Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gender Junk: Have Things Changed?

So, yesterday I had a great question:  in my opinion/experience, has "daily life" for women changed?  What role, if any, has the rise of Internet porn played in that?  This question was in response to this post, where I sort of documented how difficult it can be to just be a woman in everyday life (street harassment, sexist ads/videos, men happy to make their allegiance to porn quite public, stupid sexist song lyrics, etc.).  The short answer is:  yes and no.  But I think it's really interesting and useful to dig into it with a long answer, so here it goes.

The long short answer is:  swimming through sexist shite has been part of life for women forever; what has changed is the cultural ubiquity of narrow, homogenized, often and increasingly degrading, hyper-sexualized and hyper-commercialized visions of women (at the same time, ironically, that new paths in education and work have opened for (some) women).  There is a fabulous, smart book about this, called "The Rise of Enlightened Sexism" by Susan Douglas.  It's fun to read and if you're interested in this kind of stuff, do check it out.

Now, to filter this through my own personal experience, I'm going to take apart the kinds of crap women generally face and my personal experience of them bit by bit.

Street Harassment- This has been around forever and ever.  Some men have always harassed women on the streets (though many men do not/have not).  In my personal experience of street harassment, I would say it's been about the same over the last 15 or so years.  Now, I've gotten older over this time, so theoretically I might perhaps experience less harassment as I become older and "less desirable."  But I guess I'm not old enough yet, plus I look younger than my age, so, yeah, it's about the same.  I can say it truly hasn't mattered what I'm wearing, in my experience.  I certainly went through my "provocative" dressing phase, and can't say I experienced any more or less random street harassment than I do now, in my "it's cold outside and heels hurt so fuck that" phase.

Men Wearing Porn T-shirts or Using Porn on the Tube- This has definitely changed.  I cannot imagine, 15 years ago, having seen a man in a bukkake (or Penthouse) t-shirt strolling casually down the street.  Ditto flipping through hardcore porn mags on the Tube (or similar public location).  That men now feel comfortable doing so is obviously an effect of the pornification of culture more generally.  I think it sucks.

Sexualization in the Media- Oh yeah, it's changed.  Let's use MTV videos as an example.  Sure, women have always been the attractive, passive object to be desired in music videos.  But the hyper-sexualization and the exclusion of other options are new.  When I was a teen, women were to be sexy and looked at in a lot of videos.  But not all, or even most, videos revolved around woman-as-sex-object, and the objectification and beauty standards on display weren't as extreme.  (Note:  I know not all videos made today are sexist.  I'm only saying, when I go to the gym, this is what's inevitably on screen: video after video of what used to be considered softcore porn, to the exclusion of anything else.  I haven't had television at home for 14 years, so...).  A really good example of this came up at Soc Images recently, where Mariah Carey's video from a Christmas song 15 or so years ago was compared to her video for the same song now.  It's quite striking- not only for the hyper-sexualization of Mariah, but for the commercialization.  Check it out.  As to media more broadly, yeah, the billboards and ads in magazines are much more extreme than they were 15 years ago.  There has been a normalization of plastic surgery, so of course there are more ads for that.  Photoshop (and surgery) have ensured that yesterday's pretty woman in an ad is today's completely unrealistic picture of "perfection."  Youtube Jean Kilbourne for great examples of this.  At the same time, the depictions of women in media have gotten hyper-sexual- see this post from Soc Images for a great example looking at Rolling Stone covers.  This has happened while *other* kinds of depictions of women have increasingly disappeared.  So while, in yesteryear, the hyper-sexualized cartoon woman was one kind of woman on display, today she is virtually the only kind of woman on display.  I think it sucks.

Porn Conventions Leaking into Daily Life- I didn't write about this in the original post, but worth noting I think is how women's behaviors have changed in the aftermath of internet porn dominance.  In my teens and early 20s, women were not having their pubic hair ripped out en masse and there was no such thing as labiaplasty.  That's changed.  I think it sucks.  Especially when women aren't honest about their motivations and characterize their choices as an issue of "cleanliness."  That really pisses me off.

Childhood Socialization- Also not mentioned in my original post, but worth noting are changes in the socialization of girls. When I was a kid, I had bad mushroom hair, wore no makeup, and proudly stomped around in an ugly pair of hula shorts that I thought were the bee’s knees. When I played, it was with Legos and cars. When I wanted attention, I subjected my mom and any other possibly interested adult to endless hours of "roller skating routines" set, inevitably, to Guns N' Roses songs. I was blissfully unaware of GN'R's misogyny, and I skated up and down the short length of the kitchen, in my nerdy hula shorts, with abandon. Today, young girls may virgin wax, wear push-up bras and thongs with slogans like “eye candy”, and t-shirts that say things like “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” They may play with hyper-sexualized Bratz dolls or faux stripper poles. When they want attention, they might do “dance routines” to Beyonce’s “SingleLadies”, replete with burlesque-style bikini costumes, stripper moves, and a thousands-strong adoring adult audience. When I was growing up, in other words, sexualization came later, and there was no pink princess culture to ensure that I grow up to be concerned about purses, shoes, and princes to the exclusion of practically anything else.  Today, girls are sexualized very young and some never grow out of or see alternatives to the princess kind of life.

Harassment at Work- I didn't mention this in my earlier post, but someone pointed out how important it is (quite right).  It is, I think, entirely down to privilege.  Women's harassment at work, sexual or otherwise, is and has always been pretty ubiquitous.  Personally, I've experienced far less harassment at work, mostly because the past five years of my life have been spent working at a university.  I have a very privileged job, in a very privileged environment.  When I was younger and worked in service industries, I experienced much more harassment at work (more often from customers than co-workers).  Today, the most I have to put up with is the odd sexist professor.  For women who spend their entire working lives in exploited occupations, of course the harassment is going to be much greater.

So back to that long short answer:  Yes, things have changed.  Trends, attitudes, depictions that have always been around have become exaggerated and are quickly becoming the only game in town.  The rise of internet porn is certainly a huge influence on cultural depictions- and on real-life behavior, thanks both to men's pressure and to women's acquiescence- but it's not just about internet porn.  Part of it is good old-fashioned backlash.  (Some) women have made incredible gains, especially in opportunities around education and work, but these gains have come at a time of overall declining economic fortune (thanks unfettered capitalism!), making women an easy scapegoat for the general decline in our economic opportunities and well-being.

Do I think more men "behave badly"** so to put it than before?  This is impossible to quantify, but I have to say I'm hopeful.  I live with a man- a really great man- and he daily gives me hope.  I have male friends who are really good men, doing their bit to make the world better for men and women alike.  We're seeing ad campaigns that target men and their actions in really healthy and positive ways.  At the same time, there sure are a lot of fauxgressive dudes out there.  And the popularity of violent porn is deeply, deeply troubling.  And some men are wilfully ignorant and hostile, and clearly don't bother to engage with what women are saying, especially on the Internet!  But then others do, so... mostly, I'm hopeful.  For me, right now, that's how it has to be.

**I haven't really addressed women's own actions/choices in this post, but I think they're really important as well.  It's very difficult in some feminist circles to say so these days, but women's choices aren't made in a vacuum, and they are not, in fact, exempt from examination.  Both the influences on and the effects of women's own choices need to be critically examined.


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