Objectification is not liberation

Note: Title and content have been edited. Please see bottom of post for details.

Beyoncé has just released an album that is blowing up the charts and shattering digital sales records. Some people are calling it brilliant and groundbreaking. In an article for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny gives the singer a big bravo for projecting an image that she believes means good things for girls and women everywhere. But there’s something very problematic going on in the contemporary feminist movement, a variety of pseudo-feminism that casts the likes of Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé Knowles as champions of female empowerment in a way that prevents any discussion of the ethics surrounding the equating of objectification with liberation.

Penny incisively explains here that while not all men hate women, they all benefit from sexism by virtue of enjoying the privileges of being a man. Unfortunately, she stops short. Penny adopts choice feminism as a platform to defend Miley Cyrus’s antics without addressing the racist fetishism with which she oppresses women of colour. Nor does she feel that Cyrus is transmitting a damaging message to millions of young women. On the contrary, she insists that female celebrities flaunting their sexuality empowers girls to feel that they can do whatever they want without being judged for it, and that anything that might challenge this entitlement amounts to slut shaming. Does a super famous, hyper-sexualized pop starlet give girls the wrong idea about what it means to be a responsible, conscious and self-fulfilled woman in this society? We’re not allowed to talk about that, apparently.

Whereas Western women tend to believe that the burqa and even the hijab are tools of oppression, choice feminism sends the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. When Lorde criticized Selena Gomez’s song ‘Come and Get It’ as bearing an inappropriate and unhealthy message for young girls, Gomez retorted that Lorde’s comment was anti-feminist because she was “not supporting other women”. The individualistic posturing of choice feminism turns the concept of solidarity on its head by taking for granted that everything that women do is okay, especially if we’re (presumably) doing it of our own volition, and we should never hold each other to account – even if that means trying to protect young women whose most direct experience of patriarchy is the objectification of their bodies. Writer Meghan Murphy nails it when she asks, “Since when is nonjudgmental the descriptor of a movement based on achieving collective freedom from oppression and exploitation? What if the choices being made perpetuate patriarchal ideas?”

It’s totally counterintuitive that having Miley’s T&A constantly thrust in their faces should make young women feel better about themselves. This actually has the effect of encouraging youth to idolize celebrities and thus strive to be like them – thin, famous, rich, brash – rather than to be happy just being themselves.

Miley isn’t the only celebrity whose behaviour stirs controversy. What’s really interesting, though, is how some female celebrities manage to shamelessly flaunt their extravagant wealth, supersized egos, and pornstar bodies, all while escaping scrutiny. Public opinion suggests that while Rihanna is trashy, Beyoncé is sexy but classy. That image is undermined by her newest set of videos. Partition, for example, has her writhing around, spreading her legs and bucking her hips in what can only be described as an exotic (I hate this term) dance performance. I anticipate some people countering that she’s older (and therefore more self-possessed than Miley) and may have a slightly older fan base but here’s the dead giveaway: if there’s any doubt about who holds the power as far as this song is concerned, consider the lyrics.

“I just wanna be the girl you like, the kinda girl you like.”

– Beyoncé in ‘Partition’

In this video, Beyoncé isn’t asking us to respect her or even to recognize her talent and intelligence. All she’s saying, in words and images, is: Desire me. Fuck me.

Since when did turning our oppressors’ tools against ourselves become a strategy for liberation? I don’t see this as being the same as say, homosexuals reclaiming the word ‘queer’. This has the effect of draining the term of its power to degrade and ostrasize by acknowledging that while homosexuals may be different in the sense that they haven’t been considered traditionally mainstream, there’s nothing wrong with that. This directly counters the notion that there’s something deviant or immoral about them by applying a truly positive interpretation. But when women like Beyoncé become sexual objects, which in this context are essentially commodities or products to be consumed, they’re not in any way challenging the idea that they’re sexual objects. Nor do they explain how pimping themselves out negates the pimping.

