[I]t can’t be denied that the female ideal in America is nonaggressive and nonthreatening, to the point of caricature. Take for example the film personality of the much-idolized Marilyn Monroe: docile, accommodating, brainless, defenseless, totally uncentered, incapable of taking up for herself or knowing what she wants or needs. A sexual encounter with such a woman in real life would border on rape – the idea of “consenting adults” wouldn’t even apply. The term “perversion” seems more appropriate for this kind of yearning than for homosexuality or bestiality, since it isn’t directed toward a complete being. The Marilyn Monroe image was the ideal sex object for the sexually crippled and anxious male: a bland erotic pudding that would never upset his delicate stomach.
It’s important to realize that this Playboy ideal is a sign of low, rather than high, sexual energy. It suggests that the sexual flame is so faint and wavering that a whole person would overwhelm and extinguish it. Only a vapid, compliant ninny-fantasy can keep it alive. It’s designed for men who don’t really like sex but need it for tension-release – men whose libido is wrapped up in achievement or dreams of glory.
Slater wrote this passage in 1970, hence the reference to Marilyn Monroe. I would have to think hard about whether I think it still applies broadly, but I think it’s fair to say that the “bland erotic pudding” is still part of the repertoire of essentially every female celebrity who is successful in part because of her appearance. I did a search for some of the most high-profile female actresses and singers today, looking specifically for images that might fit Slater’s description. I invite your thoughts.
In 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos. And network TV used to be a major source of exposure.
I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview. The correspondent intoned:
…nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.
They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time). In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:
Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.
Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.
The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)
No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”
Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.
I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?
Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.
The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”
She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.
When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”
Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:
I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and… people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?
And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”
I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence.
But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation about whether it’s feminist or anti-feminist for a women to use sex or nudity to sell her pop music. As Lisa Wade says, “Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.” So I would skip that debate and ask whether the multi-millionaire in question is adding anything critical to her product, or using her sex-plated platform for some good end. Madonna might have. So far Miley Cyrus isn’t.
I’m generally skeptical about claims that names in the media have a big impact on parents’ choices of what to name the baby (see this earlier post on “Twilight” names). But Hilary Parker points out some examples where celebrity influence is unmistakable. Like Farrah.
“Charlie’s Angels” came to TV in 1976, and the angel prima inter pares was Farrah Fawcett. This poster was seemingly everywhere (and in 1976, that barely noticeable nipple was a big deal):
But as with most names that rise quickly, Farrah went quickly out of style. If you see a Farrah on a dating site listing her age as 29, she’s lying by six or seven years.
Hilary is different. The name grew gradually in popularity, probably flowing down through the social class system. There was no sudden burst of popularity caused by the outside force of a celebrity name (see Gabriel Rossman’s post on endogenous and exogenous influences). Then in 1992, Hilary seemed to have been totally banned from the obstetrics ward.
Surely, the effect came not from word of mouth but from a prominent Hilary (or in this case, the rarer spelling Hillary), the one who said she wasn’t going to stay home and bake cookies.
Maybe now that Hillary is getting a favorable press — good reviews for her stint as Secretary of State — the name might return to its 1980s popularity.
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.
In “Rock in a Hard Place: Grassroots Cultural Production in the Post-Elvis Era,” William Bielby discusses the emergence of the amateur teen rock band. The experience of teens getting together with their friends to form a band and practice in their parents’ garage is iconic in our culture now; recalling their first band or their first live show is a standard element of interviews with successful rock musicians. Bielby traces the history of this cultural form, which appeared in the 1950s. In particular, he argues that social structures largely excluded young women from full participation in the teen band phenomenon.
Though young women were involved in many other types of musical performance, the pop charts featured many successful female artists in the 1950s, and girls listened to music more than boys, rock bands emerged as a male-dominated (and predominantly White) musical form. One important reason was parents’ concern about the rock subculture and the lack of supervision. Parents might be willing to let their sons get together with friends and play loud music and travel around town or even to other cities to play in front of a crowd, but they were much less likely to let their daughters do so. Gendered parenting, and the closer regulation of girls than boys, meant that girls were less likely to be given the chance to join a band. So while boys were learning to take on the role of active producers of rock music, girls didn’t have the same opportunities.
Yunnan C. sent us photos she took of two shirts at an H&M store in Toronto that made me think about Bielby’s argument:
As Yunnan points out,
This, as fashion, enforces this idea that being in a band and playing music are for guys, limiting women to being the passive consumers and supporters of it, rather than the producers.
The shirts don’t just cast women in the role of fans; they specifically frame them as potential groupies, whose fandom is filtered through a romantic/sexual attraction to individual members of a band. Communications scholar Melissa Click argues that female fans are often dismissed because there is a “persistent cultural assumption that male-targeted texts are authentic and interesting, while female-targeted texts are schlocky and mindless—and further that men and boys are active users of media while girls are passive consumers.” While the image of the groupie is as well-known as that of the band, the groupie is usually viewed skeptically, seen as someone with a superficial, inauthentic appreciation of the music, “a particular kind of female fan assumed to be more interested in sex with rock stars than in their music.”
So the H&M shirts reflect gendered notions about who makes music (there were no shirts saying “I am the drummer”) as well as the idea that women’s appreciation for music and other forms of pop culture should be expressed through affection for a specific person, a form of fanhood that ultimately stigmatizes those who express it as superficial and inauthentic.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
Last week Gwenyth Paltrow tweeteda photograph of Kanye West and Jay-Z performing in France along with the text: “Ni**as in paris for real.” The tweet started a conversation about her right to use the n-word, even with asterisks. Paltrow defended herself, claiming that it is the name of the song they were performing (which it is).
At Colorlines, Jay Smooth offers a characteristically entertaining and insightful analysis of the incident. What’s interesting, he observes, isn’t so much her use of the word, but her defensiveness about it. Here’s how he puts it:
No matter how justified you feel, as soon as you start arguing about your right to use the n–, that is a sign that you have become too attached to the n–.
He calls on her to apologize and move on with her life because…
The right to use that word is not a right worth fighting for.
David Henderson and Zachary Gouchenour have a paper on the topic of presidential ratings. The finding is simple. American war casualties, as a fraction of the population, positively correlate with how historians rate U.S. presidents. More death = better presidents. The regression model includes some controls, like economic growth. Here’s the chart:
This is consistent with sociological research on state building, which has traditionally linked wars, bureaucratic growth, and tax collection. See, for example, Charles Tilly’s classic work “Warmaking and Statemaking as Organized Crime.” My one criticism of the paper is that there is no measure in the regression that controls for “big legislation” (i.e., New Deal). Historians like law passing and it might account for some variation. I have a hunch that is how variation on the right hand side of the figure would be explained.
Henderson and Gouchenour then spin out the policy implication. Greatness rankings by historians may prompt presidents to start more wars. The historians may have more blood on their hands than we care to admit.