By Lisa Wade @ Sociological Images
We’ve all heard the truism “sex sells.”
But whose sex is sold? And to who?
If it was simply that sex sold,
…we’d see men and women equally sexually objectified in popular culture. Instead, we see, primarily, women sold to (presumably heterosexual) men. So what are we selling, exactly, if not “sex”?
From time to time men’s magazines exalt body types that vary from the tall, skinny, buxom shape they typically flaunt. True, the lovely ladies on Maxim’s and FHM’s “Hot 100” lists look pretty much the same, but it’s nice to see a little branching out now and again, so let’s celebrate what we can.
Small Busted Bombshells
While buxom breasts are a highly appreciated part of the female form, Mila Kunis was just named #3 on Maxim’s Hot 100, which considers their picks “the definitive list” of the world’s most beautiful women. Mila also made #9 on FHM where male readers vote for their faves. Also on that list are Kristin Stewart, Paris Hilton, Pippa and her sister Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. And Keira Knightly once made FHM’s #1 hottest hottie.
Slim figures are also admired, but Kim Kardashian, along with Scarlett Johansson and pear-shaped Jennifer Lopez, made FHM’s top 100 this year. And, Christina Hendricks, “Joan” of Mad Men, was picked as a “Girls We Love” covergirl.
When women see men gaping in appreciation of Joan’s full figure, I’m sure they are better able to appreciate their own curves. And when Mila Kunis asked Justin Timberlake if her breasts were too small in “Friends With Benefits,” I’m sure plenty of women were happy to hear him respond, “They’re breasts, aren’t they?” No problem. And then he falls in love.
Opening up the ideal is good for both women and men, even if there is still far to go.
When a woman sees herself as beautiful her self-esteem rises. It’s also easier to feel sexy. And when she feels sexier her interest in sex rises, too. She isn’t distracted, wondering if she’s attractive enough. And, women tend to get aroused by feeling that their partners see them as alluring. Plus, when men see that the ladies they love resemble Maxim’s Top 100 in some way, they can more easily see the beauty of their partners.
I suspect most women overestimate how harshly men see them and I suspect that most men are more accepting of women’s bodies than women are, themselves. So that’s good news ladies.
Our society’s ideals don’t have to determine our self-esteem, but they usually play a heavy role both in how we see ourselves and in how others see us. And so while we can work to move beyond the superficial, we’d all benefit if our culture expanded its notions of beauty, too.
The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions.
“So I can just stay like this for a little while?” she asks. “Do you need me to move more?”
Those are the opening lines from New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, writing about the HBO series “Girls” which premiered April 15. I wrote a bit about the interview last week asking, “Is male or female sexuality better?” But Lena and Frank have more to say, and so do I.
Bruni says their sex play seems to be all about what “he” wants “her” to do. Dunham’s real life informs the show, and Dunham suggests that what the proverbial “he” wants is often NOT what “she” wants. Amidst aggressive posturing and “a lot of errant hair pulling” she has thought, “There’s no way any teenage girl taught you and reinforced that behavior.”
The scene, and Dunham’ comments, suggest a depersonalized sexuality with women as objects, sex as sometimes harsh gymnastics and, too often, all about “his” pleasure.
She thinks it’s tied to internet porn, which so many young men are steeped in.
Some women get into pornified sex, too, but usually not all the time, or not on the first few dates. And most seem to want something more, even if porn-sex is a part of the experience.
Meet Valerie, who discovered pornography at age 12 and was very excited by it. Today she sometimes finds it exciting when men pull porn moves on her. But at the same time she says, “It’s icky”:
I don’t just want to become Body A. I want men to feel like they are with me, Valerie, a particular woman with a particular body and my own unique personality. I want them to be in the moment, as opposed to going through some form of learned behavior. I want it to be our own experience as opposed to an imitation of porn.
She talks of Miguel, a musician. She can tell he’s into porn by how he acts:
Lights glaring, gaping at her body parts, manipulating her into positions popular in pornography so he could admire her. He was aggressive, he was confident, he was following a formula. He was cold.
As Valerie saw it, “He thought it was hot, that he was a stud. I felt cheapened. I felt so empty after the experience.”
Dunham can relate, saying that, “People can be so available in a superficial sense that they’re inaccessible in a deeper one.”
