Who Is “Undateable:” How Pop Comedy is Feeding Misogyny

Undateable book coverThere is a new comedy playing on NBC entitled “Undateable.” The program is based on a book of the same name by Ellen Rakieten and Anne Coyle. I confess, I have not yet watched the show, but the idea that this book – which I have read – could be turned into a TV show, gave me serious pause. The book is a list of traits which, the author assures, will make a man completely undesirable to women. Most of these traits are incredibly shallow and completely arbitrary. To fit oneself to the author’s ideal of manhood would be challenging at best, but more likely personally limiting, stifling personal expression in order to make him ideal mate material. For example: it’s unacceptable to have body piercings or multiple tattoos, but it’s also unacceptable to wear tube socks or fanny packs (don’t be too edgy or too wholesome). It’s unacceptable to go shirtless in public or to go to conventions (don’t be too confident or too nerdy). It’s unacceptable to try to look rich if you aren’t, to wear the wrong hairstyle on your head OR your body, to read on the toilet (no, really), work out too much – or not enough, own the wrong pet (which apparently is anything but a dog), and the list goes on. Frankly, from reading this book I can’t imagine what kind of man IS dateable.

There’s a point to this, let me get there.

This new TV show inspired a lovely (as-always) “article” from Buzzfeed entitled “11 Signs You are Definitely in the Friendzone.” The entire notion of “the friendzone” is one I keep hoping will be abandoned because we’ve all finally figured out that it’s the product of whiny misogynists with a massive sense of entitlement. The problem is, the innate misogyny in the entire cultural notion of “the friendzone” is constantly being softened by articles like this that make it look like a simple experience we can all relate to and smile at together.

The Friendzone is not a simple or a benign concept. There are generally two states of existence labeled as “the friendzone.” First is the one propagated by popular media, the amusing shell we like to pretend misogynists are referring to when they lament being “friendzoned.” This is the simple, common, experience where you have two people in a platonic relationship where one person has unrequited romantic desire for the other. We’ve all been there. Either the person with the crush gets over it and then it’s just friendship, or the person with the crush can’t handle the discomfort and the relationship ends. Pretty simple. By that definition, I’ve been “in the friendzone.” But that’s not some classification I was stuck in because I’m not good enough dating material, or because the other person thought they were too good for me, or anything like that. We were just…friends. That’s it. And this simple go-to definition is all most of the world pictures when we hear those words.

The second definition of the friendzone is the complicated, dangerous, insidious one that is perpetuated by the aforementioned whiny misogynists. It’s where a “nice guy” has a crush on a girl. So he becomes her friend, or at least behaves as such, in the hopes of it leading to a romantic relationship. When it doesn’t, for any reason, he believes he has been cheated, that he has put in the time and effort required for repayment in romance and/or sex. He feels slighted by her lack of interest, and because he’s sure that he’s “nice,” that he’s “the good guy,” he begins to believe that girls only like “assholes.” In his mind, this is obvious, because if he is nice, and she doesn’t like him then clearly she doesn’t like people that are nice.

That idea, that girls only like assholes, can go bad in two ways (yes, I know, I’m branching and branching, but they’ll come back together in the end I promise). The first is that the guy decides to BECOME an asshole. This gives rise to pick-up artists and RedPillers who objectify and assault women because they believe that it’s the best way to get laid. If they don’t take what they want (often in the form of sexual assault) they believe that they’ll never get it. The worst part is, in a literal sense, these strategies work. Because yes, if someone gets a girl drunk, or psychologically manipulates her, he might wind up having sex with her. The fact that this sex is barely consensual at best doesn’t matter. It still counts as a success, and thus the man can tell his buddies “See? I told you women only want assholes. When I was nice I never got laid, but now I do.”

The other end of the spectrum is groups like PUAHate, the forum frequented by Elliot Rodger before his shooting spree. This group seethes against the women who won’t have sex with them. They believe they deserve women’s bodies, and that women are simply awful for not sharing. An article on Jezebel.com described them most aptly:

“PUAHate, as other outlets have discussed, is an offshoot of the Pick Up Artist community populated by men (and, allegedly, women) who believe Pick Up Artistry to be a sham waste of money not because women are more than “targets” and “prey,” but because women are fucking hopeless cunts who can’t be convinced to give nice guys a chance. Women, argue PUAHaters, will only go out with good looking alpha males and would never look twice at anyone who isn’t a musclebound dreamboat with a six-figure income, and most men will never be those things, and so the world is against them and life is unfair.”

