Image © Glamour
“What a woman was criticized for doing yesterday she is ridiculed for not doing today.” – Edith Wharton, 1915
Alfred Hitchcock’s films often made us wonder who has more power, the person doing the gazing or the person being gazed upon. Modern expressions of sexuality make many wonder the same thing. In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy questions just how liberated women are and suggests that any person that willingly objectifies themselves while not fully aware of their own motivation or the context for doing so has less power than assumed.
What is a female chauvinist pig (FCP)? Levy writes:
If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves… Only thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were “burning their bras” and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time? What was almost more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and – often – women who edit magazines like Maxim and make programs like The Man Show and Girls Gone Wild. This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along.
It’s like the scene in Mad Men (season 2, episode 6) where Peggy – now a copy writer – asks Joan, the office manager, how to be included in the after hours business meetings with her male colleagues, which often take place in less professional settings. Joan tells Peggy, “You’re in their country, learn to speak the language.” And Peggy does, but by season 6 while her career is blossoming, interpersonally she is very stiff and short with people.
Unfortunately, while Mad Men is depicting the early 1960s, the image of a successful woman still does not enhance femininity in a lot of women’s or men’s eyes. Could it be that many modern successful women – especially ones that involve a form of celebrity – often feel the need to present an over-sexualized image of themselves because they fear their success and possible loss of feminine power will make them fail to get a successful partner? Certainly being rejected by an object hurts less than being rejected by a fully-fledged multifaceted woman – making her more approachable in a way. But when women objectify themselves and each other, it reduces freedom and power because they are playing by the same old rules instead of writing their own.
As one reviewer said of the Female Chauvinist Pigs:
To Levy’s credit, she readily admits, more than once, that she, too, wants to ‘belong,’ to ‘get with the program,’ to seek acceptance among others, as is human nature to do. She observes the mainstreaming of raunch, and women, including feminists, falling obediently into line in promoting it. ‘But I could never make the argument add up in my head,’ she writes. ‘How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavored to banish *good* for women? Why is laboring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star–a woman whose *job* is to imitate arousal in the first place–going to render us sexually liberated?’ Raunchy and liberated are not synonyms. It is worth asking ourselves if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.
Men and women are different, and within both sexes there are further differences, so why should our versions of success be the same – and look the same? Why is it not okay to just be an amazing singer, for example? Now everything is formulaically choreographed and “corrected.” Certainly it’s not easy to put on a performance or be in the spotlight, but why does it always end up with some variation of a strip tease? If you’ve got it, flaunt it used to be a riské thing to say. Now it’s more like, if you’ve got it you’d better flaunt it or you’re yesterday’s news. And if you don’t have it then you’ve got to worship those who do and buy a bunch of products to temporarily feel less inadequate. There’s no doubt we need more representations of originality and class accompanying fame. This topic has gained a lot of attention recently because pop stars and celebrities have been flaunting less and less clothing while behaving in rather crass and predictable ways. Last month actress Rashida Jones wrote a piece for Glamour about the pornification of everything, saying:
“Every woman’s sexuality is different. Can all of us really be into stripper moves? The truth is, for every woman who loves the pole, there’s another who likes her feet rubbed. But in pop culture there’s just one way to be. And so much of it feels staged for men, not for our own pleasure. I understand that owning and expressing our sexuality is a huge step forward for women. But, in my opinion, we are at a point of oversaturation.
It’s like when TV network censors evaluate a show’s content. Instead of doing a detailed report of dirty jokes or offensive words, they will simply say, “It’s a tonnage issue.” One or two swear words might be fine; 10 is too many. Three sexual innuendos is OK; eight is overkill. When it comes to porn imagery and pop culture, we have a tonnage issue. And then there’s this: What else ties these pop stars together besides, perhaps, their entangled G-strings? Their millions of teen-girl fans. Even if adult Miley and Nicki have ownership of their bodies, do the girls imitating them have the same agency? Where do we draw the line between teaching them freedom of sexual expression and pride in who they are on the inside? Are we even allowed to draw a line?”
It’s good food for thought. Everyone likes to feel sexy, beautiful and desired, but at what cost?
Excluding the people that create and sell fantasy, does anyone win when they see finished images like the one in the video below? Does anyone watch this and not get a bad taste in their mouth?
It simultaneously evokes awe and sadness. Caroline Heldman, chair of the Politics department at Occidental College, tells us why this kind of image in the context of sexual objectification is destructive to girls who are taught that it can be empowering:
Levy discusses the impact sexual objectification and self-objectification on the development of sexuality and identity,
“By any measure, the way we educate young people about sexuality is not working. We expect them to dismiss their instinctive desires and curiosities even as we bombard them with images that imply that lust is the most important appetite and hotness the most impressive virtue. Somehow, we expect people who are by definition immature to make sense of this contradictory mishmash. Our national approach to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy is predicated on the assumption that teenagers will want so badly to maintain their purity for marriage – despite the fact that half of their parent’s marriages end in divorce – that they will ignore their own hormones, ignore the porn stars on MTV and all the blogs and blow jobs on the Internet, and do as their teachers tell them. Unsurprisingly, teenagers are not cooperating with this plan. Rather than only telling teens why they shouldn’t have sex, perhaps we also ought to be teaching them why they should. We are doing little to help them differentiate their sexual desires from their desire for attention.
To write Dilemmas of Desire, Deborah Tolman interviewed two sets of teenage girls, one at an urban public school and one at a wealthier suburban public school, asking them specifically about their experience of wanting, as opposed to their experience of ‘sex,’ which so often becomes a conversation about being wanted. She was struck by ‘how confusing it is to develop a sexual identity that leaves their sexuality out,’ which was usually what she heard most of her subjects attempting. Whether or not they had had sex, the girls had remarkably difficult times experiencing or expressing sexual desire. Tolman describes girls who seemed to have ‘silent bodies,’ who found a way to ignore or muffle any arousal because they were afraid really feeling it would lead them into the treacherous territory of pregnancy and disease. They could not allow themselves to experience ’embodied sexual desire,’ as Tolman calls it, and unsurprisingly, they experienced a great deal of confusion and anxiety instead…
Whereas older women were around for the women’s movement itself, or at least for the period when its lessons were still alive in the country’s collective memory, teenage girls have only the here and now. They have never known a time when “ho” wasn’t part of the lexicon, when 16 year-olds didn’t get breast implants, when porn stars weren’t topping the best-seller lists, when strippers weren’t mainstream… None of this can possibly be ‘ironic’ for teens because it’s their whole truth – there’s no backdrop of idealism to temper these messages. If there’s a way in which grown women are appropriating raunch as a rebellion against the constraints of feminism, we can’t say the same for teens. They never had a feminism to rebel against… Our national love of porn and pole dancing is not the byproduct of a free and easy society with an earthy acceptance of sex. It is a desperate stab at free-wheeling eroticism in a time and place characterized by intense anxiety. What are we afraid of? Everything… which includes sexual freedom and real female power.”
We are selling ourselves short if we allow these raunchy scripts to shape our own identities and sexual expressions. I agree with Levy when she stated:
If we really believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we would not need to be like strippers or [be] like men or [be] like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves. That won’t be easy, but ultimately it would be no more difficult than the kind of contortions FCPs are constantly performing in an effort to prove themselves. More importantly, the rewards would be the very things Female Chauvinist Pigs want so desperately, the things women deserve: freedom and power.
In order to do that, we’ve got to start identifying our own ways to be relevant – ones that don’t involve contempt for men – rather, ways that include our own creative approaches that can benefit everyone.
Further reading: The Caitlyn Jenner Cover – Empowerment Or Just A Bunch Of BS?