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This post talks about some of my views surrounding the poisonous thorns in modern-day feminism and women's empowerment.
A Cigarette Story
Mid 1920s. Smoking was an activity restricted to men.
What were the free market proponents probably thinking? "How can you leave out 50% of the population from this system!?"
George Washington Hill, President of the American Tobacco Company, was a great opportunist. In his words:1
“If I can crack that [cigarette for women] market, it will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard,”
Getting women to smoke could potentially boost the revenues of cigarette companies. However smoking by women, especially in public, was a taboo at the time. How could one possibly convey the idea that women should also smoke? Smoking didn't even have any inherent benefits as such based on which they could advertise the product.
Right there, we see one of the age-old capitalist tricks being played - to create a necessity where there isn't one. Necessity is created by various means, most of which start from propagating artificial opinions or feelings towards an activity. What if we could make women believe that smoking is cool? Because, hey, most people are insecure at their core. They'll succumb if smoking can be projected as a solution to their existing problems or aspirations.
Enter Edward Bernays
Bernays2 was known as a marketer with wild ideas and marketing campaigns which were unlike anybody else's in the industry. Unlike the prevailing idea in advertisements at the time, Bernays didn't believe that customers always made rational decisions considering the benefits and facts about a product. In his eyes, a customer could very well make their purchases based on emotions and irrational instincts alone.
Bernays hired a group of women and photographers. The women were asked to go to the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. They were instructed to stop at an appropriate moment and together light up their cigarettes. The photographers were asked to take flattering well framed pictures of the women which were circulated with all the major national newspapers.
Bernays portrayed the act of these (hired) women as not just lighting a cigarette, but as lighting torches of freedom. It was meant to assert a woman's "independence". (yeah, I intentionally put that in quotes) This was intentionally started staged as a political protest rather than an open advertisement, to trigger appropriate emotions of revolt and counterculture in women.
With recent developments of women having won voting rights, women working more outside the home etc., the focus of mainstream feminism had shifted onto female assertion and that women would very well live independently of a man. All Bernays had to do was equate smoking with female dominance and independence.
Thus, so-called the world's first PR campaign was successful. Women could now experience the thrill of lung cancer just as much as their husbands3 So much gains from equality and freedom!
How does a century-old campaign hold relevance today?
The Torches of Freedom campaign was a first-of-its-kind advertising campaign. But the values behind it weren't all that new even for the 1920s. In essence, the campaign relied on projecting a wrong meaning of what feminism or empowerment means. Advertising to date relies on non-facts, appropriation and misrepresentation.
As a whole, mainstream feminist ideas even today are centred around misinterpretations and a toxic culture. The public's connection with the world now isn't just through advertisements and newspapers. The internet has brought a lot of different ideas readily available to everyone and that helps propagate toxic discourses.
It's way easier to say something controversial against men and gain traction than it is to survey schools and assess causes of lower educational outcomes in girls. Understandably enough, the internet generation prefers the easy way and mainstream talks of feminism have entirely shifted away from the original cause.
Discussion of true feminism seems to have been barricaded into books while the general public is fed ill meanings of women's empowerment. Books are hard to read and barely anyone picks them up. Rather, viral videos on social media4 spreading ill ideologies have become the staple for this generation to learn about feminism.
Nearly a century after the Torches of Freedom movement, women till date face similar issues which they faced back then. Smoking was never a solution to claiming respect in society
Differentiating from Toxic Feminism
When we talk of feminism today, a lot of people are actually speaking about toxic feminism. True feminism wasn't about advocating female dominance or bringing up women to be better than men. It is about advocating for female rights, male-female equality and most importantly, advocating free choice for women.
True feminism has been at the centre of many events around the world. True feminists have had important matters to worry about - girls being denied education in certain countries, women not having equal rights as men in many societies, mistreatment of women by their husbands, gender-based violence, etc.5 Thanks to feminist movements, women gained the right to vote in the West, the ability to get a mortgage without a male sponsor and many such rights which provided them more opportunities.
Feminism is about establishing a society where sexism and sexist exploitation don't exist.
