Tag Archives: censorship

In defence of Germaine

25 Oct



Germaine Greer.  Now banned from speaking on a university campus because her views on transgender women are perceived as hostile, and transphobic.

What Greer says is that she doesn’t believe a man who is surgically and hormonally transformed into a female, is as much of a woman as are those of us born with female genitalia.

If you think, as do I, that gender is a social construct, Greer’s argument is “problematic.” If you’re born with a vagina, a certain set of protocols come into play. Likewise if you’re born with a penis. The concept of “woman” is a social construct, and gender is a performance.

Be that as it may, where Greer is right is that the experience of being constructed as a woman is entirely different from the experience of being constructed as a man. In that sense, a male who undertakes sexual reassignment in adulthood has not been raised as a female construct, and so is lacking in that experience.

Where Greer is wrong is in claiming there is such a thing as being really a woman, or really a man: it is impossible to separate the sex from the gender bias in our current social arrangements, and conclude that we are really anything.

For some reason I can’t fathom, Glamour magazine decided to award Caitlin Jenner (formerly Bruce) its woman of the year accolade, a move that has further provoked Greer and caused her to escalate her irritation of transgender people. This may yet lead to the cancellation of more speaking engagements.

And for mine, this is the most scandalous thing of all. Not that a man might believe sexual reassignment makes him a woman. Not that a woman may disagree with his perspective. But that people believe it is acceptable to ban Greer from speaking because she has a particular point of view on this.

If your position cannot tolerate dissent, it is a very weak position. Greer is not advocating violence against transgender people. Greer is not marginalising transgender people. She is expressing her opinion, and there’s a huge difference between expressing an opinion, and advocating violence.

I think her opinion is based on a false premise, nonetheless she has every right to hold it, and anybody has the right, and even the responsibility, to challenge her. When debate is shut down we’re all the worse off, and the notion that we have no right to speak if we don’t agree with a particular perspective is completely abhorrent.


Jenny Craig & Jackie O

28 Mar

The Alliance of Girls Schools recently invited the CEO of weight loss company Jenny Craig to speak to hundreds of teachers at their upcoming conference. Amy Smith plans to speak on women and leadership, not body image, however the invitation has caused outrage among some health professionals, who have organised an online petition with over a thousand signatures so far, claiming that by inviting Ms Smith the Alliance is endorsing unhealthy dieting practices.

I was initially confused, and thought Ms Smith was speaking to girls about Jenny Craig. Fair enough to question that I thought. But no, she’s speaking to teachers about women and leadership.

It seems to me that if health experts are enraged by Ms Smith speaking, they’re going to have to protest if any woman who has anything to do with the fashion industry, women’s magazines, the cosmetic industry, and cosmetic surgery, all of which promote an unhealthy obsession with physical appearance that ought not to be encouraged in girls, is invited to address any conference that has anything to do with people who are employed in girls’ education.  Otherwise they will appear inconsistent and lacking in credibility.

I’d engage anyone in a debate as to whether Jenny Craig or Cosmopolitan is more damaging to girls’ notions of how they should look. I’d also take on the magazines that contain pages of fashion and slimming advice, followed by an orgy of food porn, followed by scorn for celebrity cellulite and muffin tops. Mixed messages, anyone?

Body Matters eating disorder specialist Lydia Jane Turner says “…the idea of this person [Amy Smith] actually speaking about inequality of girls and the economic standing of women I find incredibly hypocritical.” Ms Turner justifies her feelings by pointing out that Jenny Craig has sponsored the Kyle Sandilands show, and that Vile Kyle has a history of “fat shaming.”

I may be on shaky ground here, as I recently called Clive Palmer a “fat shit” on Twitter. However, in my own defence, the mental image that term of abuse conjures for me is literal: a great big stinky brown log that won’t go down no matter how much you flush.

To me, there is something abhorrent in demanding that anyone not be allowed to speak. For example, I was highly offended when Tony Blair last visited this country, was fawned over by the media, and addressed university students in his usual messianic fashion, justifying his part in the invasion of Iraq because he felt it was “morally right.”  In my opinion, Blair is a war criminal and I don’t like the idea of a war criminal let loose to influence our young. However, petitioning to have him silenced is more offensive to me than allowing him to speak. As with Ms Smith, everyone knows where he’s coming from. Adults can make up their own minds about his message. Not everyone shares my perceptions of him, and why should I claim the right to impose my beliefs on others?

It isn’t Ms Smith’s stated intention to “fat shame” anyone. She’s a woman who’s done well in the business world, and she plans to talk about her experiences. Yes, she’s part of an industry that has a dark side. Is there any industry that doesn’t? And do we silence all representatives because of that? Cardinal George Pell had better give up public speaking for a start. There are few industries more dangerous to children than his has proved to be.


Speaking of Kyle Sandilands, this spray against his on-air partner Jackie O appeared on the mamamia website the other day. Jackie O apparently declined to describe herself as a feminist, incurring the wrath of Mia Freedman, who feels that we should all call ourselves feminists a) because we’ve benefited from the efforts of our predecessors, and b) because if we believe in equality we are feminists. This generous definition doesn’t take into account the furious public debates between feminists as to who is and is not deserving of the title, debates that caused confusion and resentment, and quite likely prompted more than one woman to vow she did not want the title anyway.

Prue Goward by publik15 via flickr

I first became aware of Jackie O when she was on the receiving end of a gratuitous attack by the NSW Minister for Middle Class Morality, Prue Goward. At the time I wrote this:

Prue Goward, recently appointed NSW Minister for Families, whatever that is, has taken a nasty swipe at radio personality Jackie O for the manner in which she fed her baby.

Apparently Jackie O gave the child a bottle while simultaneously walking across a pedestrian crossing, an action Goward likened to the famous Michael Jackson moment when he dangled his little son over a balcony in Germany and subsequently earned global contempt for his fathering skills.

Why this is a concern for the Minister for Families remains a mystery to me. An over-zealous commitment to her new portfolio? Is she going to focus on perceived child abuse by the rich and famous? If the mother had been a working class woman would Goward have even blinked?

I’m glad she wasn’t in the nursery when once, in a sleep deprived state similar to those experienced by former PM Kevin Rudd, I accidentally stuck my fingers in the wrong jar and pasted my baby boy’s bits with Vicks Vapour Rub instead of nappy rash cream.

Soon to become a dad himself for the first time, he looked at me speechless, and quite judgmentally, I thought, when I recently confessed this transgression. Too late I realised my mistake. Now I probably won’t be allowed anywhere near the new baby, but at least we know the Vicks didn’t do its daddy any damage.

My sympathies at the time were firmly with Jackie O. I’ve since had cause to reflect that her relationship with Kyle Sandilands does remind me of a variation of an abusive situation, in which Jackie plays the role of enabler.  In spite of this I’ve never quite lost my impression of her as vulnerable, so when I read the criticism of her not identifying as a feminist I wanted to protect her.

The inimitable Helen Razer has her say on the matter here.

Refusing to call yourself a feminist is a crime for which there is apparently no adequate punishment, and from which there is no possibility of redemption. You just have to do as you’re told and say you are, even if you don’t feel it’s really you. Here, as with the attempts to dictate whom the Alliance of Girls’ Schools may and may not invite to address them, we see further efforts by ideologues and morality police to control our public and private discourse, to the degree that we are told we should call ourselves something we do not feel we are.

Life seems increasingly to be a battle to preserve one’s own integrity against the onslaught of busybodies who’s own life purpose seems to be telling everybody else who we should be, what we should do, who we should listen to (invariably them) and what we can see. Personally, I’m over it. The only obligation anyone has is to be upfront about where they are coming from if they want to have a public voice. Silencing people is not on, and neither is telling women how to describe ourselves. Haven’t we got enough of that already from the patriarchy and the beauty industry, and the religious people and and and and……

The right to harm ourselves: advice for anti porn activists

7 Nov

It was John Stuart Mill who considered that the law should intervene only in other-regarding actions, but never in what we do to ourselves:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his [sic] will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (My emphases).

Mill acknowledged that what we do to ourselves can seriously affect others. However, with the exception of something that can be clinically proven to cause harm such as passive smoking, establishing how and how much harm comes to others as a result of self-harming actions is a tricky business, and likely impossible to legislate.  Mill recommends that society and public opinion take responsibility for the control of self-harming actions that offend others, not the law, and that this be achieved primarily through education.

The question of pornography 

If adult performers choose for whatever reason to participate in the production of pornography, does the state have the right to stop them? Even if someone else believes them to be brainwashed, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or so badly damaged by life that the question of choice doesn’t really come into it, nevertheless, unless they are under age or of diminished mental capacity do they, like everyone else, have the right to choose what they will do?

Then there’s the definition of harm. While viewing pornography may cause a variety of reactions, not all of them pleasant, is experiencing an unpleasant reaction the same thing as suffering harm? How does porn actually hurt us? What damage do we sustain? Is it realistic to demand a world in which adults must be protected from the possibility of suffering harm, and what would we have to lose to gain such a world?

The consumption of pornography by adults is generally a private affair conducted within a private space. The law cannot invade these private spaces. We are unable to prevent domestic, child and sexual abuse within the private space of home, even with laws in place against all three. In the case of pornography, who will be the complainant?

A great deal of internet porn is amateur, uploaded from the privacy of bedrooms by people who want to share their sexual experiences. Does the state have the right to censor this with, for example, the introduction of an internet filter?

Kidnapping, sexual assault, false imprisonment, inflicting bodily harm, etc are already criminal offences in Australia and if they are perpetrated in the production of pornography they are criminal acts, just as if they are perpetrated in any other circumstances. To this degree adults participating in porn production are already protected by the law. Whether or not adults complain about abuses is another matter, and likely beyond legislation. How is it possible to force a woman to make a complaint? We don’t currently attempt to do this to rape victims. Are we to make exceptions when sexual assaults occur in the production of pornography?

The production of porn films is already restricted or illegal in Australia, with varying laws depending on the state. We also have a strict classification system, albeit at times confusing and mysterious. It’s worth remembering that the government’s proposed list of banned internet sites is itself banned. That is, we have no idea and will not be told just which sites the government intends to prevent adults accessing once the filter is in place. If this isn’t an attack on liberty, I don’t know what is.

What I understand Mill to be saying is that human beings, regardless of the apparently self-harming choices they might make, are entitled to respect by virtue of their humanity. If you want people to stop engaging in self-harming behaviour you don’t go about it by first shaming and marginalizing them. You first acknowledge their inalienable right to their subjective experience, however vastly it may differ from your own.

It’s a matter of respecting the human being without having to endorse her choices, and respecting her right to make those choices on the basis of  her life’s experiences. Anti porn activists totally fail to appreciate this. Instead they frame women in porn as a deviant underclass exploited by other members of that same class. They make them “other,” outside of what is considered mainstream “normality.” They construct women in porn as victims, brutalized, and incapable of choice and they seek to appeal to them as such. In this they are completely misguided. It doesn’t matter how damaged one might be, human beings still desire and need recognition of our inalienable right to totally fuck ourselves up, and unless we get it, we’re unlikely to hear anything else.

So my message to anti porn activists is, read your JS Mill. Learn a bit of respect for women who are different from you. Lose your morality and your ideology, gain some humanity and humility. Your middle class moral outrage only serves to alienate just about everyone, particularly those you claim you want to “help.”

There endeth the lesson for today.

No clean feed. Try education instead

25 Sep

Steven Conroy’s determination to press on with his plans for an internet filter early next year is ostensibly founded on his desire to “think of the children.” To what degree that emotive appeal is a cover for more sinister intent such as total government control of the internet in Australia is difficult to discern, but it doesn’t pay to assume that what you see is what you get with politicians. It’s in their nature to be duplicitous and power-hungry. I’m not a fan of the slippery slope fallacy but give governments an inch and they take a mile when it comes to curtailing personal freedoms and an internet filter “to protect the children” can only be the thin edge of the wedge.

Moving on, after getting the clichés out of my system:

The very fact that Conroy remains committed to his filter indicates a much broader intent than the protection of children. ISPs already voluntarily block child pornography sites for example, and there’s considerable debate as to whether or not a filter would add anything to those measures already in place. What it will do is block an unknown number of sites of an unknown type, because Conroy’s List of Undesirable  Websites is secret. As Leslie Cannold points out here, the list of to-be-banned sites is banned from public scrutiny, and this in itself should ring the alarm bells.

I have a great deal of sympathy for parents raising children in the digital age. The challenges they face are more numerous and complex than ever before in terms of the types of material  kids can access on the Internet, and the undesirability of much of that content.

However. Governments should not be attempting to control kids’ viewing habits by preventing site access to the entire population. Governments should be supporting parents by developing and supplying low-cost software parents can use to control what their kids see on the home computer. They should be educating parents and children, starting with some decent sex education in schools.

