Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Liberation Lie: Female Sexuality in the Mass Media

by Elizabeth Winkler

Last weekend in NYC, I was overwhelmed by the enormous (say, 50 x 50 ft), looming billboard of a naked Eva Mendes, seductively poised above the heads of pedestrians. Her body was strategically positioned so as not to be dubbed "full frontal nudity," and yet the picture was as close to mainstream, public pornography as I have ever seen. Outrage, of course, is to be expected: the utter sexualization of the female body and its manipulation as 'object' of the male gaze has come to dominate mass media. It isn't the hushed secret of Victorian England or Puritan Massachusetts but instead is loudly proclaimed in public venues of every sort.

On the surface, the apparent 'progress' in the discussion and exhibition of the female body might be equated to "liberation." At last, one exclaims, women have been freed from the shackles of corsets and aprons and the debilitating, double-standard emphasis on chastity! This easy conclusion, however, simplifies the deeply-nuanced position of female sexuality in our society, and distorts the reality of female objectification, which is, arguably, exactly what such billboards intend to do. Liberation is in fact a falsified notion. Here is why:

When female sexuality is displayed in the media, it is invariably manipulated for a consumerist agenda. (In Eva Mendes' case, to advertise perfume.) In its association with objects of consumption, the female body, too, becomes a product to be consumed, both visually, by passersby and spectators, and socially whenever women's bodies are treated as objects to be judged and exploited. And let's remember: the moment a human body becomes an object, it becomes less than human, particularly when the focus is directed on certain parts of the body. Such a move strips the body of its human context; a body part, after all, is not a full human.

Just think: it is in advertising -- and advertising almost exclusively -- that aggressive, effectively pornographic, displays of sexuality are deemed normative. In other venues, the body is far from liberated, but can in fact be arrested under claims of indecent exposure. Mothers, for instance, are legally banned from breast-feeding in public venues, though a woman nursing her infant is, by all accounts, far less offensive than the naked images that uncompromisingly bombard us in magazines, television ads and billboards when we're walking casually down the street, minding our own business.

If anything, it should be noted that the means of objectification and oppression have become increasingly subtle and perverse in the modern era. Feminist discourse and a twentieth-century understanding of gender equality has forced the de-humanizing of women into these elusive, ever more indefinable venues. As the subjugation of women and women's bodies becomes even more difficult to locate and describe then, liberation and equality find themselves even further endangered. After all, what inequality and inhumanity could possibly be more sinister than the one that masquerades as physical and psychological freedom? It is this threat that we must be particularly attuned to in a society that professes full equality but still fails to realize it.


At October 7, 2008 at 6:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neat post...particuarly since I was standing next to you when you saw the billboard.

Also, this opens up an exciting new space of potential dialogue...one major question exists: how do we liberate the body while simultaneously de-consumerizing it? It seems that sexuality--the proverbial "sex sells" campaign--is no ingrained in the cultural conscience of the western mind that to limit female liberation to a non-public, non-commercialized venue is to limit female liberation to females only--a task that is certainly a necessary element in the pursuit of female equality, but a task that is nonetheless the equivalent to preaching to the choir. The role of commercialism has been a constraining and limiting reference medium...could we perhaps utilize commercialism to counteract this? Even the Dove and Special K campaigns utilize female liberation--despite its positive connotations--as just another means to sell their products...is even positive liberation, when married to a consumer index, negative in essence? It keeps the dialogue within the specific vein of consumption; it maintains a static--not dynamic--relationship to the forces of feminist theory and pragmatic activism. Again, the implicit message seems to be: think, speak, articulate the means of liberation through consumerism, but keep it in the consumerist medium only. How can we break free of this problematic boundary?

At October 7, 2008 at 10:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

To add to my last comment: you have effectively identified the problem--which feminism seems to excellent at achieving--and are now responsible for developing a solution, both theoretically and pragmatically. Questions as to "whose solution" or "who the solution" benefits should be asked, but they should not channel the energies away from practical acitvism...too frequently, the feminist movement will recognize and approach an issue and deconstruct it--it then falls into internal criticism, never-ending theoretical debates, questions as to the politics of "who, when and where." I would like to augment my last question: how can we break free of this problematic boundary while also avoiding the labyrinthine conflicts and contradictions that the feminist movement has set up for itself?

At October 7, 2008 at 10:48 PM , Blogger Franklinster said...


I think your comments are insightful; I wonder about the moment where you wonder if liberation might be negative "in essence". Maybe the way to look beyond the problematic collision of the emancipation/liberation of the feminine and the restricting context of consumerism is to not think of liberation as a valuable end in itself (in essence). I think that when we set up the discussion as a clash of positive emancipation with repressive consumerism, we reach a dead end as you point out.

Doesn't this perspective ignore the lived experience of the subjects of gender and consumerism? While a particular human emotion doesn't constitute an incontrovertible grounds for action, neither does a constructed, abstract notion of liberation.

