Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Sex Education

Women Who Say “Eat Me”

On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.

And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).

We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.

We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)

The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?

And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process:  increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.

I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!

Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.


If Your Vajayjay Is Paining, My Heart Is Sighing

I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to posit that most humans maintain ambivalent relationships with their genitals (if and when they think about them at all). Freud and psychosexual notions of penis envy aside, we see others ways in which genital discourse has entered into popular culture with  shows like Sex and the City attempting to characterize some aspects of the relationship between women and their vaginas.

But we can also consider how the concept of power comes to be embodied in—and through—our genitals. Although there has been serious scholarship on the subject, we can also turn to popular offerings like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to explain how a hierarchy is instituted in the military through display of phallic symbols (i.e., the more chevrons/penises one has, the more powerful one is). And power as represented by genitals is an important point to consider with regard to feminist readings of media.

Earlier in the semester we talked about the racist overtones of Summer’s Eve’s newest ad campaign “Hail to the V.”

But what interests me most is that another arm of the campaign, which was introduced at the same time, has yet to be pulled:

In some ways, I find the existent advertisement much more problematic than the original set (although I will fully admit that this may be due to increased familiarity and sensitivity to issues of gender over race, insofar as the two can be separated into discrete categories). In general, I am all for the idea of women owning their vaginas and feeling comfortable with sexuality but so many things about this ad struck me as offensive (or, best case scenario, thoughtless). The notion that Americans protested over potentially racist characterizations of vaginas but not this ad makes me wonder just what we envision women’s roles in America to be.

On the surface, all of the statements contained in the the ad seem well meaning—the intent was, I think, to demonstrate the importance of the vagina. But then something went horribly wrong:  “The cradle of life,” for example, cannot help but evoke notions of race in addition to gender, with the Mitochondrial Eve emerging out of Africa. And, on a structural level, even the sequence of featured women further supports the mother/whore/virgin triad (i.e., an expansion of the Madonna/whore duality from some strains of Christianity) , which only further serves to entrench women in roles proscribed for them by dominant male culture. Having watched the entire ad, one cannot help but interpret the “center of civilization” line as a society of men ruled by their lust for the vagina.

But perhaps the most upsetting component of this ad is the final sequence wherein the following voice-over appears:

“Over the ages, and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it. One might say it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”

The vagina, then, might be argued as the “most powerful thing on Earth,” but the question remains:  whose power is it? The ad depicts women (and through visual/semantic linkage, their vaginas) as objects for conquest—their vaginas are trophies to be won in battle (between men, no less, indicating that women do not evidence a sexual desire to “know” vaginas and that women cannot fight for their own vaginas!) and are not their own! In addition to the incredibly problematic practice of  reducing women to their vaginas, we are to understand that women are not even owners of their vaginas!

On one hand, this sort of attitude might seem surprising for a company promoting feminine hygiene products until we take a moment to consider the long history of control imposed upon women’s bodies in the name of hygiene. In the case of douching, we are actually trying to naturalize a process that could actually be detrimental to women’s health!

Again I don’t believe that this campaign was launched with malicious intent—but perhaps that’s only an indicator of how far some of these ways of thinking have snuck underneath the radar. For the Summer’s Eve ads to survive multiple rounds of revision and be placed onto the airwaves with no real thought as to their consequences is a tragedy perhaps best summed up by following Oprah clip which is problematic in its own way:

You know what, Oprah?…I don’t have a vajayjay but I’m painin’ nonetheless.


Stuck in the Middle with You

Although it seems doubtful that viewers of the 2011 Video Music Awards (MTV) would conceptualize their actions in such a fashion, they were, in part, observing a celebration of the image and of semiotics. Having become literate in the “language” of music videos, audiences undoubtedly learned to extract meaning from the images paired with songs downloaded on mp3 players. And yet, although each of the featured music videos could be deconstructed in productive and informative ways, one of the most interesting moments, for me, was the tribute to Amy Winehouse.

50s aesthetic of Bruno Mars aside, the choice to pay homage to a fallen singer through the use of a motif directly derived from Andy Warhol’s pop art movement was a curious one, as Warhol’s work was born out of a response to a viewership inundated with the mechanically reproduced image. Repetition, for Warhol, spoke to the relative meaninglessness of the image in a culture saturated by media but also challenged viewers to then reconcile slight variations in the image, begging audiences to develop a discerning eye. In some ways, examples like the Winehouse tribute cause me to wonder about the modern visual sensibility, for it seems as though the very process that Warhol spoke out against has come back to haunt him; the very notion of an image’s repetition rendering it meaningless has come to apply to Warhol’s own work!

