Issues & Debates

Empowerment vs Objectification

Is the new wave of female empowerment being used as a façade for sexual objectification? A short exploration of whether the exposure of the female body in the media has impaired or reinforced the connotations of empowerment.

Currently, a new wave of feminism has emerged that has been fuelled by our media. Many young women in pop culture have proclaimed their new found feminism, and their proud feelings of sexual empowerment and liberation. Fed up with everyday sexism and forged by other forms of activism, women are empowered by social media and other communication technologies.

They are speaking up across all sectors, countries and societies. They will dress how they want, when they want, and have sexual encounters with who they want, how they want, and when they want. They will dance how they want in front of whoever they want to, and will post sexy selfies all over the internet because they are not ashamed of their bodies or sexuality.

There are many movements that are also shifting in this direction to promote empowerment. Under Armour is an example with their current ‘I’m Pretty’ campaign. This campaign is encouraging women to believe that being called pretty isn’t the highest compliment they can be given. Women are more than a pretty face, but that they are also pretty strong, pretty brave, pretty smart and pretty confident. The company Always are also an example after their extremely successful “Like a Girl” ad in 2014. The video recruited women, men, boys and pre-pubescent girls and asked them to show physically what it looks like to run ‘like a girl’, or ‘throw like a girl’. The adults mugged for the camera, throwing and running, looking weak and embarrassed; but the young girls asked to do the same things ran and threw hard and fast. The result: viewers were forced to consider doing things ‘like a girl’ should be seen as strong, not pathetic.

On the other hand, there has also been a wave of raised awareness of sexual objectification, which we all know has long been prominent and perpetuated in our media. Using terms such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘modern female sexuality’ have become means of exploitation to sell goods and services. Despite the fact that both men and women are targeted for sexual objectification, the media tends to constantly focus on that of the objectification of women.

Provocative images of women’s partly clothed or naked bodies make frequent appearances in advertising. Although nude images on magazine covers have lost their power to shock, they’re still a relatively recent phenomenon. Women become sexual objects when their bodies and their sexuality are linked to products that are bought and sold. Media activist Jean Kilbourne agrees. She notes that women’s bodies are often dismembered into legs, breasts and thighs, reinforcing the message that women are objects rather than whole human beings. Somehow we have reached a point where a topless photo of a well-respected woman on the cover of a magazine barely raises eyebrows, whether or not this is a positive
development is a subject of much debate.

At the beginning of 2016, Kim Kardashian posted a naked (but censored) selfie on social media. This catalysed the controversial debate of whether female empowerment is being used as a facade for sexual objectification. The selfie received very strong reactions from celebrities and the internet in general. For many people it was easy to make the argument that it ‘killed’ the word empowerment. Jill Flipovic said in a Podcast discussion that the word has become meaningless to Kim. “Just because something feels good and earns you money, that doesn’t mean it’s empowering.” However, many women expressed support and messages of sexual liberation. Celebrities such as Sharon Osbourne, Courteney Stodden and Emily Ratajkowski all contributed their own take on the nude image. Many women stated that it’s empowering to be able to make the choices you want regardless of what people will think. Kim herself spoke up about it afterwards saying “I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me. And I hope that through this platform I have been given, I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”

This issue tends to divide feminists. On one hand, there are those who actively campaign against any censorship of the female body – saying it’s not women’s bodies, but rather society’s tendency to objectify them that’s at issue. Female sexuality ought to be celebrated, and nudity in magazines encourages open discussion that empowers women. On the other hand, there are those that would say it isn’t sincere to think that the naked body can be wholly separated from its sexual aspects, and that even if it could be. I’m not sure that we’d want it to be.

The debate surrounding objectification and empowerment is a complex one. However, in essence, sexual empowerment in a philosophical sense ought to be regarded as a personal journey, and be a topic of discussion with each other and with emerging young women, empowering each other more without letting the media create and dictate the conditions by which we approve of each other’s sexuality.