This past weekend I took a class called “Exploring Social Issues Through Drama.” As part of the class, we each chose a social issue to explore. I chose objectification of women, inspired by a female friend who told me about harassment she’d experienced that week. While on a packed train, a man took advantage of the situation and aggressively pressed himself against her. She didn’t say anything, just moved away, frightened she would only escalate the situation. No one on the train did or said anything. With her story heavy on my heart, I used the class time to explore this topic and how it affects all women, whether we realize it or not.
Ironically, this is the week that the photo of Kim Kardashian’s bare butt debuted, displaying quite clearly to the world that controversy is deeply imbedded in this issue. It should come as no surprise that women (and men) everywhere feel the need to address the photo shoot. And while talking about it is of course exactly what Kardashian intended, the issue has to be discussed. We are, as a culture, silent bystanders, watching a metaphorical (and all too real) sexual assault on the subway. It’s time to talk about it.
The facets of the issue are endless. Leaving aside for now the question of photoshop (related to objectification) and the disturbing connections to racism and sexism in photographer Jean-Paul Goode’s work and personal life, the question of objectification of the female body rises up front and center. What should be quite obvious is that Kardashian herself is the one doing the objectifying. Yes, she is part of a culture that puts immense pressure on women to buy into the role of sexual plaything, and yes she is responding to societal demand. But when it comes down to it, she is the one that took off her clothes.
I’ve realized recently that one of the biggest problems with the feminist movement is that it means so many different things to different people. There are many tenets of feminism that I identify with, and simply because I am a woman and care about women’s issues, I recognize that I can and should call myself a feminist. But there are also feminists who bare their butts on the covers of magazines, and pass it off as a step toward less body-shaming or toward sexual freedom. While I’ve never heard Kardashian explicitly call herself a feminist, women like Scout Willis and Chelsea Handler seem to be constantly on Instagram crusades to allow topless photos, and Beyonce has certainly identified quite strongly with the movement. (Though it gets sticky talking about Queen Bey, because that conversation tends to get intermixed with discussions of race and cultural expectations.)
The issue became crystal clear to me while talking with my brother, who I called during a break from my social issues class. I asked him what his response was to the feminist movement, and he replied, “Well, it depends on what you mean by that.” As we talked he expressed confusion about the stances of women; he felt he supported many of the arguments, but was unsure about many of the intentions and affiliations within the idea of feminism. Because there were so many voices with such divergent views, he was hesitant to claim the banner of feminism as something he could completely stand under.
In talking with my roommate, the matter became even more tricky. As a woman who works at a pub in midtown Manhattan, she is constantly being objectified, being told: “Come over here baby so I can grab that ass.” But her words gave me pause when she began to talk about how women treat themselves. She described the outfits girls wear on Halloween, and how they’re clearly expecting men to look at them in a sexual way on that night. “Girls want to be cute and sexy on Halloween, but then they want to walk down the street the next day and not get any comments. It’s like they want to be selectively objectified,” my roommate said.
I want to tread lightly here, because I do not mean to suggest that women should feel obliged to hide their bodies, or that they bear the responsibility of keeping men in line. And I certainly don’t want anyone to think a woman is ever “asking for it,” or any of the other justifications used for objectification, sexism and violence. But both my brother’s and my roommate’s comments have something pertinent to offer this messy business of Kim Kardashian’s butt (and boobs, apparently. If you buy the magazine and flip to the inside.)
How seriously would you take a man who exposed himself on the cover of a magazine?* I think this is an important thing to think about. I believe that bodies are beautiful and we should be proud of them, but there’s a cultural precedent built into society that indicates that it’s okay to display the female body for the delight of men. Kardashian’s photos support this flawed view, to say nothing of the dangers of the photoshopping involved in the photo.