Slut shaming isn’t cool. I should be able to walk around wearing what makes me feel comfortable and happy without worrying that I’ll be judged and devalued. I should be able to sleep with who I want to, and with as many people as I want to, without being subjected to double standards that would see men admired for the same behaviour. All I’m suggesting is that we approach this with balanced thinking. We’re not just talking about a woman who simply happens to be beautiful and is wearing clothing and dancing in a way that accentuates her beauty. Sexiness is not the issue. What is the issue is that imagery and behaviour approaching pornography is ubiquitous in our culture and never seems to be expressed via male bodies. So the question comes back to this: is this really appropriate? Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Britney Spears – when they air their crotches out in public, they’re not doing it for our liberation. And when boys and men see this, they couldn’t care less what philosophies might be underpinning it. They’re getting exactly what their male privilege tells them they are entitled to, and they further rationalize that entitlement based on the fact that women are more than happy to oblige that fantasy.

In another new video for the song ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé struts in a pair of spiky heels wearing a headscarf and a khaki-coloured miniskirt while her breasts peek out from underneath her halter top. The video depicts her catwalking with her posse through riot scenes, which include cop cars ablaze. Perfect hair. Perfect makeup. Perfect nails. So Beyoncé fancies herself a human rights activist now, huh? Did she conjure this vision up from her gated mansion while bathing in a vat of liquid gold? Give me a fucking break. Are we really going to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with one of the most powerful (as perception would have it) women in the world perpetuating this culture of narcissism and money worship, by exploiting, no less, the struggles that she has never cared to voice support for despite her influence as an international celebrity? In case anyone needs reminding about what this luxury-loving diva was doing in NYC during the Occupy Wall Street protests (which her hubby slammed but used anyway to make a buck), she was out shopping. I can’t bring myself to look up to a member of the privileged, wealthy 1% who capitalizes off the 99%’s fight for a fair economy. I don’t care what her gender, religion or skin colour is.

My formative years coincided with the Riot Grrrl movement. I listened to L7, Lunachicks, The Cranberries, 7 Year Bitch, Sleater-Kinney, Tori Amos, even Hole. I didn’t admire the divas, the models or the pretty pop stars. I liked the gritty, unapologetic realness of women whose defiance was neither manufactured nor forced. It was the smeared lipstick, the pride in embracing one’s imperfections, and the unmitigated gall of staking out territory in a predominantly male genre that encouraged and empowered me. That was about 20 years ago. These days, I wonder if we’ve been beaten into submission by the corporate patriarchy such that we’ve so deeply internalized its methods that we don’t even realize we’re doing it to ourselves.

Self-determination and individualism are not the same thing. Feminism should be, and will only succeed, as a collective struggle for the eradication of male privilege and gender bondage. Anything less is just another obstacle.


Post edited: This post was originally entitled, ‘Beyoncé is no Ani DiFranco’. I’ve removed anything that makes mention of Ani DiFranco in order to stop the issue I’ve chosen to discuss here from being co-opted by an entirely unrelated, albeit important, issue. If you’re unfamiliar with Ani DiFranco, she’s an American indie folk artist whose career has spanned decades and who has gained a huge cult following for her prolific music and strong support for the rights of immigrants, people of colour, women, the LGBT community, etc., both in her music and in the work that she does in the community. Shortly after publishing this post, I learned that Ani had become the subject of criticism due to a recent announcement that she would be hosting a music and writing retreat on Nottoway Plantation along with several other artists. It’s perfectly understandable that many people have taken issue with the fact that a white artist who has until now been celebrated as a feminist and anti-racist failed to appreciate that holding an event on a former slave plantation could be considered not only as incredibly insensitive, but also as further validation of the claim that mainstream feminism excludes women of colour. While I recognize that this is a complex issue that will elicit a variety of opinions, it is unfortunate that for whatever reason, neither Ani nor her record label, Righteous Babe Records, have addressed these concerns (as of December 28th). The ethical and appropriate thing to do at this time – at the very least – would be to issue a formal apology and explanation. I’ve expressed this view to both parties. Now, with regard to this post, it did not focus on Ani; I had quoted her twice and gave a brief synopsis of her career. The purpose of bringing her up was to contrast the school of feminist thought that is critical of objectification as a tool of patriarchy (as expressed by Ani) with the premise of choice feminism that supporters of female pop stars use to defend them. Although the content involving Ani, notwithstanding the controversy, would still support my argument above, it has become clear that the mere mention of her is being interpreted as an invitation to go off on a tangent. The comments were beginning to devolve into insinuations that Ani DiFranco is a racist, which at any rate is irrelevant to the topic of choice feminism. Strangely, the controversy over the retreat was also somehow being leveraged to discredit my analysis of choice feminism generally and Beyoncé specifically. Again, totally off the mark, and not fair. Therefore, I decided to remove mention of Ani and did not approve some comments that discussed the retreat. As always, reasonable and relevant discussions are welcome. I may address the issue regarding the retreat in a future post. [Update: I’ve delved into the issue here]


