Misogyny as “entertainment”

March 29, 2011

Defenders of raunch culture portray their critics as "humorless," but there's nothing funny about the discrimination and violence they prop up, explains Rachel Cohen.

MISOGYNY HAS a new musical manifesto. The single "Ode to Women" by the band Your Best Friend's Ex revolves around the refrain "Bitch, shut your mouth" and is polluting the Internet with a music video full of women in not much clothing, dancing, lip synching and barely containing their excitement at being treated like dirt.

There's little to separate this video from a million other manifestations of pornographied pop culture--except that it so aggressively presents the most unreconstructed hatred for women as entertainment.

It suggests that if a man is bothered by a woman talking, he should have her give him a blow job to shut her up. It makes a special detour to patronize "library chicks" for daring to "think for themselves." It even features a woman on her hands and knees with duct tape over her mouth.

It seems to say: I dare you to call this out for the heinous, hateful garbage that it is. So here goes.

"Ode to Women" epitomizes today's "raunch culture"--the ubiquitous, hyper-sexualized portrayal of women that in fact damages and degrades us but is passed off as irony, wit and even empowerment.

The "Ode to Women" music video
The "Ode to Women" music video

In the 1980s, the right wing launched a concerted campaign to convince people that we live in a post-sexist age, and we ought to move on to post-feminism as well. But the conservatives are savvy enough to avoid explicit arguments for the subjugation of women. Instead, a rising tide of sexually exploitative images and ideas about women has played an increasingly central role in maintaining a cultural justification for the inequality faced by women in the United States.

"Post-feminism is really a return to pre-feminism," as a Times of London interview on raunch culture with longtime feminist writer Catherine MacKinnon demonstrates. MacKinnon says:

When we started, what we were trying to accomplish was so radical and so far out that nobody could take it seriously, and then all of a sudden, we're told everything we ever want has already been accomplished, and we are passé. I want to know, when are we current?

In the pretend equality of a post-feminist world, women and women's bodies can be treated as objects in a way that's presumed to be about sex rather than about inequality. But that lie is given away when "sexy" sexism combines with more straightforward sexism, like having women mouth the words "Bitch, shut your mouth," while dancing right out of their clothes.

Defenders of raunch culture fall back on a climate that sees only the puritan and the playboy bunny, the fun-lover and the feminazi, so if you contest their bigotry, you just don't get the joke. But not only is the sexism in "Ode to Women" not funny--it's actually not a joke at all. The objectification of women only exacerbates the very real daily encounters with harassment, violence and discrimination that women endure.

As Hugo Schwyzer lays out in a recent article for online magazine Jezebel:

Harassment isn't about sex. It's about power. It's about taking pleasure in degrading another human being. Most harassers know damn well that shouting sexual slurs is a lousy seduction strategy. But whether they harass alone or in groups, most men who openly stare, yell, whistle (or worse) aren't interested in getting laid...What they want is the thrilling reminder of their own masculine power.

CONNECTING DEGRADING images of women with aggression and violence, as this song does, only reveals how dehumanizing objectification both reflects and reinforces a culture of violence against women.

That violence is rampant. Nearly one in three women experience a physical assault from an intimate partner in adulthood. In the U.S., a woman is battered every 15 seconds, according to Amnesty International.

The Justice Department estimates that one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their youth, with some studies estimating one in four women survive rape in their lifetime. As of 2006, the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 600 women are raped or sexually assaulted in the U.S. every day.

The use of raunch culture as entertainment to deny or downplay the reality of women's oppression is partly to blame for the way that sexism gets internalized by women who suffer the psychological burdens of underconfidence, depression and eating disorders.

Five to 10 million women and girls suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia in the U.S. alone, and the mortality rate due to these diseases is 20 percent. The Journal of Adolescent Health reports that 81 percent of 10-year-olds are "afraid of being fat."

Because the objectification of women clutters nearly every corner of our commercialized, commodified lives, it tends to go unchallenged. In fact, women are increasingly encouraged to participate in their own exploitation. As Ariel Levy writes in Female Chauvinist Pigs, the seminal book criticizing raunch culture:

Only 30 years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were "burning their bras" and picketing Playboy, and suddenly, we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How [has] the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time?