If your head works like mine, you’re starting to see the branches come back together. If not, here goes.

PUAHaters, who gave rise to a multiple murderer, believe that women are only interested in a very narrow category of men, an unattainable ideal, that they can never achieve.

The book Undateable, written by women, is describing the exact, very narrow category of manhood that has permission to be with women.

In short: pop culture, you’re not helping.

I’m not blaming this book for misogyny. That would be insane.

What I am saying is that when pop media insist on perpetuating the stereotype that women only desire this very specific, “ideal,” type of man, existing misogynists feel justified in their hatred. When a misogynist has formed his opinion that women will never want him because he wears the wrong clothes, has the wrong hobbies, has the wrong body, or is just plain “too nice,” he needs to be disillusioned, not shown examples showing him that he’s right.

I am not failing to acknowledge that this is comedy. I know this. But comedy needs to take on stereotypes, satirize them, and thereby tear them down. The book Undateable, instead, laughs at the “undateable” men, rather than the prejudicial attitudes that determined these qualities to be negative in the first place. I hoped that the book’s conclusion would at least provide me with some hope. That it would say “yeah, we’re saying these men are undateable, but hey to each their own, it’s really not our place to judge anyone.” That’s not what I got. What I actually got was additional mockery with a splash of self-objectification (“Lose the nasty flavor saver and go pull some ass.” PULL some ASS? Really, ladies? Do you want the man you’re dating to think of you as “some ass” that he’s “pulling?”).

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

This is here solely to prove that despite my long absence, I am not dead, and this is not a ghost writer.

Again, I am not contending that this sort of material, or the jocular attitude toward the “friendzone,” or any other misguided forms of comedy are the source of the deep misogyny found in PUAHate, the MRA, or The Red Pill. But when misogyny has become as widespread and dangerous as Elliot Rodger has proven it to be, I truly believe it is the responsibility of every media outlet, from the news, to comedy, to this dinky little blog in a corner of the internet, to make itself part of the solution. The ongoing refusal of the aforementioned media to acknowledge the depth of the problem, and therefore to deny responsibility for creating a solution, is what I find deplorable.

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No Means No: A Feminist Fantasy.

In the fight against rape culture, many feminists feel we need to work beyond the “no means no” catchphrase toward a more cooperative, positive view of consent, where consent means “yes” instead of just “not no.” I agree with that idea, but I don’t think it’s time to leave behind “no means no,” yet.

Many folks, on an intellectual level, acknowledge that “no means no,” but there are certain parts of our minds that say “well, but maybe it doesn’t this time.” The incredibly sad reason for that is that sometimes that part of the mind is right. There are still people out there who use “no” as a tool for manipulation, for whom “no” is a tease that means “maybe” or means “work harder.” It sucks, but they’re out there. And as long as “no” is used to mean anything other than “I don’t want this to happen, please stop,” we can’t abandon “no means no” for greener, more enlightened pastures.

So, here’s my fantasy. Let’s imagine a scenario, where one person is attempting to use “no” to sexually manipulate their partner. Heck, let’s roleplay it out.

Person A: Hey, do you want to come upstairs?

Person B: (blushing, using engaging body language) No, I don’t know if I should.

Person A: Ok, well, have a good night. (Exits)

Here’s what just happened: person A, the sexual initiator, can tell that person B is being manipulative and deceptive, but has accepted the “no” answer and terminated the encounter. B is probably going to be really annoyed by this. S/he’s going to try to chew out A later, and A is going to say  “but you said no, and I took you at your word.” Thus B will learn not to do that any more.

This is my fantasy, and I say fantasy because I know that for most people instilling a lesson about consent and rape culture is less important than the immediate opportunity for a sexual encounter. But when “no” sometimes really does mean “keep going,” how are we supposed to teach people the universal statement that “no means no?” The lesson becomes disingenuous. So, in addition to teaching people that as the sexual initiators “no means no,” we need to also teach clear communication of consent, and to never use “no” unless you really mean it.

Prom: Slut-Shaming and Teen Sexuality

I am asking for trouble. I am begging for the internet world at large to hate on me. Am I this much of a masochist? Am I really going to go here?

Yeah, yeah I am. I’m a 25-year-old with no children, about to write a post about parenting teenagers.

