I have been so overwhelmed by the politics surrounding gender issues in the United States in the last week. Not only are we fighting for marriage equality but, in what I believe is a related way, we are fighting for women to be seen in a more complete and accurate way. Mayhem broke out this week when Victoria's Secret CFO Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer claimed that girls as young as 15 want to be like older girls who, in the case of VS product, might wear underwear that has "Call Me" on the crotch. A quick look on the Victoria's Secret FB page - not sure if they've removed the comments of outrage since then - will show how many parents were upset that VS appeared to be sexualizing young teens. Now, a couple of days later, there are more and more articles trying to quell the anger and, in fact, expressing a different kind of outrage, this time toward parents who were making much ado about nothing, supposedly. Turns out, the line "Bright Young Things," that takes its cue from the fine apparel found on the former boardwalk of the Jersey Shore, was meant for college-aged girls all along. In fact, Amanda Marcotte, of Slate, thinks that anyone who was outraged at the issue to begin with is "righteous" and needs to give "teenagers a little freedom to do the growing up that they need to do." It's okay. Nothing to worry about. It's older women who will be wearing "Feeling Lucky?" on their asses instead.
True, such activity has a strong tradition in our country, especially during spring break which, not surprisingly, is when all of this hubbaloo has taken place. Perhaps getting upset at VS was wrong, or perhaps the reason behind our anger was wrong. Why are we upset at a company for marketing to our kids, when our kids are already fully aware of what that company sells and have already been sold on the product because every woman who they know uses the product? When Burgdoerfer claimed that 15 year old girls will copy their older siblings, or even older mothers, he wasn't wrong. That's Advertising 101. Perhaps we were only upset by the message because, for once, we could not sit in denial and pretend to be unaware of the reality of our daughters or younger siblings, nieces, students, or friends: advertising, song lyrics, and films are constantly encouraging them to put a suggestive message on their vaginas, one that will remain long after the cheap underwear falls apart.
Here is a photo still from the film "Spring Breakers":
Here is a photo still from Victoria's Secret's PINK line (which will carry the "Bright Young Things" segment):
There is not much difference between the colors, the focus, or the spirit of the photos, and that is no coincidence. Mom's were outraged by the suggestive wording of "Call Me" or "Feeling Lucky?" but the supposedly benign PINK line they are familiar with, which many of them might wear themselves, still encourages people to READ YOUR ASS...as if it were a billboard. Furthermore, the end result of this two-pronged advertising campaign for spring break - which is actually losing business by as much as 15% - is the same message: have decadent, brainless fun that ends up in meaningless sex. In reality, some students on spring break want to do more meaningful things with their time. In Indiana, college students got together during their break to help the less fortunate. It's as if VS and the film industry want to send a message to young women who actually want to use their time for something worthwhile: DON'T! Isn't THAT the real issue we have with VS? Weren't we ALREADY upset with VS when they started taking up prime time television space to air an even DUMBER version of the Miss Universe Pageant, one where the women don't even get to talk once? Don't tell me that your pre-teen or teenaged daughter hasn't seen the show - she has, and it has influenced her way more than some dumb underwear.
In order to continue the attack on your daughter's - and YOUR - mind, inane interviews in magazines and on websites support the messages in the films and ads. For example, Selena Gomez, one of the actors in "Spring Breakers," recently reminisced, in warm, dreamy-eyed fashion, in Harper's Bazaar, that her father would take her to Hooters when she was in pigtails and spend half the time with her and half the time with all the cute waitresses that came over. How sweet. Can I just thank my father right now for not ever screwing me up like that? Vanessa Hudgens takes it a step further by creating culture that links with the overall message to young women that they need not think much and should just use their bodies, or let their bodies be used. "Stop being so clever/You could do much better/You will be alone tonight," are lyrics that imply that using your brains will end up in blue balls, in her new song "$$$ex," which features a video with "Spring Breakers" clips. She thinks it's "a good date night song." I suppose that's true, if ear hemorrhaging over dinner is your bag. But hey, I don't want to knock S&M lovers.
Ford Motors doesn't want to knock S&M lovers, either, as long as the persons tied up are women. Recently, some ads that had yet to go through the approval stage were leaked and Ford had to apologize for them. This video news short, from NewsBreaker, describes the ads as "racy" and does not once mention the word "misogynist" or even "sexist."
