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Essay: Conflict between the quest for gender equality and the desire for sexual liberation

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  • Published: 15 July 2022*
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  • Tags: Feminism essays

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“Feminism is notoriously difficult as it was never a uniform set of ideas: the aims and character of feminist struggles were hotly contested from the outset” (Hollows, 2000: 3)

The conflict between the quest for gender equality and the desire for sexual liberation has long been a challenge for feminism. Feminists have found themselves on opposite sites in regards to their neo-liberal values. For a number of writer’s post feminism represents an epistemological shift from second wave feminists.

This thesis will discuss and analyse the dynamic and conflicting relationship between the idea of power dressing through wearing lingerie and concepts of feminism. Utilizing key concepts such as; the gaze, representation, feminity and feminism will form the theoretical framework explored in this thesis in order to contextualise the key questions and form an understanding of whether dressing in an alluring and sexually liberated way demonstrates empowerment/symbolic resistance through feminist discourse or whether it represents acquiescence to the male gaze. Furthermore, critically analysing issues surrounding misogyny, empowerment and objectification.

This paper will make a contribution to debates regarding the representations of women, female empowerment; using a lingerie campaign from LFW for Bluebella which featured 19 ‘models’ including myself, as a case study. In doing so I hope to understand whether the women presented in popular media (the point of view of the subject i.e. model) and whether it demonstrates true sexual liberation/female empowerment or old oppressions in disguise?

Through an insider’s vantage point, I have chronicled and traced the experiences of my own journey using the qualitative methodology of auto ethnography. This genre of qualitative research brings the reader closer to the topic highlighted, studied through the experiences of the author also drawing on accounts from fellow participants.

Applying my research in conjunction with a conceptual combination of work by Michel Foucault (1975), Stuart Hall (1977), Laura Mulvey (1989) and selected feminists such as Rosalind Gill (2003) and Naomi Wolf (1993) to name a few. Alongside theories of the Panoptican originally developed by Jeremy Bentham but here understood via Foucault and the Male Gaze as defined by Mulvey.

Methodology

To analyse the questions raised in this essay, two methods will be used in this report. Experiential methods such as Auto Ethnography and Interviews; qualitative techniques and approaches that can produce in-depth and nuanced information. Auto Ethnography was used to gain a first-hand insight into how models are represented and what is was like being part of a spectacle. Interviews were used in order to elicit authentic emotions, thoughts and views of fellow models used in the campaign. Combining and comparing; my own experience as well as fellow models as a lens to observe ideas such as misogyny, empowerment and sexism.

Auto ethnography is a “critical approach that challenges the privilege of researchers to study everybody’s social and cultural construction but their own” (Alcoff, 1991: 21). It is a process of conducting and producing an auto ethnographic study through the “understanding of self, other and culture” (Chang, 2008). Auto ethnography opens up a space to engage the dynamic between the individual (auto-) and the collective (-ethno) where the writing (-graphy) that is the whole and part of these three areas (Lionnet, 1990: 391).

Through taking part in lingerie brand; Bluebella’s ‘Dare to Bare’ campaign during LFW. Which required 19 women including myself to pose in lingerie at the centre of Oxford Circus. This will allow me to use auto ethnography as my main source of primary research, to give a first-hand account of how I felt taking part regarding issues surrounding misogyny, sexism and how taking part has changed my perspective of my body, how this experience has impacted me.

This research represents a highly personalized account of the complexities, interpretations, and reflections on the essay question.

Alongside auto ethnography, interviews will be implemented to compare and combine experiences and views amongst myself and the fellow participants. As Rapley (2011:16) states “Interviews are, by their nature, social encounters where speakers collaborate in producing retrospective (and prospective) accounts or versions of their past (or future) actions, experiences, feelings and thoughts.”. Intertwining auto-ethnography and interviews will allow me to position myself along with fellow models as the subject of my research. This enables me to give an accurate account and raise the value of primary research and gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations behind actively choosing to present ourselves as ‘sexual agents’.

Femininity | Feminism

There have been ambivalent thoughts and feelings towards the idea of women dressing in a “seductive” way and whether it does indicate empowerment or merely old oppressions in disguise; within feminist discourse. In one perspective it could be viewed as an oppression as women are displayed as passive object/subject of visual pleasure to the male spectator a complete paradox to female empowerment and active resistance against patriarchal ideologies.

On the contrary third wavers and post feminists could argue that wearing lingerie and dressing seductively forms a part of sexual consumer culture that positions itself broadly within the discourse of postfeminist ideologies. as Feminist writer Rosalind Gill articulates in her book Gender and the Media (2007) that this demonstrates the resexualisation of women in modern popular culture and media from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification. Rather than “mute objects” of an “assumed male gaze” (Gill, 2007). However more so a shift towards “notions of choice” of “being oneself and pleasing oneself” therefore entails a “resignification of the sexual terrain from being a sign of sexual exploitation” (ibid). These views echo that of Feminist writer Naomi Wolf in regard to post feminism as she encourages “Power Feminism” that is “unapologetically sexual” meaning women can be sexually liberated and empowered at the same time (Wolf, 1993).

