Two months ago, Kim Kardashian posted a black and white image of herself covered only by her own hands on her infamous Instagram account, with the caption “#liberated”. With a full face of makeup on and every visible part of her body waxed and illuminated by professional, artistic lighting and editing which has clearly changed the mood of the picture (if not its very composition), you have to wonder what, exactly, she considers herself to be liberated from.
In her infamous music video for the song ‘Anaconda’, Nicki Minaj drizzles herself in whipped cream and eats a banana in the most obscene way possible before slicing the phallic fruit into tiny chunks. She displays her backside to the camera with fervour, and lap dances on her fellow singer Drake. Objectification, it seems, must be her aim with this video, and yet she constantly asserts herself over social media and through the spoken word as a feminist who wants women to reclaim their sexualities and independence.
This somewhat alarming trend is visible all over the celebrity sphere, and it is difficult to challenge because the women who create these sexualised pop culture products cover themselves with the label “empowering”. Opposing them can make you seem anti-feminist, a slut-shamer, overtly conservative, but this is about a bigger issue than their own liberty to do with their lives and bodies exactly as they please because the choices they are making are doing damage to other women.
Women should most definitely reclaim their sexuality, but the way the likes of Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé are going about it is, purely and simply, wrong.
Growing from a girl into a woman is not an easy or painless process. Coming to the realisation that your society regularly, systematically examines you for value based on physical traits and sexual history, purely because you were conceived without a Y chromosome, is, quite frankly, humiliating. It introduces fresh anxieties and hyper-awareness over a body which can already feel uncomfortable and awkward as it is developing into its adult form. I take personal offense when a female celebrity uses the prejudices which women on the street contend with on a day-to-day basis and repurpose them as a profit booster, claiming liberation with performances clearly indulging those prejudices. It creates dual sales; those who are comfortable with female objectification can go on enjoying the celebrity’s product as before, and those who are uncomfortable with it can be reassured and drawn in with the promise of “empowerment”. Sex sells. That well-proven theory is as old as marketing itself, and sticking the label of “empowerment” over that particular vial of magic potion, guaranteed to make any product blow up, is nothing but a deceptive marketing ploy which allows the use of sex to sell to appeal to a wider, more liberal audience.
Women should most definitely reclaim their sexuality, but the way the likes of Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé are going about it is, purely and simply, wrong. The powerful, assertive form of sexuality they practice is not for every woman; it is by its very nature exclusory and so goes against the feminist project. It is for the glossy-skinned, the full-figured and yet toned, the photo-shopped and the wealthy – the woman who can afford a personal trainer, chef and stylist, and whose career not only allows but demands a vast proportion of time expended on looking good. I fully support the right of all women to publicly exercise their concepts of gender and sexuality as they wish to, but I fully condemn those who sell this as #liberating for all women.
The issue of representation is one of the key issues with the buzzword “empowerment” and its abuse within the celebrity sphere. DoSomething.org claim that “approximately 91% of women are unhappy with their bodies” and link this to the statistic which asserts that “only 5% of women naturally possess the body type often portrayed by Americans in the media”. Can, then, this very exclusive form of feminism be truly considered liberating? Is it not the exact same problem, albeit posed from a different angle, as was challenged by Audre Lorde, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and the rest of the third-wave feminist movement when they introduced the concept of intersectionality into the social project?
How can undermining other women’s bodies ever create a less sexist society for women?
Some female celebrities do get this right. Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ brilliantly introduces the intersectional experience of black women to the music industry in a way which reclaims sexuality, gender, colour and power all at the same time. Although she exercises the same glamorous, public kind of sexuality practiced by Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé tends to be much more aware that this is not the only route to female empowerment, and so her feminism is more accessible to the woman on the street. Lady Gaga’s moving song ‘Til It Happens to You’, the soundtrack of The Hunting Ground which documents the experiences of student rape victims in the United States, validates and sympathises with those traumatised by sexual violence without demanding an active response which so many “empowerment” campaigns often do. Take, for example, the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign. Whilst finding the different reactions to the male and female nipple absurd, not all women are going to feel comfortable removing their shirt to demand these changes, just as not all men feel comfortable being seen topless.
Some female celebrities go too far in their attempt to empower the marginalised though – for instance, Meghan Trainor and the song on every radio station last summer, ‘All About That Bass’.
Assumedly intended to make the bigger woman feel beautiful, Trainor’s lyrics shame and deride thinner woman, denominating them “skinny b*tches” and refusing to become a “stick figure, silicone Barbie doll”. How can undermining other women’s bodies ever create a less sexist society for women? Fortunately, Trainor seems to have learnt from her past mistake. Her latest song, ‘No’, encourages women of no designated shape or size to stand up to men whose attention is predatory and unsolicited. Unfortunately, this pop piece still seeks to boost the esteem of one group by trampling on that of another’s with its misandrist generalisations.
And that is not true female empowerment either. As soon as one collection of people build their reputation on the derision of another set of human beings, there is a problem. When we see two groups which society has set up as binary oppositions acting together to challenge discrimination – Daniel Craig and Carrie Fisher have both spoken out on separate occasions over ageism on and pertaining to the silver screen, showing that male and female celebrities can tackle this issue without denouncing each other – we observe real empowerment in motion.
a feminism that excludes and shuns is not a true feminism at all.
Emma Watson’s ongoing campaign, ‘HeForShe’, is a heart-warming example of a female celebrity’s empowerment project which does not approach all men as prone to unfaithfulness and insensitivity as so many popular culture campaigns (see Beyoncé’s recent visual album and sensation Lemonade) do. In her speech to the UN as Goodwill Ambassador, Watson acknowledged “We want to end gender inequality, and to do this, we need everyone involved.” That is, every woman, of every shape, every colour, every economic background, every sexuality, and every man. Because a feminism that excludes and shuns is not a true feminism at all. A so-called feminism which insists that having an aggressively dominant and/or publically-expressed sexuality is the route to empowerment is a sexism all of its own, because it demands sexual performance to achieve this social autonomy.
Plenty of female celebrities are working to make this message heard outside of their day jobs, in interviews, on social media and through speeches, but it would be truly liberating for women to hear it in the songs on the radio, to see it on advertisements and on the television; to see more powerful, self-made women practicing what they preach. We also need more feminist representation within culture and art which offers inclusive feminism, which doesn’t demand a dynamic and reactive response to sexist practices.
Although there is absolutely a place for demands and protests of this nature to counteract any type of prejudice, celebrities must offer their female fans an alternative, otherwise we’re merely reinforcing the message to girls and women alike that their body is the only way they will be noticed by and respected within society. There are quieter ways to object, suited to quieter people, and there are ways to defy the patriarchal strands of our capitalist society than attempting to subvert their prejudices through public performance of your sexuality. Using your body to sell your product is not automatically empowering – it’s a commercial ploy which damages the feminist project it claims to belong to.