The only excuse I can offer is that I was a teenager myself less than a decade ago. Please don’t kill me.

Recently I read this article regarding high school prom dress codes, and the accusation that they are “slut-shaming” female attendees through tight restrictions on acceptable female apparel in an attempt to avoid creating a “distraction.”

This is a deeply complex issue, and being not a parent I can’t even hope to cover every aspect of what’s happening here. But I will try to break it down into as many cogent pieces as possible.

First, let’s look at the motivation behind restrictive dress codes for female students. For anyone who has never read a school dress code, “distraction” is public school code for “boners.” The goal of these rules – which usually include provisions for length of skirts/shorts, exposure of bellies and cleavage, and general skin coverage –  is to prevent teenage girls from looking too sexually provocative and giving boys boners. That reasoning in itself is problematic because of its assumption that an exposed body is inherently sexual, a concern I have posted on at length already. Girls are being taught that to expose their body is to provoke sexual responses. If A, then B, no mitigating factors. Even the people militating against the dress-codes as “slut-shaming” are buying into this argument, because if an exposed body is not sexual, then there is no slut to shame, just a girl in shorts.

The exposure of the body is not necessarily sexual, but it certainly can be. Working from a position where girls are specifically wearing revealing clothing to look sexy, we can see a lot of reasons why they might be prevented from doing so:

1) Adults don’t believe teenage girls are capable of understanding and controlling their own sexual availability. If a girl looks like she wants sex, that might mean that she does. Obviously she’s too young to make informed sexual opinions, so if we make it LOOK like she’s not interested in being sexually provocative, then she will no longer BE interested. This argument is clearly fallacious. If you put a girl in a nun’s habit, it won’t actually change her sexual interests, it will just create a false front.

This particular issue is complicated by the fact that many teenage girls aren’t actually interested in being sexually provocative out of any sense of desire, but merely because that’s what girls are “supposed to” look like. Female teen sexuality is deeply damaged by the fact that many girls feel the need to exude sexual desirability, but without sexual desire of their own that goes with it. In this regard, I absolutely understand the impulse to control what she wears, so that she can be forgiven for not putting on a sexual facade she may not want in the first place. However, that’s something to have a conversation with a girl about, instead of simply legislating her wardrobe. If she feels uncomfortable among her peers because of sexual expectations, discuss them and work to change the expectations.

2) Adults don’t believe teenage boys are capable of controlling their own sexual impulses. We have a wealth of news stories about teen boys sexually assaulting girls, and the classic knee-jerk response is to try to make girls less sexually interesting to boys so that boys will stop doing awful things to them. The trouble with this is that we’re placing the onus on the girls – as usual – to control boys’ impulses, instead of teaching boys to control those impulses. Instead of teaching young people about consent, we’re trying to shut off their urges by concealing temptation. That’s simply not going to happen – and, worse, we’re punishing girls for supposedly creating these urges if they don’t properly conceal themselves.

3) Adults are uncomfortable viewing teenage girls as sexually desirable. A high school girl is, physically, pretty much an adult. She may grow another inch or two, she may gain half a cup size in college, but her body is a grown-up body. How I feel about her emotional or sexual maturity is a question for another insanely long post, but because of their physical maturity, adult authority figures become uncomfortable seeing sexually appealing teenage girls. They are unavailable due to the difference in social stratum, but stir desire nonetheless. That’s a little scary for a lot of people. (I’m not talking here about parents. I’m talking about teachers, administrators, chaperones.)

4) If a teenage girl dresses in a sexually provocative manner, adults believe that she is sexually active and that is “icky.” This one is more about the parents than the other authority figures. Many parents want to live under the illusion that their teenagers are not having sex. Most people start their sexual lives as teenagers, so this is very much an illusion. But it’s much easier to maintain the illusion that my (hypothetical) daughter is not having sex if she does not look sexy.

In the end, I’ll say that teen sex is incredibly problematic. I don’t think that sexually objectifying dress codes fix anything. If a girl shows up to prom in an outfit that causes concern among the adults, maybe ask her about it instead of sending her home. If the problem is that we’re worried whether teens are having safe, joyful, consensual sex lives, the issue is not her dress, it’s why she’s wearing it. If, as I suspect, the issue is not that we’re concerned about teenagers having healthy sex lives but are, rather, attempting to prevent teenagers from having sex lives at all, well then stop it. Just stop it. Restrictive dress-codes are about as effective at controlling teen sexuality as abstinence-only education: which is to say, not at all.

