Ask A Feminist #5: Victims of society?

This week’s Ask A Feminist considers how we can argue that culture and society affect women without painting them as unthinking victims. Please add your thoughts in comments!

Dear Jayne,

I am relatively new to the feminist movement and feminist thinking. I’ve already discovered many complex issues which require a great deal of thought, but the one that probably confounds me the most is how to argue for the power of our culture/society/the media on women’s way of thinking without reducing women to malleable figures incapable of thinking for themselves. I feel quite strongly that the culture in the UK has a negative influence on the way that many women think about themselves and their abilities, but I find it difficult to argue for such influences without presenting women as little more than victims. I’d be really interested to hear what you, and F-Word readers, have to say on this issue.

– Rowena

I think a major point here is that we don’t have to get stuck in the dichotomy of women being either helpless dupes of an all-powerful patriarchal culture or totally free agents who are impervious to cultural and social pressures. Discussions on why women engage in certain behaviours or think certain things do often get boiled down to a question of choice versus victim-hood, but in reality, human experience usually falls somewhere in between.

Clearly if women were nothing but “malleable figures incapable of thinking for themselves” we wouldn’t see the wide range of different women with different passions, beliefs and experiences that we do in our society. However, there are also some clear trends in the way women think about themselves, express themselves and live their lives. The fact that they differ from society to society suggests that an individual’s surroundings have some kind of effect on the person she becomes. For example, women living in a desert village in Namibia may view walking around with their breasts exposed as completely unremarkable, while most women in the UK would view this as rude or provocative and certainly socially unacceptable.

There have been plenty of studies into the effect of culture and socialisation on individuals’ identity and behaviour, but given that you can’t just pull these out of your trouser pocket when this issue comes up, I’d say the most accessible and obvious proof is the billions of pounds companies spend on advertising and marketing. Why would they invest so heavily if we weren’t affected by what we see and hear around us? Indeed, a number of the trends I referred to above clearly mirror what is sold to us in advertising: many women’s desire to be thin, beautiful, free of wrinkles and free of body hair matches the values of the advertising world. Jean Kilbourne has done a lot of work on this, including two books and the following film:

You may also find the discussion on women in popular culture at the recent Go Feminist! conference useful.

One could of course argue that advertisers just reflect what women inherently want, rather than creating their desires. But changes in women’s beauty and personal care rituals over the years show us that there’s nothing biologically inherent about how women want to look: an upper class Victorian woman would never have dreamed of painting her skin to make it look tanned, and my Grandma would have thought you’d lost the plot if you suggested she rip all her pubic hair out with wax-covered strips.

However, acknowledging that advertising affects women’s desires and self-image doesn’t mean painting women who use fake tan or remove their body hair as incapable of thinking for themselves. The same goes for other examples of social and cultural pressures. Women have the capacity to make different choices, but given that most people want to feel a sense of belonging and do not want to be singled out as different, it makes sense to go along with the dominant cultural norms. And if they’re not exposed to any alternative perspectives, or if those alternative perspectives aren’t perceived as credible because they’re demonised within mainstream society, women are unlikely to question the status quo. That doesn’t mean we’re unable to: we just need access to alternatives and the tools required to deconstruct what has always been portrayed as normal and natural. We can then make more informed decisions about our lives, which may or may not include conforming to social norms.

For me, that tool is feminism. Reading feminist theory enabled me to stop thinking my hairy legs were disgusting, but prior to reading it I had never come across anyone or anything that told me any different. That doesn’t mean I was helpless or irreparably brainwashed, just that I didn’t have any reason to think outside the box.

A final point to consider is that there’s no shame in being a victim. Detractors of feminism often complain that we paint all women as victims, but the truth is that many, many women are victimised within our society, and I don’t think we should shy away from saying that. The crucial point is that feminism is about helping women move out of a victimised situation and stopping us from becoming victimised in the first place.

Photo by VirtualEyeSee, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

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