Ostensibly, women are meant to consume and manufacture raunch culture because our sexuality revolves around the same pornographic tropes as men's. These are of course equally alien to both women and men. What they in fact reflect is a booming sex industry in which women's bodies are the product.

The commodification of women's bodies shapes the sexual roles women and men are supposed to fill. But these are stultifying, alienated concepts constructed not for satisfaction but for an endlessly expanding market.

British socialist Judith Orr explains how raunch culture results from a "seepage" from a growing, enormously profitable, notoriously dangerous and unambiguously exploitative sex industry into the mainstream--but nonetheless claims to be empowering to women:

[There's] a new twist: raunch culture sold itself as "empowering," a word which has become so detached from its original definition as to be meaningless.

This is what marks the new sexism from the old. It reflects and has absorbed the history and language of women's struggles to have the right to assert their sexual needs and desires, to be more than mere objects for the enjoyment of others, all the better to continue that very process.

Raunch culture is sold to us as a liberated way to express our sexuality and so, paradoxically, it has persuaded us to accept being objectified in ever more crude and shocking ways. This has led to a relentless seepage of values, images, behavior and dress from the world of selling sex for money into mainstream culture and society.

IT'S HARD to take seriously arguments that the commodification of women's bodies can be an expression of women's own sexuality. But that argument gets credence not only from sex industry tycoons but also from some "feminist" camps as well.

Decades of backlash against the women's liberation movement of the 1970s--including the allegation that all feminists are joyless puritans--have worn a deep grove of defensiveness into the ground on which third-wave feminists stand, inducing many publications, theorists and activists who try to prove feminism is "sexy." Some just hedge their comments with the disclaimer they're "pro-sex" or "sex positive," as if the default feminism were "anti-sex." But others adopt painfully sexist attitudes to defend raunch feminism.

The Times interview of MacKinnon cited above gives the final word to one of her critics, Katie Roiphe, who accuses MacKinnon of suffering from a "vivid pornographic imagination...she looks at normal sexual life and sees exploitation where there is none. She doesn't want to face the fact that a lot of women have fantasies that she thinks are exploitative."

Roiphe's implication is that if MacKinnon voices concern over a violent, exploitative, sexist culture, the problem is in her own head, and worse, stems from her own repressed sexuality.

While the need to make the commercial sex industry more openly marketable goes a long way to explaining the exponential growth of raunch culture in recent decades, the phenomenon can't be separated from the devastating damage to women's economic and political lives this culture has also made possible.

Women have become a majority of the U.S. workforce, but still earn less than men for performing the same jobs, despite the fact women are far more likely to be single parents than men. And areas of job growth for women have largely been confined to lower-paid, more precarious, traditionally female-dominated fields.

And the current onslaught of attacks on public-sector unions threatens to slash wages, benefits and even bargaining rights of teachers, nurses and clerical workers--unions that are mostly made up of women.

Our political rights are under sustained fire as well--and have suffered from decades of legislative backsliding. The highest profile of these attacks have restricted women's reproductive rights to such an extent that 87 percent of counties in the U.S. do not provide any abortion services, and roughly 25 percent of women who are denied Medicaid-funded abortions because of state funding restrictions are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term because they cannot afford to pay for an abortion out of pocket.

To get away with discrimination under the law and at the workplace, bosses and politicians rely on the "new sexism" in just the same way as any generation's rulers have used sexism: to distract, divide and conquer.

Ordinary men don't benefit from the fact that women are underpaid, since the divided labor market allows bosses to keep everyone's wages down. And working-class men don't stand to gain from the unpaid labor women provide at home, since it ultimately replaces the free, collective laundries, kitchens and daycare centers that would improve the lives of parents and children if the state took up the responsibility.

And it's just as true that men aren't the winners in a deeply alienating, totally ungratifying world of commodified sexuality. While men don't suffer the systematic levels of violence, sexual assault, harassment, psychological damage and discrimination that women do, all working people share a common interest in contesting the economic, political and cultural sexism that raunch culture facilitates.

Further Reading

From the archives