Women Taking Charge*

I once heard the comedian Sandra Bernhard tell a story of a night she was performing in a club wearing a miniskirt.  She was asked what she was doing to the feminist movement by wearing that.  Sandra’s response – “feminizing it.”

There has been a lot of talk about feminism in the past year.  We heard about the lack of roles for women in the movies, and gamergate – but we didn’t hear much about imagery in apps and how that, too, plays into the dominant narrative.

When we play games on our phones and send messages – what are the images of women that we are seeing?  Most are highly sexualized in the style of video games or are photos that could be on Page 3 of The Sun.  But most women don’t look or act like that.

The question is – how is this type of representation considered the norm?  In the United States, we are heirs to a long history of standards about how women should look and for whom she appears.  In analyzing representation of the human form in western art, John Berger wrote “men act and women appear.”

Visual images – painting, photography, film, television, video games, and, more recently, apps – teach their audiences that women are there to be looked at and acted upon, where men have agency and take action.

The depiction of women for someone else’s pleasure is further complicated when sexual acts are depicted.  Berger comments, the picture is “made to appeal to his sexuality.  It has nothing to do with her sexuality.”  In these instances, the woman is an object for a male gaze and not an agent empowered to take control of her own body and desires.

That looking in a way that a woman feels beautiful or sexy is somehow wrong – was publicly waged against Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj in 2014.  Their choices about how they present themselves as beautiful was taken as evidence against their clear and vocal commitments to feminism.  The model for feminism against which many women are judged is based on a white, upper middle class, college-educated construction of a feminist.  But most women do not fit that mold; each woman is in a position to embrace her own beauty, her own power, and what she brings to the world.  And by bringing her inner strength, formed by experience, into the public space – she is taking a feminist stance.

In her blog, Cate Young wrote:  “the fact that something appeals to the male gaze, does not mean that it exists for the male gaze.”

Young continues:  “framing every instance of females sexuality from the perspective of the male gaze is not only extremely heteronormative, but it strips women of their sexual agency and ignores intersectional approaches to feminism. It completely negates the possibility that a woman can be sexual for her own enjoyment or pleasure. And while feminism is explicitly about dismantling the patriarchy and allowing women to be free of sexist expectations, making choices based on what does or doesn’t appeal to patriarchal presumptions makes one literally beholden to that very system. If all your choices are direct responses to the patriarchy, you are still reactive to its whims, rather than proactive to your own desires.”

One of the many interesting things in Young’s critique of the criticism heaped upon Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and other feminist women of color – is the central role played by a woman’s agency as a hallmark of her feminism, regardless of how she chooses to present herself.

The core issue is not in the clothes, or the words chosen to express oneself – but in the intention.  In a woman’s decision of how she wants to look, what she wants to do with her body, and what she wants to have happen to her body.

As we critique the media on its representations of and (lack of) opportunities for women, we need also to turn our attention to the places where people spend much of their time – on their mobile devices – and turn up the volume on the conversations about those images and engage women in technology to, in Sandra’s words, “feminize it.”

In both the personal and political space, feminism comes from within.  Our culture is at a point where it would be best served to open itself up to all the facets of feminism, all of its shapes, colors, and sizes.  And to create and celebrate a space where women can express their strength, power, commitments, and desires.

It is time that we create imagery and apps that celebrate the beauty of all women and their power to act in and have a positive impact upon technology and the public sphere.

* First published on Medium 10 February 2015