Hannah Mawhinney

Empowered or Exploited – The feminist conundrum

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Are women who capitalise on their sexuality for work objectified, empowered or both?

Most millennials will at least vaguely remember the noughties chick flick, Coyote Ugly. You know the one, small town girl heads to the big city to chase her dreams – but instead finds her calling titillating men as a dancing barmaid. For some people, hearing that Liverpool was getting its own version of the infamous bar might have been a nostalgic blast from the past. Not for me. Picturing scantily clad women gyrating around as men watched on, my inner feminist reared its head.

This year we’ve seen a wave of feminist uproar, from the Hollywood harassment scandals and resulting #MeToo hashtag, to the ‘groping’ of hostesses at the notorious Presidents Club charity gala. How, I wondered in this climate, is a bar whose profit was driven by getting women to dress and dance provocatively for its punters still deemed acceptable?

As you can imagine, when it was announced one night out that we were heading to that very bar I was less than enthused. Begrudgingly, I went, determined that I was against the whole concept of the ‘Coyotes’. Curiously however, I left that night with mixed feelings. It was looking around at the women in the crowd that surprised me. They were lapping it up – considerably more so than the men. At one point, a couple of girls from the crowd were invited up onto the bar to dance. You had to credit them – they were giving it ten out of ten, encouraged by cheers and whoops from the Coyotes. It almost felt – dare I say it – empowering. That’s when I began to wonder: Is it not a good thing to see women having the confidence to celebrate their bodies and their sexuality?

One of the most empowering things I have ever seen was a burlesque performer by the name of Felicity Furore. She was mesmerising and inspiring to watch, oozing with body confidence. The audience was in the palm of her hand – but why did I see this as empowering and Coyote Ugly as exploitative? Felicity ended up wearing far fewer clothes than the Coyotes. I was completely contradicting myself.

After looking into my own mixed feelings on the subject, I learned that there has been a long-standing debate within feminism over the line between sexual objectification and sexual liberation. A recent controversial decision made by the Formula 1 Racing industry to ban ‘Grid Girls’ sparked fierce debate amongst women. While feminists celebrated the decision as a triumph over patriarchal tradition, the Grid Girls argued that their rights and freedom were being denied by feminist values.

In today’s media-dominated world, there are lots of women who’ve built their success by capitalising on their sexuality. Emily Ratajowski, the glamour model made famous for dancing nude in Robin Thicke’s notorious ‘Blurred Lines’ music video, is a prime example. Ratajowski has faced criticism for defining herself and her work as feminist, especially after a particularly steamy feature in Love Magazine’s advent calendar in 2017. Ratajowski asserted: “Female sexuality and sexiness, no matter how conditioned it may be by a patriarchal ideal, can be incredibly empowering for a woman if she feels it is empowering to her.”

I think there is some truth in this: feminism is subjective – one woman’s idea of empowerment may be another’s exploitation. What it ultimately boils down to is the notion of choice. That women have the power to choose what they get to do with their own bodies is what is important here. If we condemn other women’s choices, are we not undermining what suffragettes first fought for – our right to think for ourselves?

The president of the University of Liverpool’s feminist society, Lucy Pilling, shared her views with me:

“Instead of criticising women for being sexy dancers, stripping or being glamour models, I think we should be critiquing the society that upholds these kinds of ideals.”

“I’m not sure that exposing our bodies is automatically ‘empowering’ – Not every choice we make is going to be a feminist one – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we want to do to be successful women. If women want to exploit patriarchy to profit for themselves, a system that exploits them, then why not let them?”

I wish I could say that I stand definitively in one camp or the other. But the truth is that I’m still pretty torn. There are definitely – in the words of Robin Thicke – ‘blurred lines’ when it comes to capitalising on the female body.

So, whichever camp we stand in, let’s keep the conversation going.

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