And perhaps there was something to the concerns of Warhol (along with a slew of cultural theorists in the 50s), who was reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it. For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.

Although the cultural climate has changed somewhat since the mid-20th century, modern Americans continue to find themselves assaulted by images, particularly in the form of advertising.

The advertisement above, for example, represents a fairly straightforward—and yet beguilingly complex—image to promote a sound dubbing service. Undoubtedly played for a laugh, careful analysis of the image speaks to a potentially more disturbing reading of the situation.

The most immediate reading is likely that of a threesome (undoubtedly playing off of the cliche that sex sells), but closer inspection suggests that this is a particular type of engagement and most definitely geared toward a particular type of audience. Without much effort, we can clearly see that this ad portrays an encounter between two women and a man (it is unlikely that any of the participants are transsexual as nothing in the ad suggests as much to the reader) in fulfillment of the stereotypical straight male fantasy. Furthermore, the man is actively engaged in the act of viewing the sexual encounter between the two women, suggesting an element of voyeurism and the male gaze; in contrast to the women, who are embracing with their eyes closed, the man is not shown to have any physical contact (his body posture actually suggests that he is pulling away, creating space for the women to “do their thing”). Women, in this scenario exist to be watched and/or perform for the man as they reinforce the notion that lesbianism (temporary or otherwise) exists to provide males with sexual pleasure. In some ways, we might also think about how this image reaffirms a heteronormative stance (with a small exception for lipstick lesbians who perform not for their pleasure, but for a man’s) with traditional gender representations.

The copy also serves to reinforce a male-dominated view of sexuality, with the laugh coming from the disconnect between the line’s attribution to a man versus a woman. Humor in this scene derives from the fact that we, the viewer, are supposed to chuckle that a woman is uttering the phrase “If my dad could see me now, he’d be so proud” because we know that no woman would ever say such a thing. We are, then, operating under a social/family structure that speaks to the notion of the good girl (or possibly “daddy’s girl”) and assume that if this woman’s father actually saw her, he would be disappointed rather than proud. Moreover, we see that the “correct” attribution of the phrase is its attachment to the male, which then positions him as a member of an all-boys club that he and his father can participate in. The underlying suggestion is that father and son can share a fond story over the son’s sexual conquest of two women (perhaps invoking a similar story from the father’s youth) and that father, like son, uphold the devaluation of women. Looked at in another way, we can see Willamson’s referent systems at play in this ad:  man is asserting his ability to “tame” the wild/sexual nature of women, moving them from “raw” to “cooked.”

Interestingly, this ad says nothing about the ability of the company in question (Herbert Richers Sound Dubbing) to fulfill the function for which they would be hired, instead relying on goodwill generated by humor to translate into positive affect regarding the brand. Given that nature of the advertisement, the company must rely on a visual representation of the syncing process (in this case, showcasing something that is out of sync) and the purpose of the ad seems to create name recognition, for no contact information is given.

In order to study this image further, it would be helpful to know more about the context in which it appeared. As Herbert Richers is a Brazilian dubber, it stands to reason that this ad was displayed in Brazil (but the copy is in English and not Portuguese) but the question remains if it appeared on a website, magazine, or billboard. Was it part of a campaign that played on similar themes (and how how might it affect our reading if we knew that there was a mirroring ad that featured two men and a woman)?

REFERENCES

Mattson, K. (2003). Mass Culture Revisited: Beyond Tail Fins and Jitterbuggers. Radical Society , 30 (1), 87-93.

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A twenty-something coming to terms with being an adult in Southern California, Chris Tokuhama is interested in attempts to transcend the human body. With research interests that range from Early Modern Science to Gothic horror and transhumanism (with a bit of religion sprinkled in), Chris hopes to increase media literacy in youth so that, in future threesomes, all partners can participate equally. Read more about Chris’ take on pop culture on his blog or follow him on Twitter.


It’s a Red Light Special

The big brouhaha this week seemed to be over a new paper published by Benjamin Edlemen called “Red Light States:  Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” While I think that the paper is somewhat interesting, I think that a lot of media outlets have put it somewhat out of context in an effort to go after Conservatives.

