Don’t struggle like that or I will only love you more… The market myth of beauty and sex

Procrastination makes readers of us all.

There’s a bit of a lukewarm debate about the representation of women in the media over on The Drum.  Kate Phelan has a post up today about the individual’s experience in the face of media-portrayed versions of ‘normal’.  Part of the article seems to be a response to this one by Jennifer Wilson which — somehow — links feminists to conservatives, claims that feminists infantalise women, and requests conservatives provide details of how a woman can sexualise herself appropriately.

That post, in turn, was in response to everything Melinda Tankard Reist has ever said.

Now I — a straight, white, conservative male — will fix the debate.

I think Wilson unfairly presents Tankard Reist’s position.  From what I’ve read of Reist, her problem seems to be the commodification of (female) sex.  While the media message has been ‘liberation’, the commodification of women’s sexuality has homogenised sexuality for women.  The purchaser of the commodity is overwhelmingly men, so the commodification isn’t about the liberation of women: it’s about men (and a very small group of opportunistic women) making women feel positive about being exploited.

One of her more interesting articles was about Sexpo.  I’ll admit quite openly that I have never been, so I’m criticising third-hand.  What is liberating about it?  Who is benefited by reducing sex to its more vulgar aspects?  Who is being oppressed if we banned it?

Wilson reads these criticisms as wanting to be proscriptive.

It seems there is little in popular cultural representations of female sexuality that escapes Melinda’s disapproval. Even, I see on her website the US underwear company Victoria’s Secret,and twenty something TV star Lea Michele appearing on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine showing cleavage, offends her conservative values.

The latter incurs wrath because Michele is, in Melinda’s terms, “sexifying” herself, and in so doing setting a bad example to the teenagers who watch Glee in which she plays a considerably younger character.

Christian sexual conservatives seem to have embarked on a mission to pathologise the entire world, rather than realistically deal with inevitable and at times large pockets of dysfunction. Their solution? Censor and ban.  [Source: Jennifer Wilson, ‘Pornify This’, ABC The Drum]

Silly MTR!  She thinks that having an older woman play an underage girl shouldn’t be praised for presenting herself as a sexual object!  Foolish MTR!

What I find strangest of all is that these are the sort of examples Wilson associates with healthy sexuality.  The media is so swamped with this sort of imagery that the champions of ‘healthy’ female sexuality can’t think of any examples beyond sexual objectification.

It was made all the weirder when Wilson launched the ‘The Patriarchy doesn’t have any influence over me’ argument:

Even when we think we’re exercising agency we aren’t really, because our actions are predetermined by the overwhelming influence of the patriarchy.  [Ibid.]

When you can’t cite any mainstream expression of sexuality which doesn’t consist of objectification, I’m putting bets on the patriarchy having an overwhelming influence.  I’m not even in the ‘Boo! Evil patriarchy!’ camp either.

Wilson turns the crazy up to eleven when she tries to argue that sexual objectification isn’t a problem because there are other real problems in the world.

You may like these looks, or you may find them silly, but are they really part of an orchestrated patriarchal attack on women’s human rights? Think about the real attacks on women’s human rights round the globe, rarely mentioned by MTR, by the way, and only when they comply with her ideology as an anti choice feminist, and then answer that question.  [Ibid.]

It’s such a wonderful argument.  ‘You think Australia’s carbon emissions are a problem?  Think about the real environmental problems around the world!’  ‘You think homelessness in Australia is a problem?  Think about the real homelessness problems around the world!’  ‘You think me stealing your lunch from the fridge is a problem?  Think about the real lunch-stealing problems around the world!  Some people don’t have lunch at all!  Did you think about them?  Your problems are as nothing compared to Real Problems!  Go fix all the other problems first and then we might think about this problem.’

Phelan’s response to Wilson’s is to demonstrate the impact of the beauty/sex industry on individuals (while rather happily chiding her as an old woman).

At high school I was surrounded by girls wearing makeup, and by boys who referred to the few girls who wore trousers as dykes. Watching my friends apply foundation at recess then at lunch, and again before leaving school, I was baffled. They explained that they felt more confident wearing mascara and blush. Why do young girls have to cover their faces to feel empowered? This reveals their feeling of being deficient.

Some would argue that these girls were embracing and expressing their femininity. Why does femininity take the form of plump lips and sculpted eyebrows? These girls were embracing an idea of female beauty that makes women loathe their bodies.

This learnt dislike of our bodies is age old. Yet, it has recently become more pronounced. This is evident in the number of young women waxing their vaginas, starving themselves, undergoing cosmetic surgery, essentially altering their bodies to look and feel ‘beautiful’.  [Source: Kate Phelan, ‘Can Feminism Overcome the Beauty Myth?’, ABC The Drum]

The not-so-subtle reference to the burqa was cringeworthy, but the point she’s trying to make is fairly clear.  Wilson can whine that MTR is trying to stop somebody I don’t know from Glee from liberating herself by dressing scantily, but Wilson also has to accept that her position is damaging to younger generations of women.

Phelan’s point indirectly provides an answer to Wilson’s request that sexual conservatives provide a template for appropriate sexual expression.  Phelan states that the commodification of sexuality makes women dislike their bodies.  Therefore, an appropriate sexual expression would be one which didn’t make women feel negatively about their bodies.

But I don’t think Phelan was precise enough.  In arguing that we need to rewrite the concept of female beauty, she seems to be suggesting that cosmetics are bad.

We get cosmetic surgery, not because we are stupid, but because we want to fit the definition of beautiful.

I don’t want to pay 50 dollars every month to have my naturally growing pubic hair removed with hot wax but I want to be attractive, I want to be accepted. Unfortunately, being pretty appears incompatible with being natural.  [Ibid.]

A toxic social narrative about beauty can entail a person wanting to get cosmetic surgery.  It doesn’t follow that a person wanting to get cosmetic surgery is doing so due to a toxic social narrative about beauty.

The problem with the commodification of sex and beauty is that it is normalising.  Every magazine cover looks pretty much the same and this sameness is called ‘beauty’.  A few variations are permitted: will she have dark hair or blonde?

Cosmetics are a weird thing.  People can have almost total control over their appearance: they’re not even limited to ‘natural’ colours.  Despite this, just about everybody tries to look the same.  In this sense, cosmetics weren’t liberating people’s appearance: they were promoting conformity.

The less toxic narrative would be one which promoted diversity and in which women weren’t bombarded with images that scream ‘You have to look like everybody else; everybody else looks like this because they want to be attractive to men’.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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