One last thing, and I promise it will be brief: a lot of folks have commented on the gender disparity between explanations of “appropriate” prom attire. I don’t know what kind of proms these people were going to, but all the ones I’ve seen the guys wear approximately one thing: a tux. It comes in colors, vest or no vest, bowtie or straight tie, but it’s all the damn same. It just is. The difference in rules isn’t sexist, it’s a fact of men’s formalwear. Whether or not the difference between men’s and women’s formalwear is inherently sexist is a question for not right now.

The Objectification Spectrum, and Where Flattering Meets Rude

This is obviously not my first post about objectification, consent to be gazed upon, or the concept of respect regarding sexual gazing. These are pet subjects for me, but I don’t want to re-cover ground I’ve already trod upon. However, I had a recent experience that made me question when and how one can and should give consent to being physically objectified, and the responsibility of the gazer in such situations.

Right, so that was incredibly vague. Here’s what happened:

A few weeks ago I went to a private BDSM play party, wherein I was generally comfortable and among friends, but the party was sufficiently well-attended I certainly didn’t know everyone. I was naked save for a piece of body jewelry, and received a lot of friendly comments toward my recently finished tattoo. At one point in the evening, a couple of men were standing behind me, one commenting on my tattoo, the other commenting on my body, making jokes to the effect of “oh, she has a tattoo? I didn’t notice.” They couldn’t have been more than a foot away, and I heard every word they said.

I was extremely uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because they were enjoying looking at my body, but because by commenting on it while so close to me, they either completely forgot that I was a person who was capable of hearing them, or they didn’t care. This I did not appreciate. I confess to being shy, and therefore generally unhappy with being spoken to by strangers, but at that close range I would much rather be spoken to than spoken about. I felt that my personhood was somehow being taken from me by being so freely commented upon without any nod to my living presence near them.

So, the next question in my mind was, what would have been the right way for that scenario to unfold? I suppose ideally, these men would have introduced themselves, and then shared their opinions with me, rather than simply near me. Second best would be to keep their comments to themselves until I was out of earshot, because while it’s generally considered rude to talk about other people, at least by avoiding being overheard they would be acknowledging that I am a person who can hear.

The other – much more complicated – question is, where on the spectrum does some kind of spoken communication need to happen to constitute consent? I’ve said before that I believe to make something visible is consent for it to be seen. To be looked at does not require explicit consent. Obviously, any thoughts that go along with looking also don’t. I can fantasize about whomever I want, whenever I want. Look at any part of me that you can see without touching – that’s fair game. Think your free personal thoughts about what you see, as innocuous or lewd as they may be.

But what comes next? To give consent of any kind involves some kind of spoken interaction, so it seems like speaking to someone should be a free action (to steal a term from RPG’s). On the other hand, street harassment often takes the form of words and is certainly not okay. I absolutely love this comic I found on the subject:

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Comic by Barry Deutsch – click through to read.

I’m constantly thinking about where lines are drawn, and the distinction here between what is a compliment and what is harassment gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s (mostly) not the words that make the difference. If a person at the aforementioned party approached me, made eye contact, and said “I think you have an incredibly hot ass,” I would not be threatened. I might be a little awkward, but I’d be flattered. It might even “make my day.” But when someone calls those words out to me on the street, it makes me very nervous.

The easy answer is that the line is about motivation, but since we can’t know someone else’s motives, it’s not a workable solution. I don’t know if the person talking to me wants to pick me up, assault me, or just offer me a compliment in passing. I can’t know, in either circumstance.

I really wanted a big “ta-da!” to close this out, but I’m honestly stymied. I can tell you with certainty that verbally expressing sexual desire toward a woman is not inherently harassment, but I can’t tell you exactly what is. Especially because there’s also a realm in between acceptable and unacceptable, and that is “rude.” What the men at the party did to me was rude. It was not harassment, but it wasn’t ok either. It was rude, which is somewhere between the two.

While I may not have a pretty bow to wrap this up in, I will say this line of thinking is making me realize how difficult it can be for men to honestly express their sexual desires toward women. If I was a good person who was often in fear of being labeled a predator, I’d err dramatically on the side of caution, and would thereby probably not have any sex ever. The lines are blurry, and as a woman I’m generally viewed as less threatening and therefore less likely to accidentally find myself on the wrong side of the line. As a woman, that line is interesting to contemplate. If I were a man, it would terrify me.

