Originally Published on April 10th, 2014; Updated June 24th, 2014.
The brightest spots in my days each week happen during class periods when thought-provoking, deep discussions sprout from whatever material is being taught that particular day. Since I teach a wide array of classes, from core required Composition and Literature courses to upper-level English courses like Creative Writing or Short Short, the discussions I encourage vary widely from day to day. One hour, I could be discussing how media violence impacts youth violence, encouraging lengthy and in-depth conversations about the human condition in The Walking Dead, rape culture in American Horror Story or teen violence and our society’s obsession with post-apocalytpic fare in relationship to The Hunger Games, to conducting insightful discussions about pieces of classic short fiction, like the significance of change and acceptance in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” or race and identity in Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Where the classes go is entirely up to the students and the passion that they bring to the classroom. As a teacher, it’s incredibly hard to conduct a solid discussion and both entice students to speak by making the material relevant and showcasing the connections between the material and their everyday lives while making sure tangents stay to a minimum.
At times, it can be painful.
Last week, a group of students in one of my literature-oriented courses were doing a presentation on Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” This story, in short summation, is about a teenage girl, Connie, who is described as being materialistic and way too preoccupied with her appearance. She ignores her nagging mother’s criticism and the reader gets a sense that she’s a rebellious little miss thang who enjoys enticing onlookers with her appearance. This, of course, leads to unwanted attention from a good-looking man, Arnold Friend, who shows up at her house when her family isn’t home. Arnold Friend wants to take her for a ride and it’s implied that she’ll be raped and most predictably, killed.
During the students’ presentation, one of their discussion questions was this: “Was Connie asking for the ‘attention’ [i.e. eventual/implied rape] she got from Arnold Friend?” Much to my dismay, a girl in the back row spoke up and said, “Absolutely. That’s the problem with girls today. They’re all having sex and getting pregnant at 12, 13, 14. They want that attention. Every girl who dresses like Connie did is looking to have sex, or looking for that attention. It’s her fault.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
A girl in my class, who wasn’t more than 19 herself, was openly shaming every girl who chose to dress provocatively, claiming that whatever sexually aggressive behaviors it elicited was warranted.
WE NEED MORE GIRL POWER.
Societal conventions dictate that women must dress, act, look, and behave a certain way. They must embody both the Madonna and the whore, be virtuous and innocent publicly, but sexually provocative privately. They must be sweet, but not too sweet so as to not be taken advantage of by men in power. They must be strong, confident, and smart, but not too strong or too confident or too smart because that might threaten both other women and men alike. They must subscribe to impossible beauty standards and if they don’t, they needn’t worry because Maybelline, Clairol, Cover Girl, and every fashion magazine reminds them of exactly what they need to do in order to meet those standards.
Are you a size 0?
Is anybody a size 0?
What exactly is a size 0? If you think about the number, zero signifies nothingness, yet we have entire industry built on selling clothing with zero’s embroidered on tags inside collars to women who prescribe to every fad diet, including, but not limited to Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Atkins, and even the latest “natural” crazes like the all-Paleo diets. And in extreme cases, some women go through endless amounts of surgeries and even resort to eating disorders to fit the bill.
Why, through all of this, do we still feel the need to shame other women who dress provocatively? Where does this fear of sexual empowerment stem from? And, more importantly, why is it that the “she deserves whatever she gets” idea still exists?
Is it because there are no genuine female role models that preach the wonders and empowerment of sexual exploration, the importance of being demure when necessary, the importance of individual expression and creativity, and how to push for equality among the sexes at all costs?
Even superstar and self-proclaimed “feminist” Beyoncé doesn’t promote gender equality. Instead, she asserts her notions of women running the world (“Run the World (Girls),” “Independent Women,” “Single Ladies,” etc.) yet making sure to be sexually submissive. She even named her tour “The Mrs. Carter Tour,” which gives off the idea that she belongs to her husband. In her recent hit “Drunk in Love,” she sings about waking up on the kitchen floor after a rough night of drunken sex, unsure of how she got there, followed by Jay-Z rapping about his likeness to Ike Turner, Tina Turner’s husband who verbally and physically abused her. In one notable line, he raps, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” referring to the Tina Turner BioPic What’s Love Got to Do With It? starring Angela Bassett, where, in a diner scene, Ike smacks down his bride after she refuses to eat the cake he offered her.
Empowering message, eh?
No matter how far pop culture seems to come with depicting powerful women, we’re still not at the level we should be at: FULL EQUALITY between the sexes. But that involves a cultural change in our mindset: STOP SLUT SHAMING!
There seems to be this need for women to cut each other down instead of empowering each other.
Any break from the “norm” results in shame.
Why? Self-expression is necessary for growth.
Besides that, everybody dresses they way they do in order to fulfill a certain personal ideal, whether its comfort, ego, or to get noticed. It’s important to encourage that instead of tearing each other down.
And I don’t care what you personally may believe, nobody is asking to get raped.
“She’s was asking for it” is a phrase most often heard coming out of the mouths of rapists who claim mixed signals and short skirts told them explicitly that their victims wanted desperately to have sex.
This has to change.
We need the Spice Girls.
I’m not even talking about the actual 90s all-girl band who propelled the “Girl Power” mantra into cultural immortality and created a phenomenon with their brazen sexualities, distinct individual personalities, and a-typical brand of female empowerment; I’m talking about the idea of the girls and what they represented.
Each of the Spice Girls represented one “ideal” or standard of femininity:
Baby Spice represented innocent, the Madonna, the virtuous nature that all women should possess.
Ginger Spice represented the temptress, the whore, the boundary-pushing nature of women who use their sexuality to get what they want.
Sporty Spice represented the strength a woman must possess.
Posh Spice represented the ideal lady, classy, yet materialistic.
Scary Spice represented the idea of the untamable woman, the notion that most women are wild in nature, unpredictable, and somewhat hard to read.
They kicked ass …
… and more importantly, together as one unit, they represented the idea of a “Perfect Woman.”
They took these ideas of what it meant to be a woman and broke them up into stereotypes, each girl embodying one ideal. This was a showcase that put a magnifying glass on popular culture’s ideas of female standards. Separately, they were able to say that every woman doesn’t need to be everything, that who they are is perfectly fine — no, praised! Individuality was key for the Spice Girls, and it allowed women to naturally embody one, two, three, four, or all of these characteristics and MORE because female empowerment and equality is about each woman’s individual strengths, whatever they may be.
Why can’t women today be everything when they want to be? We preach equality, but not tolerance or fair representation We say that women can be CEO’s, yet those high-powered women are often seen as shrew and shrill and unhappy because they lose in love …
Meanwhile men can have it all. Men can be promiscuous, yet married, successful yet down-to-earth, sexy and wise.
Women, on the other hand, fight to break through barriers that still very much exist, as evident from my class discussion about Connie in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
The Spice Girls mantra would never encourage the type of behavior we see today in a post-Miley Cyrus Twerking on Robin Thicke World, where Twitter users and Tumblr sites say it’s ok to slut-shame girls because they posted too many vanity selfies.
We need to practice self-love.
We need to practice acceptance, both of the self and of others.
We need to stop thinking that we have any right to dictate what someone does with their lives, what they wear, or how they look.
Only then will we stop thinking reductively and start thinking productively.
A girl does not ask for unwanted sexual aggression based on what they choose to wear. End of discussion.