The bottom line is, as always, that parents are responsible for what their children get to see. Clever kids will find their way round parental controls, that’s a given. So keep the computer in a public area, monitor use, heck, it’s not rocket science and we all had to learn it for television.

Personally, I’m squeamish about the existence of violent sexual content on the net. It’s not something I can watch. The thought of young kids learning about sexuality from such images is distressing to me. I’d like it if that wasn’t a risk we had to take.

But the risks of government censorship are greater, IMO, particularly a government such as this one that refuses to disclose what it intends to censor in the first place. The government certainly has a role to play in the protection of children and support of their parents, and it isn’t censorship. If they can fund a very dodgy chaplaincy program in schools, why can’t they fund some serious sex education, and protective software?

As I’ve said many times before, as a society we need to be teaching our young to value themselves and others. Conroy’s filter won’t achieve any of that. Conroy’s filter is all about government control, not government contribution to the well-being of children. We need a paradigm shift on this issue to one in which children really are the central concern and are not cynically employed by those with vested interests to further their own controlling concerns, be they political power, religious tyranny, or moral dictatorship.

Pilger’s “The War You Don’t See” censored in the US

14 Jun
John Pilger NS head shot

Image via Wikipedia

(Thanks to PW for telling me about this.)

John Pilger‘s 2010 documentary The War You Don’t See has been banned from a planned screening at the US Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe.

The film is an investigation into the media’s role in war; the ethics of “embedded” journalism, and the rise of the electronic battlefield. Pilger investigates the media’s role in promoting government propaganda such as the weapons of mass destructions claims used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Lannan Foundation is a private family foundation dedicated to financially supporting projects that encourage freedom of inquiry, imagination and expression. Pilger was due to attend the screening of his doco in Santa Fe, and then to speak on US foreign policy, censorship and free speech. He was notified that his film screening and his appearance had been cancelled only 48 hours before the event, and has been given no explanation by the foundation as to why this decision was taken.

Speculation round the blogosphere is that the doco is far too close to the bone, embarrassing the US and other governments. However the Lannan Foundation has not been squeamish in supporting dissenting voices in the past, and they are renowned for their support of liberal causes.

Those who would repress and censor debate always fail to realize that in the West this is impossible. We have the Internet and we have bloggers. Any attempts to silence only make everybody more noisy. I understand half of Pilger’s doco has appeared on YouTube since the Santa Fe ban.

This action has tarnished the Lannan Foundation, and made something of a mockery of their claims to support freedom of inquiry. One can only speculate on the kind of pressure and the sources of that pressure, that have caused this extremely wealthy private organisation to take this action.

It’s only outcome will probably be to arouse much wider interest in the film, and further  aggravate anyone who cares about free speech, like bloggers, who will chatter on about it just like this.

All power to the blog!

Don’t mention the mothers

14 Apr

First posted on ABC’s The Drum

Tiara Kid

Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for Early Childhood and Youth, is about to receive a petition requesting his support for a plan to boycott the introduction of American style child beauty pageants into Australia, organised by the “anti-sexploitation” group Collective Shout

Averse as I am to censorship and banning as methods of effecting cultural change, in this case I’m in partial agreement with the zealots.

Watch the video here and you’ll be left in little doubt that subjecting young girls to the intensive and brutal grooming demanded by the organisers of these affairs is abusive of the little child’s body, mind and spirit. Think hot eyebrow wax ripping off a screaming three-year-old’s tender skin, as well as indiscriminate amounts of chemicals from fake tans, bleached teeth and hair; Botox injections, and after that the make up.

Together with the sexy moves the little girls are taught to use and the glittering costumes they are required to wear, reminiscent in their extravagance of Las Vegas showgirls, you’re looking at a violating form of child abuse that is normalised in certain sections of wealthy Western democracies as highly profitable entertainment for adults.

Some mothers argue that it’s nothing more than a game of dress ups, a disingenuous justification that allows them to convince themselves that their little girls are having fun. But dress ups in your mother’s bedroom don’t entail painful beauty treatments or have as their goal the attainment of physical perfection, and the adults you parade before accept you no matter how you look.