Never in my life did I think I would be defending Red States, but there you go.

I do feel as though the paper is worth reading if you’re into that sort of stuff–it is a research paper first and foremost, however, so be prepared to wade through a bunch of dense data. I still have my doubts about how the information is being used and construed, but that’s another rant for another day.

As I sat in bed reading the paper over, however, I couldn’t help but marvel at how difficult it was to make sense of the words that were in front of me. In college, I was trained how to quickly digest papers and reports (and luckily still retain some of that knowledge), but it became readily apparent that this was just another example of how statistics can be used to suit one’s ends—the numbers are malleable and it seems all too easy to twist them into the right context with barely a flick of a wrist.

And herein lies the trouble. The text on the page represents facts but their implied meaning of the print does not.

I could spend hours talking about how and why statistics are used to fool people but the most important thing is that statistics can mislead people (normal, smart people!) awry. Lawyers use numbers and situations to fool juries, advertisements make slanted claims, and health education will often use the set of measures that suits their particular stance or goal—it’s all the same really, groups are trying to elicit a desired response out of a set of consumers.

Now, I’m not a total cynic or conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that the public should possess a healthy amount of skepticism about the things that they read. Don’t be afraid to challenge information and to get the facts in order to make up your own minds. One of my goals through these entries is to get young people to not only think critically about the choices that they make, but also ensure that they have the ability to make informed decisions. Reading things like the Edlemen publication can be tough at times, but stick with them, because the choices that you make regarding sexual health will have an impact on others but also undoubtedly on your own. While my editor might disagree with this, I would say that you shouldn’t hesitate to check out the website’s citations and sources—I’m confident that we’ll stand up to the scrutiny. I think that at the end of the day, we all want you to get the best information that you can so that you can feel confident about making choices that are right for you.


I Like to Watch

 

My friends and I have developed a new word to describe a particular situation that occurs when one of us is incensed about something.

Shantrum

Okay, so in reality, it’s more like a brief fit, but a Shantrum includes a specific set of actions (and immunity from judgment if called beforehand).

When I write these articles, I typically think about what moves me enough to warrant a Shantrum. This week it was a clip on The Soup from the television show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. From its inception, I have had issues with this show, but one particular scene pushed me over the edge:  a girl saying that by having sex (and good sex at that), she caused her father to die.

<insert Shantrum>

What kind of message are we sending to our young people? I assume that this show is targeted toward teens and pre-teens and this is the message that we are conveying about sex? That having sex could cause a parent to die? That is just not right. Now, I’m not saying that we should go toward the other extreme and necessarily encourage our children to be carefree about sex, but why would you want to instill a sense of shame and guilt in them over something that they are probably going to do anyway?

The most harmful thing, however, I think would be the refusal by parents to discuss this sort of topic with their children. I assume that this process is difficult but what happens when messages such as these are internalized without thought? Again, people are free to refrain from sex if they choose to but I think that most people would agree that it is a very extreme and unlikely case that sex would actually be responsible for someone else’s death.

The messages that we get from media are quite powerful, perhaps in part because they manage to slip under our radar. When we watch television, we are not expecting to be preached at or taught, but I think that sometimes we end up learning a life lesson anyway.

As you are watching shows, think about how the sexual situations depicted are similar to, or differ from, your own life. Do things seem dissimilar on the surface but contain a relatable theme? What is a show trying to teach you about sex? How are characters modeling behavior regarding sexual situations?


Rape/Fantasy

The yellow cord lay on the ground, twisted and angry where he had left it. If you looked closely, you could see the kinks in the cable where her wrists were bound behind her back as she cried out to the empty warehouse. She remembered how she had been broken while the cord held her together.

“It’s your fantasy,” he said, “So enjoy it.”

And the sad thing was that this was her fantasy—or, at least, it had been until something went wrong. She wanted to be a tough girl, to flirt with danger, but never realized that all of the martial arts skills in the world couldn’t protect her from this.

It is a rare occasion when I feel like a scene in a show has sucker punched me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a good thing—it means that a program has managed to move me on some fundamental level. In recent years, only Nip/Tuck and Six Feet Under have caused me to curl up in a ball, but seeing this past scene from Virtuality made me exhale slowly and sit in silence.

