By Joseph Scott McCulty
Many people think I am devoid of all passion. This is completely true. I’m also about 15 years behind on pop culture. That being said, selecting a topic to dismantle and analyze was a challenge for me. However, it suddenly occurred to me that if there is one thing we can all get fired up about, that would have to be the way in which society has constructed the unwritten and unspoken yet prevailing mental checklist by which women are valued, and how that has been evolving in the images we are surrounded by. As we will see, this checklist differs somewhat based upon a woman’s race, class, sexuality, and so-on – in some cases it may not even exist – but it is always a shaping force in society. It is a part of the objectifying of women, the violence against women, and the unfortunate, unfair male privilege that persists today. In the coming blog post, you will see that I have not only scoured the vast expanse of the Internet to find videos and images that illustrate some of that aforementioned “checklist” for you, but I’ve also painstakingly deconstructed each of these texts down to the last (relevant) detail. I’ve tried to select things that are both identifiable by most and also varied in their genre, as different types of works may have different predispositions.
This is a rather blunt example of one of society’s most vital determinant factors of what a woman is worth. I think all tampon brands have something along these lines and I think it has even appeared in ads. Although Kotex’s website now makes a greater effort to express that virginity is not a scientifically verifiable status as Valenti points out in her “The Cult of Virginity” it still makes mention of the hymen. Perhaps this is more of a symptom than a cause, but, either way, it is a very normative reminder of the power of the idea of virginity. This “frequently asked question” that they have printed on the box is also likely frequently unasked, leaving countless young ladies unable to experience the joy of tampon usage. But, the point is, virginity in young ladies is so important to how they view themselves that they are afraid they will be “whores” if they engage in what is, for Americans, a pretty normal part of the cleanliness process.
The Disney princesses above are one of the persisting images in pop culture today and have long been accused of perpetuating our cultural norms by giving little girls a fantasy future to strive towards, and showing them how to behave. Certainly, it took them a few years before they diversified, but there has always been some progress in the narrative since Snow White first got a man to fall in love with her by being an utterly helpless image of beauty in a glass case. That being said, whether it is Jasmine taking the hand of Aladdin before setting out on a magic carpet ride or Rapunzel being led down her tower by Eugene, nearly all of these princesses go from the innocence and protection of their homes to the protection of their prince. It is an evolving narrative: we’ve come a long way since Snow White proved her value as a potential partner by doing nothing, but it sticks with us.
The accompanying video clip differs from the first text in that it is more challenging of the norms. It seems that TV has progressed somewhat to the point where it at least points out/makes fun of gender norms and their discrepancies. In the episode of “The Cleveland Show” from which this clip was grabbed, the titular Cleveland, the patriarch of the family, tries to get his step-daughter to pledge her virginity to him, only to have his son do it instead. This is poking fun at the relatively new tradition of purity balls which is an effort to strengthen the father-daughter bond and firmly establish the father as the protector of the home. Here, Cleveland is enraged that his son offers to make the pledge because he should want to be having sex early, as he is a guy. It is a somewhat exaggerated portrayal of the male privilege exemplified in these balls where the entirety of the pressure to combat young lust is placed on the woman. But virginity is merely a piece of the way a woman is valued. As Valenti says, she is never poor, overweight, disabled, nor a woman of color. (185)
We have seen that television has made great strides these days as a social commentary, and that was just a cartoon. Can a big-budget movie challenge the norms that hold us back or does it simply rely on the cookie-cutter approach to characters and stories that are proven to satisfy the demographics? In this clip from Star Trek Into Darkness (no, I’m not missing a colon) we have nothing else but that cookie-cutter approach. According to Kimberly Springer, we only get two types of black women in media: “hypersexual or asexual.” Well, neither of those things happen here. Instead, it appears the filmmakers chose a woman of color without many of the features of a black woman and tried to pass her off as a white character. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with her not conforming with all one might expect from a woman of color, but that the filmmakers are conforming with societal norms: there isn’t much room for women of color in cinema. What we do get from this character is someone who jeopardizes the mission with an emotional outburst while the men keep cooler heads. Perhaps this goes along the lines of the purity balls where women need providers and protectors instead of partnerships to get them through life.
Music videos are something with which I’m not familiar at all. Unfortunately, they are also a great example of the current state of women’s affairs, so I had to dig one up. It seems that as society gets more liberal, women just get more naked as opposed to more respected. The girls in this video are what Springer called “video ho’s” in her article. The (mostly African-American) women are of the hypersexualized variety. They are seen in the background, bumping and grinding on each other, sometimes looking at the rappers with lust. They are devoid of all control over their sexuality.
So, by what standards do men and women pass judgments on women? Some of the information seems to be in conflict. Well, it sort of is – but that doesn’t always mean the text is oppositional. “The desirable virgin is sexy but not sexual. She’s young, white, and skinny… eager to please… She’s never a woman of color. She’s never a low-income girl or a fat girl. She’s never disabled.” (Valenti, 185). There are simply different standards by which each “type” of woman is judged. It would be incomplete to talk only of white girls. But it is also hard to find representations of what society has been trained to expect from women who don’t fit into the “mythical norm” (Lorde, 19) anywhere.
Some of the texts are more normative than others. The tampons and the big budget movie make no attempts to do anything radical, as they need to sell. As long as movies need to guarantee butts in the seats because of their massive budgets, we aren’t likely to get anything that challenges what so many of us consider to be the natural way of the world. Women in film will probably be portrayed as weaker/submissive/dependant until society takes the initiative and not only acknowledges that women are capable but believes it on an unconscious level as well. On the other hand, television is much more flexible when it comes to portraying new ideas and/or taking a critical look at the way society operates. The episodic nature of TV is key: with money invested throughout a season and profits based on advertisements, writers can afford to challenge its audience in some episodes without risking a huge loss. That being said, though TV may try to shock you, it still relies on stereotypes to construct a narrative. In the example of “The Cleveland Show,” the female characters (who are black) tend to be like Springer’s jezebels. Disney movies, though big-budget films, tend to be closer to what we see from television because of the lends of criticism they get due to their audience being children. Finally, music videos like the one sampled above or the ones mentioned in the Springer piece show a non-innocent view of women. They are not only sexualized but very sexual themselves. But they aren’t claiming their sexuality at all. Rather, they are dancing not only for the men in the video but the men in the audience as well.
Everything normative thing we see in these texts not only perpetuates them, but also initially came from them. A woman is expected to present but passive. If she is white she is either dirty or pure. If she is black she can be either dirty or asexual. Ethnic women can be flamboyant but they must stand by their man. Women have been working to claim their sexuality and men are trying to come to terms with it. It is ingrained in society that women need to be controlled, and pop culture doesn’t always help to fight that.
Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. 1984. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
Springer, Kimberly. “Queering Black Female Sexuality.” Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power
& a World Without Rape. By Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Berkeley, CA: Seal, 2008. 77-92.
Valenti, Jessica. “The Cult of Virginity.” In Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Susan Shaw and Janet Lee, eds. 2011. 5th Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill. 181-185. Print.
“Memeopolis.Blogspot” http://memeopolis.blogspot.com/2010/08/if-i-wrote-kotex-tampon-box-faqs.html Aug 13, 2010
Kotex website http://www.kotexfits.com/faqs/products/
“Purity Ball” The Cleveland Show. Seth McFarlane. Fox. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xswaoYKTBKw
Star Trek Into Darkness. Dir. JJ Abrams. Paramount. 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6E8b20Iz5E
Waka Flocka Flame “No Hands” 2010 WMG. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skhxizRYxps#t=34