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We Asked Dr. Heldman What It Means to be an Empowered Woman, and Here's What She Said

The woman behind the Ted Talk, 'The Sexy Lie', shares her thoughts on what true empowerment means.

Art Credit: Taylor McCutchan

What does it mean to be an empowered female? This question has gnawed at me for years as I navigate the modeling and acting industries where I’m repeatedly told that being a sexy commodity “is just how it is.” But is it?

What exactly does an empowered female look like in our modern culture? Join us for a series of blog posts at Verily exploring this layered and complex question with women from all different fields and backgrounds. Our first interviewee is Dr. Caroline Heldman, PhD.

As chair of the Politics department at Occidental College, Dr. Heldman has contributed commentary and reporting for several news outlets, is much published, and has worked on documentaries for such organizations as Miss Representation. Her popular Tedx Talk “The Sexy Lie" is viewable online.

What does it mean to be an empowered female?

A basic response would be that an empowered person is somebody who has power, and what that means is the question. I define power as self-determination, the ability to make choices that are truly free. Of course this is not truly possible in a culture that constructs meaning and values as young children that become engrained in our social DNA, but some of us are closer to being self-determining than others.

I think for women it's hard to be empowered today because we're born into a culture that teaches women to view our bodies as projects. We make our bodies our primary value, and we're taught to do that very young, well before we're conscious of being thinking, acting beings.

We're given this system that if women achieve what we’re told to—the height of beauty, the height of attractiveness—then it's not an empowered position. It's actually a subordinate position where our identity exists in our sexuality and our being exists to please others. I think this is the biggest barrier to women's empowerment—the fact that we're taught to make our bodies our primary value—so that even if we become the most valuable in that scheme we've been given, we're not in a position of power

In many ways, women are asked to follow pursuits that will not necessarily make us happy, but we rarely question that until we're well into whatever life script we think we've chosen but really have just fallen into. So to be empowered, it requires we identify these social scripts and understand that what you've been told you need to do in your life in terms of what's going to make you happy versus what women do. Because we tend to make all sorts of life choices that don't make us happy. For a lot of us, it’s being in relationships where we're not treated as an equal. This also doesn't make us happy but we think we have to be in relationships and so we tend to stay in relationships that don't make us happy.

Are women who follow social scripts disempowered?

I should clarify that not everyone will be rejecting every script. But it's just the power to identify whether this is actually a life choice that's going to make me happy or something that I'm doing because it's compulsory social script. It’s hard to identify what’s a social script and what's actually going to make you happy because you get all of this pressure from family, from friends, and from media.

What do you think about women and homemaking?

One of the biggest faults of our culture is that we don't value homemaking. It's the most common occupation that women have, childrearing and homemaking. More women are doing that than any other single job. Even if you're working outside the home, the vast majority of women are still working inside the home. So what does it mean when we as a culture do not value the primary activity that women undertake? We see it's lack of value in many ways, one is that it's not seen as work, even though Chase-Manhattan Bank does an analysis every year to assign a price tag to homemaking. Last year it was over $130,000. That's how much the average mother would've made just with one child in terms of being a nurse, being a tutor, being a cook, being a chauffeur, etc. So if she were performing these tasks outside the house she would be making six figures. But because it's homemaking, it's invisible labor, it's labor that doesn't matter or mean much in our society. We talk a good talk about how mothers are doing all this great work but we see it as being sacrificial work which means it's not really being rewarded.

[FROM THE ARCHIVES: Are Elite Degrees Wasted on Stay-at-Home Moms? Read “O Alma Mater” by Anne-Marie Maginnis in the Aug/Sept 2013 issue of Verily Magazine.]

Does that increase depression in women?

Certainly. This, as almost everything for women, it's a system that doesn't work. You're told that you have to be beautiful but then if you reach the height of that you have internalized so much insecurity that you're still not happy. You're told you need to procreate and have children and yet we don't value homemaking. It's this ridiculous setup. It would be much better for homemakers, the small percentage of men and the vast number of women who engage in homemaking, if we valued it. It's a reflection of how we don't value women's work and what women do in our culture as much as what men do.

What about the balance of being a working woman, of having a career and trying to have a family too, the shaming and the almost impossible balance of both worlds?

There’s certainly shaming about women working outside the home and then being parents in the home. That's a double standard that men don't face; they’re not bad fathers for working outside the home, but women are often characterized as bad mothers for working outside the home. It's a ridiculous double standard. It's fascinating to note that while women have moved into the the paid workforce in great numbers since the 1970s, they're still doing the vast majority of housework and homemaking and men have not moved into the private sphere.

One of the great mistakes of second-wave feminism was to valorize what men do. So yes, women have moved into the paid workforce but it ended up upholding and valuing what men do more. We didn't value what women do so we didn't see men moving into the private sphere. This really limits our options for happiness if we want to live well-rounded lives where we're in both spheres.

