The more I write on the subject of sexual politics, the more I discover that people—especially young women—often confuse sexual empowerment and sexual objectification. Here’s why: a gorgeous woman who knows she’s gorgeous and uses her beauty and the desire it engenders to get what she wants has a degree of power over others. Ergo, the argument goes, she’s empowered—even if she’s being objectified by a very large audience, for the purpose of selling a product or increasing television ratings. My husband refers to this line of thinking as the “stripper argument”—in this case, the money is going toward the woman (a stripper) because there are men who want her so much they’ll pay good money just to look. But even if she’s making some of the money, that stripper isn’t making all the money—the owner of the club gets a nice cut. And, with or without money involved, there are troubling things about the power dynamics at play when a person seats personal power in physical appearance.
I wouldn’t refute the idea that a beautiful woman has some power, but I would argue (and have, in my post If I Work It, Who Owns It?) that this power is dependent upon others. Any personal power that depends on the resources of others is not true power. You don’t have to look any further than Bernie Madoff to see the results of siphoning resources from others. His dependency was financial rather than sexual, but the results are the same—he needed others’ money to maintain his lifestyle; a beautiful woman who seats her power in the esteem of others needs their desire to affirm her beauty, and thus a chunk (sometimes a large chunk) of her selfhood.
Ah, but sex, money, and power are inextricably linked. In the map of the chakras (the energy centers in the human body, posited by Hinduism and used in yoga and meditation) the three belong together in the second chakra, right above family and survival. Separating sex and power isn’t like separating laundry—the dark and the light coexist, and we must find a way to balance them. That is our challenge as human beings.
I’ve been thinking about this subject all week, as I’ve wanted to write about a female character that made an appearance on one of my favorite television shows, Castle. In the episode that aired on October 17, 2011 (“Eye of the Beholder”), the character of Serena Kaye, an insurance investigator who helps solve a murder, struck me as a very sexually empowered person. Serena wants to date Richard Castle, a novelist who shadows NYPD detective Kate Beckett, and, as she puts it, she makes no secret of her attraction to him. Castle asks her out on a date (he is genuinely attracted to her, but the date is a “sting operation” because Serena becomes a suspect in a police investigation), and during the course of the dinner she tells him she would have asked him out because she’s a “…woman who believes in going after what she wants.” Serena is sexually empowered not only because she is forthright about her desire for Castle (and his for her), but because she isn’t embarrassed, coy, or aggressive—she is the very embodiment of assertiveness, which is probably why Castle finds her “intriguing” and “impressive.” In addition to being comfortable with her own sexuality, Serena has no need to compete for male attention–when she realizes that Castle and Kate have feelings for one another, she backs off, saying she doesn’t “…steal things that belong to someone else.” She doesn’t play games with her sexuality or Castle’s desire, and she doesn’t approach the world by looking for desire in every corner—she knows it is there, and proceeds with confidence. Now that is a sexually empowered woman.
But there is one aspect about this character that troubles me. Once she has been cleared in the investigation and another suspect is brought in for questioning, Serena is allowed to question the suspect (an art thief) because she was a former art thief. The police think she’ll get further with him than they would, and she does extract information from him—in part by using his desire for her. During the course of the conversation, Serena gets all up in the thief’s space, her body almost pressing against his, her lips almost touching his. He, of course, spills the beans—partly because she understands his world, but also because his defenses are weakened by her beauty. It took me most of the week to work out why this scene troubles me, and here it is: Serena isn’t giving away sexual power in this scene, but she is using it in a manner that is both manipulative and unwise. We see women do this often on TV, and I’ve actually praised the behavior in a favorite character of mine (Fiona Glenanne on Burn Notice). There are times, especially in TV shows, when an empowered woman can use her beauty to achieve an end without losing power—she is playing a power game, and since sex and power are linked and she isn’t giving away selfhood, she is winning the game. But at what cost?
Here we are, the viewing public, watching a beautiful woman get right up against a man who wants her, a dangerous man she doesn’t trust. That’s fine for those who are trained to handle danger, or who have chosen lives of danger (like former art thieves) and are prepared for the consequences, but I don’t think your average beautiful, sexually empowered woman should try it. At worst, she is playing a high-stakes game that could result in physical harm—at best, she is being conniving and manipulative. This behavior puts me in mind of a character on another one of my favorite shows—Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife. Woah, there is one sexual powerhouse of a woman. She’s bisexual, and will play anyone for anything. We have seen her manipulate both men and women with desire, but mostly men. Her sexual manipulation is often linked with violence—in the second season of the show, she and a male nemesis both strip to their underwear before Kalinda beats her enemy with a baseball bat. Yes, Kalinda is sexually empowered, but she’s not a good person, and she’s not a good model for female sexual empowerment. (The show has many interesting models of sexual empowerment, including the main character, Alicia Florrick—see my post The Good Wife, Scripted and Unscripted.) Although I wouldn’t raise my daughter to act like her, Kalinda is fascinating. Because in Kalinda—and in TV scenes everywhere where sex, violence, and power are linked—we have a direct line to those lower chakras, the ones that really get our blood pumping. The ones that make us feel powerful. Sex, money, and the fight for survival.
The average, everyday sexual power game is a little more tame than the ones on TV. We do manipulate each other sexually, consciously and unconsciously, but often we are motivated by a combination of factors—insecurity, vanity, desire, boredom, and yes, lust for power. Does he/she want me? Oh, I see that he/she does—what does that mean, exactly? are part of the subtext of sex. There are manipulative, sexually empowered people of both genders (which reminds me…isn’t it interesting that we rarely, if ever, see a man all up in a woman’s space on TV, getting her to spill the beans or drop the gun or give up the gold? I mean, a sexy guy has some power too, right? And a woman might fall for it….). But most of us aren’t manipulative about sex—we’re just people, out there trying to navigate the world and find, establish, or maintain our place in it.
Here’s the trick: we have to focus the power discussion on ourselves rather than on others. True sexual empowerment is not about mastery over others through sexual desire—it is about mastery over self. It is about acceptance of desire, and vulnerability, and power—both internal and external. If we begin to understand that sexual empowerment is a subset of personal empowerment, we can change the national discussion—and stop confusing objectification (which seats significance outside the self, in the gaze of others) with empowerment (which seats significance within). I’d like to see more women on TV like the character of Serena on Castle, and I’d like to see fewer of them playing sexual power games. Because the more we see women on TV owning their sexuality, accepting their desire and the desire of others without playing games of any kind, the easier it will be to find the true power in sexual empowerment.