Case Study: Equal Opportunities doesn't have to mean Equal Outcomes
Back at school, when we had to take up streams for the final two years, it was a prevailing trend that the biology section would be mostly girls, while the computer science section would be mostly boys. Even after providing free choice, there seemed to be a bias for either gender leaning towards a different stream.
A person might see this scenario as inherently unfair to women and to get around it they might enforce seemingly arbitrary conditions. Eg. one could argue that girls were underrepresented in the computer science section, so they shall enforce a 50% girl rule in that section. At least half the class must be comprised of girls. While that looks sensible on paper, it's not at all correct in practice. To enforce the 50% rule, some girls who (by their free will) wanted to opt for biology will be forced to study computer science instead.
A true feminist will acknowledge that everyone - girls included - was given a free choice regarding their study stream. With their own free choice, they choose whatever they do. In short, equal opportunity doesn't have to mean equal outcomes. Enforcing equal outcomes leads to a violation of free choice rather than upholding it. The system of stream selection wasn't altering free choice in any way, so the system by itself is fair and what isn't broken doesn't need immediate fixing.
A true feminist can go even further and investigate why girls are biased towards opting for biology. While there might not be internal flaws in the system (stream selection system in this case), there might be external factors which affect free choice. Are there any such negative factors at play, which lead to girls not preferring computer science? If yes, how can those barriers or concerns be eliminated?
Eg. if a certain industry is known to have workplaces with high rates of female harassment, that is a negative factor which can lead to younger girls not opting to pursue study in that field altogether. Rather than enforcing specific outcomes (like 50% rule), we must focus on fixing issues like workplace harassment which negatively affects women's choices. The cause of biases can also be enforced by society in the form of stereotypes when the child is growing up.
How does 'empowerment' manifest today?
We are wired to see the deviant as attractive.6 Those who do something out of the ordinary have a certain charisma attached to them.
Yet, breaking rules just for the sake of it isn't bravery.
What Bernays did a century back is still done by those at the top. For example, ideas have been propagated that women who wear risque outfits are "empowered". A lot of female success stories in the mainstream are still centred around the entertainment industry. What that means is that the word empowerment often relates more to bold clothing and sexual appeal rather than the concept of free choice which should allow a woman to wear whatever she wishes to.
Women, who by their free choice choose to enter the entertainment industry and be successful are indeed empowered. There are women in the industry who could give themselves a decent life only after they decided to work (eg. Cardi B7) and take whatever challenges were thrown at them. But is that the concept promoted in society? Not at all. Rather, young girls are fed overly sexualized imagery of women leading them to believe that outrageous looks are the stepping stones to empowerment.
As a result, a lot of self-proclaimed feminists today are doing nothing more than spreading vulgarity and hate against men. Because it contradicts with the natural talk of equality, such people also have high double standards. Their rules bend according to what they desire. Self-victimization is a common strategy among them to assert their statements.
Silent projections of broken perspective
This is a behaviour I've seen in my country and I believe this should be common in most countries/societies where the new generation is the first generation to be on the internet and step outside of traditions.
What I notice is how young women silently perceive women from one generation back to be oppressed. This usually happens towards their mother or aunts and eventually extends to other relatives they might know. On multiple occasions, I've come across girls who behind their mother's back talk about how their mother is wasting away their life by not working outside the house. Nobody seems to recognize how much the mother contributes by being at home, tending to children and being an important uniting force for the family as a whole.
What is the basis of this judgement? The cause is the negative impact of how working women were projected. A woman who doesn't work outside the home is now seen as oppressed, dependent and weak. Those who give their heart and soul for an office are called strong and independent no matter what implications it might have on their family life. Young women are increasingly judging their self-worth by how much they contribute to a corporation rather than how much they contribute to the family.8 This judgement spills out to their elder generation and even without any real oppression actually existing, young women start perceiving their elder generation as oppressed and become overly defensive to ensure they don't face the same "oppression".
What is the result? Young women perceive their natural human responsibilities as burden. Regardless of their internal inclination towards their responsibilities, they try to be defiant to assert their choices. Marriage is an institution deeply woven with culture and with the growing denigration of marriages, women grow up with a very pessimistic view of it, further damaging their family life. (and thus kicking off a perpetual cycle)
Women against Women?
