There’s a Better Way than Using Sex to Empower Women, Hollywood

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Female empowerment

Reclaiming your sexuality.

It seems that ever since the #MeToo movement took flight on Twitter in 2017, we’ve been hearing this phrase everywhere. But what does it mean? For most, reclaiming sexuality is part of the recovery process for victims of sexual trauma or sexual assault. It can help victims feel comfortable in their own skin again, it can help them develop healthy relationships, and it can even give them a sense of empowerment so that the next time someone tries to take advantage of them, they don’t feel as helpless or hopeless as they might have felt before.

However, it seems our culture has skewed this concept and even taken it to unhealthy levels.

Take Miley Cyrus for example. In a recent interview with Elle magazine, the former Disney star opened up about how her episode of Black Mirror (wherein she played a pop star imprisoned—figuratively and, later, literally, by her own success) “mirrored” her own dark experience with misogyny in Hollywood. I won’t bother going into the details of Miley’s past (you can read more about that here), but Cyrus’ latest attempt to take control rather than be controlled is through embracing her sexuality. But Cyrus—savvy businesswoman that she is—surely knows she’s using it to sell records, too. And even if her primary purpose is to reclaim control, she risks (and, at least in the eyes of some men, becomes) exactly what she’s trying to avoid becoming: an object.

According to her, she’s “never performing for men” in her music videos or stage performances, but the extreme sexual content of her shows doesn’t feel healthy for women either. On her latest EP, SHE IS COMING, Cyrus graphically refers to sex in multiple songs. Plugged In’s Kristin Smith even described one track as “downright pornographic,” stating that the details were too explicit to discuss.

Cyrus isn’t alone in this venture either. According to Total Film, Jennifer Lawrence took a similar stance on controlling how her body is portrayed when making Red Sparrow. She had to strip in front of a camera and a room full of cast and crew members, but she says that it helped her to recover from when nude photos of her were leaked online. “It was never my choice for the world to see my naked body,” she said. “I didn’t get to make that decision. In doing this film, in doing this for my art… I really felt, I still feel, empowered. I feel like I took something back that was taken from me.”

Unfortunately, it seems that Hollywood’s approach to “empowering women” and “reclaiming sexuality” involves making sex scenes more graphic than ever before. Shows such as Euphoria and Harlots are thriving because of this. The former has already been renewed for a second season, according to CNN. And the latter’s creator, Moira Buffini, praised her show in an interview with The Daily Beast for having female writers, directors, and producers and for never letting the camera “linger on anyone’s body for an aesthetic.” While that is somewhat encouraging, it doesn’t change the fact that the show still features as much sex as it would if a man had written and directed it. The only real difference is that the creators are primarily female. Same product, different branding.

And then there’s the latest season of 13 Reasons Why. The third episode explores the journey of character Jessica Davis (portrayed by actress Alisha Boe) as she finally starts to recover from her rape in the first season. After talking with a friend about how difficult sex has been, her friend recommends masturbation as a technique to discover herself in a new way. This is portrayed in a scene that at first focuses on how uncomfortable Jessica truly is with her body, but then quickly turns into a montage of sex scenes where she is in “control” of what happens. Setting aside the fact that these are high school students being portrayed, the entire episode felt like an excuse to raise as many eyebrows as possible. It seems to ask, “How far can we go in the name of female empowerment?”

Although the film and music industries seem to believe that  the way for women to reclaim their sexual identity is through… well, more sex… there is another approach to female empowerment: removing sex from the equation. In Captain Marvel, lead heroine Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) doesn’t have a romantic relationship. Instead, the movie focuses on Danvers’ journey of self-discovery, which is largely influenced by her platonic friendship with fellow Air Force pilot Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). “When we walk down the street, we see two girlfriends just chatting away and supporting each other and having each other’s backs,” Lynch says. “Why don’t we see that in cinema?”