Two questions are posed. First, "how do we liberate the body while simultaneously de-consumerizing it?" I would suggest that we ask: why do we (feminists) perceive liberation and deconsumerization as clearly valuable and positive? What specifically about these social movements is desirable? In other words, how can we move the theoretical question that you pose down to the level of the concrete bodily lives of humans affected? And here is the second question -- "how can we break free of this problematic boundary while also avoiding the labyrinthine conflicts and contradictions that the feminist movement has set up for itself?" -- to which I want to suggest a partial answer: we avoid the labyrinthine conflicts by leaving the labyrinth, in a way, by relocating the impetus for political action in the practices of experienced life instead of in a hypostatized language of 'liberation', which, as we see, merely fills itself with frustration as it collides with itself.

At October 8, 2008 at 4:43 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your response was very interesting. Let me make some remarks: firstly, do you envision the concept of “liberation,” then, to be a guiding principle as opposed to an objective termination? Perhaps “in essence” wasn’t proper…but, avoiding Heideggarian deliberations, shouldn’t there be an “essence” of something (whether we call it “liberation” or not is arbitrary) that guides the feminist movement to some measurable end? And, if the end is not the objective, shall the constitution of a viable set of guiding energies—in this sense, “liberation” can be a conceptual fuel—be the principle means of realizing the feminist method?

Certainly, there is something amiss with many versions of contemporary feminist methodology; while I agree with you that pursuing an “abstract notion of liberation” is perhaps not the most pragmatic, efficient, or fruitful method of tracking feminist goals, we reenter the theoretical debate surrounding the issues of labeling “liberation” and “deconsumerization” as “valuable”…reconstituting the theoretical debate upon the shoulders of the individual “body” does not answer the question, but simply reallocates it. A further consideration: why, if we are not to follow abstract notions that yield the possibility of designing sound theory, are we supposed to consider the “concrete bodily lives of humans” to be a more legitimate space of emergent deliberation? The question becomes a matter of endless theory versus endless pragmatics.

Here, I would propose a dialectic. In response to Elizabeth’s last post, I saw a problem with the Promethean objectives of the movement—its esoteric criticisms of society, etc.—and its definitive lack of “Real Man” academia…it seems to want to play around in a perpetual landscape of pure theory while “changing society/the world.” Instead of developing the faculties inherent in the individual disposition, the movement channels its energies towards a full frontal assault on the contemporary social order; when it does not do this, it directs the flow of its intellectual economy towards the criticism of its theoretical structure/methodological systems. Why not confront Prometheanism with the cultivation and perfection of the internal conscience; why not ask both our questions simultaneously? That is to say, we could forever debate which one is the more “appropriate” question—why not approach the issue from the perspective of macro-criticism as well as micro-evaluation? In this sense, we reenter the theoretical debate surrounding “liberation” and “deconsumerization” while engendering our position with the pragmatics of “lived experience”…this way we can conceptualize the outlet of the theoretical cycle in the “concrete human experiences,” and we can better understand the nature and significance of “concrete human experiences” in the light of philosophizing.

The inaction of a simultaneous re-imaging of dominant feminist ideologies seems to be the only way out of this paradoxical and endlessly-repetitive cycle. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the question should move towards the “practicality of everyday experiences”…but not if this means the displacement of theory. Semantically, theory is bogged down in definitions, syntactical disparities, and so forth—if we marry theory to pragmatics, then can’t the cycle be broken through dialectical reconciliation?

Out of curiosity, are you a Princeton student? And, if so, what the hell are you doing at Princeton?

At October 9, 2008 at 11:45 AM , Blogger Franklinster said...

I agree, this is what I was trying to get at. The progressive drive of a productive feminism has to lie in both theory and pragmatics, as you say, shifting between them fluidly to generate meaningful distinctions and motivations. I doubt that we can seriously define a teleological and objective end for feminism in abstract or theoretical terms, or at least it would be very hard to do so, simply due to the contingency of those terms upon male-dominated features of contemporary culture; it seems that the the more we try to explicitly define our goals, the more we will unwittingly shackle those goals to a myopically patriarchal system of meanings. Although, reading that over, it does occur to me that refusing to define any objective end is certainly counterproductive; maybe the point is that those ends should not be considered stable/immutable, but viewed under the gaze of cultural contingency.

In any case, the point that you make is certainly correct. It's not a question of displacing theory in principle, or of situating theory in respect to pragmatics once and for all, but rather to accept them both, to realize the ways that each complicates and supports the other, and to move towards an end given as experience shaped by theory, or theory informed by experience. So it seems we agree in this regard.

I wanted to start thinking about the question that was actually posed in the post in these terms, but I have to go to class... I want to come back and post about it, because it is a great subject. I am indeed a Princeton student, and I'm not totally sure what I'm doing.

At October 9, 2008 at 8:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be interested to read your further thoughts on the subject--I think it is interesting, and no doubt important, as well.

As far as the princeton question goes, it was to ridicule princeton, not you. You seem to know a lot more and be significantly more motivated than what I have come to expect from that school.


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