Right now, there's a photoset floating around Tumblr that I've seen posted half a dozen times by friends and acquaintances. In it, Jane Lynch stands in front of a collage of sports magazine covers, all of them featuring oiled-up, scantily clad women.
"As a feminist, this appalls me," says Jane about the various shiny people behind her. "But as a lesbian, I am delighted!"
It's a simplistic way of looking at things, sure, and I assume Jane was mostly just joshin'. But it's also a dilemma I'm highly familiar with.
By putting women on display in this manner, the companies behind sports magazines -- and billboards, car ads, dishwasher demonstration videos, meatpacking seminars, you name it -- are equating their models to the products they're selling. In essence, they're reducing women's bodies to just another commodity.
Which you probably already knew. God knows I think about it a lot. My first reaction to these images isn't generally anger, though. Just before I start stewing in my broth of feminist rage, there's still almost always a tiny glimmer of interest from my south-of-belly region that has nothing to do with dismantling the patriarchy. Or in simpler terms, my brain says no, but my crotch says go.
The fact is, I'm a lady who also likes ladies. So when I'm presented with an image of, say, Jennifer Lawrence reclining on a sofa in a bodysuit, at the heart of a whole mountain of worry about whether she's being exploited or how the image might feed into perceptions of ideal female beauty, there's a tiny, shameful golden nugget of "Mama like."
I'll give you another example. You know that Shakira / Rihanna video that just came out? The one where they flutter their fingers along each other's bare hips and writhe around on a bed together? Yeah, exactly. The first time I saw that, I spent a good ten minutes alternating between frantically sending gifs from it to my best guy friend and breathing shallowly through my mouth. If I did have a thought beyond the high-pitched dolphin-"SKREE" of sexual arousal, it was probably something along the lines of "Yay, queer visibility!" (Which doesn't even make sense, I know. Forgive me, all of my blood flow was diverted apart from my brain.)
It was only much later, once I'd read a few critiques of it, that my feminist frontal cortex finally climbed back online. That was when, of course, that I remembered: Rihanna and Shakira probably weren't knotting their fingers in each other's hair and sighing heavily into the humid air of their shared embrace for their own benefit, or even for mine. In all likelihood -- at least as far as I could tell from watching the video -- they were doing it for the viewing pleasure of record company execs, teenaged straight boys, or whoever else has cottoned on to the notion that performative female sexuality sells.
It's not a secret that the straight male gaze in visual media often results in gratuitous displays of women who only appear to be present for their bodies. Obviously, I don't think this equates to "every time a woman is naked in a movie," but it certainly extends to "all those hours women onscreen were in their undies for no apparent reason." If you've seen a single action film in the last, say, three millennia, you'll know what I'm referring to.
As a queer woman, though, I often find myself, if not outright complicit in this objectification, still benefiting from it -- at least momentarily and in the pants region. I may not have caused it, but I certainly don't run screaming from the sight every time.
It reminds me of when I used to end up at frat parties as an undergrad. My best friend TOK has a magic about her with bros, so I would often end up sitting on a stranger's bed drinking cheap beer and zoning out while a pledge wept on her cleavage about his prospects as a future investment banker. Occasionally, when the young men in question found out I was queer, they would try to engage me in some good old-fashioned sorority-girl rating.
"She's hot, right?" they'd say, pointing at someone in the crowd.
"Mmm," I'd say noncommittally, gesturing for another drink. Yeah, she's hot, I'd think. But I don't want to think she's hot in the same way you do.
Which is clearly ridiculous. Neither of us knew the person in question, and no amount of rationalizing on my part was going to make my gut reaction of "I'd hit it" any different than the bro's next to me. But I still wanted to create distance between frat-typical desire, which I'd mostly come to known as a competitive sport of the "who can bang the hottest chicks" variety, and my own -- because I didn't want to contribute to that culture of misogyny.
The metaphor's not perfect, I know, not least because the prior scenario involves real-life humans getting pissed on Keystone Light as opposed to celebrities, their publicists and the mainstream media. My own worry, however, is the same: when the sight of Megan Fox soaking wet makes me squirm, am I feeding into the same bullshit that means she has to get wet in the first place in order to solidify her place in Transfomers? I know that I come from a very different place of power than the network head who grabbed the hose in the first place, but I still bought a ticket to the show.
In a perfect world, I would only be turned on by depictions of self-actualized women achieving their dreams, solving trigonometric equations and riding brontosaurs. Sometimes, though, all it takes is Kate Upton on the cover of ESPN -- and in those cases, I feel betrayed by my own body. I don't want to be an ally, even by virtue of our shared desire, of anyone who reduces women to nothing but their potential for sex.
The thing is, though, I'm not sure how to stop it. Right now, I tend to mostly brace myself for a zing of dopamine before thoroughly critiquing the work in question, which doesn't seem super sustainable in the long run. Do I, like I sometimes do with porn, construct a mental narrative that allows the celebrity in question to regain her agency in my fantasy world? Do I just accept the fact that all celebrities and public figures are objectified to some extent and concentrate instead on fighting similar behavior in the real world? Or do I outright refuse to participate in any sort of media that objectifies women, whether or not I find it enjoyable on some level?
In the meantime, if you have any photosets available of fully clothed math teachers sitting astride T-Rexes, I'm sure it would do wonders for getting my brain and crotch back into alignment.
Kate is sometimes annoyed with her own genitalia: @katchatters