What happens when you beat a sex object? Or hang her? Or rape her? Or hogtie and torture her?
Pop culture is filled with images of women as objects. It’s also filled with images of women as abused objects. But then, the two go hand in hand: Objects have no feelings to empathize with, no lives of their own to interrupt or worry about. They can exist just for sadistic pleasure.
Oddly, I’m not seeking to shame anyone who gets aroused by these images. People tend to unconsciously absorb their culture like a sponge – we all do. Even my women’s studies students and the feminist blogs I read register a taste for this stuff. No surprise that so many find it sexy, our society is so filled with these images.
At the same time, I’m not dismissing the issue. Whether you want to participate or fight it, at least have eyes open and look at the downside.
When I was a little girl I got a children’s book from the library. In one story a woman was punished: She was stripped, placed in a kettle-like contraption with spikes to poke her, and driven through the town in humiliation. That’s my first memory of sexualized abuse.
My second encounter was flipping TV stations as a child, and seeing a man throw a woman over his knee to spank her. Apparently, if I’d flipped through a magazine I could have seen an ad with the same image.
When I got older the Rolling Stones promoted their “Black and Blue” album with a picture of a woman bound and bruised.
At the movies women are killed – in sexy bras and panties – in popular horror flicks. In tamer fare, Scarlett started out resisting Rhett, but ended up enjoying a night of passion as “no” turned to “yes.” In the soaps, Luke raped Laura and they fell in love.
Devo’s “Whip It” showed a man whipping the clothes off a mannequin. The red hat from this video is now in the Smithsonian.
In magazines and billboards we are bombarded with ads depicting violence against women.
Romance novels and erotic tales tell stories of women who are abducted and raped and who fall in love with their captors. Mainstream movies like 9-1/2 Weeks and The Secretary depict women enjoying abuse at their lovers’ hands. Justine Timberlake slapped Janet Jackson around at the Super Bowl before ripping off her bodice. More recently Megan Fox gets beat up in a popular video that you can view over and over again. In the background Eminem mouths “I’m in flight high of a love drunk from the hate,” to which Rihanna replies, “I like the way it hurts.” And then there’s the porn world full of “no’s” turning to “yes.” Or “no” remaining “no,” but that’s sexy, too.
On a feminist website, one woman described the joys of being a sex slave avatar to a dominant man in the virtual world of “Second Life.” Another explained the appeal with the help of a poor understanding of evolutionary psychology: Through evolution, she explained, women have come to want male domination in their relationships.
That’s not really what evolutionary psych says (and I have issues with that field, anyway). How would craving your own abuse, or even domination, be adaptive? Pain is meant to warn us to stop doing something. Women’s genes don’t crave poor treatment. If they did, we’d find eroticized violence in every culture, but we don’t. Egalitarian societies like those of the American Indian (before contact with patriarchy) did not sexualize abused women.
Here are two big problems with eroticizing male dominance and women’s pain: First, women and men can both come to crave the abuse of women in real life. Second, when we make male dominance seem sexy, we become more accepting of male dominance.
Neither of these aid the fight for equality, justice or human rights.
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“Eminem and Rihanna Collaborate to Address Domestic Violence,” reads one headline.
The phrase “address domestic violence” rings of efforts to decrease it.
Is that the message of “Love the Way You Lie”?
Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that’s alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Eminem joins, mouthing these words:
As long as the wrong feels right
It’s like I’m in flight
High of a love
Drunk from the hate
Rihanna’s lines are jarring since she broke up with Chris Brown after a brutal beating. She had said she wanted to be a good role model for girls and young women. These lyrics send a very different message.
Eminem’s words fit his history of domestic brutality. In concerts past he sent an inflated doll resembling his wife into his audiences to be batted around. In 2008 he told Esquire, “I’m a T-shirt guy now. But wifebeaters won’t go out of style, not as long as bitches keep mouthing off.”
Megan Fox plays the sexy battered lead in the music video, where frames shift from abuse to making love, and back again. The video has had nearly 20,000,000 hits on YouTube.
All involved seem to want it both ways. Eminem and Rihanna said they wanted to start a conversation, while Megan Fox donated her salary from the shoot to Sojourn House, which helps abused women.
But the overall effect romanticizes violence against women.
That makes sexism feel sexy.
Unfortunately, that makes both women and men more accepting of it.
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