17 thoughts on “Objectification is not liberation

  1. Very well written, and while there are some points that we may not see eye to eye on, the overall message is absolutely accurate.
    As a Christian, a mother, a wife, a middle class white girl I find it ironic that “feminists” are the people I feel most judged by. When I was a free spirited single mother who worked at a strip club and took advantage of men on a regular basis I felt supported. Now I get the feeling that I am everything that is wrong with society. Why should i want to stay home and raise children and be faithful and supportive to one man. What a waste. But since when is equality about power over? Isn’t it about… equality? Furthermore, sex isn’t power, and when people try to use it as such, people get hurt.

    • Thank you for reading (assuming you have) and commenting. The issue that this post addresses is that of objectification and feminism, and more specifically, the impact that female performers have on the shaping of young attitudes regarding sexuality, gender, etc. I would gladly welcome your input regarding this.

      I also want to thank you for providing this link. I for one didn’t know about this event or the response that it’s generating. Having said that, rather than simply dropping a link, it would be helpful to provide a justification for your statement, and to explain what it is you’re actually referring to and how it can inform our discussion of the topic at hand.

      I appreciate why holding a retreat on a plantation would be considered controversial. I saw compelling arguments put forth on the event page by a diversity of women and I think a reasonable conclusion would be that whatever reaction people have is a valid one. It would be appropriate for Ani and/or Righteous Babe Records to explain how they arrived at the decision that this would be an appropriate place to hold an event. There does seem to be room to discuss whether historically problematic places can be reclaimed and/or used for positive purposes in such a way that they’re inclusive.

      I think that if I found the site of this retreat to be objectionable, it would probably call my opinion of Ani into question. But I don’t know if it would be fair to dismiss her as insensitive or racist after having championed a decades-long career in advocating for gender, social, class, racial, etc. justice. So I think she deserves a chance to defend herself.

  2. I love your article. I don’t have the same wealth of knowledge on certain issues you raise to agree or disagree, but a hearty AMEN to so much of what you say about objectification not being the twin of liberation. I have loved Beyonce from the start but I’m really taken aback by her new album. Passion I get but I feel everything about it is x-rated and that’s not passion, that’s porn and porn is legal but I didn’t expert her videos to become porn. I wonder if she could broadcast her vulva if she’d do that too? And I’m not being rude, I just truly wonder because after all she’s shown, how does she up the anty now? And how does any of it liberate girls? Her message is utterly confusing. I am so glad that she mentioned in “Liberation” that her mother would be mad about the lyrics of Partition. At least somebody has some sense in her entourage. Too bad she doesn’t respect her mom anymore… or perhaps not her mom’s values is more fair.

  3. Reblogged this on erin todd music and commented:
    An on-point and well-written article highlighting some great points about this pseudo-feminism wave we seem to be experiencing.
    “My formative years coincided with the Riot Grrrl movement. I listened to L7, Lunachicks, The Cranberries, 7 Year Bitch, Sleater-Kinney, Tori Amos, even Hole. I didn’t admire the divas, the models or the pretty pop stars. I liked the gritty, unapologetic realness of women whose defiance was neither manufactured nor forced. It was the smeared lipstick, the pride in embracing one’s imperfections, and the unmitigated gall of staking out territory in a predominantly male genre that encouraged and empowered me. That was about 20 years ago. These days, I wonder if we’ve been beaten into submission by the corporate patriarchy such that we’ve so deeply internalized its methods that we don’t even realize we’re doing it to ourselves.”