Little girls tarted up like caricatures of adult beauty queens put one in mind of the excesses of drag queens, and indeed the little ones look just like infant drag queens, sans the irony, humour and agency the adults bring to their displays. If an infant beauty queen is a tragic sight, an infant drag queen is even more so, especially if she’s scared, forgets what she’s supposed to do, or falls over her own little feet when she’s parading across the stage while her momma shrieks “Shake it like I told ya, baby!” from the front row.

It’s the patriarchy again

On the website to which I’ve linked there’s some comments criticising the mothers who get themselves and their little girls into this Mardi Gras and Sleeze Ball for tiny tots pageant scene. The disapproving commentary is critiqued by others who claim that it isn’t the mothers’ fault, we must be careful not to start a false good mother/bad mother dichotomy in this debate, and that the mothers are themselves products of a culture in which how a woman looks is all that matters.

While I agree that starting a bad mother/good mother binary oppositional is less than useless, I take issue with the justification that the mothers involved are victims of a sexist hegemony promoting the belief that “…women and girls aren’t human – we are all apparently male’s disposable sexual service stations,” to quote one of the comments.

How then, do we account for the millions of women just as subjected to cultural pressures (the majority, I venture to claim) who are appalled by the pageant scene and wouldn’t dream of letting their little ones anywhere near it?

We can’t account for their escape, but what the victim justification does do is allow those mothers who exploit their little ones in pageants to be relieved of responsibility for their choices.

That’s responsibility, not blame, the difference between the two is a big one, and perhaps the failure to understand this difference is what is preventing some of us from fully acknowledging the mother’s pivotal role in child pageantry.

This victim justification inevitably leaves faceless corporations primarily responsible for the “porno-sexuality” allegedly propagated by the beauty industry, and apparently wholly and indiscriminately internalised by pageant mothers. Women and girls, this argument goes, are nothing but “fodder” for “sexist, classist and racist corporate machinery.”

Where have I heard this disavowal of agency and individual responsibility before? Oh yes, the KanYe West and Brian McFadden sagas; the Victoria’s Secret knickers saga, and most recently in the games rating debate article on the Drum.

Wherever you find those who seek to censor you will find the corresponding denial of agency and individual responsibility. According to the censor and ban brigade, a majority of people but especially women, are bereft of all ability to discriminate, soak up cultural influences as if we have Wettex in our craniums rather than brains, and have to be protected from ourselves because we are undoubtedly our own worst enemies.

In other words, women are even less capable of discrimination and choice than children, and women are a priori patriarchy’s victims.

Never underestimate the power of the mother

My argument for having a close look at these pageants isn’t because the mothers are victims. It’s because their children are, and children don’t have a lot of agency in any situation that is controlled, driven and dominated by the mother’s extreme desires. However much a child protests and some of them do, she is bullied, manipulated and cajoled into accepting the cosmetic violation of her body, and into dressing and performing as her mother demands.

The pageant mother’s perception that her child is inadequate and requires physical enhancements is a damaging one, and we should not be accepting it as part of the “normal” range of maternal attitudes. The completely normal little girl is taught by her mother that she is physically lacking, that this is a handicap, and that if she works hard to perfect herself she will receive love, affection and admiration from her mother, and her wider audience.

This is a message the child will carry with her into adult life, introjected as parental messages frequently are so that we come to think they’re our own beliefs, and it’s a big task to free ourselves of the more negative of them.

The intense maternal focus on perfecting the child’s body should alert anyone to the real possibility of creating an obsessive preoccupation in the little girl that will likely be carried into her adolescence and adulthood.

Never underestimate the emotional power of a mother over her little child, even if that mother is herself a victim.

The Twinkie defence

If mothers are relieved of responsibility in the matter of child beauty pageants, the myth that all that is required to protect children is for us to prevent through censorship and boycotts the patriarchal cultural brainwashing of women, is once more perpetuated.

Faceless corporations will be held solely responsible, and the consumer’s Twinkie defence of diminished capacity on account of having been unwittingly appropriated as fodder for the beauty industry, will serve to deny personal agency and responsibility.

I can think of little that is more unrealistic than ignoring or glossing over (so to speak) the mother’s role in beauty pageants, as is advocated by those who are protesting these events. Their undertaking to instead focus on pageant culture (minus the mother’s agency in it) and what it represents sounds doomed to failure, in terms of productively deconstructing these abusive events.

