Is being a woman empowering or demeaning?

Is having Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated empowering or demeaning? That’s what the Guardian wants to know, so much so that they’ve set up an online poll. Personally, I find the whole thing baffling, but then again, I don’t know what Sports Illustrated is. Is it a wank mag that everyone pretends is a sports magazine? Or a sports magazine that everyone pretends is a wank mag? I have no idea and what’s more, I can’t be arsed to find out. Hence I shall remain neither empowered nor demeaned, languishing in some liminal state of non-womanhood.

The “empowered or demeaned?” game is of course a familiar one. It’s one of those media bastardisations of feminism that ends up reinforcing the dehumanising extremes it claims to avoid. Are you empowered – a tits out, up for it, ball-breaking capitalist – or demeaned – a prudish, frigid, man-hating victim? Are you taking ownership of your life, busting out of the strictures that confine you, or are you standing back, watching while sexism is done to you? There’s no question, really, as to whether or not Barbie, or Page Three, or rape porn, or unpaid labour count as “objectively” empowering or demeaning. It’s all a state of mind. The impression is that you get to choose. There is no such thing as structural oppression. Feminist critique is no longer a challenge to patriarchy; it’s a personal statement. I am empowered, or, I am demeaned.

That there are other ways of being – other ways of responding to images of womanhood – seems to be long forgotten. Are the women in the Blurred Lines video empowered or demeaned? If you question the ethics of this form of representation, are you personally responsible for demeaning those involved? Is a positive attitude all that’s needed to transform women’s experiences of their lives in relation to men? If, in the end, we find womanhood demeaning, can we each simply think our own way out of it? I am not really a woman, not like the other women. I don’t find Barbie demeaning. I don’t find subordination demeaning. I don’t find exclusion demeaning. This kind of thinking becomes an aspiration, a personal triumph. Feminism is not about overcoming oppression, it’s about teaching yourself not to “feel” oppressed.

There is, I think, an enormous cost to this approach. It suggests real harm – physical, sexual and mental abuse – can be remarketed to the victim as a personal challenge to be overcome. It suggests that women’s own self-perception controls how they are perceived (a favoured message of all the glossies, shoved between page after page telling women to change the way they look, think and act). It suggests that physical realities – pregnancy, abortion, infertility, menstruation, menopause – only have a cultural context if you are self-demeaning enough to make it so. It suggests, above all, that the only way to respond to another woman is on the basis of what she “does” to you. Is she, simply by being, empowering or demeaning? Should I hate her or pity her? Aspire to be her or wish her out of existence?

The greatest threat to women does not come from other women. This is something we like to forget. We don’t get to think our way out of oppression. It is not a personal narrative but a material reality. We’re not empowered or demeaned by plastic dolls. We are human beings and we need to claim our space as such, no longer repainting the walls of the same old cell.


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