September 5, 2007

On being sexy

There is a very fine difference between a woman celebrating her own sensuality and submitting to the male gaze, and that distinction needs to be made.
-- Shabana Azmi

(Source: 2006 BBC interview mentioned here.)


yves said...

Ha! A lot could be said about this line, but perhaps it's best that women react instead of men?

(But no women have reacted so far, so...) I wonder how much that need for women to "celebrate their own sensuality" is actually directed to themselves... I admit readily that women, in order to feel comfortable as women, need to look after their femininity (that word "celebrate" seems quite strong, though) and that this isn't necessarily a way to seduce, even indirectly. Yet I can't help thinking that "being comfortable as a woman" contains in itself the notion of men in the background. Am I hopelessly wrong?

What is important here anyway is the context of the seduction debate: what is the limit beyond which a woman's absolute right to be seductive "for herself" (a fredom that some that masculine powers completely deny to women in various parts of the world) becomes a provocation which justifies some masculine reaction?

Daddy's Girl said...

I think yves has raised some very interesting points... I've tried to respond to them several times but am never happy enough with what I've typed... here's one last try: I think it differs from woman to woman - for me, the male reaction is totally irrelevant (and rather unwelcome, actually - at the moment, anyway) - the celebration of my sensuality is all about ME and my enjoyment of who I am. But I would not presume to speak for other women.

But as you note, yves, that's not the point of the quote. I think Shabana's words are about power... the woman must never be (or even be made to feel) compelled to SUBMIT to the attentions of the man. To borrow a hackeneyed term, she should not be objectified (this is why I find words like 'sexpot' or even 'sex goddess' - with its connotations of an idol presented for the 'worship' of all and sundry - objectionable). Her autonomy should be preserved - no matter how 'sexy' she is, she has the right to be sexy 'freely' (can't find the right words to use here, but I hope the point comes across), not in some kind of male-manipulated metaphorical display cage.

Also, she is control of her body, but she is not in control of male reactions to her body... therefore she must never be PRESUMED to be asking for OR worse, soliciting OR even worse, 'deserving of' OR (worst of all)nothing more than those reactions - some kind of receptacle for them. And this, I believe, is true regardless of the nature of the reactions ('favourable' or otherwise). (I'm reminded of a young man who the other day said to me: "you should even be happy that I'm talking to you - what is a woman if a man does not 'like' the way she looks?" - which I found ludicrous - and funny and very sad all at the same time).

So that's my take, anyway...

Also, yves, just out of curiosity: why do you feel the word 'celebrate' is strong?

Filmi Geek said...

Interesting thoughts, both of you; thanks.

I don't have much to add to Daddy's Girl's astute comments since her thoughts basically mirror my own.

Honestly I don't give a crap what men think of me and in an ideal world no woman would have to. If a woman wants to please a man - if a woman wants to please anyone - than she should have the freedom to do so but she should also have the freedom not to define herself in those terms all the time.

Too many women, especially women in positions of power or influence or success, are judged for their appearance and sexuality in ways that are inappropriate and irrelevant. Women attempting to achieve, in any area, are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they choose not to invest effort in their appearance they are criticized for being manly, ugly, unfeminine, unappealing. If they instead take meticulous care of their looks or - God forbid - change hairstyles, then these superficialities become the focus of attention on them.

Yves, your use of the word "provocation" raises some serious red flags for me. What are you envisioning men being provoked to do when confronted with a woman who takes control of her sexuality and expresses it by the means of her choice and at her own will? And by using the word "provoke" are you suggesting that they somehow are not responsible for controlling themselves and respecting women's autonomy? You may not mean these things, but you should know that when you use the word "provocation" the implication is there. And if you *do* mean that implication, then the answer is women should not have limits imposed on their freedom of expression because of some backward idea that men cannot be trusted to behave like humans instead of animals. That's insulting both to women and to men.

yves said...

Hello Carla and Daddy's Girl,

Hum... I knew this subject was delicate. You must both relize I'm a man and so cannot completely penetrate the thoughts and feelings of women, even though I've been married 23 years now to a rather feminist wife!

That word "celebration" seems strange or even strong to me in the context of women dealing with their own femininity, because for me a celebration is generally public, and if a woman" celebrates" her own sensuality, as Shabana-ji says, then it must have a public dimension. If it was only private, I would use the word "enjoy" or something like that. Daddy's Girl, you use that word (enjoyment) as if it was a synonym, but to me it isn't. Of course I don't know what Shabana had in mind when SHE used it.
You say a woman must never be presumed to be asking for reactions from men because she isn't in control of men's reactions to her body. Fair enough, but surely women know when they are using their body in more or less attractive ways, no? I mean, they have this instinct that if they dress in such or such a way, they will attract men's looks more or less, no? Certain women, I suppose, spend that much more time in their bathroom figuring out the impact of their dress and makeup on people around them: it could be women or men, by the way.

Carla, I used the word provocation on purpose, because I do believe there are women who enjoy that effect of their efforts at making an impression thanks to their appearance. Up to a certain extent, I believe it's their right, too: after all, not all provocation is wrong, or destructive. I believe seduction is a mild form of provocation, and that a lot of the interplay between men and women needs some provocation.