No Means No, Even When You’re Famous – or – Seriously Guys, Leave Jon Hamm’s Penis Alone

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Love this show. Love it.

I am a proud and happy consumer of pop culture. I love television and popular music. While I’ve mentioned that my critical eye is hyper-active when I consume my pop-culture, consume it I do, sometimes voraciously. However, I admit that I am, generally speaking, not interested in the meta-pop-culture that is celebrities’ personal lives. While I love Mad Men, for instance, I could care less what kind of sandwiches Christina Hendricks ate last month, or who January Jones is having sex with, or how Vincent Kartheiser is styling his hair these days – off the set, that is.

But, when I came across this article entitled “Giant-Dicked Jon Hamm Really Wishes All Of You Would Stop Talking About His Giant Dick,” well, how could I resist that? It used the word dick twice in the headline alone – I’m obviously going to be interested. It turns out that Jon Hamm, the actor who portrays Don Draper on the aforementioned Mad Men, has been garnering a great deal of attention among the celebrity “news” media because of the visible bulge he creates in his pants.

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Taken from the “Jon Hamm’s Wang” tumblr.

And when I say “a great deal,” what I mean is that the article linked above is actually the second one on the subject by Uproxx, the first being called “Jon Hamm’s Penis Has Become a Disruptive Force on the Set of Mad Men.” (It’s a little scary to me how they phrased that, as if he was molesting his co-stars or something, rather than just looking more bulgy than his director would prefer.) Additionally, The Daily Beast referred to him as having a penis that is “Too Big For Clothing,” and, as if all the standard media attention is not enough, there’s also an entire tumblr dedicated to Jon Hamm’s penis. Seriously, I couldn’t make this up. A quick Google search revealed pages and pages of additional articles on the subject, as well as a long list of photos, many of which circled or highlighted the notorious bulge.

All of the attention Mr Hamm has been receiving, primarily in the form of tongue-in-cheek jokes about “Hamm’s ham,” has become rather too much for him, and he vented about it a bit to Rolling Stone magazine, saying that “it is a little rude. It just speaks to a broader freedom that people feel like they have – a prurience.” He adds, “They’re called ‘privates’ for a reason. I’m wearing pants, for fuck’s sake. Lay off. I mean, it’s not like I’m a fucking lead miner. There are harder jobs in the world. But when people feel the freedom to create Tumblr accounts about my cock, I feel like that wasn’t part of the deal.”

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Jon Hamm’s Rolling Stone cover

So, he’s telling us a lot of things here. First off, he is preemptively fighting the inevitable attack from we-the-non-famous-people, specifically that he lives a life of privilege in the spotlight and therefore can expect certain levels of gossip and exposure beyond that of the average private citizen, and that he views his privilege as paid for with that loss of privacy. That’s very big of you, Jon. I frankly disagree, but at this point despair of the possibility of ever rectifying the situation, so far gone are we in our love of celebrity. However, the more important thing he’s doing is telling the world that he feels uncomfortable about the way he’s being objectified, and that he doesn’t consent to it. He right out says, “lay off.” He tells Rolling Stone that being publicly hypersexualized without his consent isn’t a freedom that he thinks people ought to be taking, that it “wasn’t part of the deal” that comes with being famous. And he’s right. It is rude.

My opinion on the sexual objectification of another person’s body is the same as my opinion on any other sexual act. Its acceptability reaches only as far as consent. To be visible is to consent to be seen, but that’s it. If Jon Hamm is wearing tight pants, and you can see a bulge in them, you’re allowed to look. You’re even allowed to fantasize about it if you want. Rub one out, have a lovely time. But it doesn’t mean that he’s consented to this kind of public commentary based entirely around his genitalia. And in a free-speech-loving culture, yes, we do have every legal right to talk about it, to post paparazzi photos, and make jokes. These things aren’t illegal, but they are unkind, and they do create an environment where we believe it’s not only acceptable, but fun, to dehumanize celebrities.