One woman wrote about her and her friends’ experiences for GQ and offered tips for the internet-drenched generation. She loves both porn and sex, she says, but warns that not all women are charmed by being called a “dirty whore.” Most women don’t want anal three times in one night – and not from men they barely know.
And why is it, she asks, that orgasming inside someone, “the goal of every dude for zillions of years,” now seems to pale in comparison to “facials”? Noting the irony, “It hardly seems fair to call that sex. It’s more like masturbation with a fellow 3-D person. You finish with your hand, after all, like you’ve done with a million clips.” And please, no facials on the fourth date. “That’s stuff to save for later, when the excitement of someone new has worn into a comfortable live-tweeting-Monk-from-bed kind of cohabitation.”
And maybe when there’s a larger context of relationship, and not just empty sex.
Ashley Judd’s face looked puffy in the promo for her new TV series, Missing. Big deal. She’s aged since I last saw her, and maybe she’s gained a little weight.
And then the furor. Everyone talking about Ashley’s face.
So she responded in the Daily Beast. A few lines:
The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted. The assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.
The lines linger, waiting to be soaked up.
We are described and detailed
our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart
our worth ascertained and ascribed based on
the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification
The body detailed and critiqued, diminished and demeaned. An emotional trashing. Cut up, dissected. It feels like a killing. No wonder we are body-obsessed, declare nourishment the enemy and become terrified of aging.
With our bodies spotlighted the rest of us vanishes.
Our voices, our personhood, our potential
and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted
The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us
We become nothing but our “defective” parts.
And we can say nothing as the conversation bubbles everywhere, outside ourselves, removing our power to name and control.
But Judd doesn’t leave us, or herself, hanging in hopelessness. What is deemed good and bad are equally fanciful interpretations, she says, and so she has chosen to abstain from all outside judgments about herself and her body.
We are social animals. Our identities are keenly influenced by how others see us, and more so when those visions act in concert. When many see us a certain way, the agreement brings objectivity, while our solitary thoughts seem merely subjective.
But the declarations are not absolute. Especially when we discern shallowness and falsity. We may choose otherwise:
I do not want to give my power, my self-esteem
or my autonomy
to any person, place, or thing outside myself
The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself
my personal integrity
and my relationship with my Creator
“It is ultimately about conversations women will either choose to have or choose not to have,” says NPR’s Linda Holmes.
Let’s have some new conversations.
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I just wanted to make a random video seeing if I was like, ugly or not? Because a lot of people call me ugly and I think I am ugly … and fat. People say I’m ugly. So … tell me — am I?
The video was posted in December and has gotten over 3.4 million views and 92,000 comments. Many “tweens” (ages 11-13) have followed suit.
The girls repeatedly challenge the viewer to, “Go ahead, judge me, I don’t care what you think.” Of course, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble if they didn’t care.
Why do they care? Because how others see us shapes how we see ourselves. Our solitary “subjective” notions about who we are morph into “objective” fact when others agree that, “That’s who you are.” And so we trumpet our successes and squelch nasty rumors because both are made more real by others’ seeing. Doesn’t have to be this way, but often is.
Come early adolescence, girls begin to grapple with who they are – looks becoming a primary source of identity, worth and status. Unfortunately, many of the “Am I Ugly?” girls seem depressed and lacking self-esteem.
Some YouTube commenters declare the girls “beautiful.” A few offer advice: “Get bangs.” Others tell them to get off the internet and do their homework.
But YouTube is not the place to gain affirmation. Too many insecure cowards anonymously hurl insults: “My vote: UGLIER THAN A DEMON” or “F*ck off whore wannabe” or “Just the fact that u did this video makes u ugly. But u were ugly already.” Twelve-year-olds aren’t mature enough to deal with misogynistic trolls who put them down in hopes of lifting their own sorry selves.
But the whole focus on looks faces the matter wrongly. As one commenter put it, “You’re not ugly, society is.”
Another summed it up nicely:
We place too much value on the way we look and too little on who we are. I could be the least attractive person on earth but I’m a good person and I have a good heart and I think that those things matter a million times more than being pretty or ugly. While I know that I’m not Ugly, I still believe that I have more to offer the world than just how I look. I wish that this was the message that young girls were getting. They need better role models, they need people to reinforce how smart they are and how talented they are vs. how pretty they look.
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Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame recently announced that she chose to be gay. And she caught hell.
