Feminists, relax! You know all that female objectification you’ve been worrying about? Turns out it’s nothing to do with sexism. It’s all to do with with evolution and empowerment and, um, stuff.
Yes, that’s right. There’s been a new study that basically reprises all the old studies about erotic capital and the evolution of sex difference. Once again we’re being asked to believe that what looks like clear evidence of gender inequality – hordes of women getting their kit off while hordes of men do not – is nothing of the sort.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales have found that female sexualisation, in the form of publicly displayed, sexualised depictions of women, is not “a form of gendered oppression” but “an expression of female competitiveness”. Phew! There was me thinking it could be both.
According to Dr Khandis Blake, lead author of the research, women aren’t starving themselves, having their labia sliced up, ripping out every strand of body hair etc. due to “patriarchal oppression”.
“What we found instead,” says Blake, “is that women are more likely to invest time and effort into posting sexy selfies online in places where economic inequality is rising, and not in places where men hold more societal power and gender inequality is rife.”
Okay. Turns out I have one or two questions about this.
My first relates to these places in which men don’t hold more societal power than women. Where isn’t gender inequality rife? Tell me, please. I’d rather like to move there.
True, there are better and worse places in the world to be female. Nonetheless, I defy Blake and her colleagues to name a location in which men’s exploitation of female bodies and labour does not have some negative influence over how women live their lives. Patriarchy is a global business. Its ubiquity is precisely what makes it so hard for so many to see it.
This then takes me to my second question: how come female self-sexualisation is not in and of itself seen as evidence of gender inequality? Given what we know about female human beings – we like eating, we like sex, we have complex inner lives – the fact that we are turning ourselves into starved, sexless blow-up dolls while men are not seems to me something of a red flag.
“Female competitiveness” is an answer, but not a satisfactory one. To quote Blake, “that income inequality is a big predictor of sexy selfies suggests that sexy selfies are a marker of social climbing among women”. Well, duh. That women can reap certain benefits from getting their tits out is not some great revelation. Patriarchy has always offered social and financial incentives to women who submit to its whims.
There have been carrots as well as sticks driving every manifestation of female oppression. Whether it’s foot-binding or FGM, arranged marriages or forced pregnancies, there’s always been something to sweeten the pill, enabling oppressors to repackage submission as choice. This is not proof of the absence of gender inequality; it’s a demonstration of how it functions.
It’s horrendously simplistic to argue that the woman who self-objectifies is not “a victim” but “a strategic player in a complex social and evolutionary game”. Actually, she can be both, just as the wife who stays with the abusive husband because she has no money of her own is being “strategic” or the sex worker who risks rape and beatings in order to eat is “playing the game”. Just because women get something out of a given situation does not mean that situation represents the way relations between men and women should be.
As Naomi Wolf argued decades ago in The Beauty Myth, there’s nothing surprising about sexualisation and objectification becoming more extreme in cultures where women have progressed in other ways. “Beauty,” wrote Wolf, “is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”
It’s a form of backlash and the misuse of research to suggest women are gaining from their own oppression is part of that backlash. An equal society is one in which we can present ourselves as growing, thinking, eating, sexual beings, not plastic Barbies. Let’s hope we evolve far enough to get there.
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