How am I supposed to react when I see a woman being raped? Her body was left intact thanks to a virtual reality visor, but that just made it worse. You could see this character fighting the sensation but she couldn’t escape the situation even if she wanted to thanks to a glitch in the programming. Stripped of her attacker in the real world, you could see a bit of the turmoil that a woman undergoes when she is raped; struggle and tension rippled through her body.

Commiserating with the victim, another crew member mentioned the worst part was that the crew member didn’t exist to her attackers when she was raped. The essence of what made her a person was forgotten and she was just a body. A bit edgy for Fox, but such a welcome statement! Surely we can all relate to the desire to be recognized for who we are—we all want to matter. To know that we have the power to strip away a component of someone else’s humanity is frightening.

Rape, for me, is one of the most abhorrent things—in some way worse than murder—but I suppose this is because so much of my identity is tied up in issues of sex that a violation of this sphere hits home; it pushes all of my buttons of suffering, pain, and fear. Rape is a stark reminder that the cost of sex for women is exponentially higher than it is for men and that, as a male, I often have no idea what this means. There have been times that I’ve been scared that I was going to get mugged but never once did it cross my mind that I might get raped on the street (or by a date!). It boggles my mind, sometimes, to think about the things that most straight white men do not have to deal with. Simply because of who they are, they do not have to worry; they have not learned to doubt themselves in a way that every other person has been taught to.

Ultimately, the victim was advised to ignore what everyone was saying and to just feel the rape; not in a way where she felt sorry for herself, but in a way where she was honest with what she was up against. The first step, as they say, is identifying the problem. It’s about calling the fear what it is and seeing it for as nothing more than that; naming fear doesn’t make it any less dangerous but defining it gives it limits. It’s learning that the best way to banish the darkness is not to dispel it with light, but to absorb it until it becomes indistinguishable from the rest of you.


The Move in My Mind

 

“It’s funny,” I said as I sat down on the couch, “I took a shower after I got home yesterday and there was still more sand that appeared this morning.”

I was on the second leg of a marathon weekend that included hanging out with my newly adopted West Los Angeles Alumni Club and working on a fairly extensive presentation. To blow off some steam, a group of friends decided to watch the delightfully bad 80’s movie Teen Witch.

While mostly innocuous, the film seemed to have some fairly large holes in its plot—but, then again, it’s an 80’s movie themed toward young girls, so it doesn’t have to make a whole lot of sense. One scene in particular, however, caused my inner “sexual health education monitor” (you know you all have one) to perk up and take notice.

In what I could only presume was a Home Economics course, a teacher began to talk about how she had been asked by upper administration to talk about Sex Ed—but in a way that made it evident that she was not comfortable doing so.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my years working with young people, it’s that kids are half-decent fibbers and even better lie detectors. Although I don’t have any hard science to back me up, I would guess this ability is due to the fact that childhood is all about learning to evaluate yourself in the context of your peers; individuals learn to be observant.

Luckily, I am fairly comfortable talking about a lot of things in the area of sex, but I also know how to fake it fairly well. As educators, our job is not to be judgmental or presumptuous but to listen to what our audience has to say and then fill in the gaps.

As I thought about the movie more, I realized that I didn’t really understand why the film included mentions of condoms and birth control pills. Was someone trying to do children a service by introducing these items into heir consciousness? Why did both scenes featuring birth control result in embarrassment for multiple people? Was the director reflecting the way that teens reacted to these aides or was he merely misinterpreting it?

Certainly not everything made for public consumption has to talk about the subject of sex or sexual health, but it seems like if one is going to do it, one should do it correctly. The problem is that I’m not sure that we as audiences want to hear the truth—it’s much more fun to make fun of the subject and pretend as though the subject doesn’t really affect us in a meaningful way.

Next time you go to see a movie, think about what you are being told about sex (don’t even get me started on the many ways that The Hangover is detrimental to our efforts to embrace sexuality). How are you supposed to react to it, talk about it, or have it? Do you agree with these messages? Why or why not?

Sitting down at my computer, time freezes for a second as I began to feel a sense of quiet desperation. We have become so much more savvy as audiences—most of the scenes in Teen Witch wouldn’t work because people wouldn’t buy them—but are still stuck in some well-worn ruts. I am hopeful that one day we will get to where I think we should be, I am hopeful that we will one day be on better terms with our own sexualities, and I am hopeful that I will eventually get to see this movie in my mind.