The bankruptcy of the ‘erotic capital’ myth
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.
The Weinstein scandal reveals the depressing message that, for many, being slim and attractive enough is the route to power