There’s a Better Way than Using Sex to Empower Women, Hollywood

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Reclaiming your sexuality.

It seems that ever since the #MeToo movement took flight on Twitter in 2017, we’ve been hearing this phrase everywhere. But what does it mean? For most, reclaiming sexuality is part of the recovery process for victims of sexual trauma or sexual assault. It can help victims feel comfortable in their own skin again, it can help them develop healthy relationships, and it can even give them a sense of empowerment so that the next time someone tries to take advantage of them, they don’t feel as helpless or hopeless as they might have felt before.

However, it seems our culture has skewed this concept and even taken it to unhealthy levels.

Take Miley Cyrus for example. In a recent interview with Elle magazine, the former Disney star opened up about how her episode of Black Mirror (wherein she played a pop star imprisoned—figuratively and, later, literally, by her own success) “mirrored” her own dark experience with misogyny in Hollywood. I won’t bother going into the details of Miley’s past (you can read more about that here), but Cyrus’ latest attempt to take control rather than be controlled is through embracing her sexuality. But Cyrus—savvy businesswoman that she is—surely knows she’s using it to sell records, too. And even if her primary purpose is to reclaim control, she risks (and, at least in the eyes of some men, becomes) exactly what she’s trying to avoid becoming: an object.

According to her, she’s “never performing for men” in her music videos or stage performances, but the extreme sexual content of her shows doesn’t feel healthy for women either. On her latest EP, SHE IS COMING, Cyrus graphically refers to sex in multiple songs. Plugged In’s Kristin Smith even described one track as “downright pornographic,” stating that the details were too explicit to discuss.

Cyrus isn’t alone in this venture either. According to Total Film, Jennifer Lawrence took a similar stance on controlling how her body is portrayed when making Red Sparrow. She had to strip in front of a camera and a room full of cast and crew members, but she says that it helped her to recover from when nude photos of her were leaked online. “It was never my choice for the world to see my naked body,” she said. “I didn’t get to make that decision. In doing this film, in doing this for my art… I really felt, I still feel, empowered. I feel like I took something back that was taken from me.”

Unfortunately, it seems that Hollywood’s approach to “empowering women” and “reclaiming sexuality” involves making sex scenes more graphic than ever before. Shows such as Euphoria and Harlots are thriving because of this. The former has already been renewed for a second season, according to CNN. And the latter’s creator, Moira Buffini, praised her show in an interview with The Daily Beast for having female writers, directors, and producers and for never letting the camera “linger on anyone’s body for an aesthetic.” While that is somewhat encouraging, it doesn’t change the fact that the show still features as much sex as it would if a man had written and directed it. The only real difference is that the creators are primarily female. Same product, different branding.

And then there’s the latest season of 13 Reasons Why. The third episode explores the journey of character Jessica Davis (portrayed by actress Alisha Boe) as she finally starts to recover from her rape in the first season. After talking with a friend about how difficult sex has been, her friend recommends masturbation as a technique to discover herself in a new way. This is portrayed in a scene that at first focuses on how uncomfortable Jessica truly is with her body, but then quickly turns into a montage of sex scenes where she is in “control” of what happens. Setting aside the fact that these are high school students being portrayed, the entire episode felt like an excuse to raise as many eyebrows as possible. It seems to ask, “How far can we go in the name of female empowerment?”

Although the film and music industries seem to believe that  the way for women to reclaim their sexual identity is through… well, more sex… there is another approach to female empowerment: removing sex from the equation. In Captain Marvel, lead heroine Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) doesn’t have a romantic relationship. Instead, the movie focuses on Danvers’ journey of self-discovery, which is largely influenced by her platonic friendship with fellow Air Force pilot Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). “When we walk down the street, we see two girlfriends just chatting away and supporting each other and having each other’s backs,” Lynch says. “Why don’t we see that in cinema?”

Indeed, why not? Lynch will portray another empowered woman in the upcoming 25th Bond movie, where she has been cast as the new 007 agent. And no, she isn’t playing Bond. She’s replacing him. The somewhat misogynistic character of Bond will still be portrayed by Daniel Craig. He’ll even try to seduce Lynch’s character, but unlike previous “Bond girls”—now officially addressed as “Bond women”—Lynch’s character has no interest in him. The franchise aims to grow by giving women the option to say, “No,” to his advances. Frankly, Lynch’s attitude is refreshing, and I sincerely hope that women like Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence, Moira Buffini, and even the fictional Jessica Davis realize they have that same option. Perhaps it will even influence Hollywood as a whole.

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