I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.
Some critics insist she is a biologically-based bisexual.
Others have come to her defense. Gay New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, insists, “She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.”
His readers defend her, too:
I am L.A.M or lesbian after marriage. It does not matter that I was “born” this way or not. I just know that I am intensely in love with my wife of almost ten years… I feel like my sexuality has been fluid my whole life. Being identified as bisexual does not feel like the correct label nor does lesbian.
There may be a continuum with some feeling more straight or more gay, but not everyone understands their experience that way.
Evidence suggests that our orientation is biologically-based, as with fruit flies’ master sex gene. Among humans, genetic males who are raised as females almost always prefer females. Males with gay uncles are more likely to be gay. Men with lots of older brothers are also more likely to be gay (this may be tied to womb chemistry).
But there are unsolved questions. So why hitch your wagon to a moving target, Bruni asks.
When a man is gay, his adoptive brother is gay only 11% of the time. His twin brother is gay 22% of the time. But 52% of identical twin brothers are both gay. A follow-up study found only 20% to be gay. What about the remainder? Perhaps the environment has effects at the epigenetic level. Or are there social effects? Or is there other biological evidence we have not yet seen?
Also, the hypothalamus of straight men becomes active when sniffing an estrogen derivative, and the hypothalamus of gay men and straight women become active when sniffing a testosterone derivative. But lesbians’ brains do not consistently activate only in response to estrogen.
In fact, women seem to be more “fluid.” Straight men are strongly aroused by women and gay men are strongly aroused by men, but lesbians have relatively weaker arousal for females, and straight women have no preference at all, says Northwestern University psychologist, John Michael Bailey.
Biology is not a sure-fire shield against bigotry, anyway. As Bruni points out, some Christians might want to bio-engineer heterosexuality. And since Christianity is often about resisting desires, homosexuality could be seen as “their test,” as I’ve heard some put it. The logic goes like this: “We hetero’s must control our lust for anyone but our spouse. Gays must control their lust for ANYONE.” The lack of fairness doesn’t seem to matter.
But shouldn’t consenting adults be able to love who they love? Maybe we shouldn’t worry about the bigots.
When it comes to morality I ask, “Who is harmed?” and not “What’s traditionally been renounced?”
Homophobia hurts. Being gay doesn’t.
How do you act in the world? How much do you love?
Seasons of Love
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In truths that she learned,
Or in times that he cried.
In bridges he burned,
Or the way that she died.
Measure, measure your life in love.
Excerpted lyrics from the musical, Rent (see the video)
What do hard core porn and reality show, Top Model, have in common? Hard core pornography often gets the viewer off on women’s suffering. So does Top Model.
In the first episode the models underwent Brazilian bikini waxes on camera. As Jennifer Pozner described it, “Cameras flitted back and forth from their pained facial expressions to their nearly nude legs spread wide in the air, while the audio lingered at length on the models’ blood-curdling screams as hot wax was spread over their genitals and their pubic hair was ripped off.”
The only thing missing was the close-up.
Pozner went on to describe how contestants have been asked to drop from platforms onto surfaces with little cushioning, or to sit on ice sculptures in freezing temperatures. One model was asked to pose in a pool of icy water – shaking, shivering, and begging for a break – until her body began to shut down from hypothermia and she was rushed to a hospital.
If pain and suffering isn’t imminent, models are asked to act as though it is, coached to look “scared! Something’s chasing you! Something’s coming to get you!” Scared, “but pretty,” that is.
Host, Tyra Banks, has also asked models to act like they are in pain: chest pain, fingers slammed in a door, strangulation… A signature pose was suggested for one model, “Look like you’re getting punched.”
Beautiful, sexy women in fear and pain. All reminiscent of hard-core pornography: In the popular video, “Two in the Seat #3,” an actress is asked by an off-camera interviewer what will happen. She replies, “I’m here to get pounded.” In other pornos women are hit or raped. Too-large objects are inserted as actresses scream out. Sometimes pain is registered in penetration. Even when suffering isn’t purposely placed in the script, directors don’t bother to edited it out, suggesting viewers’ taste. More and more, the new edge in porn involves cruelty.
I worry about a society that develops a taste for women’s torment. Or for anyone’s distress. As pain becomes eroticized, some develop a desire for their own suffering. My students sometimes talk of getting turned on by a little D/s in the bedroom. This is no surprise. We’re so bombarded with eroticized images of dominance that I suspect few in this culture fail to get turned on by it.
