As a young, feminist woman in this advanced age of female sexuality, I am initially thrilled at the attitudes being flaunted by so many females in the entertainment industry. From Miley Cyrus' unabashed twerking and nipple pasties, to Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" video and sex-oriented rap lyrics, to Beyoncé's pole dancing with "FEMINIST" emblazoned behind her - we have entered a new era in which the sexual power of women is acknowledged and celebrated. And...exploited?
Are women trying so hard to move away from the sexually passive and repressive image created for them throughout history that we are overcompensating with self-objectification? When Miley Cyrus grinds on the married, misogynistic, fully clothed Robin Thicke, wearing nothing but a nude bikini and an improperly placed foam finger - is she empowered? Or is she being exploited by a society which profits from her body parts?
Some would say yes. Journalist Lydia Smith voiced that "the term 'empowerment' has become a validation for over-sexualised behaviour". Smith - and many other feminists - argue that there is a difference between advocating for freedom to make your own choices, and using that freedom to behave like an overzealous sex toy. Sexual liberation is surely not truly liberating, if said sexual expression is being commodified and packaged as the latest way an emancipated women should behave. After all, isn't it one of the fundamental objectives of the feminist movement to avoid being treated like a walking vagina?
Yet many women - in an assuming attempt to present themselves as the boss of their own bodies - end up showing themselves as an amalgamation of sexually appealing body parts, as opposed to a whole woman in control of her own sexuality. This is the key difference between self-objectification and sexual assertion: being displayed as something for men to have sex with; and expressing yourself as an active participant in your own sexual activity, with a distinct lack of shame about it.
It is often hard to tell where the power lies; whether the narrative of empowerment and liberation is legitimate, or simply sexism in a shiny new package.
Many would say - in response to Miley Cyrus' hypersexual behaviour - that it is empowering for women to be desired. This is the argument of many feminists, and a fair argument it is. There is indeed power in purposefully being viewed as sexually attractive. However, it is when the line between being desirable and being objectified is blurred that the problems with this viewpoint arise. Because while a woman expressing herself in a sexual nature may have the aim to be desired, she likely does not have the aim to be objectified. Is she viewed as an object anyway? Of course.
Furthermore, this kind of empowerment hinges on the opinions of others, therefore taking the power away from the woman herself. It implies that women are only sexually in control so long as an outsider allows her to be. As Chris Martin points out, "A woman who finds power in self-objectification is only powerful so long as her 'object' is appealing to someone else."
Freedom of choice often arises amidst this debate, with claims that true feminists would support women in any decision that she makes. This idea sounds great in theory, but it relies on the presumption that all women who act in a sexual manner in any area of their lives are completely consenting and happy to do so.
This mind-set of choice and consent applies to sex work, exotic dancing, pornography acting, and even something as trivial as clothing choices. Not only does it disregard the circumstances a woman may be in, it overlooks the social pressures on women to look and act provocatively, in order to appear attractive and desirable - exactly like a sex object. Are there woman who are 100% content living this way? Of course - Dita Von Teese famously said, "Some people say what I do isn`t very liberating. I say it`s pretty liberating to get $20,000 for 10 minutes work."
An important consideration, however, is why some women view such a lewd display of sexuality as empowering - what are we compensating for? Isn't it enough to simply be unashamed about our sexuality - just as men are - without turning it into a commercial stunt? When women turn their bodies into currency in exchange for power, they degrade themselves to nothing more than the worth of their anatomy.
Whether the actions of Miley Cyrus are harmful to women or not, in a world which simultaneously chastises and exploits female sexuality, it is unfair to blame the woman for being unable to appease both critics. We can, however, criticise a system which leads women to make decisions which may detrimental to the female gender as a whole. We can criticise the fact that whichever choices women make, the audience is almost always misogynistic.