This is yet another phenomenon that has been extremely normalized now.
What happens when a woman by her complete free choice decides to not be deviant? What happens when a woman by her complete free choice decides that traditional values are the best for her?
Other women often don't support her. They say that the traditional woman is not helping the 'cause of woman empowerment' if she doesn't accept modern values or lifestyle.
Where does the talk of free choice go in such cases?
A lot of women by their free choice decide to dress modestly. A lot of women by their free choice decide that they will get deep satisfaction in caring for the family rather than bearing the pressure of a job. A lot of women by their own free will choose to not adopt modern perceptions towards relationships and instead prefer a strongly monogamous relationship. A lot of women by their free choice want to enjoy the cultural heritage their lineage has blessed them with rather than the shallow monoculture promoted by capitalist industry.
Do these women find a place in mainstream discourse about feminism? Why are these women labelled as 'oppressed' when they are exercising their free choice in personal matters? Why are these women projected as not supporting feminism? How do the women who profess the idea of free choice think they have the right to infringe on a different woman's choices?
Feminism means it's the woman's choice whether she wants to be a stay-at-home mother or a CEO or study or whatever. That is true empowerment. It never stops a woman from doing so-called "girly" things or following traditional ideas of being a woman.
The only mainstream voice about women's empowerment seems to emanate from people promoting deviant ideas, counterculture and values that vastly twist the fabric of society. These voices taking an extremist and one-sided stance inhibit the free choices of many women and slowly coerce them into following values just for the sake of being a feminist. The victim often doesn't even agree with the values.
The result - a large demographic which has been weakened to the point where their own choices are dictated by an external unrelated voice. This is dangerous because the external authority controlling them can later lead this demographic into highly toxic acts - which is already a reality now.
False Empowerment and Decline of 'Man'
An important cornerstone of modern toxic feminism is the hate towards men.
Yes, history indeed has a lot of men who were unreasonable towards women and denied them many rights. At the micro level, women around the world have been silent victims of domestic abuse and male tyranny.
The solution to this isn't eliminating men altogether. By engaging in a race against men, women only trigger their ego and kick off a toxic cycle. In a pursuit to eliminate male tyranny they are instead weakening male authority.
Mainstream media constantly bombards us with the toxic narrative that men control society and they are stupid. They teach that everything wrong in the society is a byproduct of male nature. Worst of all, they spread the idea that a man cannot stand beside a woman who wants to live a fulfilling and successful life. Most recently, this was projected in the Barbie movie.
Such narratives not only affect women but also have a large impact on young boys. Consider a boy who grows up in a society which constantly blames men for everything going wrong, which constantly tries to favour women even if is at the cost of men having to shut up, which constantly victimizes women etc. Can such a boy ever embrace his duties? Such boys are more likely to grow up into pessimistic men who blame themselves for historical wrongs inflicted by men in the past. These men become overly submissive, and quiet and are just living their lives, often with a highly pessimistic viewpoint about relationships. An Ipsos study9 reported that one in three men believe feminism does more harm than good and that traditional masculinity is under threat today.
Personal independence is an important ingredient for a happy life. While this applies to both men and women equally, feminists tend to use this aspect much more to support the idea that women can live "independently" from men.10 We used to live in groups, interdependent on our neighbours. When industrialization and mass migration happened, our scope of dependence was reduced to our immediate family. Now, with the growing idea of absolute individuality, people fail to cooperate even with their partners. Self-proclaimed feminists are spreading toxic ideas that a woman should not be dependent on her husband for anything, and that women are better off alone etc. These views harm none other than women. Humans aren't self-sufficient. We evolved to seek dependable partners and we find strength in a group which supports us. Being alone and extremely independent makes a person highly vulnerable.
Once again, men have to take a backseat, because most laws favour women. Society favours women's viewpoints and sympathises more with them. Men even when fulfilling their natural responsibilities are seen as a threat to women and as "curbing female independence". In pursuit of extreme individuality and independence, the closely knit fabric of society is wearing off and it is now affecting even marriages.
No wonder, "good men" seem rare to come by these days.