In my first message, I alluded to these places on earth where religious ideologists have forbidden women from showing anything of their femininity: well, I'm as we all are, deeply concerned by that attitude. Women have the unalienable right to do what they want with their own apperance. But they know that this right has social consequences. Men are men, that is, they look at women in a way women do not look at men. And women know this. They know that wearing this makeup, this type of outfit, they are calculating an effect which is not only personal, but also social and possibly seduction-oriented.

Okay, I'll come back and read your reactions!

Daddy's Girl said...

Yves, you've answered my question about 'celebration' of sensuality - thanks... for me a celebration can be private and personal or public, so I guess it's just a question of differing opinions over the use of the word. Regarding your other question, the subjectivity I referred to in my previous comment comes in here - yes, some women consciously dress to attract the opposite (or same) sex, and I don't believe that there's anything wrong with that at all - UNLESS the woman does so not out of her own free will (because she wants to receive that admiration, and to do so gives her pleasure) but because she feels some kind of pressure or demand upon herself to look a certain way in order to be respected/admired/accepted etc... this, perhaps, may be the fine line Shabana refers to. Like Carla pointed out, too often women are judged by their appearance. Women should not feel that they have to look a certain way or conform with a certain male-imposed concept/model of beauty or sexiness. What IS 'sexy' anyway? I really have a problem with all the stereotypes of sexiness and sensuality that are so prevalent... people find different things sexy... for one person a 'skin-show' is sexy and appealing, for another it's a turn-off... I think real sexiness is innate and more about self-confidence and intelligence than anything else... but I am going off on a tangent here...
On the 'provocation' thing, I'm not quite sure that I've understood your point... are you saying that limits should be placed on women's self-expression because sometimes the intent is to seduce? If so, I disagree completely... but then I'm not sure that's what you're saying.

yves said...

Hi Daddy's girl,

Your two points - on sexiness and on provocation - somehow seem to coalesce, because, when about the first point, you say: "some women consciously dress to attract the opposite (or same) sex, and I don't believe that there's anything wrong with that at all - UNLESS the woman does so not out of her own free will" -, I see this exactly as their right too, as I've mentioned before, but also as the possibility of their going too far in this "attraction" to the point that it becomes "provocation".

For me, provocation, which can come from both sides, male or female, is an attitude which goes beyond pleasant seductiveness towards the reasearch of a baser relationship where the body plays the major role to the detriment of the mind and the heart.

And I feel that women have a greater risk to pervert this delicate balance, because they are the fairer sex, the one in which beauty and truth are better arranged. Provocation is a sort of deception. Perhaps I'm wrong and very male-oriented here, but I tend to accept provocation coming from males more easily (as being "natural"?) than coming from women, because then they spoil their femininity more than men do their masculinity. Or shall we say I don't mind it as much if men spoil this masculinity a little: but I realise I perhaps shouldn't say that...
It's hard to strike an objective chord in these matters...

Filmi Geek said...

Yves, I hope you can forgive me for taking two of your comments out of context and giving you my reaction to them.

First, "Men are men, that is, they look at women in a way women do not look at men." To the extent this is true, it is the problem of the men who do it, and it is their responsibility to take control over it and restrict it to the appropriate time and place. When a man listens to a lecture by a theoretical physicist who happens to be a woman and the first reaction he has to it is to comment on her dress and appearance, that is not because she acted in a way to provoke him - it is because he has not been able to overcome his deep prejudice that a woman is a sexual object first and everything else secondly. (See this link and its comments.)

I am not talking here about a woman attempting to manipulate that prejudice - that is not a woman celebrating her sexuality, but a woman exploiting it, and is as much a part of the problem as the prejudice itself.

Here's the second point: "And I feel that women have a greater risk to pervert this delicate balance, because they are the fairer sex, the one in which beauty and truth are better arranged." I'm calling bullshit on this one, Yves. I absolutely cannot buy this "fairer sex" notion nor any romantic notions about beauty and truth. Women are human animals just like men, and no more or less likely to hold the keys to either truth or beauty or any other exalted concept.

I think my response to this comes down, once again, to the difference between a woman taking control of her sexuality on the one hand, and on the other hand exploiting it by playing into cultural and institutional prejudices in order to manipulate them to her advantage. The former is positive, the latter destructive. And it's the positive sense that I heard Shabana ji's comment from which this discussion began.

yves said...


Sorry I delayed answering that expostulation of yours: "Women are human animals just like men, and no more or less likely to hold the keys to either truth or beauty or any other exalted concept".

For me, if there is something that Shabana Azmi really shows very well, its a certain distinction, a certain dignity, which I have to connect with womanhood. You might not like to connect with such notions as "the fairer sex" or truth and beauty, and call me an incurable romantic, but I still feel that women because of their connectedness to life, its stregth and its fragility, are in a better position than men to stand for beauty and truth. It doesn't mean that they always do so, of course. But there is something in femininity that I revere because of this.

So when women practise what I called perhaps wrongly "provocation", by which I mean the use of their appearance to selfish or destructive ends, I am, true to say, more shocked than if men do it. It doesn't mean that I would disregard men's provocative attitudes; it just seems less fitting for women. In all this, I realise I'm a man, and biased of course!
cheers anyway

Filmi Geek said...

Yves, I am glad you are willing to acknowledge these notions as romantic. :)

In all seriousness, I thank you both for the outstanding and thought-provoking discussion. I can't help but think that Shabana ji would be pleased to know that her comment got people thinking to this kind of depth.