So, annoyed with the disrespect being lavished upon his humanity, Hamm spoke out honestly and frankly with Rolling Stone magazine. Good for you, I say. But I seem to be the only one that said that. Uproxx, in the first article I linked to, had a totally different take on the situation. From word one, they mock Hamm for his affrontedness. No, really, I mean literally word one. “Seriously,” they lead off, before diving into a litany of sarcasm and mock empathy, calling his complaints to Rolling Stone “bitching,” and referring to him as “pissy.” They threaten his popularity, telling him that he’s “pushing it” by attempting to withhold consent to be made into a sexual object, and that “there are few things less endearing.”

The parallels here to victim-blaming are so stark they hurt my eyes when I read this article. How many times have women been sexually harassed and told to “take it as a compliment?” How many “prudes” and “ice queens” are there out there whose worst offense was being hurt when someone made an insensitive comment about their bodies? Now a man who, in his own words, wants his privates to stay private, is being decried as “pissy,” and is being threatened with social isolation if he doesn’t agree to play along with his own objectification. He’s being told, in essence, to “take it as a compliment.” Uproxx snarks “is there a worst lot in life than that of the handsome, famous celebrity with a giant penis, especially when the whole world knows about said handsome, famous celebrity’s giant penis?” The implication of course being that Hamm should be flattered by all the attention his cock is attracting. The world is looking at his huge penis, obviously that’s a good thing! And if Hamm relished in and encouraged the attention, then yes it would be a good thing. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t want it, and so that means the right thing to do is let it go.

Drinking and Kinking in Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight”

I wrote this several years ago, and never really had anywhere to put it before now. And now, I have a venue where I get to write about WHATEVER I WANT. So, I tidied it up a bit, and now you’re getting a critique of a sexy music video.

If you haven’t seen the video I’m talking about, the song is “Not Myself Tonight” by Christina Aguilera.

This is an example of a surprisingly common phenomenon where the imagery of a music video has almost nothing to do with the content of the song. The song seems to be about a girl who’s getting drunk, grinding on the dance floor, and making out with strangers. Pretty standard fare, really, with the exception of Christina Aguilera employing the word “fuck” – something I don’t recall her ever doing.

notmyselftonightImage-wise, this video is PRETTY. It’s a bit of a kink clusterfuck, ranging from kitten-play-style crawling on the floor in a collar, with a bowl in front of her; to playing dance-floor dominatrix, pulling hair and making a room full of back up dancers kneel around her. You also see such costume gems as a high-fashion gimp and what appears to be a drag queen in a vinyl teddy and big big hair. Also, my personal favorite, the blinged-out ball-gag.

So, yeah, ok, I’m not telling you anything you wouldn’t know watching this video by yourself. However, there’s something else going on in there. Most of the song doesn’t match up with the imagery Christina is presenting, but what does align is lots and lots of kink with lines like “I’m feeling unusual,” “I’m out of character,” etc. The implication, of course, being that sometimes nice girls want to get naughty. As the type who likes to be naughty pretty much all the time, I’m not sure how much I like that message. I think Christina is trying to dance around kink, not quite embracing it, but showing it to us so we believe she’s edgy.

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Say what you want about the much more popular Rihanna song “S&M” (which took a lot of judgment from the vanilla and kink communities alike when it came out), but she went all out with her message. She said, shamelessly, “Feels so good being bad, there’s no way I’m turning back.” Christina is saying “I’m out of character.”*

“If you really knew me you’d know it’s not the norm,” are Aguilera’s words. What I hear is, “If I don’t embrace this fully, then you can’t judge me.” She’s walking that fine line that appeals to the vanilla man: she’s a freak SOMETIMES. She thinks that vinyl is sexy SOMETIMES, but she won’t threaten your manhood by being a dominant woman. She likes to make out with girls SOMETIMES, but don’t worry, your manhood is not threatened because she’s still straight. “If you don’t like it fuck you,” she says, but she also says it’s just for tonight. In the long term, she’s safe, vanilla, heteronormative Christina.

I just stuck this photo in here because I have a shoe fetish. Ballet heels. Yum.

I just stuck this photo in here because I have a shoe fetish. Ballet heels. Yum.

It also plays to the more dangerous stereotype of the sexually uninhibited drunk woman. She says “I’m taking shots,” and “I’m normally in the corner just standing,” but because she’s drunk she’s “getting crazy.” Yes, alcohol does reduce inhibition. Obviously I’m not saying that it doesn’t. But perpetuating the image of the girl who acts wild because she’s drunk sucks for many reasons. First, is the problem of guys who intentionally get girls drunk to create this effect and thereby get laid. The logic is, it’s not that the girl doesn’t WANT to have sex, she’s just uptight and needs to get loosened up with some drink. Feminists and other people with brains call this acquaintance rape or, at best, coercion.

