Why Wouldn’t I Need Feminism?

I need Feminism because Every girl should feel empowered, and on one should be limited by society's definition of normal. (Photo Credit: Ileana Jimenez)
“I need feminism because every girl should feel empowered, and no one should be limited by society’s definition of normal.” (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

After several minutes of stressing about how to express my reasons for needing feminism in one sentence, I finally settled on “I need feminism because every girl should feel empowered, and no one should be limited by society’s definition of ‘normal.’”

However, I think a more accurate response would have been, “Why wouldn’t I need feminism?”

Why wouldn’t I need a philosophy that offers a new perspective on all aspects of life; gives alternatives to the media and society’s concepts of “beauty” and “normal;” opposes “rape culture”; stresses that no girl deserves to be called or slut; encourages you to feel empowered, speak out, and become a leader; strives for equality for EVERYONE; and overall, proves that you are not alone?

And it doesn’t stop there.

What is Rape Culture?
What is Rape Culture?

When I entered my high school feminism class, I had a very limited definition of feminism, and was naive to how essential it still was. I knew that women often do not receive equal pay to men, are objectified in the media, and are frequently abused and denied education in other cultures.

However, I had failed to realize that these were all connected as part of a much larger issue, one that affected me more than I could ever have imagined. Our sexist and racist culture defines our social norms, tells us what is and isn’t acceptable, and affects all aspects of our lives.

On one of the first days of class, my high school feminism teacher, Ileana, mentioned how feminism can be a serious buzz kill to the things we used to enjoy in the smog of sexism and racism, and I realize now just how accurate that statement was. I can barely watch a movie now without noticing how people are portrayed using terrible notions of race, class, and gender, or when they blatantly sexualize women and normalize violence against them.  This will usually result in me either wanting to throw something at the screen, or ranting for a good ten minutes to whomever happens to be close by.

Saving Face, a documentary about acid attack victims in Pakistan, was one of the first times that I truly realized how much the world needs feminism. No matter how much people would like to deny it, we still live in a world where women all over the world are considered property; some places just make this fact more obvious than others.

In Pakistan, a woman who has in some way “shamed” her husband or family is sometimes punished by having acid thrown in their face. These “shameful acts” include refusing a proposal, being raped, or filing for divorce from an abusive husband. If being burned alive wasn’t enough torture for them, many women are forced to go back to their husbands or families after being attacked. These women have to beg for forgiveness, due to the fact that they are unable provide for themselves and their children on their own.

Women and girls in Pakistan, as well as many other countries, have little or no opportunities for education, and therefore rely on their husbands to take care of them. This is just one of the many reasons why education is so essential, because without it, it is almost impossible for women to think for themselves, speak out, or even survive without financial support from their husband.

Watching the film, I was filled with anger at the men who attacked the women, and was even angrier with the women who also participated. However, I eventually realized that these women are not to blame, and even the men are not completely at fault. Dr. Mohammad Jawad, the plastic surgeon in the film said that by helping reconstruct the victims’ faces, he was “saving [his] own face because [he] is part of the society that has this disease.”

These men and women grew up as part of a culture where punishing a women by burning their faces with acid is practically a social norm, and as horrifying as that is, it’s to be expected that when people are told something is acceptable their entire life, they’ll believe it.

When I read Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd, I experienced similar feelings of anger and sadness as with Saving Face, yet these feelings were directed at an issue that hit much closer to home. It was easy to distance myself from the issues in Saving Face, but with Girls Like Us, that was not an option, considering the majority of the book takes place just a few subway stops away, and the culture is one I know all too well.

I’ve gotten used to the double standard placed on women and girls, and I have gotten used to being told not to dress or behave a certain way unless I want to be called a “slut,” or get raped. I have gotten used to never being pretty or skinny enough, used to seeing the word “pimp” glorified and used as a verb, and, until recently, used to never questioning any of it.

The truth, which is extremely difficult to face, is that by being used to and not questioning these social norms, which are all fundamental aspects of “rape culture,” I am not much different than the women in Pakistan, who’s sense of “normal,” has been so distorted that, in their minds, attacking other women with acid is the only way they will learn.

Similarly, many of the girls in Girls Like Us, who were CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) victims, have a very “warped sense of self-worth” and “baseline for normal,” as Lloyd writes in her memoir. This is because their “boundaries are so blurred and distorted,” by the “norms and mores of ‘the game,’ building on the core values and beliefs that have been ingrained in them since childhood.”

