Monday, May 20, 2013

Mad Men, Scandal, and Sexual Coercion

Last night's Mad Men was thoroughly entertaining in its kookiness, from Kenny Cosgrove's tap dancing (More Kenny please!) to Stan's drug-induced mania. But there was definitely a lot of darkness; more darkness than you see in an average Mad Men episode, which says a lot for "The Crash."

We find out that Don was beaten by his mother with a wooden spoon and told to sleep in the basement once he got sick. We also find out that a prostitute who once comforted him and brought him back to health sexually abused him. I know that viewers get tired of examining Don's neuroses, and I'm one of them, but I think this flashback made sense in the context of his recent behavior with Sylvia. Don has a hard time engaging in sex without playing a dominant or submissive role. The element of power has to be there. It hardly ever seems to center on mutual satisfaction or love.

In past episodes, Don hired a woman to slap him during sex. in the context of his abuse, that scene looks much different to me. His strange choice of words with Sylvia, and his desire to dominate her and have her confirm the idea that she only exists for his pleasure, has a whole new meaning. I'm not a psychologist and I can't pretend to know how often victims of sexual abuse bring issues of power and control into their relationships and I'm not claiming that all victims have emotionally broken relationships with their S.O.s as Don does. But I do know from interviews with psychologists, that past sexual abuse in one's childhood can have a significant effect on current adult relationships.

What disturbs me most about "The Crash" recaps I have read so far, is that none of these articles explore Don's sexual abuse by the prostitute. What happened to him is called "sex."

I don't know how old Don is supposed to be in that episode. I do know the audience would have received the scene differently if a man in his 20s or older nursed a teenage girl back to health, convincing her she was in safe, loving arms, far from her abusive father, and then proceeded to grope her as she lay stiffly in bed, barely registering what was happening to her. It would have been read as rape, or at worst, just plain immoral and wrong.

But he's a teenage boy, and she's an attractive blonde with ample breasts. Viewers assume he wanted to have sex with her, despite her creepy words (paraphrasing slightly) "That's okay. You don't have to do anything. I'll do the rest." Two adults enthusiastically consenting and actively pursuing the other is definition of sex, not a young boy laying on a bed while an adult woman touches him.

Scandal also dealt with sexual coercion in its own way. In one scene, a drunk President Fitzgerald Grant took a shower. His wife, Mellie, entered the shower and began to give him a blow job. Fitz continued to tell her to stop but she didn't listen. He eventually gave up.

This is not what people are trained to think of when they imagine rape. People are taught that rape victims are always women and perpetrators are always men. People are taught that force must be used, or that a perpetrator must threaten the victim with a weapon. Rape between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend is still difficult for some people to comprehend. It is even harder for some individuals to understand rape between boyfriend and boyfriend, girlfriend and girlfriend, husband and husband and wife and wife.

That is why the Fitz shower scene was received with about the same indifference as Don's scene with the prostitute. Men love sex. Men love blow jobs. How could these men have been raped?

We need to think differently about men and the way men can be coerced into sexual acts. We need to question assumptions about how men view sex. We need to reinforce the idea that a man can say "No" and really mean it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stop Telling Me to Make Female-Driven Things If I Want Them

I was having a conversation with someone about sexualized images of women, i.e. posters of half naked women in office environments. I pointed out that the problem is not with partial nudity in itself but the context behind having a sexualized image of a woman hanging in an office in a field that is dominated by men. I said it would have been another matter if there was a poster of sexualized, half-naked man on the wall, and proceeded to point out that the female gaze is usually ignored if not considered nonexistent by advertisers.

He essentially responded, "If you want your own images of half-naked men, make them."

His argument was that I should become a photographer and take pictures of half-naked men (or draw them) for a living if I wanted those images out there for public consumption.

If I were making my living as a photographer, it would be great idea. It would be an even better idea if I were a known photographer who had connections to decent galleries or worked for an advertising company that was receptive to this idea. However, it's an argument that men happy with the status quo generally throw out whenever women complain that an industry doesn't serve them. And it's a very weak one.

