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Sex R Us: The Rise of Enlightened Sexism

Susan J. Douglas's new book illuminates the proliferation of apparently strong feminist icons who, in reality, are holding back the feminist movement.

The following is an excerpt from Susan J. Douglas' new book,The Rise of Enlightened Sexism(St. Martin's Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Susan J. Douglas 

 

 

“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, andThe 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?

The pornification continued to expand and to move down the age chain. The Bratz dolls, launched in 2001, with their Sunset Strip hooker outfits, make Barbie look like a priss (although a very stacked priss); the selling of thongs that read “eye candy” to 7-year-olds; the transformation of Britney Spears from teen pop star to midriff -baring, breast-implanted hootchie mama; the promotion of pole dancing as a great new exercise regimen for women; “Little Diva” make over parties for girls as young as 5—well, even those of us who truly believe that sex is and should be a healthy, normal, pleasurable part of life started getting very uneasy.

As a result, a new female icon began to take center stage: the sexpert. Think Cosmo, Carrie Bradshaw, Monica Lewinsky. The sexpert knows a lot about sex, is comfortable with sex, initiates and enjoys sex on an equal footing with men, and talks a lot about sex with her girlfriends. The fantasy was that because of feminism and girl power, there was a new “sex positive” environment for women, and the double standard had been completely eliminated. The reality, of course, was different: this liberation came at a price. In exchange for this freedom—indeed, because of this freedom—young women were supposed to dress like call girls and had to start learning how to do this at an ever younger age. The sexpert persona came, in part, from the desires of young women for sexual freedom and equality, to enjoy sex without condemnation, and to have their sexuality seen as healthy and normal. But this is America, where there is little that can’t be repackaged and sold back to us for a profit.

Here’s the twist that emerged. Some young women wanted sexual equity with men: that’s a claim for equal power. They didn’t want to be mere sex objects, they wanted to be active sexual agents. But while true and total sexual equality between men and women is still too threatening, it has nonetheless proved lucrative to flatter women that they have it. So the media began to highlight this message: it’s through sex and sexual display that women really have the power to get what they want. And because the true path to power comes from being an object of desire, girls and women should now actively choose—even celebrate and embrace—being sex objects. That’s the mark of a truly confident, can-do girl: one whose objectification isn’t imposed from without, but comes from within. You have to admit, this is a very slick contortion.

The best way to gain this kind of power is to cater to what men want. And you’re not acquiescing to men or to patriarchal sexual requirements: by submitting, you’re in the driver’s seat! Thus, in the hands of, say, Cosmo, the sexpert appreciates the ultimate requirement to please him (even at her expense or discomfort if necessary), to reassure him about his performance, and to constantly monitor and refine her ability to look sexy and to do what he wants and needs. This persona of the sexpert is almost always white, young, heterosexual, slim, busty, beautiful, and middle- or upper-middle-class (i.e., the media’s target demographic). She is ideal for the age of enlightened sexism because she is a hybrid of empowerment and objectification. In this way, women’s hopes for sexual equity have become wrapped up in glossy images that sold jeans, underwear, magazines, music videos, and TV shows and allowed Victoria’s Secret to conquer the malls of America. And as the image and prevalence of the sexpert colonized more media outlets and hailed ever and ever younger girls, her image polarized women and men, especially along generational lines.

Take me—I was in my 20s and single in the 1970s, during the era that the movie Boogie Nights infamously brought to life. And I did believe, then and now, that sexual equality goes hand in hand, as it were, with political and economic equality. So I didn’t want my daughter, when she came of age, to be confronting the double standard or to be told that she had to figure out how to look sexy and then “just say no.”

That said, I didn’t feel it was necessary for her to be invited by the radio to sing along, at age 14, to Eamon’s classy 2004 hit record “Fuck It, I Don’t Want You Back,” with the immortal lyrics “Fuck what I said, it don’t mean shit now” and “Fuck you, you hoe.” Ditto for Shaggy’s “Wasn’t Me,” which urged her to “Picture this, we were both butt-naked banging on the bathroom floor.” Or there was 50 Cent bragging metaphorically, “I got the magic stick,” which evoked Lil’ Kim’s somewhat less allegorical response, “I got the magic clit.” The Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” suddenly seemed like an Osmond Brothers song.

Now, if you don’t think that something really sick is going on in our country about girls—I mean really little girls—learning that their main asset is strutting their stuff, then you haven’t watched TLC’s abominable Toddlers and Tiaras, the behind-the-scenes reality TV show about beauty pageants for girls just out of (or maybe still in) diapers. With their spray-on tans, “flippers” (fake teeth inserted into the mouth to hide baby teeth gaps), fake eyelashes, and bare midriffs, these babies learn how to swivel their hips and push out their chests as they sashay before judges, including balding older white guys, as if they were Gypsy Rose Lee. Gross. How did we get here?

Support AlterNet by clicking here to purchase a copy of The Rise of Enlightened Sexism through our partner, Powell's, an independent bookstore.

Author, columnist and cultural critic Susan J. Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan.
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