Ask A Feminist #5: Victims of society?

// 9 February 2012

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This week’s Ask A Feminist considers how we can argue that culture and society affect women without painting them as unthinking victims. Please add your thoughts in comments!

yellow question mark chalked on a tarmac roadDear Laura,

I am relatively new to the feminist movement and feminist thinking. I’ve already discovered many complex issues which require a great deal of thought, but the one that probably confounds me the most is how to argue for the power of our culture/society/the media on women’s way of thinking without reducing women to malleable figures incapable of thinking for themselves. I feel quite strongly that the culture in the UK has a negative influence on the way that many women think about themselves and their abilities, but I find it difficult to argue for such influences without presenting women as little more than victims. I’d be really interested to hear what you, and F-Word readers, have to say on this issue.

– Rowena

I think a major point here is that we don’t have to get stuck in the dichotomy of women being either helpless dupes of an all-powerful patriarchal culture or totally free agents who are impervious to cultural and social pressures. Discussions on why women engage in certain behaviours or think certain things do often get boiled down to a question of choice versus victim-hood, but in reality, human experience usually falls somewhere in between.

Clearly if women were nothing but “malleable figures incapable of thinking for themselves” we wouldn’t see the wide range of different women with different passions, beliefs and experiences that we do in our society. However, there are also some clear trends in the way women think about themselves, express themselves and live their lives. The fact that they differ from society to society suggests that an individual’s surroundings have some kind of effect on the person she becomes. For example, women living in a desert village in Namibia may view walking around with their breasts exposed as completely unremarkable, while most women in the UK would view this as rude or provocative and certainly socially unacceptable.

There have been plenty of studies into the effect of culture and socialisation on individuals’ identity and behaviour, but given that you can’t just pull these out of your trouser pocket when this issue comes up, I’d say the most accessible and obvious proof is the billions of pounds companies spend on advertising and marketing. Why would they invest so heavily if we weren’t affected by what we see and hear around us? Indeed, a number of the trends I referred to above clearly mirror what is sold to us in advertising: many women’s desire to be thin, beautiful, free of wrinkles and free of body hair matches the values of the advertising world. Jean Kilbourne has done a lot of work on this, including two books and the following film:

You may also find the discussion on women in popular culture at the recent Go Feminist! conference useful.

One could of course argue that advertisers just reflect what women inherently want, rather than creating their desires. But changes in women’s beauty and personal care rituals over the years show us that there’s nothing biologically inherent about how women want to look: an upper class Victorian woman would never have dreamed of painting her skin to make it look tanned, and my Grandma would have thought you’d lost the plot if you suggested she rip all her pubic hair out with wax-covered strips.

However, acknowledging that advertising affects women’s desires and self-image doesn’t mean painting women who use fake tan or remove their body hair as incapable of thinking for themselves. The same goes for other examples of social and cultural pressures. Women have the capacity to make different choices, but given that most people want to feel a sense of belonging and do not want to be singled out as different, it makes sense to go along with the dominant cultural norms. And if they’re not exposed to any alternative perspectives, or if those alternative perspectives aren’t perceived as credible because they’re demonised within mainstream society, women are unlikely to question the status quo. That doesn’t mean we’re unable to: we just need access to alternatives and the tools required to deconstruct what has always been portrayed as normal and natural. We can then make more informed decisions about our lives, which may or may not include conforming to social norms.

For me, that tool is feminism. Reading feminist theory enabled me to stop thinking my hairy legs were disgusting, but prior to reading it I had never come across anyone or anything that told me any different. That doesn’t mean I was helpless or irreparably brainwashed, just that I didn’t have any reason to think outside the box.

A final point to consider is that there’s no shame in being a victim. Detractors of feminism often complain that we paint all women as victims, but the truth is that many, many women are victimised within our society, and I don’t think we should shy away from saying that. The crucial point is that feminism is about helping women move out of a victimised situation and stopping us from becoming victimised in the first place.

Photo by VirtualEyeSee, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Want to Ask A Feminist? Email laura[at]

Comments From You

Laurel // Posted 9 February 2012 at 2:14 pm

i think you might find it interest to look into a book on media studies. a beginners guide should take you through the different theories of how mass media affects people, from outright brainwashing, to us picking and choosing what we want, to hegemony, to cultivating more into it the more we look into it etc. its important to note that there are effects on everybody and everybody is different and it certainly isnt cut and dry, and similar will be true to other effects on our lives.

i think whats important too is looking at responsibility to change things. men have to drop their privileges and step up and make room for us, but whether they do or not, we have to learn to take up that room ourselves. it isnt as easy for some of us as others, esp those of us with esteem issues or social anxiety, but its no good a group ensuring that they have a safe space and they make room for marginalised groups to talk and advertising that this will be the case, if the marginalised groups dont turn up or speak up. a good way to get confident is to self organise in these groups. and then if it makes sense to join in with something wider move on, and if the wider group is a good ally, they should support the marginalised groups own grassroots building too.

Naomi // Posted 9 February 2012 at 6:48 pm

A book I recently read is Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. She quotes lots of interesting research about how much gender stereotypes influence us without us even realising, stereotypes that are reinforced by the media and advertising you mention. It’s not just stereotypes of women but also other groups, the propagation of particular assumptions about groups of people-be they women or other groups is deeply ingrained in our societies. I couldn’t agree more that the more we educate ourselves with more free thinking information, feminist theory and a wider variety of opinions than mainstream media gives us, the more we can free ourselves from the strong influences that surround us.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 10 February 2012 at 1:24 am

I think in many ways this question has at its heart much of the same concerns raised by the last questioner – what is the relationship between our own subjectivities and choices and broader culture. And, I think part of the issue here is that we somehow believe there is a ‘real’ us somewhere underneath layers of culture that can be accessed or expressed. And, ultimately I don’t think that’s true.

