Yes, I’m sorry, this is another article about feminism. If you’re tired of it already, I understand. But I promise I have a point.
I remember a quick conversation I had with a friend during a well-deserved concert in Berkeley, where the conversation moved towards Nicki Minaj’s Halloween attire (warning: NSFW). I won’t get the quotes right, but I can say that she wasn’t the biggest fan of her sartorial choices.
“What about the children that look up to her? She’s setting a horrible example.”
This reminded me of a heated conversation I had with my father about Beyoncé’s recent February concert, or as others might know it, the Superbowl. Most of my friends treated the halftime show like the main event, but my father wasn’t her biggest fan. His main critiques?
- Why did she have to be so clothes-less?
- Why did she have to dance so lewdly on the stage, in front of a national audience?
- When will the large music performance return ‘back to its roots’?
The collective response surround Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance is only the tip of the iceberg; many folks are wondering if our celebrities are, or should be, models of feminism. See conversations around Beyoncé’s new album. Believe me, lots of people are talking about it. See the recent hashtag, #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen. See the hipocrisy developed around twerking, and why Miley Cyrus’ stage habits are social jokes, while black women doing the same lack self-respect. There are hundreds of separate articles about this topic floating through the interwebs.
Which is why I understand if you didn’t want to read another freaking article about feminism.
Now, all the Nickis and Beyoncés of the world don’t need anyone’s green light to be sexy: they have the power to own her sexuality in a certain voyeuristic manner, and they never asked to be a ‘role model’ in the traditional sense. But, in this society, where female celebrities are constantly in the spotlight, role models are exactly what they become. Every one of these celebrities’ moves is put upon display for the world to see. Moreover, the question isn’t whether they have free will; it’s whether or not their actions are morally wrong.
But the amazing part? Both the supporters of these actions, and the detractors, amazingly both use feminism as their intellectual ammunition. To me, it’s why it feels like everyone is missing… something.
And like a regular academician, it reminds me of a story about the founder of Economics, Adam Smith. Yes, I’m a proud nerd.
In one of my seminal courses at Berkeley run by the illustrious Gillian Hart, we speak about the underpinnings of the political economic forces which formed the machine of international development. It only made sense that she spoke upon the founder of economics to form the basis of liberal economics, also known as ‘free trade’ economics.
Those who champion these movements, then, would find it amazing that Adam Smith himself might not be it’s largest advocate. Yes, in his seminal text, The Wealth of Nations, in the first chapter, he does explain powerful forces which increase production; his most famous being the diversification of labor. You make sewing pins by yourself? You might make ten. Get a bunch of our friends to work with you? You’ll make a thousand. But that’s only the first chapter of only one of his books. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith is very critical of the “cult of the rich,” which liberal economics arguably creates. Later in life, he becomes an impassioned advocate for the French Revolution. The subtitle of the third chapter in the quote went like this:
“Of the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition.”
Sadly, Adam Smith went the way of Van Gogh: during much of his lifetime, he wasn’t very famous. It was only after his death, when his biographer wrote his interpretation on Adam Smith, which solidified Smith’s voice as an advocate for free markets, and NOT as an advocate of the poor, or otherwise. Amazing what power death can give you.
His intellectual contribution was hotly debated during the England food crisis, and the debate about the first minimum wage laws in the United Kingdom. Known as the ‘Poor Laws,’ the government magistrates wanted to have the power to set the minimum wage, in case the price for labor was too low. As one would expect, this railed against the ‘unassisted operation of principles’, i.e. free trade economics.
The amazing part? The lawyer who argued against the Poor Laws used Adam Smith’s points as the basis of his argument. The lawyer who argued for the Poor Laws used Adam Smith’s points as the basis of his argument.
Heavy, right? There’s the point I needed. Feminism is being used to both detact from, and to defend, certain sexually polarizing acts that are mainstays in our society.
Advocates against? They argue that women in society are portrayed en masse as sexual objects, and they say that women are, and should be portrayed as, so much better than an object for the male gaze. We as a community should take pride in the many other aspects of a woman’s humanity. Advocates for these acts? These actions are expressions of a woman’s sexual freedom, which has been commodified and taken out of the power of these very women. The act of owning and expressing said sexuality is an active process in breaking down those stereotypes.
The thing about it is, these two sides, aren’t really two sides. They’re two parts of the same structural problem. Dichotomies like this live in our society more than we care to understand, and our society forces us to choose a side. Be a Democrat, or a Republican. Believe in the power of our markets, or the power of the government. Decry the actions of Beyoncé, Nicki, and Rihanna, or celebrate their empowerment.
Fortunately, we can learn something from Adam Smith’s story: the power of critique. Many recent economists now understand the cutting edge of economic research is not to ascribe to a single theory, but by finding places where the theory fails and working to remedy its outcomes. The best examples include the exclusion of poor communities out of particular markets, the economics of welfare, and the impacts of climate change. We can use such a critique for feminism. One can argue against the objectification of woman, and for sexual liberation, at the exact same time.
Those who argue against the sexualization of woman do so because our larger system is swamped with stereotypes, social cues, and entire systems of existence where women are relegated as less than human. Actions must be taken to counteract against the ways women are portrayed in society as less than equal, by attacking assumptions. Attacking oversexualization is only one of many necessary actions to promote equality.
However, does that mean we attack the woman who owns her own sexuality on the grand stage, or we attack the system? Can we do one, without doing the other?
The unfortunate truth is, it’s more difficult in the real world. We must make snap decisions; the average person doesn’t make time to sit back and think about these issues. Nicki Minaj’s Halloween costume, catalyzed by the virality of the internet, means that her individual decisions battle on the front line of our society’s traditional values. We cannot separate the feminist ideals of our society from the institutions in which we live. If the millions of little Sophia Grace and Rosies see Nicki in her attire, they might think such dress is a goal to aspire to, or society might inform them that all types of dress is wrong in all instances. What exactly do we tell the children of tomorrow?
Nevertheless, in both arguments, I see this point: The relationship between a morally deficient woman and a sexually liberated woman is created by a culture which robs women of their agency, and doesn’t come from a philosophically moral basis. So, to fight for equality, one must argue for a woman’s agency to do what she wants, when she wants.
However, I argue that these actions should be done in tandem with the deconstruction of sexualization of women as a whole. These issues aren’t on one side or the other: we must make sure that the world values women as their own person. We must teach everyone that women are the linchpin of every society; that they should, and can do any job equally as well as any man, and that what they do with their bodies does not make them any less worthy of respect.
For these issues, the reality might be a bit more nuanced that what it was at first glance. Looking at the other side might help you view the entire iceberg. Although “…feminist culture is a rich place right now, even if it’s a contentious one…”, that contention makes the conversation richer.
Maybe, if we can keep talking about this issue, I’ll know what to tell my future daughter. Hopefully, my answer will be just a bit freer from the trappings of patriarchy.
On the edge of your seat with what happened to the Poor Laws? I knew you would be. Check out this link if it stirs your soul.