The second problem is that it feeds the idea that women AREN’T sexually free when they’re sober. A normal, sober, woman ought to be standing in the corner. And when you’re sober you shouldn’t want to kiss the boys and the girls. But when you’re drunk you get a pass. That both encourages permissiveness of bad behavior while drinking (“I didn’t mean to cheat on you, I was drunk”) and discourages sexual freedom while sober. Sexual uninhibited-ness, within the confines of safe, sane, consensual activity, is a GOOD THING. It’s not something to be excused away with drink.

After watching this video a few times, my feelings remain mixed. I do have all of the previously listed moral qualms with her message. At the same time, I think the costumes, the choreography, the whole production, are all breathtaking. I could watch her pour liquid latex on herself all day and never get tired of it. Freeze the video at 1:09. Thank me later. Aesthetically, I am in love with this video!

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You’re welcome.

So I am left ambivalent. Perhaps I’ll superimpose another song onto the video for this one, so my eyes can be happy while my ears are left unoffended. I wonder how “Hotel California” would line up?**

*Fun fact regarding timelines: Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” video was released in April 2010 (the full album “Bionic” was released in June). Rihanna’s “S&M” video was released in January 2011 (the album, “Loud,” was released the previous November). In every way, Christina’s song was first. So obviously Christina was not riding the coat-tails of Rihanna’s successful video. And “Not Myself Tonight” was nowhere NEAR the hit that “S&M” was, so we certainly can’t say the opposite. If the two influenced each other at all, maybe Rihanna saw Christina’s video and wanted to take it one step further? Who knows?

** The “Hotel California” thing was totally a joke, but if you play “S&M” over the video for “Not Myself Tonight,” it almost works. Sadly, “S&M” is almost a full minute longer, so that kinda fucks that up. But other than that, the music and choreography look uncannily good together.

Advertising, or Why Watching Television is Hard

nba-commercials

Isn’t it so funny? Because see, Asian men are short and basketball players are tall. Contrast is amusing!

I saw a commercial last night for some cel phone thing that let you get NBA information all the time. I don’t really care about sports, or confusing phone add-ons, so I don’t recall exactly what they were trying to sell me. But this was the story: an Asian family is coming downstairs for breakfast, only to see that their dad has transformed into some famous tall black basketball player – I didn’t catch his name. See? Don’t care about sports. Anyway, his pajamas are super short and he looks very silly, he has a dialogue with his son to the effect of “you look different!” The mother looks at him, and in sultry-voice says “I’ve got something for you to do.” Cut to him cleaning the gutters without a ladder. The end.

On the surface, it’s basically “ha-ha, that’s so funny, he’s cleaning gutters because he’s tall.” And what they’re selling you is a famous basketball player in your house. If you had this phone thing, it’d be like having this basketball player at your disposal all the time. How fun for you!

Unfortunately, commercials (and all of television) are always rich with layers, usually exploiting negative cultural expectations regarding race, sex, and class. In this case, we’re given the Asian mom supposedly coming on to the big black man. This resonates with our expectation: big black men are virile, Asian women look cold on the surface, but are all secretly wild and kinky in bed. But it turns around! She wants him to clean the gutters! That’s funny because while it doesn’t follow the expectation of the dialogue, we’re still not surprised: this is a woman with a child, and a woman who looks her middle-age. Those women don’t want to have sex, they just want their husbands to do chores for them. So it’s a funny twist that doesn’t take us outside our realm of anticipated stereotypes.

This is how I watch television. All the time. On one hand, it’s incredibly frustrating, because I can’t just laugh at a joke. I can’t just sit through a love scene without picking apart its implications. On…well, not the other hand, but maybe the other side of the other hand, it’s also incredibly frustrating because I know that so many people just DO laugh at the jokes, and enjoy the scenes, and just buy it all without examining what their entertainment is telling them.

