A group of pale, skinny teenagers lie on the floor of a living room, their hands pressed to their foreheads, pained expressions on their beautiful young faces. As the camera pans slowly over their lanky frames, a halting, dramatic voice-over starts up: ‘Longing … Absence … Desire … I feel this burning sensation …’ The ad is shot in black and white. All of a sudden the voice-over stops and a fat middle-aged guy steps into frame. He’s in colour and he has a tip for the teenagers: ‘Try eating something … That burning sensation? It’s hunger.’ He goes on to suggest they’d all feel less alienated if they hoed into a box of Pete’s Greasy Cheesy Tummy Pleasers.
The commercial, which was aired in the United States early in 1997, is a parody of a well-known ad for Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume. The Klein ad featured model Kate Moss looking pale and interesting and a pseudo-poetic voice-over discoursing on the anxieties of love. It was one of a string of commercials featuring Moss that caused fierce debate in the US and Australia about the damage ultra-thin supermodels supposedly do to teenage girls’ esteem.
Scrawny models, the argument goes, are teaching young women to hate their bodies. Their ethereal images cause teenagers to torture themselves with diets and, in extreme cases, to develop life- threatening eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. The argument has gained the force of common sense because it is constantly repeated in popular feminist debate as part of a broader claim that advertising, commercial television, women’s magazines and pornography routinely degrade and misrepresent women, turning them into sex objects for the perusal of men. This belief has led many Australian feminists to wage a two-decade-long censorship campaign against popular culture. They’ve protested ‘sexist’ ads, denounced violent and sexual content in books, films, magazines, music videos and video games, and called for and participated in government inquiries into the corrupting effects of new media on youth. They have lobbied for new forms of regulation for virtually every mass medium. And they have done so with great success.
Consumers in the ‘dupe’ basket
Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women and Naomi Woolf’s The Beauty Myth—both best-selling books in the United States and Australia—exemplify mainstream feminist concerns about popular culture. In her book, Susan Faludi, an American journalist, goes on a selective trawl through the mass media and finds ‘a bulletin of despair’ posted everywhere for women: ‘You may be free and equal now, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable.’ Naomi Woolf makes similar claims about the advertising, magazine and beauty industries. She writes: ‘There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth. What it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy, and culture to mount a counter-offensive against women.’
Faludi and Woolf repeat arguments that have dominated mainstream feminist debate on mass media for almost two decades. Yet if we take a closer look at their claims, it becomes clear that both authors rely on gross generalizations about the way images and information circulate in our society. The evasive slippage between the terms ‘myth’, ‘women’, ‘power structure’, ‘economy’ and ‘culture’ in the above passage by Woolf is telling. Woolf wields these large concepts with little regard for the complexities they designate, and in doing so she conveniently avoids the more complex task of addressing the relationships between media formats, media content and media audiences that even the most basic account of popular culture demands. Faludi is also remarkably quick to put media consumers in the ‘dupe’ basket. How she managed to find her own patch of high and dry ground from which to pronounce on the media sewer remains a mystery.
The problems with Faludi and Woolf’s arguments reflect broader flaws in popular feminist discourse on the media. Campaigns against ‘sexist’ advertisements have become increasingly knee-jerk, demonstrating little attempt to distinguish sexist material from sexual material. Prominent feminist politicians and public figures routinely attack the media for purveying ‘negative’ or ‘unrealistic’ images of women, but they’ve failed to present coherent alternatives or to answer the question of what ‘positive’ images of women look like. Does ‘realistic’ mean excluding all sexually provocative or glamorous images of women? When does an image cross the line between being sexy and demeaning? And what gives middle-class feminists the right to speak on behalf of other women and what they want in the first place anyway?
The furore over Kate Moss is a case in point. Concerned feminists believe they’re protecting young women from the evil designs of magazine publishers, diet pill manufacturers and the fashion and beauty industries. Yet their argument that bony models are damaging young women’s self-esteem relies upon the same logic that drives dieting. One of the major feminist complaints about women’s magazines is that they treat the female body as an unruly beast that needs to be waxed, exfoliated, moisturized, tanned and dieted into submission. Yet some feminists are equally guilty of treating teenage girls as if they can’t be trusted to manage their own bodies. Only in this case what they need to be protected from are pictures of Kate Moss and Cleo’s dieting tips, not chocolate and ice cream.
Telling teenage girls that they are controlled by the magazines they read is not a particularly inspiring message to send them. For one thing, it doesn’t demonstrate a lot of confidence in their ability to negotiate information and images for themselves. More importantly, it shows an ignorance of the very real diversity of female body types that actually populate popular culture: Drew Barrymore, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, Anna Nicole Smith, Kate Ceberano, Bjork, Madonna, Helen Razer will do for starters.
