Top Down Approach

28th August 2014 Blog

It’s often the way that when something stirs your interest you suddenly come across a whole lot of references and connections all at once. This week it was breasts. There was this BuzzFeed article on the jargon of the new feminism; then a curious and active comment thread about this cartoon on a friend’s Facebook page. This thread in turn made many references to two further campaigns, here and here, references that fell over themselves in equal amounts of support and, it seemed to me, confusion.

There were three rather hefty concepts colliding with one another like wrestlers on a fairground ride in the threads I read and in these campaigns too I think. These are the concepts of power, desire and free will. Interestingly only the first gets much of a name check, the other two are hidden within comments about the male gaze and the female choice to wear revealing clothing. But bared or not, they’re the building blocks of the argument, because as we all know, in the end everything comes back to the Wikipedia entry on Philosophy.

In this series of related comment threads, articles and campaigns, breasts are clearly an arena for the dynamics of power. Men’s power over women but also women’s empowerment. Their primary function is the feeding of children. Running a close second to breastfeeding in the primacy of breast interpretation is the breast as political statement. In case you missed it, Sunday 24 August was international Go Topless Day.

So breastfeeding is empowering to women, it is functional, it is beautiful, it ought to be represented on social media. Toplessness is about equality, and this too is about power, women’s power to do what men do, freely and without harassment.

Desire comes far down the list of acceptable meanings for breasts. The same Google searches that return so many pages about functional and political breasts return markedly few on the legitimate expression of sexual desire related to them. Desire appears not to be legitimate; it stems from “hypersexualisation”. Instead of grappling with the idea of desire and its role in the fulfilling sexual life of women as well as men, there is an open wish for society to be “desensitised” to breasts so that they are no longer perceived as sexual at all. Desire is, in fact, the often unnamed target of these campaigns.

Free will, meanwhile, is whisked back and forth across this argument like a tennis ball across a Wimbledon net. This is an inevitable risk with arguments about the dynamics of power where participants are understood to have differential quantities of the good stuff.  Sometimes choice is a constant capacity held equally by all, sometimes men have it and women are denied it by circumstance or by unwanted male attention, sometimes it is men who are without it, as when they are ruled by their urges. Occasionally, and confusingly, these different definitions operate in the very same argument.

These views, boldly expressed across many sites in the end all have one thing in common: the desire to ascribe a single dominant socio-cultural meaning to this particular body part.

But why?

Dominant meanings of this kind are necessarily reductive and polarising. They force people to choose sides when they could quite peacefully coexist and do each other no harm.

Of course it is the nature of a campaign to have an aim, and usually an enemy, and social media lends itself particularly well to campaigning. The problem with campaigning over this kind of terrain is that it’s like whacking through a spring wood in a four by four. You get through, certainly, but you do so at a cost to the bluebells.

In this case it seems an unnecessary cost. Breasts are generous enough to feed our children, carry political slogans and turn on our partners – male and female – all at once.

In fact, breasts are a diversion. The real arguments here are not about breasts at all. They are about power, desire and free will. The real challenge is not to go topless down your local high street, it is to resist simplification and retain multiple meanings even when using social media. It is to run diverse organisations and sustain heterogeneous nations. At least, that’s what we think, and what we work to do.

Richard has been talking to Conscious 2 about leading complex organisations. Watch the video here.

The image at the top is obviously by renowned photographer Spencer Tunick but the image used here is from Maegan Tintari’s Flikr account who has licensed its use. Whether or not Mr Tunick allowed Maegan Tintari to use it we’re not sure. Honestly, we hope that being clear about what we’ve done and linking to all concerned is enough to keep us out of pokey. If not, we’ll probably develop some strong views on prison reform and recidivism while we’re there and do some work on that once we’re out.