Being photographed in your underwear doesn't help feminism

Date

Hadley Freeman

The singer strips off to talk about the sexualisation of women in the latest issue of American GQ.

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Next month marks the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s hugely influential study that helped to spark that pervasive second wave of feminism that - for all its faults and stuttering incompleteness - shaped the western world as most of us know it today.

As a book it was - as Friedan was herself - a flawed advocate of women’s rights: Friedan had little apparent interest in women who were anything other than white and upper middle-class. Her homophobia became an embarrassment to the women’s movement. Her egotistical paranoia about being ousted as the face of the women’s movement was captured with wince-inducing brilliance by Nora Ephron in her 1972 essay, Miami.

The feminist movement never did and never will run smoothly. But Friedan’s book, as Stephanie Coontz writes in her recent book, A Strange Stirring, rescued ‘‘a generation of intelligent women, sidelined from the world’’. Whatever its flaws, the publication of The Feminine Mystique remains as much of a landmark in the history of feminism as Emily Davison’s death 50 years earlier at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

And so, 50 years on from Friedan, it pleases me to announce that we have a new face to the modern-day feminist movement. That face belongs to none other than Beyonce Knowles.

Last week the new issue of American GQ came out and it neatly encapsulated where western feminism is today. Inside, Knowles gives an interview that will probably be studied by future generations for lessons in both the loopiness of the 21st-century celebrity world and how hilariously far American magazine interviews have fallen since the days of, say, Gay Talese and Lillian Ross. In this typical piece of puffery, Knowles shows off her ‘‘temperature-controlled digital storage facility that contains virtually every photo of her’’, including one video diary entry in which she informs herself that she is going to listen to one of her own songs before having sex with her husband, which is one way to get in the mood, I guess.

But there is, the GQ journalist assures the reader, more to Knowles than raging narcissism - she is a powerful woman with a defiant feminist streak. ‘‘Equality is a myth, and for some reason everyone accepts that women don’t make as much money as men do,’’ she rails. ‘‘I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.’’

Knowles is right: it is ridiculous that American women earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. This is almost as ridiculous as, say, a self-professedly powerful female celebrity (‘‘I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest,’’ announces Knowles) complaining about men defining sexiness in a men’s magazine in which she poses nearly naked in seven photos, including one on the cover in which she is wearing a pair of tiny knickers and a man’s shirt so cropped that her breasts are visible. These photos, incidentally, were taken by the bafflingly successful American photographer, Terry Richardson, a man with a penchant for highly sexualised photos of women and who has been repeatedly accused of sexual exploitation and misconduct by young female models, which Richardson has denied.

To complain about the sexualisation of women in men’s magazines may seem like complaining about the weather. But as Knowles rightly says in relation to the pay gap, the status quo should not just be shruggingly accepted if it is wrong. I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, and these covers are, to my eyes, becoming increasingly close to porn. In the past four months alone we’ve had Cameron Diaz bending over in a pair of mesh pants; topless Mila Kunis in leather trousers (while inside she writhes naked on a bed); Rihanna naked save for a mini leather jacket; Lana Del Rey also naked except for some jewellery (that was on GQ’s October issue, which had four alternative covers that all featured men. All of these men, funnily enough, were clothed).

It’s one thing to submit to this attention-seeking nonsense if you’re a C-list reality TV desperado trying to get on the cover of Nuts; it’s another if you are professedly one of the most powerful women in the entertainment business who has no need of such tactics. Knowles rightly hates the fact that women are humiliated by being paid less than their male counterparts. But they are similarly humiliated by being fed the message that it doesn’t matter how successful, powerful or smart you are - all that matters is how sexually available you are willing to make yourself look.

I should feel happy, I guess, that Knowles is even willing to speak up about equality considering how notoriously few young women in the public eye are willing to identify themselves as feminists. That her Dworkin-ish call to arms comes served up with photos of Knowles jumping on a bed in a bikini, well, that’s the deal these days, apparently, in which famous women can sing about ‘‘independence’’ and ‘‘girl power’’, as long as they’re wearing next to nothing. As I said, the feminist movement never did run smoothly. But half a century on from Friedan, it should be running better than this.

The Guardian

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116 comments

  • The article says "few young women in the public eye are willing to identify themselves as feminists."

    One reason might be that when Beyonce expresses her personal perspective on feminism, she is derided by...another feminist. Somehow Beyonce doesn't subscribe to the "pervasive second wave of feminism that...shaped the western world as most of us know it today."

    Is it just me, or is there a tension between these ideas? Proposition one is that feminism has shaped the contemporary World. Proposition two is that few high-profile women identify as feminists. Proposition three is that when a high profile woman DOES identify as feminist, she can be criticised for how she dresses.

    Throw in the obligatory payoff about men being sexual predators, and the reason why the vast majority of women don't self-identify with the writer's perspective on the "right kind of feminism" is right there in front of us. But only if you have eyes to see

    Commenter
    Nogbad
    Location
    The Valerie Solanas Institute
    Date and time
    January 16, 2013, 9:50AM
    • Apparently there is a dress code when one discusses "Feminism". Who knew?