As much as I hate to say it, those who desire change have to—at least somewhat—play by the rules of the dominant culture. There is a balance to be struck between stirring the pot and allowing people time and incentive to change their minds, and that change has to come from the heart. Just as guilt and shame are horrible motivators, rage and defiance don’t work either. If we are to build a culture in which men stop making comments about my “titties” on the street, and in which women feel their voices are heard and respected, women have got to stop playing into the stereotypes.
Kim Kardashian is not desperate—she’s not trying to make a living or a name for herself and being forced to use whatever means she can. She has an incredible amount of money and power, and a platform to say whatever she wants. Until women like her stop objectifying themselves, we are going to keep having these same conversations, over and over.
*Which, by the way, has happened—as is evident from articles such as this one. I need to note here that this isn’t exclusive to women, and men are playing into their stereotypes as well. It’s just far more common for women.
This past Father’s Day my family went to my grandparents’ house. After watching the US Open and America’s Got Talent, the Miss USA Pageant came on and we watched as each state’s representative came out and was judged and eliminated. I sort of felt like I was watching a helicopter crash…it was terrifying, yet I couldn’t look away. But what really interested me was my cousins’ responses. Alethea and Charis are ten and seven, and they were both fascinated by the show. As they were leaving (their dad good-naturedly joking about how he didn’t think they needed to watch any more of the show) Charis kept asking what channel it was on, presumably so she could continue watching when she got home (chances of that = not good…)
Her response to the show reminded me of a quote from That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis, in which he discussed female beauty. He writes:
Did men and women both feel interested in the female body and even, though it sounded ridiculous, in almost the same way? A sentence rose to her memory. "The beauty of the female is the root of joy to the female as well as to the male, and it is no accident that the goddess of Love is older and stronger than the god." (60)
Charis was obviously thrilled by the beautiful women parading across the screen, and I realized that Lewis was right—beauty is just as, if not more, alluring to women as it is to men. A woman takes just as much joy in the female body as the man does, and it is no perversion that leads women to admire the beauty of other women.
But there is definitely perversion of some kind involved in the hunger for beauty that fuels things such as the Miss USA Pageant. Otherwise why would there be such a culture of youth worship, eating disorders, consumerism and all the other stuff that eats away at women? Like Hannah said in her last post, we live in community, and what other people think matters to us. And since being thought beautiful by both men and women is important to girls, there is ample opportunity for perversions of both the standard of beauty and the means to achieving that standard.
But does that mean that competitions like Miss USA are wrong? Should beauty be something that women are allowed to be good or bad at? Beauty—as our culture perceives it—has always been something you have or you don’t, but that is changing. If you aren’t educated, you can become educated. If you aren’t funny, or graceful, or musical, or talented you can work toward becoming more so. And now, if you aren’t beautiful, you can get plastic surgery or implants or botox. Is there a difference?
I guess my real question is whether it’s okay to view beauty as something to be cultivated and judged, like anything else. In a culture of extremes, it’s probably safer to say it’s not okay. We’ve gone beyond viewing beauty as something you have or you don’t, and begun to go to whatever extremes possible to attain it. So does this mean we have to throw out the entire concept of beauty as pleasing? We can’t deny that every one of us has a built-in preference that tends toward beauty.
Maybe the problem is that our perception of beauty has grown too narrow. We have turned into the shade in another work of CS Lewis, The Great Divorce, who runs and hides from the angels sent to escort her to heaven. Like her, our perception of beauty is too narrow to believe that we are capable of giving and taking joy in the way we were created, and we are left either flaunting our bodies, or hiding and saying, like her:
"Can't you understand anything? Do you really suppose I'm going out there among all those people, like this? …How can I go out like this among a lot of people with real solid bodies? …Have everyone staring through me." (59-60)
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Charis admiring the women onscreen—there is certainly nothing unnatural about it. But there is so much more to be said and thought about when it comes to beauty and the way we treat it, that I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. There is so much pain involved in the concept of beauty and how to use and appreciate it that instead of the joy that should come naturally when we’re confronted with beauty, envy, pride and bitterness very often obscure it. And that is definitely not how it should be.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard