Women’s Choice: What's Power Got To Do With It?
Women’s Choice: What's Power Got To Do With It?
“Part of being a feminist is giving other women the space to make choices you don’t necessarily agree with” – Lena Dunham.
Women’s progress owes so much to choice, but there is an undeniable tension: how to account for the decisions women are making that are, er, not so liberating. What do we do when women seem to wilfully act, whether they mean to or not, in a way that contributes to a culture embedded in gendered hierarchy?
The argument that patriarchy seems to demand a certain degree of compliance from women can be extended to most patriarchal cultures. But let’s stick to the West for now.
Lena Dunham is not wrong, allowing women choice is important. It is radical. It is an accomplishment over patriarchy. For too long “woman” meant you had to be one way – or credit where credit is due – two ways to be, sexual or domestic, whore or wife, take your pick, ladies! And it was feminism, in all its diverse intersectional glory, that broke down those four walls by telling our stories and demanding more.
In just a small century, women have gained a considerable amount of autonomy, yet we are still living amongst a patriarchal mess. Mess might be too kind; sexualisation, exploitation, violence as prevalent as ever. Why has progress stalled so dramatically? For all feminism has achieved, there are still ways in which gender inequality is reproducing and remoulding itself. We are no longer just wives and whores, we are now apparently choosing to be wives and whores.
It seems the choice argument has been taken advantage of. The argument goes along the lines of: A) a woman chooses to do X, thus B) X is a feminist and/ or has a liberated choice, because C) she is a woman choosing to do X.
For example, a number of people criticised the campaign “No more Page 3” on the basis that the women who posed for “Page 3” chose to do so. The argument is rather circular and leaves little room for interpreting why a woman may make her choices and leaves even less consideration for weighing up the potential advantages and disadvantages for the woman in question (or more largely, all women). It fails to take into account the social context of a woman’s value woven up in her sexual status- not that we can judge how ‘good’ a woman is by her sex life or the clothes she wears. But it pays little attention to the part media-image plays in affecting how women view themselves, plus how women are viewed generally. And, it completely ignores who is really benefiting.
By the very nature of examining sexuality and politics, we enter a dangerous philosophical territory: desire. Desire, the supposed root of choice. I call it dangerous because it invites controversy. Some women wanted to pose for “Page 3” because they wanted to be beautiful, sexual and admired- all understandable. I have my moments of wanting to be those things too and not few and far between moments at that.
Desire by nature feels personal and unique. However, once we start analysing it, we take away an element of control we might not be so willing to give up. Control is crucial, because it suggests power. And that’s the punch line – power. Who is pumping into our heads the images, ideals and the stories fuelling our desires?
It is a different sort of power to that of the traditional slave, forced into labour by her master. It is a power with an appearance of neutrality. It is cunning because it works by applying a status quo that feels natural and then, subtly, upholds power through “norms”: normal behaviour, chosen behaviour. Generally, we adhere to the status quo because we want to fit in. Not just fit in, we want to contribute; to be involved, admired and loved.
What is even more interesting about the dynamics of power relations in this way is that it makes it unclear who is to blame. You cannot necessarily start pointing fingers at men if it seems women are choosing to participate in their own subordination. It is not and it never really was just a battle of the sexes. Rather, it is a battle against a deeply interwoven system that unfairly privileges one group over another, men over women, and in turn, fails both.
You see, you cannot take choice out of context, out of history or out of scope. “Page 3” did nothing for the betterment of women. When looking at the bigger picture, it simply aided a narrative that tells women they are no more than their bodies and their bodies are not really theirs. Let’s call it for what it was, a long-running soft porn feature in the best-selling national newspaper – current affairs and tits.
The “No More Page 3” campaign was mistaken for a bunch of prudish, frigid and jealous people, offended by nudity and sexuality, telling women they should be ashamed of posing naked, as if having a woman’s body means you have some sort of inherent duty to cover up. That is not the case. I do not think any feminist can legitimately claim telling other women what they should wear is ever a step towards progress. However, that does not mean that poor decisions to align yourself with a blatantly sexist institution cannot be called out. It is not that I think girls should not pose naked for the likes of “Page 3” because wanting to be beautiful, sexual and admired is wrong. I think girls should not pose naked for the likes of “Page 3” because the audience they are posing for do not seem to care for them or their empowerment. “Page 3” objectified women and ironically, removed those initial desires from consideration by making the models less human; something to gawp at in between the news and the football results. “Page 3” as a feature serves patriarchy by unnecessarily sexualising women in a day-to-day scenario. The point is not to criticise women for getting naked, being sexual and celebrating it but to reveal a hidden context that might not be so innocent.
Maybe “Page 3” provided some financial benefit, a kind of power and status, for the women who posed. Maybe it even satisfied some of their desires. But, in terms of both finance and power, it is obvious who really gained the most. In fact, maybe I would have much less of an issue with the pornography industry in general if the economics of it better reflected what actually goes on. What we have at the moment is just another industry predominantly owned, controlled and capitalised on by men. I hate to sound marxist, but it really does matter who is controlling production. It is men that are both the biggest suppliers and the biggest demanders of porn. Stirred into the middle are the girls with their payslips and a pinch of pseudo-liberation. Essentially, the women involved become a sort of proletarian-commodity hybrid.
It is important that women have the room to be who and what they want to be. It is also important we do not stall crucial conversations. We must keep asking the question: why are women making the choices they do?
And it is important to admit to your surroundings – once you are conscious in the feminist sense, you still cannot escape the fact that you are already socialised. We should not be too hard on other women, or ourselves, because our desires are not outside space and time. I, for one, know that I fail at making decisions in favour of women’s equality over and over. I often hear everyday sexism and get scared to call it out. I have faked orgasms. My desire to be thin and attractive often wins over active body positivity.
In the grand scheme of things, we are still at the cusp of all the opportunity the world owes us as women, we are still learning to unlearn old habits. Habits of a culture; a culture that prioritises men over women. We do not make choices in a vacuum and how we think about ourselves and how we relate to others are somewhat socially constituted. By knowing the options available to us are somewhat out of our control, by knowing choice does not necessarily equate freedom and power not necessarily with force, we revolutionise how we strive for equality.
Roxane Gay said, “when I justify bad choices, I make it harder for women to achieve equality, and I need to own that”. In taking ownership, we set up a conversation for more to happen, for progress and better understanding. Choice and consent are as important as ever, but we must look for more: we must look at the context behind our decisions, look for the reasons behind our decisions and it is paramount we look at the consequences, both the good and the bad, of those decisions. It is impossible to always know what is best for us; it is going to take a degree of hindsight. More often than not we are going to come across complexity, controversy and contradiction. It certainly won’t be easy, that is for sure, but what is crucial is that the conversation continues; the most important debates and the most important questions are those that need endless revision and evolving answers.
Written by Michelle Houlston,
Photography by Chris Stein, Polyesterzine and Olivia Locher