How empowering, indeed

Update, October 12, 2014: This post should perhaps be read in the context of an essay I submitted for a sustainability class I took for the coursework in my Ph.D. program. Of my work in that class, Marc Pilisuk, the professor, wrote (on May 1, 2013), “David’s understanding of sustainability issues is deep and his work on the issues is highly creative. In this course he grasped the material and then went on to analysis of the modes of thought that resist sustainability, the limits of individual efforts and plans for research that may assist broader change.”

Fig. 1. An example image. Carol Rossetti, via Laura Lokkie/Bored Panda, fair use.
Fig. 1. An example image. Carol Rossetti, via Laura Lokkie/Bored Panda, fair use.

Someone in my Facebook news feed posted an article about a Brazilian illustrator, Carol Rossetti, who came up with positive messages to counter the negative messages that, in our society, women often receive about their appearance and their sexuality (figure 1, for an example).[1] My Facebook friend accompanied the posting with, all lower-case, “how empowering,” without any punctuation.

My initial interpretation was that she was being sarcastic. I haven’t asked her, because I’m not sure how to do so without it sounding like an accusation.[2]

And in this case, I really, really don’t want to sound judgmental for three reasons: 1) I’m male, and thus a member of the class of people who are often directly or indirectly responsible for the utterances that these images are meant to combat; 2) I think sarcasm might actually be an appropriate response; and 3) I’m really unsure.

I want to pose an argument in favor of sarcasm. If I succeed with this argument, that does not necessarily mean that you will agree.  Success lies rather in my readers understanding the argument, being able to respond to it, and helping us all to navigate troubled waters.

First, I am absolutely not questioning that negative messages about women and sexuality are endemic in our society. My criticism of Jack Holland for recognizing a Platonic binary that associates men with intellectual pursuits (the mind) and women with sensuality (the body)[3] lies first in questioning why human beings would choose this binary when not to choose it seems so much more enjoyable, and second in noting that Holland’s explanation is insufficient to account for misogyny in parts of the world that do not trace a cultural legacy to ancient Greece. The ongoing prevalence of rape myths, sexual assaults, rapes, and other forms of violence against women leaves little doubt that men’s power over women is at stake.

I am thinking of an old aphorism that cognitive linguist George Lakoff adopted as the title of one of his books: Don’t think of an elephant! He intended, and I understand the aphorism itself, to mean that by telling people not to think of something in a particular way, you introduce the concept. Having done this, they cannot un-think it.[4] In this way, it seems to me that Rossetti’s response to superficial judgments about women is as superficial as the judgments themselves.

This is where the navigation becomes particularly problematic. I am thinking also of “slut walks,” in which women protest males’ presumed privileges to female bodies by marching and chanting together while wearing “slutty” outfits and carrying signs. Advocates of such protests suggest that they are reclaiming the word slut, and using it to comment on slut-shaming and the anti-woman values that are so prevalent in our society. They are demanding a right to wear whatever they want without men behaving as if some clothing is an invitation to sex.

Naturists should understand the slut walkers’ claim quite well. Very few of the people we see nude are potential mates. Male naturists quickly learn not to be visibly aroused when seeing an attractive member of the sex that matches their sexual orientation. And a number of Rossetti’s images tackle the body image issue, where women are expressly and reductively evaluated for their suitability as mates (figure 2, for example).[5]

Fig. 2. An example image. Carol Rossetti, via Laurie Lokkie/Bored Panda, fair use.
Fig. 2. An example image. Carol Rossetti, via Laurie Lokkie/Bored Panda, fair use.

Opponents of slut walks argue that they invite, as with “don’t think of an elephant,” the very thinking they protest. That, however, is the slut walkers’ point. The claims that women are “asking for it” by wearing sexy clothing or by getting drunk are both rape myths which slut walkers seek to combat. Further, slut walkers argue, women should be able to have sex with as many or as few partners as often as they choose without being judged for it by other people (figure 3).

Fig. 3. An example image. Carol Rossetti, via Laura Lokkie/Bored Panda, fair use.
Fig. 3. An example image. Carol Rossetti, via Laura Lokkie/Bored Panda, fair use.

A challenge for me lies in how seriously I view superficial judgments. Even the way I label these judgments suggests that I do not agree that they should be taken seriously. Yet it is also apparent that they are a major oppressive force against women and in this sense, they should be taken very seriously indeed.

Hence my quandary: If I, or my Facebook friend, treat Rossetti’s images as “empowering,” are we in fact enabling the very attitudes they protest? Should we, instead, simply dismiss the social presumptions that underlie this entire emphasis as the relics of a failed authoritarian and patriarchal system of social organization?

My blog has always been open to relevant (non-spam) comment. Here it is especially so.

  1. [1]Laura Lokkie, “Powerful Illustrations Show Women How To Fight Gender Prejudices,” Bored Panda, October 7, 2014, http://www.boredpanda.com/powerful-illustrations-showing-women-how-to-fight-against-society-prejudices/
  2. [2]Ruthellen Josselson, Interviewing for Qualitative Inquiry: A Relational Approach (New York: Guilford, 2013).
  3. [3]Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006).
  4. [4]George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004).
  5. [5]Laura Lokkie, “Powerful Illustrations Show Women How To Fight Gender Prejudices,” Bored Panda, October 7, 2014, http://www.boredpanda.com/powerful-illustrations-showing-women-how-to-fight-against-society-prejudices/

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