The discussion of feminist discourse analysed so far in this thesis illuminate two things; one being post feminism constructs an “articulation or suture between feminist and anti-feminist ideas” (Wood, 2014). Secondly, that this is effected entirely through a “grammar of individualism that fits perfectly with neo-liberalism” (ibid). Indeed, second wave feminists would argue that “a woman who appeals to obviously to a male desire is in bad taste; but one who seems to reject it is no more commendable” (Negrin, 2008: 36).

However, drawing on the experiential methods used in my research; Discussion of the Bluebella campaign with my interview participants commonly evoked positive comments although seemingly nervous, understandably, in regards to memories of their experience with participants stating:

“the experience was actually amazing, as I was heading to the place, I was terrified about it. But, once we all got changed in the underwear because we were all together. It didn’t then seem quite as scary because we sort of had each other to look after one another.” Rachel (see appendix 1)

“I was nervous at first and just being exceptionally nervous, I was going to fall on my face or do something embarrassing. But being surrounded by other people that were all so different and lovely and then after it was just like disbelief that I actually had the confidence to do it.” Josie (see appendix 2)

However, Contrary to the positive comments from the models, the campaign did have negative responses from the public/media. With majority of the comments from The Daily Mail article “Move over Victoria’s Secret! Women volunteer to strut through a busy London junction in skimpy lingerie to promote body confidence” (2017) reading:

“Confidence? I call BS. Just an excuse for attention” cited in (Daily Mail, 2017)

“Another pointless narcissistic exercise supposedly to empower women…. Pathetic! Would have been more “empowering” if they tried this little stunt in Bradford” (ibid)

On the other hand, to these negative claims one could argue that; taking part in this campaign was a positively opposite experience for me and seemingly the other models that took part as well. As Wolf (1993) states that empowerment comes from the “power of choice” and Hollows (2000) contends for women’s right to “define their own sexuality.” (4). All of the “models” were able to choose whether they wanted to take part by applying through social media platforms.

Although, I did not personally apply as I was merely working as an intern in the office at Bluebella. Likewise, I alike, also had the “power of choice” (ibid) to decide whether I wanted to take part. Rachel spoke in more detail about her reasons for taking part stating “It was more of a test to myself, I think really sort of the best way to describe it is. If I had the confidence to walk across oxford circus in my underwear, it does make you feel I could do anything else; I suppose in a way it definitely boosted my confidence.” (see appendix 1) Jodie also claims “It was nice to be authentically celebrated for who I was as a person, I’m a massive feminist too and to be in a company run by women. Designed by women. And diverse women taking part it, was empowering.” (see appendix 2)

(Wood, 2014) argues that critics have “Identified post feminism as a movement from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ representation of femininity in mainstream media and culture”. She contends referring to (Gill, 2007) that women are “shown as being empowered, to ‘choose’ to present themselves as ‘sexually autonomous individuals” (ibid). I feel a certain kinship with Gill and her writing. Indeed, ‘choosing’ presenting myself as ‘active’ sexual agent, through taking part in something that is bold and equally could be deemed as taboo was an exhilarating feeling, actively rebelling against ideological standards that society expect me to conform to; especially coming from a conservative Asian family, any public acts that presented women in a provocative manner is strictly frowned upon and would deem you as a ‘sex worker’ (see Fig 1). However, it was a constant battle as being born in a different era to a different culture studying fashion specializing in Lingerie, my views are very different.

Asian sociology majors analysed how “The sexuality of males and females is considered to be fundamentally different by both Thai men and women.” (Knodel et al., 1996) claiming “Men are widely perceived as having a natural and driving need for sex that requires frequent outlet. In contrast, women are viewed as being in control of their sexual feelings” (88).

As a young women visiting Thailand it was difficult, as although dressed modestly one would be propositioned for sex at any moment regardless, by older men; “How much?”. I recall being asked from as young as the age of 15. Although, I only really understood the context behind the question as I got older, on reflection I consider the whole situation offensive, demeaning and objectifying; I felt like an object that could be merely ‘bought’ and used at male disposal. So therefore, I can understand and relate to why Asian cultures can be reserved when it comes to sexuality as fear of unwanted advances may arise.

However, one could relate me taking part in the campaign and my views as a form of challenging the conservative nature of my upbringing which essentially requires women to supress our own sexuality with fear of appealing to men in an inappropriate manner and pre judgements from other conservative Asians. One could also argue that this is a form of feminism through forms of resistance, paradoxically through very acts that seemingly conform to prevailing norms; for example, ‘reclaiming’ my sexuality through displaying myself as an ‘active’ sexual agent. Resisting not only patriarchal ideologies but also cultural ideologies as well.

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