How do we present ourselves as women?
That was an important question posed by Donna Karan Monday night as she defended recently exposed predator Harvey Weinstein to UK’s Daily Mail:
How do we present ourselves as women?...Are we asking for it, by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality? And what are we throwing out to our children today about how to dance and how to perform and what to wear? How much should they show? I don't think it's only Harvey Weinstein ... We have to look at our world ... And how women are dressing and what they're asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.
It’s easy to read Karan’s comments and wonder why, in the 21st century, a world where “still not asking for it” memes and gifs flood every social medium, are women still blamed for their objectified condition? Further, Karan, the founder of the massive DKNY brand, designs clothes for women, and plays a significant role in the way society encourages women to present themselves. So, one would think, Karan should know that the way a woman dresses and presents herself does not warrant an invitation for men, or any other dominant person, to exploit, harass, or terrorize them.
One point worth clarifying and confronting for people like Karan, is that Harvey Weinstein’s actions are not only foul because of his obvious title as Minister of Misogyny. What makes sexual violence by predators like Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump so deplorable is that their actions are about power. It’s not just a power found in identity – man over woman – it’s power also derived from social and economic status. Those acts of sexual violence are not about sexual pleasure, they are about the orgasmic nature of power, and the ease with which those in power can exploit and objectify their subjects. It’s part of what makes Weinstein so vile – never “just” about sex – his actions are about exploiting the sexuality, aspirations, and fear of young women (and in other cases men, trans, and nonbinary folks) to feed, recreate, and reaffirm power and dominance.
That brings me to Donna Karan. While the designer has since walked back her comments, Karan herself, as an economically dominant white woman, made a statement that objectified women everywhere – including the women who labor for her brand. Seemingly so concerned for the ways in which women are presenting themselves, and pointing the finger at female sensuality and sexuality expressed through attire, one would think Karan’s brand mirrors her apparent point of view. However, DKNY used Emily Ratajkowski as their Spring/Summer 2017 and Fall 2017 muse, plastering billboards across New York City of the model in her skivvies, oozing sensuality, or footage of her walking through the streets of New York, midriff exposed (oh, no!).
Interestingly, for those of us who follow Ratajkowski on Instagram, she’s been a fairly outspoken women’s rights activist. In February 2016, she penned a moving essay for Lenny Letter titled “Baby Woman,” in which she described an adolescence defined by objectification and societal shame that inspired her desire to reinvent and reclaim “sexy.” One of the most striking passages from her eloquent piece reads:
... I hear the voices reminding me not to send the wrong message...And what is that message exactly? The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men's desires. To me, "sexy" is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up? Most adolescent women are introduced to "sexy" women through porn or Photoshopped images of celebrities. Is that the only example of a sexual woman we will provide to the young women of our culture? Where can girls look to see women who find empowerment in deciding when and how to be or feel sexual? Even if being sexualized by society's gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.
An educated guess would say that Karan didn’t choose Ratajkowski to represent her brand because of her take on female empowerment. Working in the fashion industry, Karan is partially responsible for the ways women are encouraged – and pressured – to present themselves. But, in this moment, she harnessed her power to chastise and inspire fear in women for what they wear, and for embracing sensuality, while she apparently exploits models who endorse that sensuality for the good of her brand. Karan can only embrace publicly exposing the female body as long as it isn’t hers, and as long as DKNY reaps the profits. What can I say? Sex sells, and power is one hell of an aphrodisiac.