The worst culprit, of course, is advertising, because it is specifically aimed at selling you something, and only has a very short time to do so. However, whenever I see an ad get called out for encouraging dangerous cultural biases, there will inevitably be some detractor telling us that we’ve got our collective panties in a twist and it’s “just a commercial.” For example, this delightful ad for Audi aired during the Superbowl this year.

audi-superbowl-commercialThe commercial creates a subtle environment, in which every moment plays a part. The kid starts out anxious, unhappy that he’s going to prom alone. The mother’s reassurance is ineffective, but the father hands him the keys to the Audi and says “have fun.” A look of shock passes over his face, but now that he can drive the Audi, he’s more confident. He parks in the principal’s space, marches into the prom, and kisses the prom queen without introduction or overture. He’s cheered by the general assembly, but the prom king gives him a black eye. He drives home, exultant, and fades out to Audi telling us: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”

Let’s go over what this kid did, and someone please tell me what was brave about it? He parks in the principal’s parking space. This is defiant, not brave. It exemplifies bravery as willingness to take something that does not belong to you (that part’s important, read it again). He kisses the prom queen, who does not even know he’s there until he’s touching her. That’s not bravery, that’s assault. It is again exemplifying bravery as willingness to take what you want regardless of the consequences. It frames the prom queen as a “what,” rather than a “who.”

The commercial was posted on the Slutwalk Facebook page, saying:
“Grabbing someone and kissing them without their permission is not Brave, it’s Cowardly, and it is Assault. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that our default state of existence is community property. No Thanks to Venables Bell & Partners for creating this Audi ad, and inspiring a generation of consumers watching the ads at the Super Bowl to think that grabbing and kissing someone without their permission = Brave.”

One of the first responses was from a man who said, “It didn’t look as if she minded? And being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message. Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.”

This comment demonstrates two of the most popular flaws in thinking, first about sexual assault, and the second about the media’s impact on our consciousness.

So, the first comment: “it didn’t look as if she minded,” is an incredibly common response to an unexpected and non-consensual sexual interaction that is generally considered minor, such as a kiss. Lots of people in this internet discussion echoed that sentiment. The first issue with this comment is that consent can’t be given retroactively. That’s not how consent works. “Go for it, if s/he likes it then it was consensual,” is not an acceptable way to approach sexual contact. You’re rolling the dice that the girl you’re assaulting is into that kind of thing. And that’s just backwards thinking. The bigger issue with this comment is that he is himself forgetting his second statement, that this is a constructed fictional account. Of course she didn’t mind, she was scripted not to mind because we’re being fed a scenario in which the assailant’s behavior is lauded as “brave.” If she didn’t smile, it wouldn’t be a good ad.

The second half of his argument is that “being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message,” and that “Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.” He’s right about that second half, but what he’s not considering is what kind of sex is being sold here.

What he’s trying to argue, that anyone “playing with a full deck,” should supposedly be able to see, is that this is a kid with low self-esteem who just got to kiss the prom queen. You can kiss the prom queen too, if you drive an Audi. That simple. But advertising is not that simple. Rooms full of people spend lots of time and money planning and scripting these ads. There’s a reason that the prom queen didn’t approach him as he got out of his car, saying “Nice car, wanna fuck?” That would still be selling sex, and the nerd would still get to kiss the prom queen, but the message would be completely different.

The message Audi wants to sell us is that this kid is brave. And being brave, he is defiant. He takes things that don’t belong to him. That includes the principal’s parking space, and the prom queen – even when he gets punched in the eye by the person that prom queen belongs to, it was worth it, because he was brave.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Audi is trying to make the boys of America into rapists. I’m not calling them malicious. I’m saying that this is a culturally acceptable message to send, and by including it in their ad, they are keeping it alive while organizations like SlutWalk are trying so hard to kill it and replace it with consent culture.

While people like the Facebook commenter want us to believe that commercials are no big deal, that anyone “playing with a full deck” can see that it’s just fiction, the problem is that most people (him included) don’t put this much thought into the media they consume. I’d guess most people saw this commercial and thought “that’s so sweet, the nerd got the girl.” They thought, yeah, he is brave. Go you, boy in the Audi. They did NOT think, for a second, hey maybe that prom queen is a person. Maybe taking a kiss from the prom queen isn’t the same as taking the principal’s parking space. Maybe there’s something wrong here.

Popular culture and entertainment media feed each other in an endless loop, and accepting unacceptable behaviors in media representation makes the jobs of feminism, racial equity, consent culture, or any other group trying to prevent their own marginalization, so much harder. So, maybe it is “just a commercial,” but there are millions out there like it, and they keep getting made because people keep buying into their messages.