Last week, a Canadian journalist wrote an op-ed piece on what she referred to as the prevailing “culture of porn” in Western society. You know: desperate housewives and panty-free celebs and Bratz Dolls and silicone, silicone, as far as the eye can see. We face an onslaught of skank every single day, she said, and this relentless onslaught of skank is teaching our daughters that their worth resides only in their bodies and in their willingness to skank it up with their peers.
And who do we have to thank for this onslaught of skank, this culture of porn? Hollywood? The Entertainment-Industrial Complex? The post-modern condition imposed by late capitalism, wherein everything solid melts into (J-Lo endorsed) air?
Nope: feminism. And, more generally – lest you think that she’s singling people out here – the matriarchy.
“Which is the greater oppression?” asks Barbara Kay: “Sexual virtue imposed by the patriarchy, or sexual libertinism imposed by the matriarchy? They call it empowerment, but in fact the decade-long cultural vogue for “girl’s gone wild” – “bad” as the new sexual “good” (hey! she stole my line!) – is just another form of cultural tyranny. Except that now the oppressors are post-morality theorists (among whom, she specifies later, ‘radical feminists’) and “desperate housewife” moms (?!?!?!) urging public “hotness,” rather than stern moralistic fathers suppressing it.”
I don’t even know where to begin. There’s a matriarchy? And the skankomania that breeds Britneys and Lindsays and Parises and Bratz Dolls is promoted by this matriarchy? Really? (Actually, it’s worse than you think: it’s a cabal of post-moral feminist desperate housewife moms who are in fact a global matriarchy, running the world and maintaining secret societies at Ivy League universities – you know them by their Juicy Couture yoga pants and cunning little secret society pinky rings with skull insignia embellished with little daisies. Trilateral Commission? Ha. It’s the Triclitoral Commission, and they’re the ones who are really pulling all the strings. Now you know.)
Seriously. I spent seven-plus years in graduate school studying political philosophy and social theory and sat in on more than my fair share of seminars on ‘The Gender Politics of Late Capitalism’ and ‘Feminism and Post-Modernity’ and ‘Men: What Are They Good For?’ and I don’t recall hearing about a single feminist theorist (never mind post-moral theorist, a term that I have never heard before), radical or otherwise, who encourages the wholesale pornification of society and/or sexualization of children. They may well be out there, but if they are, they’re on the fringe. The extreme fringe.
It may be that Ms. Kay means to argue that the so-called sexual revolution – with its bra-burning and Pill-promoting antics – is the mother of what she sees as the pornification of Western culture. That argument isn’t particularly new. But careful analysts of that argument know to point out that it is deeply, deeply contentious in feminist circles, old and new. Many mainstream feminists – such as Diana Russell, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Brownmiller, and Robin Morgan – have long argued that the hyper-sexualization of women (never mind girls) is always oppressive. But even those feminists – such as Susie Bright (who I really wish that I’d met at BlogHer) – who argue for a more sex-positive feminism stop short of promoting sexualization in any and all forms: such feminists usually agree that promoting sex can become oppressive to and exploitative of women if it is not in the hands of women. Is there a feminist out there who really believes that Britney Spears is currently empowered in her sexuality? A feminist who is pro-Bratz Baby? If there is, please point her out to me, because I’d love to hear the argument.
The fact is, however much feminists (to the extent that one can lump them together as a homogenous group, which I don’t think one can) promote more open discussion and awareness of female sexuality, they do not and have not ever promoted the wholesale pornification of femininity, let alone the (oh my heart) pornification of childhood. To the extent that there has been any ‘pornification’ of the culture, feminists and feminism are not to blame. And in attempting to lay such blame, Ms. Kay obscures the following fact: that the more heinous examples of a ‘culture of porn’ in our society are the result of a hyper-commercial culture, one in which the key decision-makers are most often men. The creator, promoter and owner of Bratz Dolls? A man. The creator of “Desperate Housewives”? Man (also? Self-described conservative homosexual republican. Parse that, Barbara.) Ludacris (cited, inexplicably, in her article as evidence of this “matriarchal” culture of porn) – last time I checked? Man. But I’m not going to lay blame for skank dolls and misogynist rap music and Teri Hatcher at the feet of the “patriarchy” or the “post-moralists” who pull the strings at Fox Television or who program Ann Coulter or whatever. Why not? Because it’s much, much more complicated than that.
As a mother, I am deeply, deeply anxious that my daughter might come of age in culture where the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are offered up as quote-unquote role models. I am terrified that she’ll face all manner of peer pressure toward identifying herself as a sexual being before she’s ready. I don’t know any mother of girls who does not worry about these things – and none of the mothers that I know is a “desperate housewife.” But even if we were, would that matter? Ms. Kay compares the imagined “matriarchal” imposition of loose sexual morals (which, again – from what fevered imagination did this come?) against the sexual oppression imposed by the patriarchy and finds the former more insidious. But isn’t there something oxymoronic in the claim that liberation (even if imagined) is oppressive? If there is – and I must stress again that I think that this is entirely the stuff of fantasy – a matriarchy that is encouraging free love and open sexuality, and if this has yielded some unpleasant cultural phenomenon and disagreeable mores, is this worse than a culture that demands that women live their lives behind veils and curtains and doors? That they deny their sexuality?That they put modesty (sister to shame, and handmaiden to piety) before all else? Is this what we want to teach our daughters – that their sexuality is something to be hidden or denied?
As I said, it’s complicated: I fear and celebrate my daughter’s future as a sexual being (mostly fear, at this point.) I hate that we live in a culture that has turned her sexuality – and the process of her sexual development – into a commodity. Into what seems, at times, to be a commercial freak-show. But would I rather be subjected to the “stern moralism” of patriarchs than have to navigate the sometimes harrowing waters of “public hotness”? Is that a serious question? Really?
I hate Bratz Dolls, I really do. But I hate narrow-minded (and intellectually sloppy) moralism even more.