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.
A colleague recently mentioned in passing that she knew someone whose role model was a Disney princess. (On a side note, does it matter if I mention that the person in question was not a five-year-old girl? If it matters, why does it make a difference?) I couldn’t help but laugh when I overheard this bit of conversation as I have a long-running quibble with my friend Shannon about Disney.
When I was younger, the first of the great modern animated Disney movies was just being released in theaters. As a result of the films, I was inundated with Disney culture throughout my childhood and I loved the movies dearly for the story, the animation, and the music. At the time, I bought whole-heartedly into the Magic that Disney was creating, and for the most part, I still do. However, as I grew up, I couldn’t help but think that in some way the whole Disney Princess culture was feeding into a larger societal problem. I certainly don’t think that Disney is to blame for this phenomenon, but I do think that Princesses serve to engrain a particular thought pattern into the minds of young girls and give them unrealistic expectations for their romantic lives throughout the rest of their lives.
I might have a strong cynical streak in me, but I’m still a sucker for romance when you get right down to it. I love being swept away by things, I love surprises, and I definitely believe in the idea of finding a great love. The problem that I have with the way things are going is that somewhere along the line the whole process became a little less about the person that we love and a little bit more about ourselves.
All of a sudden, it becomes about the grand romantic gesture; all of a sudden, it becomes more about you than the object of your affection. Behind it all there’s a well-intentioned, though misguided, attempt to make the recipient feel special, as though you’ve jumped through so many hoops to make something unforgettable happen, when, in truth, there’s always an element of “Look how hard I worked to make this come about, aren’t I special?” It’s about that kiss that will wake someone up from a hundred years of slumber and change his or her world in an instant, the slaying of a monster, or even dying to prove one’s love for another (and occasionally later being brought back to life because True Love cannot be vanquished, after all). It’s about a plane writing out an invitation to prom in the sky, it’s the creation of a floor plan of a house in candles, and, of course, it’s about opening our window to hear a boom box outside blaring Peter Gabriel. It’s about sending a love interest on a chase through Manhattan to end up in Times her face on a giant screen, searching the world for a used book with a phone number, or making everybody in a stadium pay attention to you while you propose.
I can’t help but think that part of the grandeur of it all is the notion that other people will be amazed at the effort to pull off the stunt. For a second, the world revolves around the two of you and you create a phenomenal story to recount at the rehearsal dinner. Do we confuse the attention and adrenaline with romance? Perhaps I’m out of touch with things, but I’ve always thought that love is something more private and personal—each person feeling the rush is enough. Maybe it’s not always about the furor and the public presentation but a simple act of pausing in the middle of the street while walking your dog at night when the world is quiet and asking someone to hold a ring instead of a bag of poop.