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When Did Female Empowerment become so Disempowering?

19/07/2016 13:48 | Updated 19 July 2016

Debates over feminism - whether we need it, want it, or like it - continue to provoke a variety of responses in popular culture. The contentious 'f word' has supporters and opponents in both obvious and unlikely forms.

From self-proclaimed feminists like Emma Watson (convincing) and Beyoncé (not so convincing), to surprising adversaries like Kelly Clarkson and Lady Gaga who state that the word feminist is "too strong" because they "love men", it is clear that the definition of feminism is highly contested amongst the celebrity folk.

The misinterpretation of feminism by Clarkson and Gaga as an anti-male, exclusively female movement is particularly infuriating and shows how the construction of female empowerment by celebrities can be detrimental to future generations.

First, let's clear things up. Feminism is for everyone: women, men, girls, boys, those who don't identify with the female or male binary, straight, gay, bisexual and beyond.

As a lecturer, when I ask my class who would describe themselves as a feminist, I'm lucky to see one or two hands go up. When I reframe the question as "who here believes in gender equality?", it's safe to say all hands go up. Why, then, are people differentiating the word 'feminist' from what it actually represents, gender equality?

The rise of postfeminism, where all battles for gender equality are deemed won, has arguably exhausted many people's understanding of what feminism is and why, considering we're 'all equal now' (cue eye roll), we could possibly still need it.

A perfect exemplary of this problem (and the inspiration for this article) can be found in the new music video 'M.I.L.F. $' from pop star Fergie. Although she began her career in the music industry as part of the band The Black Eyed Peas, as the only female member alongside her three male counterparts, she now exists as a solo artist who has tapped into the same painfully successful branding as her female contemporaries.

In the video for 'M.I.L.F. $', which stands for 'Mum's I'd like to follow' (a play on the original acronym of 'Mother I'd like to f***"), Fergie, a mother herself, called upon fellow celebrity mothers to appear in the video in order to "inspire and empower mothers to balance motherhood, career life and 'me time'". A promising proposal, one might naïvely assume.

Instead, the video begins with a 'Milfman' driving a milk float through a suburban American neighbourhood. As he drives through, he is presented with a number of scantily dressed young women (verging towards the Barbie doll/porn star look) and boldly eyes them up. Even the mother shown with her young daughters selling coconut milk on the front lawn is sexually objectified; as she carries two coconuts (in the obvious place) she then turns to face the man with half her cleavage on display.

The most disturbing scene is arguably when the 'Milfman' ogles a young woman breast feeding her baby. He ominously looks closer and then proceeds to drink a bottle of milk.

Interestingly, the breast feeding celebrity in the video, Chrissy Teigen, who happens to be the wife of singer John Legend (a self-proclaimed feminist himself), has defended the display as 'beautiful'.

The display of breast feeding could be deemed 'beautiful' to some...like in another context, perhaps one where the woman isn't heavily sexualised and being watched by a voyeuristic milkman. The breastfeeding scene in this video is upsetting, offensive and anything but empowering for women.

Back to the woman who made this all happen, Fergie: she parades her way through this supposedly 'liberating' video relying upon appearances from celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, who I'm sure we'll all agree is a pioneer of female empowerment (cue second eye roll). Kardashian's fame has been built on an amateur sex tape of herself and singer Ray J. She's allegedly made $4.5 million from the tape, so I guess that's empowering, right?

Wrong, and neither is Fergie's embarrassing attempt to inspire and empower mothers.

There are some points to be made about female liberation from the video. Yes, women should still be entitled to have a sexuality after they've given birth. Yes, women should be permitted to breastfeed in public places. Yes, women should still be able to have a career and be a mother.

Such points, however, are so heavily lost in the soft pornographic array of female figures in this video that it merely becomes exemplary of the fragmented state of feminism in British society today.

In similar style to Fergie, pop star Jennifer Lopez has also walked down this hypocritical road.

Although she has released music videos encouraging women to be empowered by their sexuality and take control of their careers (in songs such as 'Papi' and 'Ain't Your Mama'), she has also released a music video with rapper Iggy Azalea for the song 'Booty' in which the two women grind on each other whilst the camera zooms in on them slapping each other's buttocks.

No wonder the younger generation don't understand what feminism is. Even I'm starting to feel lost in this maze of smoke and mirrors. Is this sexual objectification or is this empowerment?

I've come to believe that it is the sexual objectification of women masked as empowerment. It is a marketing tool that continues to work, with even those who oppose such marketing (myself included) simply adding to the intrigue of it all by critiquing it.

You've probably gone and watched Fergie's video as a result of this article (adding to her 37 million views in just 12 days), so I probably should have just said nothing.

Feminism is still desperately needed - perhaps more so than ever due to the ways in which postfeminism is distorting and twisting it. Fergie's new video is not something that mother's should be celebrating. If anything, it's something mother's will be hiding their children from.

Why, then, is feminism still required? Because women in full-time work, on average, are still paid 13.9% less than men, because only 5.7% of reported rape cases end in a conviction and because we continue to socialise masculinity to be an emotionally detached gender role, with suicide being the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 34 in England Wales.

Femininity and masculinity still need the help of feminism to seek all kinds of change, from changes in the law, to changes in the Criminal Justice System, to changes in how we socialise the next generation and allow them to experience their gender.

The most important social and political statement we all can make is to 'come out' as feminists. Don't be afraid to own that label and steer it back on its rightful path.

When I was a young undergraduate student with a strong passion for feminism and fighting gender inequality, I was often afraid to voice my views due to embarrassment, peer pressure and a lack of confidence. Now, as a lecturer, I make sure my own students are never made to feel that way, at least not in my classroom.

I've encouraged students to follow their passion for human rights and aided them in setting up Buckinghamshire New University's first Feminist Society. I've watched it go from strength to strength this year, I've observed students become brilliant activists within it and I've seen it win an 'Outstanding Society Award'.

Now that, Fergie, is empowering.

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