By Sascha Cohen
Much has been written on the many sinister ways that the adult entertainment industry and the fashion industry work to objectify and exploit women. But social critics have the tendency to lump these two different creatures together, along with the snarling behemoth that is the rest of Pop Culture. The Media, so goes the feminist refrain, compensates for America’s deep-rooted cultural anxiety over female independence by portraying starving stick-figures/beauty queens of impossible perfection/Barbie doll fuck toys and insisting that real women be Just Like Them, or else suffer a life of lonely, flabby spinsterhood. Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi and Jean Kilbourne have said it, and all around the country a handful of persistent, mobilized undergraduates are writing about Cosmo and “Nip/Tuck” for their student newspapers and Intro to Media Studies classes.
They’ve got at least one major thing right: images of women on television, in the movies, and in the glossy pages of mainstream magazines are symptoms of a backlash against second wave feminism and the advancement of modern women in all facets of public life. These representations no doubt glorify sexual violence and contribute to eating disorders. But they aren’t all alike. The meaning of, say, an advertisement in Vogue depicting a bloodied, beaten woman in a couture gown, and an XXX internet photo of a blonde with braces grimacing under three ejaculating men is not the same. Pornography and high fashion use different types of bodies and distinct techniques and narratives to express their particular brand of woman hating. It isn’t a question of what is more objectionable, because, ultimately, they both dehumanize women. But porn and fashion represent two different facets of the backlash, and they should be critiqued accordingly.
The porn industry capitalizes on the sexual aspects of male resentment toward women, while the fashion industry knows that women can be counted on to loathe themselves, if adequately primed. Thus one could argue that high fashion incorporates aesthetics that no living woman could ever achieve, while porn includes exaggerated versions of the way many women already look. Gonzo flicks, for example, a relatively new genre of pornography characterized by a do-it-yourself style and maximum female humiliation, often boast amateur, “girl next door” type actresses, who are usually of relatively attainable proportions and not airbrushed. The message, then, is that Every Woman can (or should) be treated like a “cum-slurping slut.” That is, the baby-sitter, your lab partner, the girl at the grocery store, your sister, your boss. Stretch marks, pimples, and all; anyone with a cunt is game for a gang bang, a rough, slobbery blowjob and some verbal abuse.
And as for all those porn stars with the huge implants and botoxed lips, the long French nails and drag queen makeup, they remind male viewers specifically what is being demeaned: femininity. For it is the de-identification with and degradation of the feminine that porn relies on to sustain the fragile male ego and, well, erection. With a smooth, hairless body and manufactured curves, the woman must be rendered as unlike the male as possible, even if the resulting feminine aesthetic is absurdly, painfully artificial. When the woman is “othered,” separated from the guy that’s smacking and gagging her, all that smacking and gagging becomes a lot more acceptable. He’s human; she’s something different, something lower. This justifies the money shot. The surgically reconstructed porn actress exists as a fantasy rather than a person, functioning to reinforce her audience’s sense of masculinity and superiority.
The figures of fashion models, on the other hand, suspiciously resemble the bodies of (emaciated) teenage boys. Secondary sex characteristics are nowhere to be found. Bones are showing. The markers of womanhood are so devalued that they must be erased entirely. The point: natural female fat and tissue are shameful. The women who look at fashion spreads, then, are taught to hate their gender, to starve and vomit it away. It is no wonder that fashion models are often too thin to menstruate. The ideal woman, as suggested by high fashion, is not really a woman at all but perhaps some imitation or approximation of an immature male. Because the fashion model appears prepubescent, childlike, she can be considered asexual; her desires and appetites safely controlled and tucked away.
If she is not lifeless in a metaphorical sense, it is possible she is photographed to literally look dead or murdered—splayed out on concrete, stuffed into the trunk of a car, or crumpled in an alley, mottled and gray, designer stilettos dangling off long, bare legs. Fashion spreads like these truly embody the old slogan “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” They often feature a male perpetrator standing above the woman, or his shadow cast across her tangled body, or sometimes just handprints and bruises to imply he was there. So fashion associates female beauty with the denial of hunger, with death, pain, violence and brutalization. It trains women to be self-hating masochists.
If porn reduces women to flesh, fashion whittles them to bones. If porn sees women as toilets, fashion casts them as corpses. Both industries, together, contribute to misogyny, and since one targets male readers and the other targets female, everyone’s covered. Feminists will make little progress choosing either one as the lesser of two evils..
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