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.
In the midst of the recession a new occupation emerged: the sign spinner. These individuals stood on sidewalks outside of businesses, dancing with signs or arrows that they threw and twisted in the air and around their bodies. Some of them were pretty cool, actually.
Yesterday NPR discussed the replacement of some of these spinners with mannequins. Robots that are programmed to spin the sign. Of course, they aren’t nearly as good as a halfway decent human sign spinner. But, it was argued, they’re getting the job done.
From human to machine, then. But no one commented on the bizarre race- and sex-change that accompanied this shift. In my part of the country, most human sign spinners are black or Latino men. I suspect that’s true wherever there’s a substantial non-white, non-Asian population. But the mannequins appear to be overwhelming white women.
The Google image search for each somewhat supports this narrative. The mannequins are overly white women and the humans are almost all men and, arguably, disproportionately men of color.
When the business owner or manager can make choices about what race and gender they prefer, they choose white females. Presumably because “sex sells,” the female body (in a bikini) is the universal symbol for sex, and white women are the most valuable commodity in that market.
When we’re hiring low wage human workers, however, business owners and managers have less control over the race and gender composition of their workforce. It appears most would prefer to hire white women in bikinis for everything but, because of institutionalized racism and the sex segregation of occupations, they get men and, perhaps, men of color.
How amazing that something so simple — the evolution of the sign spinner — can tell us so much about who we value and why.
Here’s a commercial for the new robotic sign spinners, to drive the point home:
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
The Sexual Politics of Meat is a scathing, powerful analysis of the relationship between the oppression of women and the farming of animals for food. Written by Carol J. Adams and published in 1990, it inspired many a feminist to choose vegetarianism and made many more take pause.
In the six-and-a-half minute video below, she discusses the sexualization and feminization of chicken specifically. She shows lots of examples of the ways in which chicken carcasses are objectified as women: put in high heels, bikinis, sexual positions, etc. We feature many examples of this at our Pinterest board collecting gendered and sexualized food, some of which we’ve borrowed from Adams.
Adams then argues that this is a way to distract us from the fact that we are eating the flesh of an animal that has been killed for us. She writes:
By sexualizing animals, we trigger another thing, that uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy. You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object. And so it makes it okay again.
So the sexualization of animals enters into and participates in the wider issue of “Why are we doing this to animals?” Oh yeah, because it’s funny, because it’s fun, because we can have fun with it. And it takes the ethical out.
Moreover, presenting chicken as dressing up for the male gaze suggests that the animal wants to be consumed. The animal appears to desire to inspire (culinary) lust and, accordingly, it’s okay if you eat her. This works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.
Bonus: Fifty Shades of Grey makes an appearance, and not incidentally. In response to its popularity, a book was published called Fifty Shades of Chicken. Here’s the book trailer:
Adams call Grey a “regressive book that implied that despite all the advances feminism has made, women really just wanted to be in bondage.” In both books, she argues, we’re seeing the “packaging and sexualizing [of] dominance over another being.”
If you haven’t watched Robin Thicke’s disaster of a music video for Blurred Lines, you absolutely must. But first, feast your eyes on this quote by Virginia Woolf:
Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses… reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
It’s women’s work to prop up male egos the idea of male superiority. To me, that’s exactly what’s going on in this video. It’s actually quite funny when you look at it that way; it makes the men look so desperate.
Anyhow, I’m glad smart, feminist, fearless women and men are fighting back:
An exercise in gender bending helps expose the ridiculousness as well. Why does it seem silly when men do it, but not when women do? Because it’s women’s job to be fans of men.
Also, because I can’t help but add a little more snark, how does someone with ZERO charisma end up a pop star? There’s got to be a story here about money and connections.
Thanks to Marie N., Bronwyn L., and Natalie S. for sending in the videos!
Sorry for the spoiler! The gaze in the Wacoalcommercial below, sent in by Kathe L., dances all over the body of a lovely young woman, focusing especially on the curve of her breast alongside the lace of her bra. She slowly removes her make-up and disrobes, only to reveal a male body underneath. The message? A push-up bra so good it can even give men breasts.
I wonder what y’all think. Does this queer the body? Is there a transgressive identity behind the gaze? Or is it just more gimmicky advertising based on normative expectations? Both?
Caoileann A. sent in a great example of the way that women, but not men, are sexualized in our society. In this case it’s a series of American Apparel ads. I know, low hanging fruit. This example is extra great, though.
While normally it’s up to the critic to counterpose the portrayal of men and women in our society, in this case American Apparel does it for us. Here are the categories of attire for men and women exactly the way they appear on the website (i.e., side-by-side) as of Aug. 6th 5:46pm PST:
The categories are exactly the same, but the way men and women are posed is strikingly different. Only “Sweatshirts for Women” shows any commensurability.
This is — all too much — how we look at men and women in our society today. Caitlin Welsh said it nicely:
Women are presented too often not as consumers of the product, but part of the product – a sexy body sexily getting ready to surf, or a sexy body sexily wearing American Apparel. We’re used to seeing women look sexy and undressed in ads, while men in ads tend to just wear the clothes properly while also looking handsome in the face area.