On Feminism: Response to a Student

Easy A

A former student’s Facebook status:

I literally just saw this on someone’s Facebook in their defense of being a stripper: “It’s called using the power of being a woman, sorry we use it ha.” Weird how girls I used to go to school with think that the power of being a woman relates to their body and what they physically have to offer. I mean whatever sprinkles your cookies, but I’d rather be working for a paycheck, shitty pay or not then working for dirty money.

My response:

The landscape of feminism has shifted so rapidly this last decade – the fourth wave likes to throw around words like ‘slut-shaming’ to shut down more traditional ideas about female empowerment.

Not every oppositional response to female sexuality is ‘slut-shaming’. Sometimes it is, yes. When you make fun of a woman’s use of her body by further shaming her body, then you have participated in spreading the idea that women live and die by how they look. That kind of response, if meant to elicit female empowerment, in fact detracts. But critiquing an industry built upon selling women’s bodies, and urging women to make different choices, is not slut-shaming. It is educating.

I think it is so difficult for women to have a healthy sense of what makes her worthwhile. Society gazes upon her as an object. While she can choose to deny that gaze, it may in turn deny her access to esteem, love and even livelihood. For women, there are very real consequences for not behaving like objects – for not pleasing someone else’s gaze.

So when strippers talk about the ‘power’ of stripping, I understand what they mean. When society has defined you as an object, you of course measure your own worth by the frequency at which others regard and employ your body. But please understand that selling your body in a world that ONLY wants your body is not real choice, not true autonomy. Society has limited your worth by caring only about how you look. And so, you really must fight to demonstrate you are worth much more than that.

My friend asked about differences between third and fourth wave feminism, so I thought it would be good to consolidate and share this here:

I think the defining feature of fourth wave feminism is that it responds to the present world, where women experience a variety of access points to power.

The complexity of this is that ‘power’ is no longer a single narrative – in the first wave, ‘power’ was about gaining a very baseline equality (freeing ourselves from being property, fighting for the legal right to have a voice). In the second, ‘power’ was about uncovering more insidious, social ways in which women are denied autonomy (dismantling the feminine mystique of housewifery). In the third, ‘power’ was about broadening our lens, and considering how women with different socio-economic, cultural and political backgrounds can attain legal and social equality (and where that equilibrium lies when one country, region, or stratosphere looks so different from the next).

In the fourth, we recognize that our definition of empowerment was incomplete. In the present world, there are indeed many women who enjoy political power and economic wealth. While we are certainly not equal with men on these terms, we’ve already discovered that winning points in a male-dominated system has mostly been about beating boys at their game rather than changing the game entirely. This strategy (and definition) lacks longevity. Clearly, patriarchy is problematic for reasons beyond its basic inequalities. Attaining equal access by playing the wrong game shouldn’t be our end goal. Let me speak more plainly: Just because everyone can wear pants doesn’t explain why we’ve defined power by who wears pants. Why do pants inherently signify power? If we don’t unpack how we’ve construed power, we might not ever unravel how we distribute it.

So, some key themes that emerge in the fourth wave have to do with embracing variety in how women envision power. Power is not just a pant-suit and a seat with the boys. Power is not just women choosing career over family, or women restraining / applying sexuality for the sake of navigating a male world. Power is not just women thinking about how to guard against male predators, while society’s construction of masculinity continues to nudge men toward predatory behaviors.

Among these key tenets is an emerging critique of women who criticize other women. The fourth wave honors different iterations of female empowerment, thus takes issue with how women critique the differences among themselves. ‘Slut-shaming’, as I mention in this article, is a term oft-used to broadly call out women for shaming the behaviors and choices that other women make. How might women be holding themselves back by how we judge and treat each other? So:

First Wave: Defining legal power.
Second Wave: Defining social power.
Third Wave: Defining legal and social power against a global backdrop.
Fourth Wave: Questioning and redefining power.

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5 thoughts on “On Feminism: Response to a Student

  1. I gotta say, I find it the student’s use of the term “dirty money” a bit disturbing. Also “I would rather…”. I don’t really get the need to judge a specific individual like that.

    • I agree that it’s important to consider how and from where our judgments emerge. That said, I think the tendency to make some kind of a broad – and misinformed – judgment is very human. I think we all do it. The trick is to be just as conscious of our own misjudgments as we are of someone else’s.

      And, in this case, the allusion to “dirty money” really points to the confusion that young women (and men) feel about commodifying sexuality in a world that treats women as objects, but also denigrates their act of performing as an object. Where do our loyalties lie when “morality” looks down on what society perpetuates? When society is at odds with what it creates? I wouldn’t judge my student’s response in a vacuum devoid of social context. Clearly, her thoughts come from a struggle to make sense of conflicting narratives.

  2. I was wondering about how the definition of feminism has changed over the years. When some people brush other people’s actions or statements off with “Well, aren’t you the feminist?” or something of the like, I feel they aren’t clear what they think feminism is. Sometimes an argument ensues. Sometimes everyone lets the conversation die.

    This explains it a tiny bit better. Thanks for sharing.

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