There's a term that I've been seeing everywhere and am not clear on what it means: “pornification.” It seems to go back to objectification, to the point where nudity's just not shocking anymore. Why do you think pornification is happening and how do you think it affects us?

Going back a bit, Jean Kilbourne came out with "Killing Us Softly" which is the first of now four films that exposes the fact that women are perceived and presented as sex objects and that this is disempowering. It's disempowering because subjects act and objects are acted upon. So if you're a sexual subject, then you own your sexuality and you're acting upon it. But if you're a sexual object then there's an assumption that you're being acted upon.

Most of the images of sexual objectification that we see, by the way, are female; almost 100 percent are female or female bodies. So at a very young age, most girls start to think of their bodies and start to think of themselves as objects. The more they internalize those attitudes of self-objectification, it has all sorts of terrible side effects—habitual body monitoring, eating disorders, depression, lower self-esteem, less ambition, less likelihood of going into leadership positions, all sorts of life-changing consequences internally. And externally consequences in the form of higher competition with women, which lowers your quality of life, but also it harms you in the workplace. Consider how it doesn't harm you if you want to be a secretary if you are attractive, but it definitely harms you as soon as you want to be in a position of leadership, then your competence level is degraded if you're a woman who's presenting herself in a sexually attractive way.

So getting back to Jean Kilbourne, when she came out with "Killing Us Softly" thirty years ago and then Naomi Wolf in 1981 came out with a book on beauty culture, the emphasis was on being beautiful and the impossible standards of beauty that entertainment and popular culture present to women. But then in the last ten years we've actually seen the emergence of something that I call "porno beauty culture" which is like beauty culture, there's still this pressure to be beautiful, but then there's also this additional layer because pornography has moved into the mainstream—it's not enough to be pretty, you also have to be sexually available.

What’s the difference between being sexual and being sexy?

I think there's a really important distinction to be made between being sexy and sexual. Being sexual refers to one’s individual sexuality. Being sexy means that you're putting yourself out there for someone else. So it is by definition a subordinate position, a suffocating position if you will. I call this "the sexy lie," this idea that sexy is empowering, when it just isn't. Being sexual could be empowering, while being sexy is never empowering; it’s acting as if your sexuality exists for someone else, and by definition, you're not in a position of power in that exchange.

What do you think about popular musicians and performers who promote this porno beauty culture?

There's been a lot of focus on Miley Cyrus and other performers for really pushing the envelope; Madonna did a lot of this two decades ago, these artists that combine softcore pornography with a presentation of beauty. Again, I just think it's a system that sets girls up to fail.

Miley Cyrus is not the problem. There's a great line from the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy Catching Fire, where Katniss is about to shoot Finnick, and he says "remember who the enemy is.” Miley Cyrus isn't the enemy. The enemy is the system of porno beauty culture that says this is what you should be doing in order to be making money. This is the script. The problem is the system, not Miley Cyrus and all of these ambassadors of this system. They're going to do what they need to do to get ahead. The system is the problem.

How would you visualize a woman in media embracing her sexuality without it being all about being sexy?

I have yet to see a presentation of women's sexuality in popular entertainment culture that is about women and her sexuality. Since Hollywood can't get violence right, I'd prefer they do less of it, and because Hollywood can't get women's sexuality right, I'd prefer to see less of the damaging stuff. I think most sex and violence is gratuitous, it's salacious, and it's damaging. Most sexuality is damaging to women and most violence sends very damaging messages to young men. I would love to see us having discussions about it.

We have discussions about pollutants in the air, but we don't have a discussion about pollution on the big and little screens that have profound effects on how our society holds together and interacts, in how individuals interact with one another.

What is the biggest way in which you see women helping women reach empowerment?

I think one problem is that when we women get into positions of middle or even upper power, we tend to think of ourselves as the highlander, because we don't think of ourselves as worthy of leadership positions or we don't think of ourselves as worthy of power. We still perceive power distribution as being very limited for women and so instead of saying” look there can be 50 percent women in this company,” or “Congress can be 50 percent women,” or “gee, why don't we have 50 percent of women behind the scenes of this movie,” you see it as "wow there's only three of us so I'm gonna compete with the other women here because I'm going to show them that I'm the “real” woman or I'm the “best” woman.” So we compete with each other instead of changing the system. Once again, we forget who the enemy is.

I think a real common sense thing would be for any time a woman feels competitive tendencies to really stop the tapes and make a point to reach out to the women she feels competitive with. Talk with them and befriend them and see how you might be able to collaborate. It sounds really CareBear-ish or kumbayah-ish, but that's really the only way I found to deal with those demons. Stop competing. Absolutely refuse to compete, because other women are not the enemy.

It doesn't mean you can't critique the actions of other women that you think might be damaging to women in general. For example, I think Miley Cyrus' self presentation sends damaging messages to young women. I do. She's not my target, but I think it's perfectly appropriate for us in a loving way, as I think Sinead O'Connor did with her first critique of Miley Cyrus, in a loving way to call out the behaviors, less so the person and call out the system that produces these behaviors.