Monday, March 23, 2009

Ugly Betty and ugly stereotypes

by Chloe Angyal

Like many women, I have a love/hate relationship with Ugly Betty. I think the show has done an amazing job at critiquing normative beauty standards and I love the way it satirizes the absurdity of the fashion industry. But I also have my objections. Last week’s episode, “The Sex Issue” threw around some really old, tired and just plain ugly stereotypes about women, men and sex.

For those of you who didn’t catch it, here’s a quick summary: Betty is dating this awesome new guy, Matt, and decides that it’s about that time in the relationship where she would think about sleeping with him. After several failed seduction attempts, she has an accidental couple’s session with his therapist, and finds out about Matt’s promiscuous past. Apparently, Matt “used to use sex to connect with people,” and with his therapist’s encouragement, has pledged not to sleep with any one until he feels a real connection with them first. Betty goes from being concerned that Matt doesn’t find her attractive to being concerned that she’s “just a number” and that sex with him will no longer be “special.” In a seriously disturbing scene that feels like it was pulled straight from an abstinence-only “education” video, Betty imagines being surrounded by women wearing t-shirts with numbers on them, indicating where they fell in the succession of the apparently hundreds of women Matt has slept with.

This whole disaster of a plot line is problematic for several reasons. The first is that it perpetuates the idea that if a man doesn’t want to sleep with a woman, it’s horrifying, relationship-dooming and totally unnatural. Betty assumes that because Matt doesn’t want to have sex with her, there must be something wrong with him (because, you know, men are insatiable beasts who want to sleep with everything that moves, and are only waiting for your go-ahead to strip you naked and pounce). Worse, she assumes that something is wrong with her, and with the relationship (because if a man doesn’t want to sleep with you, you’re clearly worthless, and the relationship can’t possibly survive without sex).

Now, sex can be used as barometer for the health of a relationship. If you’re having regular sex with a partner and suddenly notice that you’re having a lot more or a lot less than usual, you might want to talk about what brought on that change, and what the consequences of the change itself might be. But Betty’s assumption that the relationship, or the people in it, are fatally flawed because one of them is not yet ready for sex, reflects a focus on the physical that is really unexpected for her, and for the show in general, which is usually so sensible about these things.

Secondly, the whole “our relationship isn’t special because he’s been with so many other people” trope is, frankly, bullshit. To suggest that because you’ve had sex in the past means that you can’t have a meaningful relationship in the future is insulting to second (and third) spouses everywhere, and awards sex far too much significance in a relationship. Yes, sex can be a beautiful and meaningful way to form and reinforce bonds in a loving relationship, which is why some people choose to save it for marriage. But as we all know, that’s not the only purpose of sex. By suggesting that Betty and Matt’s hopes of having a meaningful or “special” relationship have been dashed because Matt has had so many previous sexual partners, the writers at Ugly Betty are playing in to the idea that having too much sex makes you somehow less worthy or capable of love. And that idea, seeing as it’s total crap, really needs to die.

Thirdly, the idea that because your boyfriend has slept with a lot of women, you are somehow less special, is indicative of a double standard in how we think about men and women’s sexual behaviour. Notice the use of “boyfriend” and “women” in the above sentence, because gender really matters here. Betty doesn’t think that Matt is less special because he’s had sex with a lot of women (nor does the question of sexual health or STI testing come up at all). She’s concerned that it makes her one of many, instead of thinking about what Matt’s past sexual behaviour says about him. In other words, it’s women who pay for men’s promiscuity.

Imagine if you will, a situation in which a man finds out that the woman he’s been dating has slept with a lot of men. Chances are, his first thought isn’t “man, I feel less special now.” Nor is his first thought “wow, those men must have been real man-whores.” His first thought is “that’s a little slutty of her. I wonder what her problem is.” At some point down the line, he might try to justify this totally sexist thinking by adding, “oh, and I feel less special now.” But that won’t be his first concern. For him, as for the writers over at Ugly Betty, and for our society in general, the first order of business is to judge and shame women for having sex – and think of a reason later.

The shame tactics are further demonstrated by the creepy attack-of-the-slutty-numbered-women scene, where the girls lick their lips suggestively and wink, signalling that they’re “up for it.” To put it plainly: Matt has slept with lots of women, but it’s the women who are demonized for his behaviour. Matt can have as much sex as he wants, and the women he sleeps with will be labelled (literally, with big numbers) as sluts. He, on the other hand, will be coddled and coached in the art of intimacy by his psychiatrist, and by his super-understanding girlfriend.

So, what have we learned from this uncharacteristically regressive episode of Ugly Betty? Men who like sex = normal, good. Women who like sex = slutty, will come after you like horny zombies.


At March 23, 2009 at 7:45 PM , Blogger biff said...

I've got to applaud your piece as a solid analysis of a common television plot line, however, on reading it a second time, I find I disagree with two of your points. I will admit that I dislike the program and have not seen the episode in question, but your recap seems more than adequate to understand what happened.

Regarding the first, as Betty looks for fault indicated by the lack of sex, Betty's action seems reasonable. If she had felt herself particularly deliberate and cautious in entering a physical relationship, is it odd that she is surprised that Matt does not respond to her sexual advances? As a guy, I would react similarly, questioning the reason for a dearth of sex in a relationship of that length if my girlfriend did not provide one, even an explanation as simple as "I'm not ready for a sexual relationship." This is not to say that a man has the right to demand an explanation, just that a man or a woman may start to wonder.

On the third point, I understand the desire to internally demean a partner's past partners. If one is to believe that a current relationship could go on indefinitely, one must believe that it will not suffer from the same problems that ended both partners' previous relationships. Therefore, one would want to believe oneself different from a partner's previous partners. If you're a sweet guy, you want to believe your girlfriend's past boyfriends were jerks. If you're funny, you want to believe they weren't as funny as you. Betty, knowing the consideration she put into the decision to have sex and how special she considers this relationship, creates contrast by imagining these women as promiscuous and casual in their contact with Matt. These past women are envisioned as threatening because they embody the failings of their relationships; Betty fears that, should her relationship with Matt end, she will become one of them and this relationship she considers so special will be no more special than those casual relationships in Matt's past. This does not seem something particularly gender-specific; while I admit that I have never thought to myself, "'wow, those men must have been real man-whores,'" I don't think that's as much of a gender issue as a question of what I consider my strong suits.

Otherwise, I wholeheartedly agree with your argument that the number of past partners is in no way indicative of the importance of a current relationship. This is a point that is not made nearly often enough, and the belief otherwise can be a highly destructive one.

Again, given my ignorance of the actual episodes, I may be incorrect in my understanding of the plot and relationships therein, but I am still uncertain that some of the ugly stereotypes you discuss are not normal and reasonable behavior. There are certainly some ugly stereotypes at work in this episode, but perhaps not as many as you assert.


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