I’ve been mulling this question for some time and there are several issues that keep coming to mind.
Firstly, my perspective is my own. That seems self-evident but to clarify; what I mean is that I speak only from my own experience. For a middle-class white woman living in 21st century Britain the phrase “we have never had it so good”, first uttered by Harold McMillan in 1957, rings true.
Most of the things I talk about each day, talk to other women about, are set against a background of privilege. Not the massive privilege of the ruling male elite, but privilege nonetheless. Had I been born 100 years ago my life as single mother in a small Scottish town would have been very different. Initiatives concerned with getting more women into senior positions, enabling more diversity in boardrooms, enabling enterprise and the rest all take place in an environment where we build on the success of those who went before us, those who laid the foundations of equality and opportunity which allow our conversations to take place at all.
This isn’t the case for the majority of women across the globe. Women suffer discrimination, poverty and exploitation in ways that are difficult for us here in the UK to fully comprehend. Reading about atrocity is not the same as enduring it. While we cannot fully understand what it must be like to live in a country where women can’t drive, a country where genital mutilation is rife, a country where women are considered to be the guilty party rather than the victim, when raped, it is really important that we see our own lives and our own conversations in this global context and to strive to make sure that the advances we can make here are shared by women around the world.
Secondly, I want to consider empowerment for women. Think Miley Cyrus. A young woman whose current image is the antithesis to the one created for her by the Disney Corporation. The question for me is whether this new image is her own creation, a result of her empowerment, or another form of subjugation, this time by the music industry. As Sinead O’Connor put it in her open letter to Miley earlier this year following the infamous Wrecking Ball video, “ it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”
The inevitable outcome of empowerment is to be empowered and, therefore, free to choose how to use your assets, physical and cerebral. But is this overt show of sexuality really empowerment or simply a more subtle exploitation? Exploitation by an industry, in the case of Miley Cyrus the music industry but which could equally well apply to print media and the continued appearance of naked women on page 3, cleverly making young women think that presenting themselves as a purely physical/sexual entity is what they want and what they themselves chose.
So, what does empowerment look like for young women today?
I’m in Sinead’s camp. I think that being empowered and choosing to act like a puppet of the sex industry not only looks just the same as being a puppet of the sex industry but it is, in fact, the same as being a puppet of the sex industry. What is the point of empowerment if you chose exactly the same way to express what it means to be a woman than would have been available prior to empowerment?
Laurie Penny, contributing editor in the New Statesmen and a writer I greatly admire, sees things differently and sees the attack on Miley Cyrus as a dangerous example of what she terms “slut shaming”.
“The problem is not that we cannot decide whether nearly-naked pop stars are empowered or exploited. The problem is that bland sexual performance is still the only power this society grants to young women, and it grants it grudgingly, rushing to judge and humiliate them whenever they claim it. Rather than condemn girls as they try to negotiate this strange, sexist society – a society that offers temporary, dazzling power to those who play the game –we should be supporting them as they grow up, make art and stick out their tongue at the whole stuck-up world – and that starts with a stand against slut-shaming.”
Essentially girls are still being born into a world where there are two opposing views of women’s bodies. We are taught to be uncomfortable in our own skin, to constantly strive for the skeletal form of the catwalk model. Only then will we be lovable. So we subject our bodies to all manner of bizarre diets, we colour our hair, we shave our legs, we pluck eyebrows, we wear feet-deforming shoes, we spend fortunes on creams and pills and potions to try to conform to this ideal body type.
Being young and beautiful is as important today as it was when the lyrics of the song went,
“keep young and beautiful,
it’s your duty to be beautiful
keep young and beautiful,
if you want to be loved.”
Women are encouraged to think this way and young girls can see that women, who use their bodies in this way, are the ones that gain power – through celebrity. So, taking control of our bodies becomes synonymous with taking control of our lives.
If we are going to change the way we treat young girls we have to break the link between “our bodies” and “our lives” and to stop considering “empowerment” and “exploitation” as if those things were mutually exclusive.
There is a Zen saying that can be summarised as, “before I was enlightened I chopped wood. After enlightenment I chopped wood. “ It is possible to perform the same task but with a completely different mind set. It is possible that gyrating on a stage wearing little more than a smile can be performed by the exploited and the empowered alike and we have to trust young women to know the difference. We can help them to learn the difference once we stop bombarding them with the message that only by having a great body can they have a great life. Any body can have a great life.
Thirdly, it’s time to ditch the diva.
It started with Shirley Conran’s book Superwoman, and with lines such as, “life is too short to stuff a mushroom” and should have stopped there. But no. We are still looking to do it all, have it all, be it all. How about ‘Natural Superwoman: The Survival Guide for Women Who Have Too Much to Do’ or ‘Simply Wonderwoman: A survival guide for women with too much to do’ or ‘Domestic Sluttery: Cheat Your Way to the Perfect Lifestyle’; the review of the latter claiming that, “women would love to have the domestic goddess thing nailed, to waft around vintage fairs and antique markets for collectable items to furnish their houses with, and to be able to spend all day preparing the ultimate dinner party.”
No. Just No.
On a very basic level, I don’t want to waft around antique markets to find useless decorative stuff to clutter my home with. I don’t want to spend all day preparing the ultimate dinner party. I hate cooking and I hate dinner parties. If I have a day to myself I go to the beach or, my latest enthusiasm, make meditation stools. The point is that we women are not all the same. We don’t all want the same things.
On a more important note, by creating this role model of the successful businesswoman, who also makes perfect profiteroles, has a beautiful home and perfect kids is not empowering women. It is creating another unrealistic barrier at which to fall. It is fostering a feeling of being inadequate in those that don’t have it all rather than celebrating the things that we do have. I see lots of facebook posts from women displaying their beautiful lives; posts about the deal they just made and the fabulous meal they just prepared. I know that we don’t really want to read posts everyday about burning the porridge or missing the train but a bit of balance wouldn’t go amiss.
And there’s a bit of a theme in these books; tips for Women Who Have Too Much to Do. Women do have too much to do. We still take an unequal share of caring and domestic duties. Rather than reading books on how to cram what we do into the time we have to do it, why not ditch some of the stuff? If we keep doing more and more in order to bolster our image as superwoman then we will never get to a situation where the duties are shared.
When women like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook fame stand up and talk about how women can achieve the kind of success she has enjoyed, she is not addressing all women. She is talking to the very few women who can chose where, and for how long, they work each day. Most women, indeed most men, do not have this luxury. Her experience, as shared in talks and now in her book, may smooth the path of a very, very small number of women who wish to follow in her footsteps. But hers is a particular, privileged journey that very few women, or indeed men, are able to take.
By encouraging the, “if she can do it then I can do it” attitude we fail to address the deficiencies of the system. Women can transform the landscape, not by replacing male hero-leaders with female divas but by working to change the way the world works.
Karen Birch is editor of the3rdimagazine.