The “woman as victim” ideology

As are all efforts to control through censorship and prohibition alone, this one is at best superficial. We might succeed in preventing the pageant culture taking hold in Australia to the extent that it has in the US, but we won’t have done anything to ascertain what drives a woman to subject her infant to these ordeals, or what she may be doing instead if they aren’t available as an outlet.

Yet again we baulk at acknowledging women’s capacity for violence whatever form it takes, and instead seek to place responsibility elsewhere.

Yet again we are proffered the view of women as without agency, victims of a patriarchal consumer culture that blinds us to our own and our children’s best interests.

Once again some of us are denying women an opportunity to claim agency and own responsibility for our actions, and in so doing become proactive participants, rather than the perceived passive victim recipients of the culture in which we live.

And, as is all too often the case, the biggest losers are the little girls denied the ordinary enjoyment and acceptance of their normal children’s bodies, paraded instead in grotesque finery in front of adults like primped, beribboned and ruffled toy dogs in a very bad circus.

And again, the question must be asked: what is it with some women that makes them apparently incapable of acknowledging and addressing blatant maternal abuse, even “for the sake of the children?”

Fundamentalist sexual propaganda dominates at the ABC’s Drum

1 Mar
Masturbation by Klimt, drawing 1913

Gustav Klimt 1913. Masturbation. via Wikimedia

Lately The Drum seems to have been co-opted as an advocate for right wing fundamentalist Christian propaganda about the “pornification” and “sexification” of women.

Commentator Melinda Tankard Reist, sometimes supported by observations from journalist and researcher Nina Funnell, has published three pieces in the last three weeks, peddling her views on the “proper” expression and representation of female sexuality in the media and popular culture.

Given that some of her opinions can only be read as extremist (her war on Victoria’s Secret underwear, for example; her unrelenting insistence that women are doomed to be the hapless victims of men) it is astonishing that the Drum hasn’t come up with anything that directly contests these views, and gives voice to the opinions and feelings of the millions of women who find Victoria’s Secret fun to wear, and consider ourselves anything but victims.

If this right wing agenda manifested in any other subject area on the Drum, we would all be astonished, and a challenge would immediately be published. But not when it’s about controlling how women express our sexuality, apparently.

Tankard Reist’s grim visions of the inevitable baseness of men, the fear of and contempt for female sexuality revealed in her propaganda, continue to dominate the Drum’s pages.

It’s left to a handful of determined commenters to take her on.

Perhaps the Drum doesn’t consider the representation and expression of female sexuality a topic worthy of defense, even on the eve of International Women’s Day.

This is not on, our  ABC. There’s no balance here. You should be putting up articles that celebrate female sexuality, and support a woman’s right to decide how she’ll express it. Centuries of patriarchy have tried to control our sexuality, and now we’ve got the Christians at it again. Enough, already.

Why are you assisting the fundamentalists in this project, Jonathan Green, and why aren’t you giving a voice to women who love their sexuality, don’t see any reason to hide it and have no quarrel with underwear companies and stupid songs?

Women who revel in taking responsibility for ourselves, and don’t need MTR and Nina Funnell to do it for us, thanks all the same.

For those of you dissatisfied with the Drum’s promotion (by omission) of a right wing sexual agenda, On Line Opinion will fight back on Friday.

At least there’s still someplace where a woman can say she doesn’t mind a lacy thong and cleavage.

KanYe West, Melinda Tankard Reist, and the control of the representation of desire.

26 Feb

by Lucero Design via flickr

At Melinda Tankard Reist’s website underwear manufacturer Victoria’s Secret is under attack, two hapless tools from the Gold Coast trying to sell real estate using a woman in her undies are copping it, and oh no! Not that, still! Yes, the KanYe West Monster video clip, months after we all got into that epic tussle at the Drum, is still absorbing the Tank’s attention.

Last week MTR was described by Stephen Harrington at the Punch as “Australia’s Helen Lovejoy,” for her complaints about this video clip, as well as the “what about the children” rhetoric she invokes as an argument against just about everything.

(For those not familiar with the Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy is the ultra conservative wife of the local Christian minister whose catchcry is “But what about the children!”)

Melinda pours retributory scorn on Harrington here. The West video is, she claims, a “significant watershed in the de-humanisation of women.”

That’s a bit hyperbolic, in my opinion, given the on going, grave, and global abuses of women’s human rights that certainly do de-humanise those groups subjected to them.