"If you think video games don't feature enough female characters, become a game designer and make your own video game!"

"If you think easily accessible mainstream pornography treats women like dirt, make your own pornography!"

Those statements try to oversimplify complicated problems and put the onus on women instead of men for failing to acknowledge women's humanity, as if it's assumed that men never will and never should have empathy for women and want to write our stories, or shoot our advertisements or direct our porn. The trouble with that statement is not that it asks women to be activist. Women should be activist. The trouble with that statement is that it totally abandons the idea of men being part of the solution and more specifically, a part of the feminist movement.

It also fails to acknowledge the fact that most movements do need help from the people who have financial, social and political power over them in order to work. A lot of women are doing these things, but it's hard to bring them to fruition when the people who hold the purse strings are still predominantly male. The people who run the businesses that decide how to market a product are mostly men, and the people who decide whether or not your porn gets distributed or marketed well are men.

Women should not have to quit their jobs as nurses to make porn because there isn't any porn out there that suits them. That's nonsensical. If a woman who majored in film as an "aha" moment and this presents itself as a creative and smart business opportunity, that's great! But that nurse shouldn't have to leave her career to find things that exist for her. It should be out there because the need exists and someone in the industry recognized it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

RadioShack Sells Sex in New Dreadfully Banal Ad

I'm not sure what's more sad and predictable: That RadioShack is telling its remaining female customers to talk a long walk on a short pier or that the rest of their customers have bought into it.

RadioShack, a company that is in serious trouble, has become exceedingly desperate and decided that the very real problems their company faces can be solved with a heavy serving of t&a. I think RadioShack could take a more honest approach, however. They could simply play this great classic by DJ Assault and gather a few models together for a car wash scene. Maybe the car would be covered in RadioShack logos. They could try to incorporate the image of electronics in there somehow, but why don't they take a bold, Mad Men-like strategy and forgo the image of the product entirely?

Here is the real ad if you'd like to take a gander:

As Wall Street Journal writer Ann Zimmerman put it, "Not subtle."

My biggest problem with advertisements like these is not that I think it's never okay to sell sex, but that companies selling products that aren't inherently gendered always chose to favor the male gaze. The female gaze doesn't exist to RadioShack, or beer companies, or car companies. I don't have time to list how many companies ignore women and our perspective in these advertisements on a regular basis. The only companies vying for straight women's attention are Oikos, H&M (though I think gay men are also a target in that ad) and Kraft.

Apparently straight men don't eat yogurt or use salad dressing, and looking fashionable is not a high priority. After working with some Rush Limbaugh-listening construction workers who once bragged that Kashi GoLean was both tasty AND healthy (several of whom refused my offer of cookies as they were on a diet), I think these companies could question some of their assumptions about what men and women like.

On top of that, I always find it interesting that these companies can't sell sex in a more sophisticated way. Putting a speaker in a hot dog bun isn't simply offensive because it presents young women as vapid sex objects. The fact that its ad is a black hole of imagination and creativity is cringeworthy in itself. After all, they stole it from a music video.

Women, like men, are sexy. But that doesn't mean we need to be presented as porn stars: silent, mouths agape, kneeling on all fours. It is impossible for many of these companies to design an ad that encompasses this idea: Women can be sexy without being passive objects. Women can be active humans, who have thoughts, say more than two words, have goals unrelated to the male libido and still be sexy doing them.

I think this commercial sells sex tastefully. It's simple and it's enough.

A breakthrough for women? No. And it doesn't have to be. It just allows Christina Hendricks to sell something without getting on all fours or pretending to eat a phallic object. The drink is obviously being compared to Christina Hendrick's image, "classic" and "bold." If we're going to keep selling sex, and targeting straight men, which will happen as long as straight men and alcohol exists, I'd rather that companies refined their advertising and presented women in a way that allowed them to appear more human than fembot. I guess it isn't too much to ask, but a little taste goes a long way.