Indeed, why not? Lynch will portray another empowered woman in the upcoming 25th Bond movie, where she has been cast as the new 007 agent. And no, she isn’t playing Bond. She’s replacing him. The somewhat misogynistic character of Bond will still be portrayed by Daniel Craig. He’ll even try to seduce Lynch’s character, but unlike previous “Bond girls”—now officially addressed as “Bond women”—Lynch’s character has no interest in him. The franchise aims to grow by giving women the option to say, “No,” to his advances. Frankly, Lynch’s attitude is refreshing, and I sincerely hope that women like Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence, Moira Buffini, and even the fictional Jessica Davis realize they have that same option. Perhaps it will even influence Hollywood as a whole.

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Anonymous 28 days ago
Don't these women know that being all sexual and explicit is just playing to the men's game? Objectifying women's sexuality is perverted and wrong, and this post is right, there are so many better ways for women to be empowered. (Objectifying men's sexuality is bad too, but I feel like it's more of a problem with women.) 
 Now, I don't think women should be just like men. As women we should celebrate what makes us unique from men, but not in the twisted way that is becoming pervasive in our culture. That has led to pornagraphy addictions, human trafficking, not to mention girls' body image has suffered. 
  This was never God's plan for women. 
-Emma Bibliophile
Anonymous 3 months ago
I feel like some of this reaction comes from a culture-wide lack of understanding about what sexuality is/what it is meant for. God created sexuality for within the realms of marriage, which is a sacred union representing Christ and the Church. Our culture places heavy emphasis on self. Everything is about you. It teaches that "Your body is yours, your sexuality is yours to decide, you can do whatever you want with your body." But Jesus teaches a different way - instead, our bodies are not meant to be ours; they are temples of the Holy Spirit, belonging to God and we are meant to honor God with our bodies. We cannot and should not do whatever we want with our bodies; we are to HONOR them instead. Our sexuality is meant to be for this beautiful union God created for one man and one woman; in marriage, then the man belongs to the woman and the woman belongs to the man (they are one). So marriage and sexuality is not at all about ourselves, completely contrary to what American culture will tell you. We do dishonor to our bodies when we treat them as objects the way some of these women unwittingly have done. Our bodies are more than objects; they are a fundamental part of what it is to be human. God created us as both spirit AND body, and we will even still have a (perfected) body in the resurrection. So there is something good in God's creation of a physical body, and it is a part of God's design for us. It's disturbing to see this destructive trend in the name of "empowerment." 
-CJ
Anonymous 3 months ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

I think that while empowering women through sex isn't a good idea at all, I also think that making women unstoppable, powerful characters without any weaknesses isn't much better. It's certainly cleaner in terms of content, but not any better in telling a story.

If we want to empower women, we should do so the same way we write any other character: a character with flaws who faces a challenge and needs to overcome their flaws to beat the challenge.

Captain Marvel, for example, is not a very compelling character. I barely even remember what her arc was in the film. All I remember is that she crashes on Earth, finds out about her past, and then goes all out on the bad guys. Her character arc is uncompelling because when she gets her powers at the final battle, it doesn't feel earned, and just comes out of nowhere.

A much better written female character I think is Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn. Like Captain Marvel, she's struggling to discover her past and faces the challenge of having to save the world. But she isn't an unstoppable force that can plow through her enemies (she almost gets killed with her first encounter of the antagonist of the game). Over the course of the story, she learns new ways to fight her enemies and how to override enemy machines. But one of the more compelling parts of her arc is how as an outcast her whole life, she learns to care and to help others outside of herself. She helps others and in the end gains new friends through helping them. When those people she helped show up again for the final battle, it's much more interesting than just having Nick Fury tag along for reasons. And when after learning new techniques and finally discovering her past and how to defeat the antagonist, it feels much more satisfying when she finally triumphs.

I also think that just because a character doesn't have a love interest doesn't mean their character is any more compelling. I feel like that sort of thinking can be harmful, because while we should want to stand up on our own two feet  in the world (figuratively speaking), we should also be willing to except help when we need it, and to also give help when we can give it. A character can have a love interest and still be a well written character.