sight of your scantily clad form is not promoting gender equality. To be fair, I’m not so sure Beyoncé ever thought that it was, but Freeman’s told her all the same. Cue lots of gleefully sexist CiF comments about how feminism’s all gone to pot and women are confused and anyhow, don’t those girls who go on slutwalks claim to be helping feminism? Ha ha! That’ll teach ‘em.
Freeman is respondong to a piece in GQ in which Knowles says the following:
Equality is a myth, and for some reason everyone accepts that women don’t make as much money as men do. I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.
Well, I kind of agree with that. I don’t think rampant individualistic capitalism is the key to everything, but money is a dominant source of power and the fact that so much of the work women do is either unpaid or paid less is an issue (although on a personal level, it’s not my issue. My partner recently asked me whether I worried about which of us earned the most. I said I didn’t care as long as one of us earned loads. Got that, Wish Fairy?). Beyoncé can big up her version of feminism and I have no real beef with it. It’s a damn sight better than the lyrics of Independent Woman, for starters.
Freeman is concerned, however, that the singer’s views appear alongside seven photos “in which she poses nearly naked” (the Guardian helpfully links to these shameful pics. At least, I think it does; the free wifi in this café doesn’t consider them to be fit for my viewing). To Freeman, this is a contradiction:
I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, and these covers are, to my eyes, becoming increasingly close to porn. […] It’s one thing to submit to this attention-seeking nonsense if you’re a C-list reality TV desperado trying to get on the cover of Nuts; it’s another if you are professedly one of the most powerful women in the entertainment business who has no need of such tactics. Knowles rightly hates the fact that women are humiliated by being paid less than their male counterparts. But they are similarly humiliated by being fed the message that it doesn’t matter how successful, powerful or smart you are – all that matters is how sexually available you are willing to make yourself look.
So a slap on the wrists for you, Beyoncé! It’s one thing for other women to do it – pathetic C-listers, for instance – but you don’t have to. Therefore you are complicit in the humiliation of womankind via the semiotics of a patriarchal society (NB I’ve no idea whether that last bit makes sense, but I thought it sounded good).
The thing is, I don’t really get what Beyoncé – or the C-list celebrity or the porn star or anyone else for that matter – has done wrong. I mean, I get the complicity argument. I understand that if women are only presented with a limited range of ways to be, it’s not helpful for those who have the chance to do something different to merely reinforce this sense of limitation. But who is obliged to be different first? And why? Whose complicity is most worthy of condemnation? We are most of us pretty complicit in oppression – both our own and that of others. However, there is overlap between what we’re doing because we genuinely want to and what we’re doing because we feel obliged to fall in with the patriarchal party line. I am sitting here wearing Clinique Almost Lipstick in the shade Lucious Honey. I don’t really know why, on a deep, visceral level, I am wearing it. But I’d hope people would give me the benefit of the doubt before calling me a beauty myth sell-out (not least because the Clinique stuff was a Christmas present off my mum and it would upset her if it made people mean to me. Just sayin’).
Some women over- or under-dress as their only means of accessing personal power. You might live in a culture where covering up “for modesty” is the only way you’ll be able to leave the house to get an education. By doing so, you’re reinforcing the patriarchal “modesty” message for all other women, but should this really be held against you? Presumably not. But then at what point do we tell women “no, you’ve earned enough now. You’ve learned enough. Now you have to be responsible for the rest of womankind and the messages they receive. And no, just using words isn’t enough. Cover up, but not too much. Maybe a nice cardi will do?” I’m sorry, but true equality is not achieved via enforced cardigan-wearing. Besides, some women just like not wearing much or, conversely, wearing loads. Can we not just let them?
If Beyoncé were saying “c’mon girls, stripping off is intrinsically empowering!” I’d take issue with it. But that’s not what she said. I think we can be overly on our guard, maybe because 1990s lad mag culture did seem to be selling that as a rubbish pseudo-feminist message. Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament was not a high point in the feminist struggle. Even so, these are matters of context and existing power relations (and it’s worth noting that however much money Beyoncé now has, she can’t buy herself out of a sexist world – and she clearly can’t buy herself out of getting condemned for posing in her underwear). So I’d say “Beyoncé, pose in your undies if a) you want to or b) this is the most practical option available to you career-wise, despite your misgivings about the overall underlying gender-based value judgements. And also, that thing you said about feminism – it was alright, really. Way more useful than Bootylicious.”
PS I now dare someone to write a response to this: Glosswitch, telling Hadley Freeman she’s not helping feminism by telling Beyoncé she’s not helping feminism isn’t helping feminism. And then maybe after that, GQ could write a feature on how that last person telling me I wasn’t helping feminism by telling Hadley Freeman she wasn’t helping feminism by … Honestly, everyone, I’m seeing a co-authored “not helping feminism” book deal on the horizon …