I REMEMBER the first time I watched the movie Grease at my aunt's place over 17 years ago. (For those who haven't watched it and don't want to know the ending, please skip the next two paragraphs!)
To try and woo the love of his life, John Travolta's bad boy character, Danny, had gone through a 'goodie two-shoes' transformation and to everyone's surprise, finds his sweet and innocent romantic interest, Sandy - played by Olivia Newton John - stepping out in a slick, vampy image to win his heart in return. Danny reverts to his old ways and celebrates, in a grand cinematic finale, a 'happily ever after' with his new sexpot of a girlfriend.
Watching this left me feeling confused. Why was Sandy the only one who made the big change in the end? It was clear that Danny was willing to change too, why was there not a compromise, instead of one party giving in completely?
As a meek teenager, I didn't voice out my grievances to my relatives watching with me. If it made for a happy ending, and it was a pop culture classic, so that must be the way the world works, I figured to myself.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I watched the MTV Video Music Awards, and saw a similar slick, vampy image. This time it was Beyonce, singing Sandy-esque lyrics like “I just wanna be the girl you like,” and suggestively wiggling her tush amongst a bevy of dancers. And then, in a small moment of stillness, as she took a defiant stance, the screen behind Beyonce flashed the word 'FEMINIST'.
Since when did the idea of being submissive and objectified become an actual woman's cause? Perhaps I'm nitpicking, perhaps I missed something, but for someone who grew up to her singing 'Always 50/50 in relationships' in 'Independent Woman', yet again, I was left feeling confused.
And then I read about the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities getting leaked out online. Had the hacker targeted male celebs instead, would it have been as much of a big deal? How does the media get away with glorifying the female human body, then turn its back on it to fan the flames of scandal and shame?
Being exposed to an increasingly hyper-sexualised culture in a predominantly patriarchal society, finding out what defines me as a lady has been a confounding pursuit.
I appreciate a man holding a door for me but when he lets it close on my face, I used to forcibly adjust my perception of him being discourteous rather than ungentlemanly. It's a bizarre conditioning, this expectation of a man being a more capable person than I.
I grew up with the impression that wearing makeup and clothes that embraced growing curves was an indication of being taken seriously as a grown-up. Yet when I walk down the street with a painted face and a tight skirt, I suspect that my presence as a mature, proper decision-making human being is not the reason why I get gawked or hollered at by members of the opposite sex.
I feel just as awkward as that Grease-watching teenager, and even at 32 years old I still feel like I am coming-of-age. It is a biological fact that women are physically weaker, so banking on sensuality as an advantage I think is vindicated, but to see it as a source of strength is misleading. So... how do I assert myself as a powerful woman whilst acknowledging my vulnerabilities? How do I groom myself for myself – from wearing cute dresses to shaving my armpits - when I know very well that the root of looking conventionally 'good' lies in trying to appear more attractive to men? And, stuck in one of the many deep, muddling aspects of gender roles, am I embracing my prime in womanhood only partially if I opt to adopt over bearing a child of my own?
Just last week, I read an interview that struck me. It was with actor Jada Pinkett-Smith, who commented on her initial fears about changing her surname for marriage. She said:
"I have always believed that an empowered woman is one that can stand on her own two feet and has the strength to trust her personal code of womanhood and not necessarily the code that a collective creates as the standard to which an independent woman must adhere to, to actually be identified as...Independent. As long as your decision reflects your personal code towards building the woman you want to be in this world... Job well done.”
Incidentally, upon doing a little more research, I discovered that Beyonce had changed her name to Knowles-Carter after her marriage. Surprisingly, so did her husband. Looks like they lived up to her '50/50 in relationships' motto, after all – an intimate agreement overshadowed by the branding of herself as 'Mrs Carter' for her recent tour. I gather that's her own personal code, and she's certainly in a position for it to be anything else, for that matter.As for others like me, wading around the grey marshes of subjectivity, I'm sure our codes will be determined, clear as day – we might just looking for them in all the wrong places.