Ford Apologizes For Racy Ad Showing Women Bound, Gagged | NewsBreaker | OraTV
In other words, the issue, according to NewsBreaker isn't that the ad depicts three women who are crying and bound and gagged in a trunk, driven by a former Prime Minister. The issue is that some might find the ad too "sexy." I never knew that kidnapping and torture were sexy. I certainly understand that some people like this or that, but the ad does not depict women who are approving of S&M play in any way - they look like they're being driven to warehouse in the middle of nowhere by a creepy murderer. Not funny, not sexy, not racy. Similarly, the way we have shaped the language around VS behavior is wrong. It is not that all of a sudden they endangered our young women. The real issue is that they have always promoted sex in an extremely passive, male-oriented way to ALL WOMEN. There is absolutely nothing feminist about the VS woman; I don't care how much money the models make. Should Gloria Steinem have remained a Playboy Bunny? Perhaps some men might have preferred her that way.
And that is the last issue I will try to tackle. We know that if a VS catalog comes to the house, if we have a partner at home, he/she might take a gander. Whatever, we're all human. That is what keeps us buying the sweatshop-made underwear, no? We want to be attractive, yes? I decided a long time ago that I had to be attractive in my own way. I'm not a superhuman that hasn't succumbed to the pressures of everything I have outlined here - advertising, music, and film - but I try on a regular basis to create my own idea of what is attractive. To heck with the rest of the world. In high school, I remember a former friend of mine asked me why I "didn't dress sexy" and my first thought was, "You are such an idiot," but my second thought and my reply was, "I do dress in my own attractive way." He wanted me to conform to some fantasy that is just so narrow-minded and overused and boring. He was a victim of Bell Biv Devoe. Why not grow the dendrites and create some new imagery, for heaven's sake? But no, as if to underscore the imagery and narrow imaginary that VS and films like "Spring Breakers" promote, the lyrics of our young men, within the appropriated hip hop industry, are so crude, so plain and dull and lifeless, they truly seal the box of that brain-deadening fantasy my high school acquaintance so desperately needed and was trapped in. Find some of the recent male-written lyrics and images created by people who have big, cold, empty holes in the center of their chests where their souls should reside, here and here and here.
Vincent and I heard the lyrics of "God Damn," found through the last link, when we sat next to a young man in the train station just yesterday. We laughed at the inane lyrics quite a bit and tried to mock them when we were far away from the fan, but as a woman, I truly wonder what will happen to such a man who listens to such alienating lyrics. Will he feel like it's okay to pull a Steubenville on someone? What will happen to women who buy underwear not for their own pleasure (or, God-forbid, necessity) but because they know they better be sexy for someone else because if they aren't, well, how could they possibly have a good life? You laugh at that sentence, but that message is all over the media - you know it. If it's out there, we've absorbed it, like it or not - it's how our brains work, by copying what is in our environments. Will women who have this message ingrained in their psyche ever allow other possibilities to take hold, other options, other much more exciting adventures OTHER than a spring break filled with alcohol poisoning and shallow "friendships" in the name of supposed freedom?
The Vanessa Hudgens video starts out with a clip of Selena Gomez's character saying, "This is our chance to see something different." I wish that it were. There is NOTHING different about spring break or the messages in the media I've highlighted here. Something different is a grandfather who sees his granny wife walking in the snow and looks at her with shining eyes because she has given him a lifetime of amazing memories - that is something I've seen my father do over and over and over. Something different is my dear friend Mario and his partner Bob, who have been together my entire lifetime and who I admire so much for their wit and grace. Something different is male and female friends creating arts organizations, or helping Sandy victims, or staging plays or writing songs about the Katrina tragedy, or just talking for hours, sharing their lives, no dating drama to be found because it's all about the friendship - which I witness every day with my friends. Something different is having a husband who will move across state lines in order for his wife to obtain the highest degree possible, no complaints, only support, which is what Vincent did for me (and which I have had the honor to do for him, as well). Something different is the relationship between Anel and Erika, two women and partners who I had the honor to meet when in San Antonio. Watch their story here:
I guess it seems like what I'm writing about isn't different because it is so common in my life, but I assure you, it IS different. I've worked extremely hard to surround myself with innovative people, with people who have vision and ambition, with people who can see and create a better world. And THAT is different. That is the most radical thing anyone can ever do and it is the only thing that ever saves a life bombarded by the common mediocrity of sexism and gender bias. THAT is what different is.