What exactly makes a woman “wife material”—someone who is worthy of a man’s lifelong love and commitment? This topic recently came up in a Facebook group of which I’m a member. A woman who was talking to a man she met online posed this question to the group of fellow women: Even though she was extremely sexually attracted to him, should she abstain from having sex with him in order to show that she’s worthy of being his girlfriend, or perhaps even his wife one day?
Many women jumped to answer her question, advising her to wait anywhere from three dates to “as long as you can.” These answers are not unfamiliar to me. Growing up, I had received similar advice from television shows, magazines, and even other women. I was told to wait three dates—or better, five, or even better, eight—before having sex with a man. I was told to make him wait as long as you can, because if you have sex with him too soon, he will lose all respect for you. After all, “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
We talk a lot about female objectification in the media—how women are constantly sexualized, objectified, and used as nothing more than aesthetically pleasing and sexually arousing props in advertisements, music videos, and movies. The dehumanizing effects of this imagery have been well-documented, with extensive research demonstrating that objectification leads to depression, anxiety, body shame, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders among women.
Objectification of women’s bodies, however, is nothing new. Throughout history, much of visual art has been about appreciating female beauty and the female form. Less than 4 percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 76 percent of the nudes are female. From the Venus de Milo to the Mona Lisa, women are overwhelmingly the objects, not the subjects, of art. Imagery is catered to the male gaze. Women are not meant to do the looking; they are meant to be looked at.
I don’t keep up with the Kardashians. But millions of people around the world do. Whether you like it or not, what the Kardashians say and do leaves an imprint on our society, and shapes our cultural consciousness.
On Wednesday, July 5, Rob Kardashian posted a series of extremely disturbing photos on his personal Instagram page. He posted naked photos of his ex-girlfriend, Blac Chyna, and accused her of cheating on him. It took Instagram 20 minutes to take down the explicit photos. By that time, it was too late. The whole world had seen.
People tell me that I am two very different people on social media. There’s the Nian on Facebook who posts links to her feminist Crimson articles, starts fights with strangers in the comments section, and yells at misogynists. Then there’s the Nian on Instagram, who posts photos of herself in swimsuits at exotic locales, exchanges sweet pleasantries with strangers in the comments section, and—apparently—perpetuates misogyny by “objectifying herself” and appealing to the male gaze.
For a long time, I knew—or I thought I knew—that the two identities were irreconcilable. I was told that my Instagram account was not only apolitical, but actively anti-feminist. I was “contributing to my own objectification,” I was not “helping the cause,” and I was “giving feminism a bad name.” Articles about feminist Instagram users would showcase women who skateboarded and rode motorbikes and wrote code. These were the “women who lift you up,” as opposed to the Instagram models posing in their swimsuits, who “drag you down.”
In the past, I have criticized some feminists for being too moderate, too conciliatory towards men. I have criticized white feminists like Emma Watson for promoting the idea that gender inequality only exists because women haven’t extended a “formal invitation” to men—and not because men benefit immensely from gender inequality. And I still believe that feminism should, at its core, be a revolutionary, intersectional, and unapologetic movement.
But being a feminist, even a watered-down feminist, comes with repercussions. Even Emma Watson’s conciliatory HeForShe speech, where she spends most of the time talking about all the ways in which men are oppressed, triggered intense backlash. Users on the online message board 4chan threatened to leak Emma Watson’s nude photographs in retaliation for her speech. Even though Emma Watson explicitly said things like “men don’t have the benefits of equality either,” her speech was considered threatening and offensive enough to provoke men to punish her.