Empowering Women: Is Violence the Answer?

After winning Video of the Year at this years VMA’s Taylor Swift claimed that she is happy to live in a world where ‘boys can play princesses and girls can play soldiers.’ This stab at an inspiring feminist sound-bite however is quite problematic. One issue is ignoring the real life women who are literally battling in a masculine world to BE and not just PLAY soldiers.

But on a wider-scale this feeds into a difficult issue for feminism about women and violence in popular culture. Until now the debate has largely been around women as victims, however feminism has caused women to embrace roles traditionally portrayed by men. Often this is through asserting power, control and sometimes violence, raising the question of what impact this is having on feminism and culture in general.

This point is made through the increasing number of ‘badass’ women are popping up everywhere now, with Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood and Rhianna’s BBHMM showing women in empowering roles. We are also seeing a (perhaps too small) rise in the number of female action or superheroes on our screens, think Scarlett Johanssen as Black Window and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, amongst a few others who can be seen as women embracing their femininity and sexuality while ‘kicking butt’. While I accept that even the Black Widow has been slut shamed, the out-roar this caused surely shows us we are moving in the right direction; the next step is her own movie if anyone at Marvel is reading.

This badass image is great. It is empowering right? We are seeing tough women, in roles that, until now, men have monopolised. Except recently I’ve begun to wonder whether this is such a good thing.

I’d always wanted to be that girl, the one who could shoot a gun, take down a bad guy and protect herself. But upon finally reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, I’ve reconsidered this at great length. While I have great admiration for Lisbeth Salander, I am perpetually frustrated at her refusal to trust anyone and to achieve justice through law and order. While I wouldn’t deny that her the abusive men in her life got what they deserved, and more, I do think that the way to deal with such people is in a socially open way, where knowledge of their crimes would help start campaigns and charities, influence policies and legislation and, hopefully reform society. Think about it: the increasing measures to protect people against various crimes have only occurred because the crime set a precedent in the first place.

Now I appreciate that many will say I am reading too deeply into this (sorry, I am an English Student, it’s what I do) but here we should work off the premise that what we see in literature, art, Hollywood and the music industry will begin to influence our cultural attitudes. As much as I love to see empowered women I don’t want to tell anyone that going to the police and reporting crimes is not being strong enough, or not fighting back. It is fighting back, in the best way possible. As well as the influence it may have on society it gives women a voice.

In fighting for gender quality having a voice and a platform to express themselves on is of crucial importance for women. This is why I am going to push ‘Bad Blood’ aside for a second to talk about Rhianna’s incredible video for Bitch Better Have My Money. While it has been slated for perpetuating gang violence this video uses the Tarantino-esque neo-noir genre to depict a woman asserting power and control through violence. As such the stylised nature of the video and deliberate fictionalising cinematography cements this as artistic female expression of violence in a genre and in a culture of gang violence which is typically male-dominated.

On the other hand Swift’s Bad Blood is worrying; while there is no doubt BBHMM is targeted at an adult or mature teen audience, Swift’s music is popular with far younger viewers and listeners. It glamourises guns, violence and playing soldiers. While this may have a part to play in the fight to empower women, I fear that lines like ‘band-aids don’t fix bullet holes’ romanticizes and most significantly normalises this kind of violence.

Looking at these three different examples of women and their relationships to violence in an attempt to empower poses a complex question. How do we find the very fine balance between empowering women and allowing them to take up roles usually reserved for men, and still promoting a culture of law and order which doesn’t condone violence. Some may say that I am taking the idea of the latter too far in applying it to literature, films and music videos but I believe this is important in a society where the few women who report attacks may not even be believed, where the legal system has a long way to go to become what we need.

Thinking through such issues and talking about them is also an important way of understanding them, and that is something we should be doing more of in society. After doing so with this issue I have drawn my own conclusion that depictions of violent women should always be taken with a pinch of salt and we shouldn’t embrace this as the norm of empowered women. Although I will say that if we are going to depict empowered women then it is Rhianna who is leading the way.
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