However, due to present-day society’s “distorted glorification” and “mass acceptance of pimp culture,” along with the fact that “the buying of sex is so normalized,” and these girls are seen as “incapable of being victimized” writes Lloyd.  These girls break almost all the “rules in the missing persons game” since “they’re working class and usually of color and therefore extremely low on law enforcements list of priorities, and having an Amber Alert sent out on their behalf, or any sort of media coverage, is out of the question.”

It’s incomprehensible to me that johns can have their records cleared after going to a few correctional meetings, while “child” and “teen prostitutes” are locked up and branded for life. The average age that a sexually exploited child enters the life is between 12-14 years old, and according to a CAASE study, “of 113 men who purchased sex… 80 percent stated that they felt most men preferred young ‘prostitutes,’” yet the age of consent in New York state is 17.

Basically, a 13 year old can be exploited for sex and be locked up for doing so, and the man who “bought” the 13 year old and had sex with her, is just another john. On the other hand, someone 18 or over who has sex with someone under 17 (without paying for it) is a statutory rapist and punished with  jail time, and the young adult or child they had sex with is almost always rightly seen as a victim by everyone because they cannot legally consent to having sex.

How can a girl under the age of 17 “choose” to sell herself for sex and be labeled a criminal when they cannot legally consent to having sex with the adult who has bought her? This is unfair, and makes absolutely no sense because says Lloyd, “at the very least, [johns] are statutory rapists,” and therefore should, at the very least, be punished as such, and the girls should be treated solely as victims.

To “redress the injustices the girls face daily” requires both a change in state law, as well as a change in how our culture views women, especially women of color and women who come from lower class or “bad” backgrounds, “and this change needs to be systemic and permanent,” because as Lloyd rightly observes, “girls shouldn’t be locked up for something that’s been done to them.”

It is so essential that survivors of the commercial sexual exploitation of children are viewed as children and as victims by society, rather than being branded a prostitutes, whores, and sluts, which makes leaving “the life” even more difficult. Instead, we need to stop glorifying pimp culture, and create more organizations like GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services’), which Rachel Lloyd founded to give girls the love and support they need in order to leave the ‘life,’ and provide them with a safe space and opportunities for them to get an education, feel empowered, and become leaders.

****

Miss Representation poster "You can't be what you can't see."
Miss Representation poster “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Both Killing us Softly 4 and Miss Representation demonstrate to me how media is largely responsible for society’s view of women. Advertisements, movies, TV shows, music, magazines, and other forms of media are delivering the content that shapes our society. On average, American teenagers consume 10 hours and 45 minutes of media a day. Unfortunately, the message they are receiving gives boys and girls the message that a girl’s value and worth depends on how she looks, not what she accomplishes.

One huge problem in the media is the lack of representation of women in leadership positions, and the fact that it does not take women seriously. The women teenage girls have as “role models,” are extremely sexualized and objectified. When women in leadership positions are shown in media, they are scrutinized, sexualized, and demeaned. Everything they do or say is portrayed in a negative light.

Therefore, the message girls receive is that their path to power is essentially becoming a sexual object, and that a girl with ambition is not a good thing, unless that ambition is to become a sexual object. As a result, the number of girls who want to be leaders decreases as they get older, which is why the United States is 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures.

In addition, girls and women are spending more money on beauty products than on their education. This needs to change, but in order to change to happen, girls need to be inspired and see what is possible for them because “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Symbolic silencing of women with hands covering the mouth.
Symbolic silencing of women with hands covering the mouth.

The media teaches women and girls to disappear, both figuratively and literally. Girls are often posed with hands over the mouths, and their body language is always passive and vulnerable. This conveys the message that we should be seen and not heard, therefore silencing us and discouraging us from speaking out.

We are also flooded with images of extremely thin models, which are usually Photoshopped to a point where the body pictured is anatomically impossible. Yet this impossible figure is the standard of beauty that girls all over the country and world are measuring themselves up to, and the consequence is devastating.

Studies show that 65% of American women and girls have disordered eating behavior and 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number increases to 78% by age 17.

Another issue in the media is its contempt for women and all things female, along with the way it normalizes and eroticizes violence against us.

Masculinity is often linked with violence, and boys grow in a world where toughness and insensitivity are encouraged. The consequences for this are extremely dangerous for women. It normalizes domestic violence and rape, and discourages men who are not violent from speaking out against it.

The solution to all of these issues, ranging from acid attacks on women in Pakistan to the media’s portrayal of women, is to change our CULTURE.  Though this may seem like an impossible goal, all it takes is raising awareness and changing people’s attitudes. Something as simple as making another person question his or her social norms and the race, class, and gender stereotypes they make, brings us one step closer to achieving this goal.

This is exactly what feminism does, and for this reason, the entire world needs feminism.

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