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your views. As I explained, slut shaming is a real problem and it’s one that I myself have experienced as a woman. But that doesn’t mean that every criticism I might receive about my sexual behaviour is slut shaming. That many people shame women into conforming to a particular image does not free me from any responsibility I might have in terms of the kinds of messages I transmit to both females and the world at large, especially as a female. Puritanism involves dictating the conduct of human beings according to dogma. But liberalism contains its own kind of dogma whereby it has responded to moralism by suggesting that particularly where sex is concerned, and even where sexual behaviour is public and not private, and highly visible due to the nature of modern communication, the question of morality and ethics is untouchable and even irrelevant. I disagree. In our culture, men dominate women because we are reduced to weak, irrational, sexual objects whose existence serves the interests of men. The reality is that because I live within this system, even actions I undertake freely can feed these myths and reinforce the privilege of men. It shouldn’t be difficult for people to imagine that the oppressed can internalize their oppression and that they are capable of reproducing that oppression within themselves and relative to others, even those who are similarly oppressed. This isn’t about a woman putting some fucking clothes on, as you put it. The modus operandi of patriarchy in general and the entertainment business specifically is to sexualize females, thereby reducing them to objects of sexual fantasy so that the other elements of their being become less relevant. Why does the media almost exclusively report negative stories about marginalized groups like indigenous peoples or other people of colour, while ignoring their larger and more diverse lived reality? Could it have to do with the fact that continuing to exclude them from the media and portraying them this way allows us to perpetuate myths about them, thereby perpetuating their marginalization? The more we feed the idea that women are sexual objects – regardless of who does it and why – the more we feed the myths that keep patriarchy in place. Miley’s problem isn’t that she doesn’t seem to like wearing pants. It’s that she’s in a position of privilege on several levels and yet, what she chooses to do with that power, in full view of anyone with a TV or an internet connection, is choose to step into the mold that patriarchy has made for us as women. She’s immature, narcissistic, and racist – but hey, as far as people like you are concerned, she’s “in control” of her sexuality, so we’re not allowed to “shame” her. The world is not composed of absolutes, nor can we afford to think within that framework. There is right and wrong, as inconvenient as that is to admit, and we should never silence ourselves or each other from expressing what we think that is.

  4. You are shaming Miley for sending bad messages to other women. Since was feminism about pointing fingers at women and telling them they are bad for flaunting their sexuality?

