I’m not one of these assholes who brags about the fact that I don’t watch TV, but I don’t have cable (too poor), and network TV sucks tremendously, so I normally download whatever I want to watch (until this weekend, that is, when my school’s IT department sent me notice that I had to stop doing so on the school network… assholes). That means I don’t see many commercials, and that I have no idea what’s going on in the world of television. That was always a good thing, but now that I’m a blogger (ugh), I feel like I ought to be keeping up on pop culture happenings or something. That probably won’t translate into me actually doing so, but I want everyone to know I’m thinking about it.
Despite my ignorance of what transpires on the god box, I live in New York, so I’m constantly bombarded with ads for television shows at bus stops, on buses, on the side of buildings, in bathroom stalls, on bar coasters, in subway stations, on subway trains, on the top of cabs, on billboards… you get the point. So I’m aware that shows like Lipstick Jungle exist, and I’m aware that there’s a television series out that has something to do with the Terminator film franchise. I’ve never seen either of these shows, but I know everything I need to know about them from their bus stop ads: Lipstick Jungle is about urban women who are plagued with self-doubt and like wearing lipstick while doing it with men who only shave every four days, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles is about a female cyborg that dudes who read Maxim would totally be down to bang, bro. Let me know if I’m wrong.
I’m not wrong. As much as I’d like to delve into how obscenely trite and derivative these premises are, I’ll leave the obvious unsaid. Besides, I don’t care to waste 5 minutes I could spend thinking about how much I hate Jeremy Piven on watching either of these shows in order to get the ammo I’d need to prove that they are insultingly dumb. Instead, I want to talk about the print ads for The Sarah Connor Chronicles (I’d go over the Sex and the City… I mean… Lipstick Jungle ads, but what can be said that hasn’t been said before about a poster full of women in constricting clothing, crippling shoes, and painted faces advertising a show about the same thing? ).
I was walking down the sidewalk in Harlem with my parents one morning when we happened upon this work of art. I had been doing a little bus stop ad vandalism that week, and my mom pointed out the ad and asked me what I planned to write on it. It’s been awhile now, but I think I opted for “Goddamn, dismemberment is sexy as fuck!” Isn’t that the message here? This is nothing if not an overtly and brazenly sexualized image of a dismembered woman’s body, and it was displayed in a public place in which children can and do see it every second. “But come on,” you’ll say, “it’s not really a dismembered woman, she’s a cyborg! So it’s OK that it’s just a chunk of a body, because it’s, like, not real or anything.” If it’s just a robot and isn’t meant to be thought of as human with respect to dismemberment, why does it have to look like a female human being at all? And why are its breasts completely exposed save for the nipples, which are conveniently hidden by its long, sexy hair? I’m pretty sure sexual characteristics are superfluous for a robot (and that sexualized images of the male cyborgs in the Terminator film series don’t exist). If it was just a chunk of metal it’d be one thing, but it’s not. It’s a woman’s body that is being depicted as a sexual object, and it’s been dismembered. But it’s still supposed to be sexy.
This image is disturbing not because it stands out from other media for combining sexual titillation with the most extreme form of violence that can be done to the human body, but because it doesn’t. Shows like Dexter, the first season of which revolved around glamorized depictions of women’s bodies having been dismembered and drained of blood, seem to be in a contest in which whoever depicts the most gruesome abuse of women’s bodies wins. If you don’t believe me, watch an episode or two of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (or one of the 15 other Law and Order varieties), CSI, or any of the fucking 14,000 cop shows that revolve around mutilated corpses and brutalized rape and molestation victims. The victims are almost always female; I guess the concept of dismembering and mutilating male bodies just isn’t compelling. Wonder why that could be.
I’ve heard the argument that the writers of these shows continue to dream up ever more perverse crimes and ever more ghastly images of dead women in order to ride the shock value to better ratings and greater ad revenue, which I buy, but where is the demand coming from? Images and descriptions of women being raped, killed, and mutilated are such a common and accepted part of our cultural imagination that hardly anyone seems to be noticing just how extreme these depictions have become in mainstream media and advertising like the ad pictured here. I think this might be an excellent phenomenon to apply the switcheroo test to.
The explanation for why this is happening, as far as I can tell, is a combination of two of the most nefarious forces at work in our society: plain ol’ misogyny and the primacy of profit over morality (humanity, really) that characterizes unregulated capitalism.
One can easily observe throughout the course of history a pattern in which, when a dominant group feels its grip on its privileges and dominance loosening, it reacts violently against the group it sees as posing that threat. The rise of Jim Crow and the increase in lynchings after the end of slavery, when whites felt their security threatened by blacks gaining their freedom, is just one example. These things don’t get worked out overnight, as we can see in the sad state of race relations almost 150 years hence. Sexism, which I would submit is even more pervasive and systemic to almost every culture on Earth than racism, will take much longer to extirpate. (Settle down, I’m not claiming sexism is worse than racism, just that it’s going to be even harder to do away with.)
Many books and articles have been written about the backlash against feminism that’s been brewing since the late 1970s, as well as about what some see as a second backlash since the start of the War on Terrah, but these focus more squarely on the realms of employment and family relations than on culture, even though the backlash has manifested itself most clearly in the realm of popular culture. It’s obvious in the ways that women and girls are now being unapologetically objectified and sexualized in much more sinister ways than ever before in music videos, television shows, movies, and on the internet. The explosion of internet pornography, especially the more degrading and violent varieties, is another symptom of the pop culture backlash against the perceived growth of women’s power and position in society.
That’s where the demand comes from, but the whole process is abetted by the ever more insidious forces of unregulated and amoral capitalism at work in the advertising, media, and pornography industries. The combination of a cultural imagination dominated by a fascination with seeing women degraded and — really — punished, coupled with a media and marketing machine motivated by nothing but profits has produced a downward spiral of salaciousness and misogyny.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles poster shocked my TV-saturated parents, which I would like to take as a positive sign, but I don’t know how young people who have been raised in our hyper-sexualized porn culture and have been inured to seeing women’s bodies used and abused will be able to resist the influence of these kinds of images. I want to think we’re reaching a tipping point and that people will start to react against the growing hatred of women in our cultural life, but I sometimes worry that we might just be fucked.
(As I write this, I’m sitting on a Southwest flight from Chicago to Las Vegas, neither of which is my departure or destination city [discount travel!], and some fucking jagoff is going through a slideshow of photos he has on his computer. They include a bunch of stupid photos of “alternative” looking “chicks” with tattoos, some photos of some dumb band [nu metal, no doubt], some photos of this same band with two tattooed Suicide Girl types in nothing but thongs making out with each other as the band stands behind them fully clothed and appears not to notice, some more photos of the two SGs on a bed nearly naked with one of them pointing a gun at the other, and a few with a girl wearing a nurse’s cap, a thong, and about a pint of blood. Rock and fucking roll. Did I mention that I’m in public?)