Thursday, January 21, 2010

Female objectification in Singapore

I am really glad Dana Lam, president of Association for Women's Action and Research, wrote the following. It is a pity on many levels that she is only given this small platform, and that many people still won't understand the importance of her message.

I shall reproduce it:

Wrong to promote women as sex objects

I refer to Monday's report ('Drinks based on bra size', Breaking News, ST Online) of a promotion organised by a bar, OverEasy, at One Fullerton. OverEasy is run by Lo & Behold, which also runs Loof and White Rabbit.

The bar invited women to enjoy free alcohol based on the size of their breasts. The event was reportedly well attended and women who had bigger breasts received more 'free' drinks.

There is nothing free about letting a room of people gawk at your breasts. Even if a woman is willing to pay the personal price of loss of dignity, there is still a cost suffered by other women.

The women who participated have contributed to the objectification of women, to reducing a woman's value to her breast size, and have helped reinforce the belief among men that this is not only acceptable, but welcome. Staging this event in itself is extremely distasteful.

Just because sexism is profitable does not make it right. For the organisers to say the event was merely for 'good fun and not sexist or sleazy' is insincere. The indignity is suffered only by one gender.

It is unfortunate there are women willing to make this choice so light-heartedly. The individual woman may view her participation as an act of empowerment. Perhaps she feels she should use whatever assets she has to secure favours for herself. In our sex- and youth-obsessed culture, it is not surprising some women would grow to be so cynical.

Yes, women have the right to choose, but individual choices are made in a social context. And in our current social context, women have a much harder time to be esteemed as individuals above and beyond their value as sex objects.

This event perpetuates the notion of women as sex objects and makes it that much more difficult for each woman who wants to be valued for her character and contribution, rather than how she stacks up to a distorted image of the ideal body.

The personal choice (of the participants) and the private choice (of the corporation) has had a detrimental social impact.

Choice works both ways. The organisers may have packed their venue that evening, but they may well have lost future business at OverEasy and their sister establishments.

Dana Lam (Ms)

My thoughts:

There have been theories and observations that the economy (more specificialy capitalism) perpetuates the oppression of women. Money and the objectification and exploitation of women seem to go very well together. Businesses latch on this, and people seem to demand this. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of supply and demand.

Take for instance the club/pub concept of "Ladies's Night". In the nightlife business, the presence of women brings in the male clientele. So "Ladies' Night" is a good strategy to get women to hang around your club/pub for a significant amount of time.

Here are two perspectives, depending on your political persuasions:

Perspective #1: This immediately came up in my head when I read Dana's letter. With regards to Ladies' Night, I feel that women themselves are complicit in their own objectification and oppression. They choose to bite the bait of free drinks, and they would complain (and have complained) that it is their entitlement - all the more reinforcing themselves as a function of their own oppression. Another example would be that of a girl, who is well aware of the cultural norms of femininity and attraction, willingly chooses to dress "sexily" to attract men. This perspective centres on the woman, who makes the choice.

Perspective #2: Well, the "oppression" could be seen to be a lot deeper. Perspective #1 makes us think that women are complicit in their own oppression, while this perspective paints a picture in which women are already subjects produced in this discourse of oppression. Women were once girls conditioned by family, school and society to behave in a way, heteronormal and passive. So this "choice" to participate in Ladies' Night is just a function of this regime, and we cannot read women to be entirely guilty of their own oppression as in Perspective #1.

Essentially, the objectification and exploitation of women are ordered by the economy. Women are used as meat bait, because there is a (male) demand for it, and businesses are smart enough to capitalise on this social trend (and conditioning). The behaviour of some women (seeing its their entitlement, or even turning up for that free drink), on the surface, legitimises this economy. Scratch beneath that, (to use a perspective closer to #2) it is the economy that creates this conditioning and naturalises it.

I mean, we don't have (heterosexual) "Gentlemen's Night" because our society is ordered in a way that men are expected to be active and higher-earning. That business will not fly.

Women are definitely more than breasts. Businesses know that, but they happen to earn the money of men who do not know it.

Let us say we abolished the objectification/exploitation of women and their bodies in business for the sake of gender equality and respect. What happens to these businesses? What is a viable alternatives to attract and retain the same number of clients (or more) and earn the same (or more) amount of profits as in the time when they relied on the objectification of women?

If we push to remove something, what alternatives do we have in place for the existing stakeholders?

It might not be a fitting analogy, but I shall raise it nonetheless. If we eradicated child pornography and destroyed all the rings, are there measures in place for the relevant victims, children, families to earn a decent living? Do they get aid? The focus is on removing the identified "ill", that we devote lesser attention to the people/stakeholders affected by this "ill".

How do we balance feminism and the viability/survivability of businesses? I find it difficult to be equally sympathetic to both at the same time. This is not a straightforward situation.

Assuming female objectification is an "ill" and has to be stopped, what can we suggest to pubs and clubs to earn the same amount of money with the same amount of resources put in?

Women are the stakeholders in this story, and so are pubs and clubs and clients. It depends on your own political agenda, one you shouldn't be ashamed of, on whether you choose to prioritise one stakeholder above another. This is where it gets complicated.

Take for example, kissing booths with female vendors and bikini car washes for charity. Can you get the same amount of or more donations if you did away with the objectification factor? It is not about how wrong and unjustified objectification is here, but rather how are you going to raise the donations for the charity stakeholder.

In my opinion, the problem is not with the women or the bars/clubs/pubs, but with society. The objectification of women will only intensify and objectification will still continue even though more minds are educated on its implications. But for me, education is better than none at all.

At the same time, I am concerned about the nature of political correctness. While I am not implying that the stance against female objectification is a stance of political correctness, I would like to ask about its implications on how we treat/tackle humour, tongue-in-cheek comments, jokes, jokes of women made by women. What is the ideal? A thoroughly censored and self-censored society? A sensitive society or over-sensitive one?

I think as a feminist (don't know which strain I subscribe to), the central concern and point of departure should not only be on the oppressed (i.e. women) and actions made to alleviate the oppression, but also on the implications of these actions, their applicability and equally as important, the relevant alternatives we can come up with to address the concerns faced by other stakeholders in the equation. Mind you, men are as equally oppressed by this regime of patriarchy and the economy, as it is not something we expect past generations of men to dump on us today. The problem should never be looked as in isolation, but located with respect to its context and we should acknowledge the relevant relationships and their dynamics.


Ghost said...

Personally I think this is making a mountain out of a molehill. No one is forcing anyone to do anything. If the women want to flaunt their assets, it’s not illegal, who are we to say anything.

Rachel said...

True feminism is to have the strength to rise above perceived objectification and to respect women for their choices and freedom and to respect that they can take responsibility for such choices and freedom.

Because no matter what you do, (most) men are wired to be physically drawn to women and that in itself, is a base form of objectification already.

I do not acknowledge the importance of her message and even find it redundant because it hardly fulfills its purpose. Those who are rebuked are offended and feel singled out for their personal choices (therefore will be extremely unreceptive to any alternative view) while the rest who don't buy it don't need any form of 'standing up' at all.

Free will, free world. The right agenda perhaps, but what a fruitless method.

小心 said...

love your articles...