The psychotherapists’ interpretations

At New Matilda, psychotherapist Zoe Krupke interprets the video clip from her professional perspective, and explains that violence such as is portrayed therein can be a consequence of “denial of personal weakness and fragility,” resulting in projection of these qualities onto others, in this case the strung-up, zombiefied and helpless women.

In other words, controlling others through violence allows the perpetrator to bury feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, and replace them with an illusion of power.

All of which is true enough, but if you read the lyrics it’s clear that they are about nothing but West’s feelings of personal weakness and fragility; rage at perceived exploitation by the music industry, and women, rage at his admitted inability to behave in any way other than monstrous; identification with other monster figures, and a pathetic plea for someone to love him.

by Maximillian Dinslage via flickr

None of which are expressed in ways that are likely to get him any of the things he seeks, but rather are an explosion of fury, frustration, and self-mockery.

I’m a monster
no good blood-sucker
everybody know I’m a
muthaf*cking monster
None of you n*ggas know the carnage I’ve seen
I still hear fiends scream in my dream…

And so on. The thoughts and feelings of a disturbed being, a rapper having a laugh, or both, depending on your perspective.

Feminists aren’t the only ones with opinions

You've Been Dickrolled. by David Jackmanson via flickr


What is certain (I’m sorry, at this point I can’t help myself, the only certainty is the certainty of uncertainty, thank you so much for the philosophical insight, Tony the Tool, another of the known unknown unknowns littering the political landscape, and pictured here damn near naked) is that while a feminist analysis of the work is worthwhile, it’s far from being the only possible analysis. The video and lyrics are complex, with racial references as well as those mentioned above, and to attempt to have it censored because it “dehumanises” women is, in my opinion, the kind of sadly unimaginative reaction we’ve come to expect from some media feminists these days.

What the video clip certainly is: the concretisation of one rapper’s subjective vision of his world. If it weren’t as popular as it is, there would be no need for further discussion. But it is tremendously popular, (listed in Rolling Stone’s best 30 albums of 2010) and has received critical acclaim from that magazine’s  informed commentators

These accolades suggest West’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasies strike a chord, so to speak with millions of others. It may not be the kind of chord MTR wants struck, whatever that is, and I can’t figure that out. What do these women want? Nevertheless, it’s popularity alone makes it culturally significant, and worthy of examination.

Not that I’m suggesting popularity is the only criterium for cultural significance because clearly it isn’t. The bizarre and complex vision represented in this piece lifts it out of the mundane.

It isn’t everybody’s vision of the world. Then again, neither is a man nailed to a cross, blood seeping out of his wounds and a hole pierced in his side everybody’s vision of a healthy religious experience. John the Baptist’s bloody head on a silver platter doesn’t cut it as inspiring religious commentary for all of us either.

I have a strong visceral response against most moves to censor. No matter what you think of the aesthetic quality or otherwise of the KanYe West video, it is the expression of an artist’s vision.  Are we to live in a world bereft of all dark and difficult imagery? Are we to censor all representations of emotions and passions because they make some people uncomfortable?

Cindy and that sexy thong. by Dave Lee via flickr


When women choose to earn their living from their bodies

Women who model for Victoria’s Secret do so of their own free will, and are well paid for their work. Likewise the women who appeared in the West clip as simulated corpses and zombies.

The luscious woman in the Gold Coast real estate agents’ ad was also, presumably, paid for her work. Many women with lovely bodies enjoy using them as a source of income. Many other women and men enjoy looking at those bodies. Is this really “objectifying” women? Or is it merely admiring, and maybe sometimes envying their beauty?

I’m not likely to meet any of them. They are likely to remain only one-dimensional images to me. So why do I have any responsibility at all to see them as anything else? Why is it wrong for me to take pleasure their beauty? How am I offending them?

If I were to treat the women and men around me as one dimensional, then I would be objectifying and insulting them. But like most people, I know the difference between an image and a fully fleshed human being.

There are some who try to make the people in their lives more closely resemble a one-dimensional image they’ve seen on screen or in a magazine. Their problems, and the problems of their partners, won’t be solved by banning the images. I’d suggest their difficulties are deep, and if no images are available they’ll manifest in some other equally unfortunate way.

The desire to be desired

The desire to be desired is a normal human need. Practically everyone at some time wants, indeed needs, to bathe in the glow of somebody’s desiring gaze. But desire and its expression and representation are intensely personal matters. Lacy panties or cottontails, stilettos or bare feet, cleavage or buttoned up modesty – there’s a place for everything, but not in the world of Melinda Tankard Reist. In that world there’s only one possibility for the expression and representation of desire, and that’s hers.