Still, depending on how far it goes, violent sex play can lead to broken skin, bruising and infections, even as the point of pain is to warn us away from doing what it is harmful to the body.
We worry about women being battered. Should we worry when women come to crave their own abuse?
And, surrounded by images of eroticized dominance and violence, and sexily submitting to such acts, does male domination, itself, become sexy?
Powerful Man Pretty Woman
Girls get the message that what’s important is how they look. And boys get the message that what’s important about girls is how they look. That’s one of the observations made in the film, Miss Representation.
Girls and boys both buy into this belief system. And then boys become men, step into power, and perpetuate a social order that favors them. Most CEOs are male, most of Congress is male, most publishers and editors are male, and we’ve never had a female President of the United States. Girls become women and go with the flow, too. Yes, there are many exceptions. But these large patterns remain.
Our world incessantly whispers – or shouts: women are more body than brain. Women are emotion, not rationality and action. Women are sex.
And sex sells, they say. Sex sells products. Sex sells the message that women are all about sex.
Now add demeaning and violent images.
The message: men are powerful, and better than women.
And when women try to move out of the box to gain power?
Well look what happens on conservative networks like Fox, where men dress conservatively while female anchors wear plunging necklines, short skirts, and say things like, “Hillary Clinton looked so haggard and, like what? 92 years old?!” Or Greta Van Susteren asks VP candidate, Sara Palin, whether she has gotten breast implants. When women aren’t co-conspiring, Rush Limbaugh complains that no one wants to see a woman age in office.
Even when women do become powerful a headline runs, “Condi Rice, Dominatrix.”
Perhaps alongside an ad for a nutcracker shaped as Hillary Clinton.
Any wonder 51% of Americans are women, but only 17% of Congress members are?
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Miss Representation’s writer-director says this is unfortunate since research shows that:
The more diversity and more women you have in leadership, both in government and business, the greater the productivity, the creativity and the bottom line.
There’s this new transformative leadership that’s embracing empathy, collaboration, empowerment… those are more feminine qualities and those are now more associated with success in the global landscape than the traditional sort of command-and-control male leadership traits. So I think we’re going to start to see a shift.
Let’s stop misrepresenting women and their potential. We all lose out when the talents and vision of half our population are stifled. Women and girls are not less important than men and boys.
Newsom urges us to empower both young women and young men to create an equitable society together, making sure that girls are mentored and have a plenty of good role models.
And as Miss Representation points out:
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
— Alice Walker
When Chaz Bono began Dancing With The Stars he got death threats and the show faced a boycott. Psychiatrist and Fox News commentator, Dr. Keith Ablow, told parents to bar kids from watching Chaz, as seeing him could cause youngsters to want a sex change. Girls might even want to cut their breasts off, he warned.
Despite all this – and not so snazzy dance moves — Chaz stayed popular for quite a while, being booted off the show only last week. No reports yet on how many girls have asked to sever their breasts.
Plenty of people think Chaz is pretty scary. He doesn’t frighten me. Why do some feel so menaced by the transgendered?
American Indians felt differently. Before European contact, if a biological female wanted to be a man, joining men in the hunt and war, that was fine. If a biological male wanted to take on a womanly role that was a-okay, too. Among the Indians, the transgendered were something special – having a foot in both gendered worlds – and so they presided over ceremonies of major life transitions: birth, marriage and death.
But those American Indians were egalitarian, whereas homophobia and trans-fear come out of patriarchy, suggesting a clue to the anxiety’s source.
Under patriarchy, men are deemed superior. So a lot of effort goes into proving manhood and worthiness for that exalted status. If a woman can so easily become a man, how superior are males, really?
How much call do men have to head homes? To take charge? To sit at the front of the B110 bus in Brooklyn? To enjoy male privilege? If women can become men, the patriarchy falls apart. And for many men, so does their self-worth.
If a man feels self-secure he won’t be threatened by women’s equality. And he won’t be so frightened by the likes of Chaz Bono.
And sure, in a culture where people rarely see the transgendered, they can feel anxious in their disorientation.
But by strutting his stuff for all the world to see, and by being proud of who he is, perhaps Chaz will help other transgendered people to feel more secure and accepted.
Love over hate and fear.