      Commenter
      Carstendog
      Location
      Here
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 11:40AM
    • The problem the writer has it she believes her notion of what makes a feminist is right and if Beyonce Knowles doesn't fit the criteria she has set then she isn't a good feminist role model. Beyonce Knowles has the power and money to do as she pleases. She doesn't need to take off her clothes to gain attention, however she probably realises that do that and some men will read the article after looking at the pictures and hear what she has to say. She has in that case demonstrated a power that your smock wearing, burn the bra, cropped hair feminist doesn't have, the ability to get the attention of people who wouldn't otherwise listen.
      Feminism in any case should not be about trying to have equality. Men and women are different and this is a good thing. Just because a woman can appeal on a level that is based on her looks and what she is wearing, doesn't mean she hasn't got something meaningful to say as well or do some feminists believe that women have to be plain to be able to speak about female subjects? Talk about discrimination.

      Commenter
      Stephen25
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 12:08PM
    • These sorts of tensions seem to arise whenever ignorance, such as Beyonce's, is intellectualised. Why not just accept it for what it is, leave the magazine where it belongs, on the rack, and move on.

      Commenter
      Holden Caulfield
      Location
      Kingsville
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 12:45PM
    • She's not being criticised for how she dresses, she's being criticised for spouting feminist ideals, yet appearing near-nude on a men's magazine to be represented as merely another sexual object to be enjoyed and used by, you guessed it, men.

      If she was to walk down the street and go about her daily doings in her undies and crop top on the notion that "I can" and NOT for the purpose of pleasing the male eye in sexually suggestive pictures as she does, then yeah, there wouldn't be a problem, she can wear what she likes!!! but that's not what she's doing.

      Beyonce kicks herself in the foot because she's selling herself as an object of sexual desire and nothing more. A culture that feminism is trying to overturn. It's got nothing to do with being offended by nudity or porn either, sexuality is fine, but by doing this she says "I'm nothing without my sexual availability / desirability", despite the fact that she's a globally successful artist.

      Don't you think her music should be enough to define her success? Would Bob Dylan do it?

      One does have to ask, to determine if something is sexist, are the men doing it? quite a simple question really.... Did you notice "on GQ’s October issue, which had four alternative covers that all featured men. All of these men, funnily enough, were clothed" ?

      Why aren't the men naked? Because they don't have to be. Men are not solely defined by their bodies and are not treated like objects for public consumption unless they want to be, not because they have to be.

      Just think about it.

      Commenter
      Miffy
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 1:03PM
    • Wow. Such appalling understandings for the women's movement from Bogbad and Castendog I don't know where to begin.

      Commenter
      Jd
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 1:12PM
    • @Nogbad

      Beyonce is hypocritical in that she has made her money not just from her talent in singing, but by perpetuating the sexist stereotype of the best way for women to make money: by appearing sexually available to men in an extremely provocative way. It's not a healthy role-model for young women. Now that's she's made a lot of money, she's powerful and says what she wants about certain feminist issues, meanwhile continuing her charade, unable to put 2 and 2 together.

      It's not necessarily about what's the 'right' kind of feminism. The issues Beyonce raises are real. It doesn't mean, however,that she is immune from criticism, especially from those pointing out that the fundamental way she makes her money that gives her the power to publicly voice feminist issues is within a sexist stereotype.

      Highprofile women who make a lot of money don't need to identify themselves as feminist, especially if they're making their money out of a sexist stereotype,then why would they?

      Commenter
      Drspacegirl
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 1:47PM
    • There's a certain brand of feminism that is mainly concerned with securing a place for women in the culture of victimhood that pervades so much of leftist politics these days. It's no mystery why successful women like Beyonce shun this brand of feminism: their ideas are totally poisonous to any kind of notion of personal responsibility and drive.

      It's no surprise that most young women want to emulate someone like Beyonce, who appears intelligent, attractive and otherwise happy with her life. She's certainly a better role model than some sour faced harridan lecturing in a university campus about the hidden sexism in today's media.

      Commenter
      James Hill
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 2:21PM
    • No, the reason that so many young women don't define themselves as feminist is because they've been sold a variety of lies about what feminism actually is. It can be boiled down to one question:

      "Do you believe that women should have social, political and economic equality with men?"

      If the answer is yes, then basically you're a feminist and should identify as one.

      But there are plenty of people invested in a backlash that seeks to define feminism as any one or more of the following:

      - hating men,
      - being a lesbian,
      - refusing to get married or have children,
      - insisting on physical unattractiveness and refusing hair removal, makeup or fashionable clothes,
      - insisting that men are inferior to women and seeking to treat them accordingly,
      - generally behaving like a shrill/hysterical/bitchy/entitled/shrewish/myopic cow operating under a ridiculous double standard.

      And all of those things are sold to young women as feminist poison that will ensure that they are ignored, ridiculed, or hated by men. Worst of all, they won't be considered sexy, or a desirable catch.

      So young women distance themselves from the straw feminism they've been warned against, and say "I'm not a feminist" even in the same breath as saying, "but I'm getting a bit tired of earning 20% less than men in the same job". Or "why aren't there any women over forty reading the news?". Or "Why did that job interview include questions about whether I plan to have children?".

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 2:47PM
    • "It's no surprise that most young women want to emulate someone like Beyonce, who appears intelligent, attractive and otherwise happy with her life. She's certainly a better role model than some sour faced harridan lecturing in a university campus about the hidden sexism in today's media."

      ... Riiiiiight, so Beyonce is a good role model for girls because she's sexy, and a university professor is necessarily some "sour-faced harridan".

      And you talk about "hidden sexism" as though it's a myth, while making such blatantly sexist and ignorant comments. Well done!

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 16, 2013, 2:54PM

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