Sexual, sexy, sexist
In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a book that warns of the dangers popular culture poses to adolescent girls, Mary Pipher describes how appalled she was the first time she turned on MTV. ‘I was shocked by the sexual lyrics and scenes. In the first video, openmouthed and moaning women writhed around the male singer. In the second video, four women with vacant eyes gyrated in low-cut dresses and high black boots. Their breasts and bottoms were photographed more frequently than their faces.’ She goes on to observe that parents often wrongly assume that their daughters live in a world similar to the one they experienced as adolescents, but ‘they are dead wrong’. Instead, she writes, ‘their daughters live in a media-drenched world flooded with junk values’.
Pipher is right about one thing: parents do often exhibit amazing ignorance about the popular culture their children consume. Where she goes awfully wrong is in her assumption that understanding popular culture is simply a matter of bringing a series of her own ready-made assumptions to bear on the latest music video.
Pipher’s description of the videos she watched tells us more about her own prejudices than it does about the content or format of the videos. She says she was ‘shocked by the sexual lyrics and scenes’, a comment that tells us very little about what, exactly, she found objectionable. Does she think all public representations of sexuality should be censored? Does she think teenagers shouldn’t be allowed to witness sexually explicit material? Does she think there was something inherently discriminatory or sexist in the videos she saw? Her final comment—that the women’s breasts and buttocks were photographed more frequently than their faces—suggests this is the case. But what would Pipher make of the many music videos that portray men as sex objects? And is she suggesting that any pleasure we derive from objectifying other people, turning them into fantasy objects of love or sexual desire, is wrong? The truth is that Pipher doesn’t answer any of these questions. She talks about popular culture as if it were one homogeneous clump of images and information and she constantly blurs the boundaries between sexual and sexist material.
Pipher is not alone. Reading images, whether we’re talking bra ads or Titian’s Venus of Urbino, is never as simple as it looks. For one thing, images don’t stand alone, they constantly quote from other images, giving them a layered, half-seen dimension. For another, they don’t stop at their own borders, they’re affected by what frames them. How we read an image depends on where we see it, when we see it, what we know about it in advance and what expectations we bring to it.
A good illustration is the widely different reactions provoked by nude shots of model Elle Macpherson. Macpherson has appeared naked, or virtually naked, in the movie Sirens, in Playboy magazine and in a calendar shot in Bali. Yet the reaction to all three, as evidenced by the media debate, varied widely. Macpherson’s nudity in the context of a movie about Australian artist Norman Lindsay was generally seen as a legitimate ‘artistic’ gesture. Her Bali calendar, in which she appears in scanty swimwear, was the subject of favourable media comment. But her Playboy spread attracted a lot of negative publicity against which the model felt obliged to defend herself, despite the fact that the shots were extremely modest and playful.
These three different contexts represent a continuum between art and pornography that structures the way many of us categorize images of sexuality. Fine-art nudes are generally accepted as intellectually or spiritually improving, but Penthouse centrefolds are condemned as tawdry and degrading, both to the women who appear in them and to the person who views them. But as history shows, the boundary between art and pornography is constantly shifting. When Manet showed his Olympia in the late nineteenth century, it was viewed by many as unredeemably pornographic. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of Western art.
One of the problems of living in a society saturated with images is that traditional boundaries between different kinds of images and information have eroded almost entirely. We live in a world in which Pride and Prejudice the novel, Pride and Prejudice the movie and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ the Simpsons’ send-up all exist on a continuum. Likewise, the distinctions between pornography, music videos and an image considered suitable for the cover of Woman’s Day are also collapsing. Feminism has been slow to recognize the diversity of contexts and the aesthetic complexity of the images all of us are asked to deal with in our daily lives. Madonna might be strutting about in a skin-tight leather cat-suit—but it’s worth noting that she’s also carrying a whip and singing about how she intimidates men with her sexuality.
It’s time that feminists quit telling women what they want and started looking more closely at what they consume. Doing the latter involves recognizing the role that desire, fantasy and pleasure plays in the way we consume images and goods. More importantly, it involves recognizing that there is no one ‘real’ woman that feminists have been authorized to speak for, or who could be asked to stand in for all the ‘false’ images of women that supposedly pervade the media landscape.
In 1995 Time magazine ran an unforgettable cover for its ‘cyberporn’ issue: a wide-eyed boy stared as if hypnotized at a computer screen, his face illuminated by its ghastly blue glow. It’s an image that taps right into adults’ protective instincts, a picture that begs for action. The message is clear, even if the threat is amorphous: evil people, ideas and images lurk inside the computer on the Internet. And it’s our duty to protect children from them.
The Time cyberporn issue opened the floodgates, both here and in the United States, to a flood of community concern about children getting access to pornography on the Net or being preyed on by paedophiles. The two issues are often collapsed in public debate. The idea of anyone abusing the trust of a child or young adolescent, let alone physically or emotionally harming them, is abhorrent. And naturally no sane parent wants his or her offspring exposed to images or experiences that could disturb or confuse them. The problem with the debate about children, teenagers and new media, however, is that it often extends well beyond likely reality into the realm of moral panic.
