Goddess of Gross: MTV's Jenny McCarthy

Is it getting what you want as a women in spite of sexism or because of it? Is it transcending physical and intellectual stereotypes, or reconfiguring them to fit your needs? Is it stepping beyond gender boundaries or skirting around them?Is '90s-styled feminism driven by being a woman or acting just like a guy?Is Jenny McCarthy a new feminist icon?Don't laugh -- the answer is a resounding maybe.Jenny McCarthy first catapulted into America's pop consciousness as Playboy's 1993 Playmate of the Year. Shortly afterward, she landed a job co-hosting MTV's Singled Out game show. Now she's got her very own MTV variety program, The Jenny McCarthy Show, an advertising contract with Candies shoes, movie roles and talk of a fall NBC sitcom. Last year, McCarthy was the second-most searched Internet subject (behind only Pamela Anderson Lee and four places ahead of Madonna), and Entertainment Weekly was so enthralled with the former Bunny that the magazine printed a regular "Jenny Meter" to track her career.Just looking at McCarthy, you'd probably have no idea that the 24-year-old 5'6", 120-pound blonde bombshell could be on the verge of reshaping the face of feminism. With Barbie doll-like proportions, a mane of teased blond hair and shiny, pouty lips, McCarthy looks just like any other Playboy Playmate.But that's just scratching the surface. McCarthy broke out of the Bunny mold on Singled Out, a surrealistic Dating Game for the '90s. (Carmen Electra took over as Singled Out co-host when McCarthy left for her own show.) Separating men and women into two herd-like formations, the show uses an elimination process based on extremely embarrassing personal questions to whittle away potential contestants. It was McCarthy's job to stand among the contestants, male or female, and keep everything in order. This could get particularly tricky when knee-deep in men, and McCarthy often found herself playing sheepdog to keep all those rowdy hormones in check. We're talking 50 heavy beer-drinking, thick-necked frat guys all vying for the attention of the female "picker" with only Miss McCarthy to keep 'em all in check. How did she do it?By fighting fire with fire -- i.e., by acting even more stupid than they did.On camera, McCarthy made a regular show of mugging for the camera by grimacing or rolling her eyes mockingly whenever a guy said something stupid or sexist. She yelled at them and even pushed them around.McCarthy, who perhaps should teach a women's self-defense class, was recently given a "dubious achievement award" by Esquire magazine for admitting to "farting while surrounded by a bunch of guys on Singled Out.""You can literally feel the testosterone dripping off their bodies," McCarthy told Details magazine earlier this year. "But I know that as soon as they get on-camera, they'll turn into little babies, so I just abuse 'em ... and then they respect me."In short, McCarthy's achieved equality by taking on supposedly male characteristics.A prime example came when she appeared in the pages of Rolling Stone making a sour face as she sniffed her own armpit.Now on The Jenny McCarthy Show (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. and Sundays at 11 p.m. on MTV), nearly every skit features McCarthy acting out some weird junior high-school boy fantasy by pretending to fart, burp, vomit or make crazy faces and funny noises.Just call her the Goddess of Gross.But does it make her feminist role model? Jenny McCarthy has never openly affiliated herself with feminism; in fact, she told Rolling Stone that "learning to deal with feminists" was one of her biggest challenges after appearing in Playboy.Still, many of her fans -- those of the female variety, anyway -- seem to identify with her as a feminist.McCarthy's MTV message board on AOL is filled with postings from fans admiring both her body and her spirit.Subj: Re: Miss Jenny McCarthy and her new showsDate: Fri, 18 Apr 1997 20:46:56 ESTFrom: StarSaucerI was all set to hate Jenny McCarthy, because she was in Playboy, yadda yadda yadda... but her show has changed my mind. Amazing, how she can be so wacko and not look like a total fool. She's neat. And she's gross! I love it.But wait -- before you start looking for McCarthy in the pages of Bust or Ms. magazine, there are those damn Candies shoe ads to contend with. The series of ads, currently running in magazines such as Rolling Stone and SPIN, feature McCarthy wearing the trendy retro sandals and little else. One spread shows her on her knees, dressed in a French maid's uniform while scrubbing the toilet. In another ad, she's sitting on the toilet, stark naked save her shoes and a white pair of panties sitting delicately around her ankles.McCarthy has yet to comment publicly on the ads beyond that she "really loves" the shoes.Which leaves the rest of us to grapple with her conflicting messages.But that's feminism in the '90s for you. It's a tricky subject. In the 30-plus years since the so-called "Sexual Revolution" got under way, women have strived for -- and achieved -- many milestones towards gender equality. There's still a wage gap, but it's narrowing; there's still a glass ceiling, but it's becoming more fragile; there are still sexist stereotypes, but they're becoming less predictable.And one of the biggest -- yet less obvious -- changes on the feminist landscape over the last three decades lies in its iconoclastic representation.It's never been simple choosing our feminist role models, and as the 21st century looms, it's getting even harder as we're faced with a litany of possibilities all weighed down by personal choices such as family, sexual mores and ambition.We've come a long way in our acceptance of feminist role models, understanding that the definition of such is broad and inclusive. From academic intellectuals and astronauts to rock stars and writers, housewives and teachers, today's feminist role model is a strong, independent-thinking woman who ignores gender-related boundaries to forge ahead and explore her own interests and needs. From Hillary Clinton to Anita Hill, Jackie Joyner Kersee to the members of the new women's NBA league, and on to Madonna and Courtney Love, the choices are inspiring, electrifying and sometimes controversial.But even Madonna never posed naked on a toilet.So is McCarthy another type of feminist or is she just really disgusting?McCarthy's not talking, but admitted feminist Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth, Fire with Fire) unwittingly makes an arguable case for the former in the March/April issue of Ms. magazine in an article on "Virgins & Sluts" that explores the cult of "sex, lies and scapegoats.""In the wake of the sexual revolution, the line between 'good' and 'bad' girls is always shifting, keeping us unsteady as it is meant to do," writes Wolf. "It will not be safe for us to live comfortably in our skins until we say: "You can no longer separate us out one from another. We are all 'bad' girls.'"Think about it this way: McCarthy makes it safe for us all to explore what men have reveled in so freely over the past gazillion years. You can compare it to the old argument about whether women should be allowed in combat. One school of thought says that it shouldn't even be a consideration because war is bad and no one should be fighting. The other camp, however, insists that's just ideological hogwash -- you can't stop war -- and as long as men are running around shooting, each other women should have the right to do so as well.OK, so there's a faction of men that likes to keep itself entertained by acting stupid and juvenile and gross. Jenny McCarthy is telling us that we can either indulge in some wishful thinking for them to grow up, or we too can take pleasure in acting stupid, juvenile and gross.Unlike old-school feminists who've tried to teach us to be comfortable in the bodies God gave us, McCarthy takes it one step further and demands that we also proud of our most basic bodily functions -- farting, puking and belching. These are those secret things our mothers were too embarrassed to talk about; the things that made us feel dirty, offensive and unfeminine.Jenny McCarthy is telling us that maybe equality isn't about rising up in stature, but sinking down to another level. Rather than hiding from the parts of ourselves we don't like, she's teaching us to embrace our Inner Idiot.Now that's liberating.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close