Are Topless Movements Helping or Hurting Feminism?

by September 17, 2015
filed under Activism

Pop culture deemed 2014 The Year of the Booty. The proclamations poured from sites like Buzzfeed and The Daily Beast. Vogue, always emphasizing their cultural authority, surpassed mainstream mediocrity by placing an image of Kim Kardashian’s booty in a slideshow next to Alexander McQueen’s bumster pants from fall 1996, declaring, “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty.” Even the #belfie – a butt selfie – became a thing.

Pop culture has decided that gender equality is measured in the freedom that females have in baring their body. Pop stars, especially female pop singers, bare all to build their brand – think Rihanna in a denim thong in Pour It Up. And while this is considered a form of entertainment, its mixture of provocative clothing, praises of female empowerment and sexual imagery for profit becomes a convoluted narrative teetering between prostitution and feminism. It’s difficult for the common woman to discern which aspects to emulate and which ones to register as entertainment.

This idea of the hyper sexualized woman builds the illusion that women have equality. However, like every extreme subculture in postmodernity, it’s filled with contradictions. Declaring female empowerment, pop stars dress provocatively, singing lascivious lyrics believing it’s a statement of female empowerment. But, does the image of the feminist pop star create a positive gender equality dialogue, or has our material obsessed world lost its depth in the visual?

Feminism has shred its stigma from the 90s and early days when young women disassociated themselves from its idea because of cultural disapproval. In recent years, feminist movements have swept across the West like FEMEN, Slutwalk, and #freethenipple. Their common theme: The uncovered female body is their symbol for gender equality.

FEMEN is a Ukrainian-founded, topless feminist movement that’s now based in Paris. The movement protests against our dominant ideology of patriarchy and capitalism and its three manifestations that oppress women: Sexual exploitation, dictatorship and religion. On FEMEN’s website it states that a female body is “an object to monstrous patriarchal exploitation, animated by production of heirs, surplus profits, sexual pleasures and pornographic shows…female nudity, free of patriarchal system, is a grave-digger of the system, militant manifesto and sacred symbol of women’s liberation.” In their quest to fight the patriarchal ideology, FEMEN chose female nudity as its backbone to fight against the exploitation of female nudity, believing that taking control of the female body reduces its likeliness that it will be exploited by our male-dominated society. Does a topless protester fighting for women equality spread positive awareness, become another commoditized version of female empowerment, or both?

Another feminist movement, SlutWalk, originated in Toronto when a police officer uttered a common sexist misunderstanding: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts.” The marching protest bands women together to raise awareness about rape and how this type of statement should not be a common perspective. In 2011, protestors marched along city streets in Toronto, Buenos Aires and New Delhi holding written signs such as, ‘My Little Black Dress Does Not Mean Yes,’ ‘Society Teaches Don’t Get Raped Instead of Don’t Rape’ and ‘My Pussy, My Choice.’ Women choose to dress as covered or uncovered as they like – although in Canada jeans and a bra is a favoured protest outfit. Like FEMEN, SlutWalk uses the uncovered female body as a symbol of female equality. While FEMEN protesters are topless, SlutWalk protesters have a broader range of outfits to wear from jeans and a t-shirt, jeans and a bra to lingerie and fishnets – a collective array of modern-day femininity.

The newest feminist movement that swept across social media at the end of 2014 was Free the Nipple, focusing on the legal oppression that topless women face in the United States in comparison to men. It’s clear message led to a following of young female celebrities like Cara Delevingne, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus who’ve vocalized their support on their social media accounts. Like FEMEN and SlutWalk, Free the Nipple uncovers the female body and uses it as a symbol for gender equality and freedom.

In pop music, women choose to wear revealing clothes and flaunt their sexual promiscuity under the guise of female empowerment. Case in point: Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. In the video, Minaj wears only a pink VSX thong and sportswear and sings such lyrics as, “yeah, he love this fat ass,” and “he keep telling me it’s real, that he love my sex appeal.” This song showcases the fundamental contradiction of materialist feminism. Female pop stars visually show that women have power over their appearance, but in their lyrics emphasis the importance of patriarchy obedience. It’s confusing that both a postmodern female protestor and a pop star use similar body exposing tactics, but have seemingly different objectives. One fights for equality while the other builds a brand on her sexuality. Does the pop star, even in her succumbing to patriarchal control, contribute to the feminist cause or does her conflicting ideas hinder its progression?

The patriarchy oppresses women through the exploitation of our bodies, especially for capitalist pursuits. However, I can’t help but believe that we won’t escape our hegemonic confine by playing by their rules. By focusing feminist movements on our bodies just like pop culture, the depth of their message, its abstract, has been lost. The material language is imagery, and it mimics what it has seen before. Our materialist world has become obsessed with the body because it’s what’s visible. It’s on our TVs, in our ads, in our reflection. Popular culture has over-saturated the use of the female form as a symbol of empowerment. Now the female image represented in pop culture reflects the shackles of a patriarchal system symbolizing that our worth is measured in our body parts. To fight the system we must not fight fire with fire. Instead, we must speak the abstract: Our thoughts, our ideas, our opinions. We must speak our minds instead of showing-off our bodies. These are the tools that we must use to win against patriarchy.

Do you think topless movements are helping or hurting feminism? Let readers know in the comments below!

Originally published in the FLURT Summer 2015 issue.

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