  5. Well written, I’m going to attempt to put my thoughts in, and see what you think? I genuinely want to know if you think this makes sense or is really dumb and just insulting, I’ve never commented before 🙂
    My thoughts – I don’t think that Miley and Beyonce are being ‘sexual objects’, I think they are ‘choosing’ to be sexual. I think being sexual isn’t necessarily ‘male’ or appeasing the patriarchy – women enjoy sex too. But, most importantly, I don’t think it matters whether they are ‘choosing’ to be sexual or are sexual objects – I agree, if they are harming women, that is what we should care about and we should be able to criticise other women.
    So, let me start by explaining why I think they’re not sexual objects:
    Firstly, the difference between being a sexual being and a sex object -while a subject/sexual being is active, with agency and desires, an object is passive, being acted upon. I don’t think beyonce is a passive sex object at all. Let me explain…
    I think the whole reason its important to emphasise the notion of ‘choice’ is that it means that beyonce et al are no longer objects, but beings with ideas and wants and (sexual) needs of their own. But also like, see Blow, in which she is definitely a sexual actor and not object. But going back to Partition, if you have ideas and needs of your own that you readily express ‘let me sit this ass upon ya/driver roll up the partition please/i just WANT to be the girl you like/TAKE all of me’ then to me, you can’t really be a passive object if you are choosing to be sexual. Even if that sexual choice is to please a man, because…
    While I completely agree ‘i just want to be the kind of girl you like’ is problematic, she does on later in the song to say – ‘men think feminists detest sex, But it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love’. Beyonce understands her lyrics are problematic, and is explaining that a part of sex is pleasuring your husband, and women should (if they want to) be sexual creatures and unashamed of it. And being a sexual creature also involves pleasuring the other partner. And, importantly, choosing to please them.
    So, choice is important in showing that she is not a passive sexual object, but an active sexual being. So, I think at least, Beyonce is not a sex ‘object’.
    Here’s another reason I think she doesn’t objectify herself:
    Going back to discussions of social class – I think its important to note that Beyonce doesn’t /need/ to get her T&A out in every video in order to make a living, she already has ‘a billion dollars down an elevator’, she doesn’t /need/ to to appeal to the patriarchy (and often doesn’t – see Blue, Pretty Hurts, and even Rocket which, while sexual, seems – to me at least – to appeal to the female gaze opposed to a male).
    So, she is choosing to portray her sexuality – Beyonce says in an interview ‘I wanted to be sexual to show women that you can have a child and not lose your sense of self, that you’re ‘not just a mother’, and that you can still have fun and be sexual’ – which is definitely a liberating message to women.
    So, to summaries… I don’t think it is ‘objectification’.
    But, ‘objectification’ doesn’t need to be the criteria for when feminists should call out women:
    This is the problem with feminist discussions of female sexuality, is that we go back to this idea of ‘objectification’, which, while a buzz word, is not necessarily accurate every time a woman takes her clothes off (As i just explained above).
    The issue, to me, is: whether they are harming other women.
    While I don’t think Miley Cyrus and Beyonce are objectifying themselves, I do definitely agree that often they are harming women – problems with body image, prioritising your sexual prowess above other features like intelligence, expectations from male partners, Miley’s treatment of people of colour, etc etc. For this reason I do think we should be able to criticise other women’s behaviour, regardless of whether they’re ‘objectifying’ themselves.
    On the other hand, let’s not ignore the benefits of Beyonce and Miley taking their clothes off, in terms of young women feeling better about themselves. In a world where WOC grow up believing they’re less beautiful than their white counterparts because of beauty ideals our society espouses, I think it’s really great that women like Beyonce and Rihanna emphasise their ‘black beauty’ in a non-fetishised way, to show that a black woman their skin/shape are also beautiful (which I think Beyonce does deliberately – see Bootylicious, Yonce, and Haunted, in which a beautiful black model is pictured with black paint).
    In the exact opposite way (though I completely agree Miley is awful to POC) Miley reminds thin white girls (those poor thin white girls! haha, okay this isn’t very persuasive, but I’ll say it anyways) that they too can be sexual without real curves.
    So, lets have more female sexual oriented videos, except more like Rocket and Blow and less like We Can’t Stop at the VMAs 🙂
    I hope what I said makes sense, this is the first time I’ve ever contributed to the feminist blogs I’ve been reading 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing. That was some great insight! A few things come to mind (okay, a lot of things… lol). As a star who’s been repeatedly criticized for ‘whitewashing’ her appearance, Beyonce isn’t necessarily the best example of a natural black beauty. And I don’t see the need for a person like Miley to drive home the idea that skinny girls and girls with no curves can be sexy because that’s the industry standard. I think we need more women like Beth Ditto, for example, who really do challenge the mainstream aesthetic. There may be some benefits to what these stars do, but overall, I give them a fail.

      Why do we have to display our sexuality so blatantly in order for us to make a point? At what point do we depart from having something of substance to say to beating each other over the head with explicit sexual imagery just because? Do we really need to use the entertainment business as a conduit for this, when it’s a tool of brainwashing and capital accumulation rather than education? And why do we so rarely give voice to the idea that sexuality isn’t simply how much skin you show or what you do with your body? Sexuality transcends the physical and involves the mental, emotional, and even spiritual (for some) realms. There’s nothing wrong with sex. Capitalism has literally stripped it down to a commodity that you can sell and consume, and it washes it down with all kinds of excuses to explain why it’s all okay. I propose that we create more space for the idea that a woman’s sexuality can be expressed in many ways by many people, and not simply as a symbol of one’s identity, ‘brand’, or physicality. Europeans seem to do a better job of grasping this than North Americans do.

