Sex as Power

By Kate Ringer

God is a woman.

Who knew four words could be so subversive, so controversial? With those four words, Ariana Grande changed her career, probably forever. These words show us that when it comes to power, especially the extreme power of a deity, gender matters. Gender really matters. You can’t just ignore gender when it comes to gods, artists, or U.S. presidents. Those roles are reserved for men, and when you dare to say otherwise, there will be backlash.

If you have yet to see the music video for “God is a Woman” by Ariana Grande, I would recommend taking a moment to view it at this link before you continue to read. This video is filled with imagery empowering to women. In my personal favorite part of the music video, Grande literally breaks the glass ceiling with a giant metal hammer. The video also alludes to many classic artworks, recreating them with Grande at the helm instead of a man. For example, the last shot of the video shows a new version of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. There is also a depiction of The Thinker by Rodin, in which Grande sits in the same posture as the thinking man while men throw gendered slurs at her, trying to tear her down. It is through these gender-reversed images that the viewer begins the realize how infrequently women are shown in positions of power historically. It is almost difficult to recognize how little representation there is until you are confronted with images that you have, amazingly, never seen before.

As much as I wanted “God is a Woman” to be my female power song of the summer, there were too many ideas in the lyrics that I couldn’t ignore, and in fact, many lyrics seemed to play into a patriarchal view of women despite all of the imagery in the music video. Once I took the time to look closer at the lyrics, I began to realize that this song is a lot more about sex then it is about female power. Grande has confirmed many times that the song is about female sexual liberation and even tweeted “pussy issa privilege” in the days leading up to the music video’s release. Lyrics like, “You love it how I move you/ You love it how I touch you, my one/ When all is said and done/ You’ll believe God is a woman” in the chorus show how female power is achieved in this song: through sex appeal and sexual prowess. The rising sexual liberation of women in the 21st century has certainly been a step towards gender equality, but Grande’s song reflects a greater issue surrounding female empowerment. A woman shouldn’t have to be conventionally beautiful to be powerful. A woman shouldn’t have to be sexy to be powerful. A woman shouldn’t have to be good in bed to be powerful. If we insist that she must be these things, then we are only enforcing the objectification of women that has persisted for hundreds of years.

So often, historically powerful women are sexualized instead of celebrated. Cleopatra is one figure that immediately comes to mind, but there may be more to her than people think. In fact, none of her writings survive, and her most famous biographer, Plutarch, was born 76 years after she died, so it is quite difficult to say who she was without seeing her through the eyes of the patriarchs that characterized her. However, her reputation precedes her, and her affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony are not under dispute. Although Cleopatra is known for being a “seductress,” this may be her reputation because the scholars who wrote about her thought this label a better alternative to the clear signs of Cleopatra’s intelligence and her ability to effectively wield power. What makes me sad is how little of her side of the story is known by women, making the story of Cleopatra simply a reinforcement of the narrative of women using sex to achieve power.

Cleopatra lived a long time ago, though, and there have to be more recent examples than that. Even as recently as the 2016 election, sexuality was used as a way to subjugate a woman: Hillary Clinton. In Clinton’s case, she didn’t necessarily fit into our society’s standards of attractiveness, as a woman in her sixties. I remember being constantly bombarded with pictures online portraying Clinton looking her worst, as if wrinkles in a woman disqualify her from any chance of competency or intelligence. Too many of her opponents focused more on her sex appeal than her platform, and once again women everywhere learned a powerful lesson: you have to be hot to be powerful, but no matter what, you won’t be respected.

There is one theory proposed by Roy Baumeister, based in evolutionary psychology, as to why sex and power have been paired for women for so long. According to this theory, sexual choices can be analyzed following an economic model of heterosexual couples. (Unfortunately, evolutionary sciences have yet to conduct much research on non-hetero mating practices.) In this model, female sexual activity is a limited resource, as opposed to male sexual activity, which is essentially unlimited due to low mating costs. In order to “purchase” female sexual activities, males must barter with love, commitment, money, status, and other goods. However, throughout history, men have possessed the vast majority of both power and material goods, making it so women have to use the one asset they have, their sexuality, to gain access to those resources.

This is surely a troubling theory to discuss, but the good news is that evolution is just the beginning of the explanation as to how our society operates. Culture is fluid; a lot has changed in the last few decades for women, and because of greater access to power and material resources, women should not have to use their sexuality as a bartering chip for power. This is what makes Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” so troubling for me. If I want to achieve power at the same scale that males have for thousands of years, I will have to work in situations outside the bedroom. Sexual liberation is not the end-all-be-all solution to equality, it is just one of the steps we can take to get there. Women have to know that they can use their minds and voices to achieve power and not just their bodies.

The greatest thing we can do to achieve power as women is to educate ourselves and, in turn, educate the people around us. If we wait for our culture to change, we will be waiting for quite some time. It’s our job to be the change that we want to see in the world and to encourage the women around us to do the same. Let’s show them what a powerful woman looks like; she looks like all of us.

Photos of women at the Women’s March on Trump’s Inauguration Day. Learn more here:

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