The bank­ruptcy of the ‘erotic cap­i­tal’ myth

The Herald on Sunday - - 29.10.17 COMMENT - Vicky Al­lan

FOL­LOW­ING the rev­e­la­tions about Har­vey We­in­stein and oth­ers, it is clear that there are things we as fem­i­nists are avoid­ing dis­cussing. In the back­drop of those sto­ries of abuse and ha­rass­ment, there is an­other is­sue that needs to be ex­am­ined be­cause, in fact, our cul­ture cul­ti­vates two forms of power: a male one which re­volves around con­trol, and a fe­male one that is about sex­ual power, the body, and its abil­ity to pro­voke de­sire.

We need, there­fore, more dis­cus­sion of the wider cul­ture in which we women find our­selves, in which fe­male power is in­creas­ingly de­fined as sin­gu­lar in na­ture, solely sex­ual, and how that leaves us vul­ner­a­ble to abusers and ma­nip­u­la­tors like We­in­stein. We need to talk about what it is like for a woman work­ing in an in­dus­try in which she can be asked, like Jennifer Lawrence was, to do a “naked line-up” and then be told by a di­rec­tor that she was “per­fectly f***able”, as if that were an af­fir­ma­tion of her worth.

We need to dis­cuss com­ments like this one, made by the writer, ac­tor and di­rec­tor Brit Mar­ling: “I quickly re­alised that a large por­tion of the town [Hol­ly­wood] func­tioned in­side a soft and some­times lit­eral traf­fick­ing or pros­ti­tu­tion of young women (a com­mod­ity with an end­less sup­ply and an end­less de­mand). The sto­ry­tellers – the peo­ple with eco­nomic and artis­tic power – are, by and large, straight, white men.” We need to think about the sig­nif­i­cance of ac­tor Ro­mola Garai’s ob­ser­va­tion that at the time she had her own al­leged hor­ri­fy­ing en­counter with We­in­stein, she un­der­stood her­self “to be a com­mod­ity and that my value in the in­dus­try rested al­most ex­clu­sively on the way I looked”. In 2011, the so­ci­ol­o­gist Cather­ine Hakim pub­lished a book, Honey Money: The Power Of Erotic Cap­i­tal, which in­censed a great many fem­i­nists, my­self in­cluded, with its the­sis that men want sex more than women, and that this gives women some kind of spe­cial power.

Six years on, it is clear to me not that Hakim is right, but that a huge chunk of our so­ci­ety is work­ing as if she were. The story we are telling our­selves, through our en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries, our me­dia and most of our visual cul­ture, is that the most im­por­tant thing about a woman is how sexy she is. If you want sta­tus as a woman, you need to make peo­ple de­sire you – and for some women this is em­pow­er­ment, this is fem­i­nism. We can see it ev­ery­where. Me­gan Fox strips to sus­penders for a photo shoot and it’s all over the pa­pers, and with it the mes­sage to all women that if you want fame and power, what you need to do is work your sex­ual al­lure. Even politi­cians like Ni­cola Stur­geon have to put on high heels in or­der to con­form to the stereo­type of what fe­male power is.

Lit­tle Mix’s hit song Power seemed like a fan­tas­tic fem­i­nist an­them un­til you watched the video which fea­tured not footage of An­gela Merkel, Theresa May or even Serena Williams, but the band go­ing full raunch in fish­nets, leather, hot pants and plat­form boots. The mes­sage ap­peared to be that what­ever your skin colour or gen- der iden­tity, your body of­fers you the op­por­tu­nity to get the power. When I think about all the me­dia cov­er­age of the We­in­stein al­le­ga­tions and other rev­e­la­tions of ap­palling be­hav­iour by men in power, I try to imag­ine how it might look to me if I were a teenage girl. There would be lots of em­pow­er­ing lessons, cour­tesy of the brave women who have spo­ken out, as well as ter­ri­fy­ing warn­ings.

I’d prob­a­bly get the mes­sage that if some­one pushed me into some­thing I’d not con­sented to, there was grow­ing sup­port out there for me to call them out and ex­pose them. I’d un­der­stand it would be a coura­geous thing to do. I’d also hear loud and clear that as a vic­tim I should not be blamed.

But I’d also see that men are in con­trol, and that there is lit­tle place for me at the top of such in­dus­tries. And it would seem bla­tantly ap­par­ent that the role avail­able to me, as a woman, if I’m slim and at­trac­tive enough, is as the glam­orous siren in a red-car­pet dress, al­ways there to be looked at, even when my story is a hor­ri­fy­ing tale of abuse. For this is what the We­in­stein story also tells us – that the me­dia loves to de­liver pic­tures of de­sir­able women al­most more than it loves to tell scan­dalous tales of male abusers.

We­in­stein is a re­minder that many things need to change – and this is one of them. We need young women to grow up not be­ing in­doc­tri­nated into the idea that their prime value re­sides in that ugly Hakim phrase “erotic cap­i­tal”. We need them to be­lieve that they have other tal­ents: in­tel­lec­tual, cre­ative, em­pa­thetic, an­a­lyt­i­cal, lead­er­ship skills. Their bod­ies do not have to be com­modi­ties. Above all, we need the myth that a woman’s chief power is her sex­u­al­ity to be dis­pelled. We are about far more than honey money.

Pho­to­graph: AFP/Getty Im­ages

The We­in­stein scan­dal re­veals the de­press­ing mes­sage that, for many, be­ing slim and at­trac­tive enough is the route to power

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