Underlying male dominance in the entertainment industry
The entertainment industry is a sector where women tend to have great success from the empowerment perspective. Even though there have been numerous sexual assault allegations and pay parity issues, the success of women in the entertainment industry is seen as an empowering trait to inspire other women.
However, even this success isn't without its flaws. The feminist intellectual Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"11, put forth the concept of male gaze and proposed that this phenomenon is a direct result of patriarchy. Male gaze refers to the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine heterosexual perspective which presents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. Women are forced to identify with a passive object to be looked at while men's to-be-looked-at-ness is compensated for by their activity in the film's narrative.
There is a direct denial of such flaws in the entertainment industry which often uses women as a sexual prop. Is this idea of empowerment which we want to take forward?
Male responsibility in feminism
The reason why feminist movements even exist is that society was male-dominated and denied women many rights. To date, most people agree that regardless of whatever feminist movements have taken place, society is still patriarchal. And that is indeed a fact.
Society is still patriarchal. Men control a lot of the major gears which keep society running. Protesting against men, creating an identity totally disconnected from men or spreading narratives denigrating the responsibilities of men won't do any good at all. If change has to happen, it will happen with the cooperation of both genders. Change won't happen by both genders creating separate factions competing against each other.
Men must understand their side of responsibilities too. Changing the world is a very far-fetched idea. But men can for sure be more considerate in our day-to-day lives and ensure that they don't let any sexist thoughts or gender biases surface. They should carry out all their responsibilities for the women they have in their lives. Women's contributions shouldn't go unappreciated. A woman won't require seeking validation from an office she doesn't like if she can get appreciation at home from family. A woman won't need to overly depend on entities outside the home if the family is active in understanding her needs, and expectations and fulfilling them.
"Where does it go?"12 by Emma Clit, a French comic artist, is a relevant read about the matter of male-female cooperation in a household.
To put a 3000-word post in summary - modern toxic feminism has it all wrong. We need more people protesting for women's rights and equal access. We don't need elements that rip apart the fabric of society.
I believe that women should be independent. What do I mean by 'independence'? As I said in an earlier blog post, 'independence' is the independence to give life a meaning.
Quote referenced from "Torches of Freedom: How the world’s first PR campaign came to be" - article link
The story about Edward Bernays was lifted mostly from Mark Manson's article "How Your Insecurity Is Bought and Sold" (article link). The article isn't about women's empowerment specifically. Rather it's about how insecurities are in public form an important pillar in targeted emotional advertising and keeping businesses running.
"From social taboo to “torch of freedom”: the marketing of cigarettes to women" (article link) explores the social taboo of female smoking in other parts of the world outside America, including modern-day Asia. The health issues of smoking are well-documented and publicly known. Yet marketing of cigarettes has ensured that even the well-educated population is gravitated towards them.
Katharine Whitehorn's opinion column "What feminism is really about" (article link) briefly sums up on how feminism needs to shift its perspective.
Most of us for sure would have noticed how people who are slightly deviant from traditional perspectives tend to attract more attention. Scientific American in their article "Why We Are Attracted to Deviant Personalities" (article link) reports on studies which explored the topic.
Cardi B claimed that she originally planned to be a history teacher but was forced to drop out of college since she could no longer support herself. She became an exotic dancer instead to earn money and eventually became big in the industry. Referenced from "Cardi B: It’s never too late to make college dreams come true" from Evening Standard - article link
It's true that working outside of the home eventually gives the financial strength to support the home. However, the workplace can never be more important than the family. Neither is not working outside the house an indicator of being weak. Whether it's men or women, weak are those who fail to fulfil the prime responsibility of looking after the family.
In 2022, on International Women's Day, Ipsos released a data study relating to feminism and abuse against women (study link). Apart from capturing the data that the public believes traditional masculinity is under threat, the study also highlighted how women are much more likely to face abuse online.
I recently published a short post about the concept of independence. That forms an important part of understanding why mainstream discourses on female independence get it all wrong. Consider giving it a read - article link
"Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (essay link) goes in great depth about how cinema (and now other mediums, such as OTT, social media etc) satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking and then develops negative outcomes.
"Where does it go" - comic link