Sex R Us: The Rise of Enlightened Sexism
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“Can you unbutton the top button of those jeans and push them down?” instructs the unseen horny male pervert behind the camera. The nervous young woman in the TV ad is poised to oblige. In a companion ad, a young girl appears to be auditioning for a triple-X-rated film; the off-camera degenerate tells her not to be nervous as she slowly unbuttons her dress. In yet another, the leering voice urges a young man with a blond pompadour to tear off his shirt, saying, “You got a real nice look. How old are you? Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off of you? That’s a real nice body. You work out? I can tell.”
Speaking for much of the nation, one reporter observed that these commercials looked like “runaway kids coaxed from bus stations by exploitative adults.”
When right-wing conservative religious groups and liberal feminists find themselves spooning in ideological bed together, chances are that it is about one thing: sex. And that was the case when Calvin Klein—who in 1980 gave us 15-year-old Brooke Shields purring, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”— released a series of print and TV ads in August 1995 uniformly denounced as bordering on kiddie porn. The soft-core ads in magazines like YM and Mademoiselle featured slim, white, mostly blond pubescent models in various stages of undress, their hands in their jean pockets or hooked over the waistband to enable them to pull the jeans down even lower. They looked directly and provocatively into the camera. The TV ads described above and showcased on MTV made people especially crazed because they looked like D-level stag films from the 1960s. (Inquiring minds can see the ads on YouTube.)
Outrage roiled from the conservative American Family Association and the Catholic League to women heading rape crisis centers, as critics ventured that maybe this pedophilia marketing strategy was a bit too debased, even for American advertising. Klein quickly yanked the campaign and within two weeks the Justice Department had launched an investigation into whether his use of underage models violated child pornography laws. Undaunted, Klein still slapped giant photos of young men— but this time in their early 20s—wearing nothing but bulging briefs and hair gel on the billboards of Times Square. In 1999, to promote Calvin underwear for children (what happened to underpants by Carter with dinosaurs on them?), he launched another campaign featuring high-definition black-and-white photos of boys who appeared to be around 4, and girls who appeared to be between 4 and 7, jumping on a sofa in nothing but their Calvins. This time the ads were pulled within 24 hours.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Klein campaigns, they were a harbinger of two trends that gained considerable steam in the late-1990s: the rampant return to the often degrading sexual objectification of women, and the increasing sexualization of children, especially girls. Books with titles like Striptease Culture, Pornified, So Sexy So Soon , and The Lolita Effect have documented the mainstreaming of pornography and its lopsided negative effects on females. Here’s what our increasingly pornified media have been telling girls and women: dress like a streetwalker but just say no—or dress like Carrie Bradshaw (what were some of those outfits?!) and just say yes. Old-fashioned American prudery has always been an important component of keeping women in their place. So has pornography. A culture that is prudish and pornographic—how’s that for a contradiction to navigate?