Baffled by her negativity, I’m as yet entirely unable to ascertain what her vision actually consists of. Though she unrelentingly castigates us for our unhealthily fetishistic and voyeuristic gaze, I’ve never once heard MTR give an example of how she thinks female sexuality ought to be represented and expressed.

We should pretend we aren’t sexual beings, and deny that we love to look at each other, even though much of the time society requires us to do that with a furtive gaze?

We should pretend that erotic zones are not of intense interest to us, starting when we emerge from the latency period laughing ourselves silly at jokes about underpants?

If every publicly revealed body is an exploited and objectified body, are we all to cover up to protect ourselves from a gaze that MTR would have us believe can only be interpreted as exploitative and objectifying?

The battle for the control of the representation of desire

by Breezer, via flickr


MTR is fighting a two fronted battle for  the right to determine not only what we should look at, but how we should look at it. She wants to be inside our heads, telling us how to see things. Where she see exploitation, so must we.

She wants to control the representation and expression of human desire. She wants to control the interpretation of the gaze.

MTR seeks to superimpose her moral vision upon everyone else, a vision that cannot allow the possibility of a benign desiring gaze, a vision that insists the desiring gaze is always dangerous, unless it is confined to encounters between to consenting adults (preferably married) in the privacy of their own homes. Once desire is provoked outside of the marriage bed, her thinking goes, it must inevitably result in damage of some kind. I have long suspected this to be at the heart of MTR’s crusades. Now she’s proved it, by taking on Victoria’s Secret.

In her vision, the free flow of desire in the world, far from being a driving creative force, is miserably reduced to a threat to women.

This is why MTR does not offer her vision of an acceptable public representation of female sexuality. There isn’t one in her moral framework.

In this, she’s a bit like the followers of Sharia law.

But feminists fought for freedom

MTR and her followers justify their desire to impose their desire, by dressing their arguments up as feminist rhetoric, and indeed there are some conjunctions.

But feminists fought for freedom. If a woman chooses to use her body to earn her living then it’s nobody’s business but hers. Melinda Tankard Reist makes an unfortunate conflation between free choice and exploitation. That exploitation and abuse of women exists is not at issue. However, it does nobody any good to confuse the two, and in the process attempt to shame women who are making a free choice, and attempt to deprive them of that right. That’s an anti feminist move, in my book.

The argument that we’re brainwashed to think we must do our best to look like underwear models or we’re inadequate, holds some water. There’s a great deal to critique in fashion magazines that manipulate insecurities in order to get us to go out and buy something to address those perceived failings.

On the other hand, one of MTR’s fellow campaigners, journalist and researcher Nina Funnell, whose tirade against the KanYe West video can be read here recently took part in a Cosmopolitan (October 2010) competition to find the year’s most influential woman. All the competitors were young, and had the Cosmo look, including killer heels, and sexy masks. There were obviously initial selection criteria that had everything to do with the contestant’s physical appearance. Only after those requirements were met, were the women’s career and personal achievements considered.

There were no older women in the contest, baffling, given that older women are often excellent mentors and influential figures.

In my book, an outrageous and insidious abuse and objectification of women right on our doorstep, sending the message that how you look matters much more than what you do and are, from a magazine read by thousands of young Australian women. Yet not a  murmur was raised in the MTR camp.

To wrap it up…

The Gold Coast tools are pretty funny, I thought when I watched their video clip on Melinda’s website. Their ad is so over the top as to be bordering on a spoof of using sex to sell. It wouldn’t make me want to buy their penthouse, so in that sense it’s an advertising failure.

Corset, Paris 1902. Unknown via Wikimedia

Corset, Paris 1902. Unknown, via Wikimedia

As for Victoria’s Secret well, good luck with that one. While the sight of stunning women in lacy thongs and balconette bras might not be everyone’s idea of beautiful or sexy, it is currently a dominant cultural expression of those qualities. Once the sight of an ankle did it for us, and who can forget the practically (in my opinion) only good bit in Jane Campion’s The Piano, when Harvey Keitel caressed Holly Hunter’s leg through a hole in her stocking? Aaaargh, the recollection can make me shiver with delight even now.

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