The Second Sets

When it comes to certain aspects of American popular culture, I feel I’m in a Twilight Zone of opinion. The stark commercialism, gross sentimentality and tasteless sensationalism that many Americans take for granted remain horribly apparent to me. And so it is with the casual objectification and sexual mapping of women’s bodies in American media. Watching David Fincher’s Gone Girl at the weekend, it occurred to me than even in a movie about how women suffer under men female bodies are still routinely exploited. What alarms me just as much as its ubiquity is how little it is commented on. There are many similarly horrific depictions of women in the British media (The Sun’s ‘Page 3’ for example). But whereas in Britain I felt the right people said it was wrong and the wrong people said it was right, when it happens here I’m not even sure if anyone cares!

Who's the commodity?

Who’s the commodity?

On television there are a number of ad campaigns that are content merely to have semi-nude women comporting in erotic poses and engaging pseudo-sexually with the objects around them. They are pornography in the raw, images of pure titillation designed to elicit perverted gazing and deployed without a hint of irony or subversion. Some of these are for businesses like Hooters where female objectification is ingrained in the brand, and would be somewhat expected, but others such as fast-food chain Carl’s Jr and electronics outlet Radio Shack have taken it upon themselves to invent this associative imagery. I’ve seen clips from these commercials appear in articles and videos attacking the media’s treatment of women – and I don’t discount those as notable protests – but what I don’t see is a recognition in everyday discourse of how problematic these campaigns are but rather a blind eye to or complicit acceptance of them.

I’d like to believe that the pornographic impulses of advertising account for the way that women appears in these commercials but looking at the programming around them, television must shoulder some of the responsibility. On the ABC ballroom reality competition Dancing with The Stars, group numbers featuring the female dancers invariably call upon the imagery of the strip club and the peep show, turning each of their bodies into platforms of sexual consumption for the cameras rather than a medium of artistic expression. Two recent TV awards shows even thematically incorporated the treatment of women’s bodies as sexualised objects. The Emmys had actress Sofia Vergara exhibit her body on a revolving pedestal for the sake of a half-baked pun about ‘giving viewers something compelling to watch’. The MTV Video Music Awards united female performers Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea by having them each ‘twerk’ during their respective performances.

The turn in American media towards over-sexualisation is not lost on everyone in television. On their eponymous Comedy Central show, sketch comics Key & Peele recently featured a razor-sharp piece of pop satire in which a Minaj-like artist is confronted by young female fans on a cable music television show who are confused as to how her feminist polemic equates to her lyrics, which all revolve around women demeaning themselves sexually for men. The artist is then revealed to be a man in a wig (which, of course, he already is!) who is embarking on a dastardly scheme to convince women that overt sexualisation is the same thing as empowerment. The skit reveals a sad truth about how the attractive façade of feminine authority and independence attached to the most successful women in the media offers not sexual freedom but further bondage, and might as well be from a man.

Key & Peele have a real knack for unearthing the contradictions in mainstream American culture, so we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that they pick up on these gender problems. Vergara and The Academy got roundly panned, as did Seth MacFarlane two years ago for a song about female star nudity when presenting The Oscars. It fascinates me that criticism is reserved for the higher end of television – like awards shows celebrating the best in the popular arts – and directed at instances that have some level of play and self-knowledge about them, while the same when done in the name of entertainment and spectacle, like the VMAs, does not warrant reproach. Of course, a knowing objectification of women is not much better than an oblivious one, but by dwelling on the more self-conscious examples, we threaten to leave the habitual exploitation of female bodies unchecked and trickling down into the mainstream.

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