For example, if we think about the body, we are often sold the idea that by eating particular foods or exercising in particular ways, we can find the ‘real’ us – our true perfect bodies. But this body doesn’t exist, because your body is a cultural product. While your genetics will determine some parts of how you look, much of your appearance is shaped by your diet and exercise. And this isn’t just about how fat or thin, or toned you are. But, your diet and level of physical activity from a young age will determine height, your waist, chest, hip dimensions, the thickness of your bones and so your skeletal shape. Once you are a certain age, there is often very little you can do to change these things, but they were nonetheless ‘cultural’ constructions, determined by your upbringing. Hence, women in the early 20thC often had tiny waists, whilst women today are often squarer and less curvy, but still as slim, as a result of a different diet and exercise. And there are numerous examples of these sorts of differences across time and populations.

Similarly, your mind is shaped in your formative years as a child, and we know that different types of education will literally map the way your brain works in different ways, resulting in different behaviours and abilities. And, once established, it is difficult to change the way your brain works- so you are a very ‘plastic’ organism in early life, and indeed remain so in many ways throughout your life, if not to the same extent. Language plays a huge part in this process. We know that there are certain ideas that only exist in certain cultures and so can only be expressed in particular languages. These ideas literally don’t exist for people outside of those cultures. And, we can only understand our world based on the ideas that are available to us. Moreover, language also determines how we understand the world around us- why do we have a concept of race based on skin tone, but don’t see a fundamental difference based on eye colour. Why does our hand end where it does, when it many other cultures a ‘hand’ incorporates the wrist? How we label and categorise things shapes how we relate to them, and so power relationships become built into language. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is actually almost impossible.

So how do things change? Well, this is where choice starts to come in. Change happens when we encounter new ideas from other cultures or other people, which is why diversity is so socially and culturally important. Other people offer us new ways to imagine the box and so changes the shape of the box. Similarly, our own physical experiences might teach us that our understanding of the world doesn’t offer an adequate explanation, and so we try to account for these new physical experiences. Usually this happens in steps though. So, nobody ever comes up with a ‘new’ idea, they adapt older ideas to take account of new phenomena, and so change happens slowly. This is why it is so difficult to point to the origins of, say, feminism, as there was always something ‘before’. Moreover, it is perfectly possible for multiple understandings of the world to co-exist, not just on the same planet, but within the same nation, sometimes because we have enough ‘shared’ consensus of some fundamental beliefs (we all agree that yellow thing is a banana, but not that race is a useful way to determine power relationships).

This is not about being the ‘victim’ of culture though; this is just how our bodies and minds work. So, you have this ever present tension between the fact that we are malleable beings who rely on a shared language to understand and interpret the world, and the fact we are also individuals with our own experiences interacting with the world around us. Moreover, it is impossible to be aware of this tension all of the time, as we couldn’t function. At a certain point, we accept that we are eating a banana and don’t question whether it should be labelled thus or what the implications are. However, being blind to this tension can also lead to ‘privilege’, where we don’t question whether our experience of the world is the norm and so disregard those who experience it differently. And, I think it is requisite on us as human beings to remember and to question our assumptions and behaviours to ensure equality for all.

Shadow // Posted 10 February 2012 at 11:01 am

The media and ‘society’ was created by men for the benefit of men and that means women’s experiences/lives are constrained by how male supremacist system constantly promotes/coerces women into believing ‘they have choice and are wholly accountable if they suffer male violence and/or are subjected to discrimination/denial of socio-economic opportunities.’

Men are not routinely told they are ‘engaging in victimhood’ whenever men are subjected to male violence and/or men experience setbacks or denial of their supposedly innate rights and opportunities. Male supremacist system continues to enforce male domination and male control over all women but all women do not experience the same identical male methods of domination and control – but men subordinate all women. However, whilst women do resist male control this does not mean women are responsible as and when they ‘fail’ (sic) to achieve opportunities/ambitions. Rather it is the male supremacist system which was created by men to ensure women are always viewed/treated in relation to men – never as autonomous individuals.

Do we ever hold a male accountable for his actions when he is injured because he chose (sic) to enter the military? No instead male soldiers are hailed as heroes rather than as having chosen to enter the military and knowing their chances of being killed and/or injured are very high. However, women are expected to take responsibility for all their actions/behaviours irrespective of the constraints/prohibitions/denials male supremacist system enforces on women. Women are supposedly autonomous agents but this is a lie because our society and culture is not an autonomous one – rather it is a male supremacist one created by men for men’s benefit – never women’s.

I recommend reading Loving to Survive by Dee Graham et al because these feminist authors analyse how male supremacist system and its tools – mainstream (meaning male dominated and male owned media) and popular culture reinforce and promote myth that women are expected to conform to male-centric expectations and if women ‘fail’ it is their fault not male supremacist society’s misogynistic constraints and policing of women’s behaviour/appearance etc.

Nikki // Posted 12 February 2012 at 5:55 pm

Wow. I just watched that Jean Kilbourne film. Fantastic. The late Bill Hicks had a good piece of adivce for people working in the vile advertsing and marketing industry: Warning: contains some strong language

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