      My fundamental issue with pop stars like Miley and Beyonce goes beyond their tendency to be sexual spectacles because it’s part of something bigger. To me, they reinforce the biggest lies that exist in our society even though they’re in the rare position of being able to reach lots of people. I honestly don’t buy their stories about how they want to help other women. They’ve made it clear that they want the money and the ego worship that comes with it, and their attempts to explain what they do as some sort of project to liberate other women are patronizing at best. They’re part of the machine. They play the game – they have the trophies to prove it – and as such they don’t challenge consumerism, narcissism, and mainstream notions of what it means to be successful. In fact, they reinforce this propaganda. And they’re not the brightest people out there. They shouldn’t be the ones teaching our children through example, but they are because our society lends them more social currency because they play the game. Ani DiFranco could have gone down that road but she told the record labels to fuck off because she didn’t want it to be about her appearance or how far she was willing to go to show off her body (and she had the goods to pull it off!). As a 19 year old woman from a working class family with no money to her name, she took control not by signing a contract and playing by someone else’s rules, but by creating her own record label. And it turns out that her music and statements are actually very sexual – deviantly so. But it came from a place of authenticity. It’s not a pre-packaged, over-worked product of some template. For people like Miley and Beyonce, there is no line separating marketing from artistry and I think that’s sad.

  6. Thanks for your brilliant post. This was worth a read, too. : http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-20/hamad-dont-call-beyonces-sexual-empowerment-feminism/5330918

    I would never censor or question the talent of someone like Beyonce, but I long for a day when the contributions of women can be acknowledged outside of this tired patriarchal lens of objectification. I’m also growing weary of the relativist hat everyone puts on whenever we question something critically. Anything seems to be feminist as long as it’s authored by a woman. We can’t question a hypersexual performance, because it “diminishes” someone’s empowerment. (i.e. slut shaming,etc.) We can’t question how performers portray class or race, because it infringes on their personal expression.

    Feminism supposedly stands for gender equality, but still shovels the same binary language. If gender is a performed, social contraction, what does it mean that we continue to proliferate these tired symbols of heteronormativity on film and on TV?

    Images are the currency of this age. Images proliferate ideology. Ideology shapes belief and what we value in our culture. Speaking specifically to the Beyonce/Niki Manaj/Mile Cyrus/Kei$ha performances— women everywhere are watching these actions that are catering to the male gaze, branded as “sexual empowerment” with an illusion of control, because they claim to be getting paid and they garner attention. But, once these images are out in the world, what becomes of them? I believe they are a liability to women everywhere who struggle everyday to be seen as something more than an object that breeds or copulates.

  7. In an attempt to compile a background for this issue I was not understanding of your last idea expressed in the last two paragraphs. Could you explain to me what you meant when alluding to your preference to anti-divas?

    • Thanks for reading, Peter! Actually, ‘anti-diva’ would be a good way to put it. Basically, women are rewarded for being beautiful, thin, flawless, wearing fashionable clothing, catering to the desires and sexual fantasies of men, etc. Famous women like Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Miley Cyrus have accumulated economic and social power not by challenging the status quo but by exploiting it; women are allowed to be portrayed as feisty or intelligent as long as we fit this gendered criteria. There’s nothing liberating about this because it doesn’t challenge male privilege or gender roles. In addition, women who have achieved fame possess enough economic and social privilege that their choices don’t limit their career or social options as they would for average or disadvantaged women. When I flip through movies (especially action movies) on Netflix, for example, I’ve noticed that covers featuring female protagonists almost always show them in a sexualized manner – sultry makeup, hair, and clothing that calls attention to their figures – whereas male protagonists are never depicted as anything other than protagonists doing whatever it is they’re doing. Women rarely achieve a level of commercial or popular success when they directly challenge gender stereotypes and thus male privilege – which is exactly what Riot Girrrls did. Unlike fake ‘girl power’ outfits like Spice Girls, Riot Girrrls did all the things that were stereotypically off limits to females – swearing, playing rock and punk music, questioning systems of oppression, being loud and aggressive, etc. And their sexuality wasn’t erased but it wasn’t the basis of their image.

      Does that make a bit more sense?

      • Very much so! This was great read and I encourage you to continue your work on this subject. Good job, you defined the difference so many women (and) men have trouble doing.

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