Picking Your Power

Guest post by Bree Bella Baccaglini

I just graduated high school this past June, so my experiences with contemporary youth culture are fresh in my mind. And since my involvement with the documentary Miss Representation began last summer, my lens to interpret this youth culture, and examine my role in it, has been honed. While working with the film’s Educational Outreach Coordinator to help build an elementary, middle and high school curriculum, I reflected a great deal on the role of media and visual culture on myself and other young people. Where does culture stop and my individuality begin? How has eighteen years worth of repetitive female stereotyping affected my own thoughts when I look in the mirror? But most of all, I question: where does my power lie?

To this last question, the media has proclaimed to women and girls that their worth lies in the curves of their figure, the suppleness of their lips, the flounce of their golden locks. If men want them, they are valuable. If they are objects of desire, they are instruments of seduction and power. Advertisers may well shout it from the rooftops: for them, power lies in beauty and sexuality. For them, success in their industry is making you too believe that your power lies in the physicality of your being.

But that’s not rocket science: the “big bad media” have been pinned down by many before. What’s interesting now is that the power dichotomy conceived by the media is playing out within increasingly younger populations–namely, with middle school and high school students. Slowly and surely, students come to answer the question posed before (“where does my power lie?”) in different ways. For boys, to generalize, this power may come from athletic prowess or intellectual dexterity or from political fulfillment in student council or other groups. For girls, two distinct groups form: the one filled with girls who derive power from academic or extracurricular pursuits, and the one whose members use their beauty and sexuality as a means to an end. Namely, recognition from boys. Still, this is not exactly news. What’s new here is the subcategory that is growing out of the second group — the group known in the halls as “the sluts” or “the hos”.

In the 2010 film 'Easy A,' Emma Stone plays a teenager who feigns promiscuity in order to gain popularity.

This subcategory is a group of girls who embrace their sexuality by being as sexually forward and promiscuous as they perceive men to be. Boys hook up with 5 girls at a party and get high fives for being such a “bro”…girls do that and are resented by girlfriends and labeled as “easy” by boys. His exploits are praised, hers are shamed. This new brand of feminism is aiming to debunk this double standard.

But how? By acting exactly the same as the generic “slut”: this new brand of feminist embraces her sexual freedom and expects respect for her actions. Some part of this does make sense. It makes sense that since boys and young men have no societal cap on their sexual liberation, women should be able to have the same. Equality, right? Although I may act easy, it’s actually empowerment I’m enacting. This freedom is power.

The thing is, this thought process is flawed. On many levels.

First, the actions of this new brand of feminist are in no way different than the actions of a “slut” in the social culture of hook ups. Hooking up a lot is hooking up a lot. The only difference is motivation. While an “easy” girl might be looking for a good time, this feminist is looking for empowerment. Does that make it effective? I argue that it does not. Consider the subject of motivation in a different context, perhaps social behavior or crime. Do you have much more sympathy for a friend who clumsily handles a social situation but was “well intentioned” versus simply thoughtless? Is there an appreciable difference between a robber who robs for fun and a robber who thinks his motivations are justified? Yes, these examples are dramatic, but they bring to light the role of motivation when it comes to evaluating actions. If there is no way of demarcating the actions of a feminist from the actions of a promiscuous girl–if all that differs is a subtle shift in rationale– there is no way to sustain this method of “empowerment”. Understanding the nuances of action is not a huge priority for a group of lusty teenage boys: the feminist and the “slut” will be indistinguishable and both will be termed “easy.” No empowerment there.

Even if you believe that motivation makes a substantial difference in terms of evaluating action on the whole, I would suggest my personal experiences related to this “new fem” phenomenon in high school hallways, cafeterias, and classrooms suggests that at least in the demographic in discussion, motivation is not carefully considered. Smart, poised young women in different grades at my school (and many other schools) have decided to go down this path–this path of “empowered promiscuity”– and they are not received by the community as empowered people. While I can sympathize and see their aims, it saddens me to know that their message is not clear enough and their actions not unique enough to establish themselves as new age feminists in the eyes of a broader community. Boys talk about getting with “Anne” and “Jane” over lunch because they know they can: therefore, the feminist is not making “conquests” herself, but perhaps unknowingly becoming a conquest because she is seen in the community as “easy”, not empowered. Perhaps even more telling is the response of “Anne’s” female peer group; her “girlfriends” become wary of her actions and try to distance themselves from her increasingly promiscuous reputation. Note that these friends generally do not become cheerleaders of “Anne’s” new feminist philosophy by imitation, so “Anne” can become emotionally alienated from her previously close friends.

Secondly, the feedback loop from our peers and colleagues that we constantly use to help evaluate and reevaluate our actions and ideas is fundamentally skewed in this social sphere. This new brand feminist will only receive a positive feed back loop from boys who want to sleep with her – the decision to “flaunt” herself being linked directly to their ability to add her to a list of exploits. Will they discourage her behavior? Nope. Will they evaluate her actions and cast a moral judgment? Probably not. For boys there’s no downside.

When a person identifies or cultivates a source of power within her or himself, it is very difficult to change it. For that reason, it’s important to find a source of internal power that is sustainable. This new age feminism reflects a population of women who invest in their beauty and sexuality–their facade–as their power outlets. The problem is that, alas, beauty doesn’t last forever. When these women enter the workforce, the strategies they developed to feel powerful in younger years will be completely and absolutely irrelevant. If you take off your clothes in front of your boss, you will probably be fired (depending on what industry you’re working in). But, if you invest your youth in sources of power and confidence that are eternal–such as intellect, creativity, curiosity, to name just a few– you will travel all through life with a consistent sense of self. Investing in a facade to have it crumble is alarming, and frankly futile.

One may argue that this pattern of behavior–to resort to “sexual liberation” as a source of power–has historical precedents that validate it or reinforce it. What about the Female Lib movement? The difference in these instances is the fact that these were movements with publicly articulated aims. Even the SlutWalks of modern day confuse the public in their lack of uniform purpose and articulated philosophy. So, individual teenage girls who don’t voice their motive or their beliefs about their own empowerment are not in fact joining this historic fold – they are selling themselves short, perhaps without even realizing it.

As women, we have the power to pick our power. And since I have seen girls put faith in misguided sources of power at earlier and earlier ages, I just want to say: taking off your clothes will never make you powerful, but shedding the cultural stigma against intellectual, assertive, and strong women will.

Bree is a MissRepresentation.org intern this summer and will be a freshman at Middlebury College in the Fall.