The mainstream feminist debate has followed suit and transferred many of the traditional feminist concerns about old media onto the new. In her book on women and cyberspace, Nattering on the Net, Australian feminist writer Dale Spender takes a cautiously optimistic look at the way the Internet and other new media are changing our lives and our sense of who we are. Unfortunately, she falls back on some pretty stale gender stereotypes in support of her claim that women and men react differently to new technology. When she considers the prevalence of porn and sexual flirtation in chat rooms on the Net, Spender gives the impression that she considers such pursuits the sole province of men. And she casts women as the moral housekeepers of cyberspace. She writes: ‘It is to be regretted that some of the worst aspects of real life have become prominent features of the virtual world. But women have a history of admirable achievements when it comes to establishing a more egalitarian society. What we now face is a bigger task in our efforts to change the world: because now that we have cyberspace, we have a bigger world and more to change.’
Spender’s claim that the ‘dehumanised’ sexual experiences offered by pornography on the Net always constitute ‘a very different thing from the personal relationships that women have indicated as their preference’ ignores the way technology has helped and is helping to change our understanding of gender, sexuality and the relationship we have to our bodies. What women want is neither universal nor essential. From the birth-control pill to laptop computers, technology is deeply implicated in the way we understand our gender, our bodies, our minds and our sense of self.
When feminists voice their concerns about the potentially corrupting effects of cyberspace on young people, they also need to acknowledge the way generational assumptions about culture and technology may hinder their ability to comprehend the way teenagers approach the Net. In particular, they need to think about the way new media are accelerating the erosion of control adults have over children’s and adolescents’ access to information and images.
Walk into any newsagency and you’ll still find the comforting, hierarchical divisions of the print era. Magazines are divided along the lines of gender and age. Kids’ comics go here, men’s magazines go there. Browsers know where they belong. Bikies refrain from checking out Vogue Living and pregnant women avoid Soldier of Fortune. Controlling access to information is one of the ways we maintain traditional social hierarchies. Knowledge is power; kids know it and that’s why they’re always bugging their parents to let them read or watch stuff designed for older kids and adults. Policing young people’s access to information—and, implicitly, their maturity—is becoming increasingly difficult.
On the Internet, for instance, people of all ages, races and genders swap ideas in a way they do not in real life. Playing with these boundaries is exciting, but it’s also the source of great social anxiety, and the feminist debate about new media has not been immune from the angst about the blurring of boundaries between children and adults. The fear that children and teenagers are being corrupted (made adult before their time) is bound up with the fear that modern adults are too childish (we spend too much time watching videos, eating junk food and attending to short-term wants).
When cultural-studies theorist Sadie Plant considers the Net, she comes to a conclusion opposite to Dale Spender’s. Rather than seeing new technology as a traditionally male preserve that women have to conquer and reform. Plant argues that there’s been a long-standing relationship between machines, media and women’s liberation. She writes: ‘You can almost map them onto each other in the whole history of modernity. Just as machines get more intelligent, so women get more liberated.’ As Plant points out, the problem for many young women today is not how to get access to a computer, but how to sift through the overwhelming bank of images and information available to them.
Gender in cyberspace
In her book Life on the Screen, American writer Sherry Turkle inverts the usual feminist concern with the way men and women relate to cyberspace in favour of a concern with the way cyberspace relates to us. How, she asks, are computers changing the way we think about gender, sexuality and self? What is the relationship between the way men and women deal with one another in cyberspace and gender politics in the real world? Drawing on two decades of research into the way we interact with computers and the Net, Turkle argues that cyberspace encourages us all to confront the way gender (along with age, race, sexuality and ethnicity) affects the way we view ourselves and others. In her book, virtual life emerges as a vast experimental space in which women are constantly pushing against the limits of their own identities and those of others. Her research suggests that it is very difficult to make universal claims about what women want from new media.
Feminists who perpetuate a view of mass-media forms—from advertising to the Internet—as inherently hostile to women are clinging to a literal-minded and narrow view of the relationship between popular culture and its consumers. Younger women, in particular, have grown up in a mass-mediated culture and have developed highly sophisticated ways of interacting with the images and ideas that bombard them daily. If feminism is to remain engaged with and relevant to the everyday lives of these women, then feminists desperately need to recognize that engaging with popular culture involves something more than identifying and condemning sexualized images of women. Feminists need to engage with debates in popular culture, rather than taking an elitist and dismissive attitude towards the prime means of communication in our society. And we need active attempts to produce diverse forms of speech, rather than reactionary campaigns of suppression.
 Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women (Chatto & Windus, London, 1991). Naomi Woolf, The Beauty Myth (Vintage, London, 1991), p. 13.
 Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Doubleday, Sydney, 1996), pp. 33, 66.
 Dale Spender, Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace (Spinifex, Melbourne, 1995), pp. 212, 257.
 Sadie Plant, in R. Cross, ‘Cybergettes’, 21C3.95 (1995), p. 18.
 Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996).
Image credit: Marilynartus