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.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mad Men, The View, and Blow Jobs

If you saw Episode 6 of Mad Men, you heard Megan's sexy French mother tell her that she should solve her problems with Don by placating him with sex and reminding him that he is her top priority. We see Megan desperately try to save her marriage by wearing a little less fabric, talking less, and getting on her knees. In past episodes, Megan has talked about whatever is on her mind; assured that Don will listen and offer some feedback or advice. Sometimes he has, but lately he just stares zombie-like into the distance, thinking of his mistress a couple floors away.

That isn't really Megan's problem, however. What do I mean by that? Don is the person who is pulling away and he should be held responsible for his lack of communication. His passive aggressive behavior towards Megan makes it abundantly clear that he is not committed to working on the marriage. But instead of Megan confronting him and asking why he is upset and what he is thinking, she is expected to comfort him. Despite the fact that she is the one who has been left in the cold.

A few days later, I watched The View on Hulu (There wasn't a new Daily Show to watch) and I heard Sherri Shepherd and Patricia Heaton endorse the "blow jobs for conflict revolution" advice featured in Mad Men, a show about the 1960s.

This was also a reaction to a statement Gwyneth Paltrow made earlier: "One of my friends was like, 'I got in a big fight with my husband and I went home and I just wanted to scream and yell,' and I said, 'Whatever you're feeling, do the opposite. Go at him with love and you give him a blowjob.'"

Sherry Shepherd asked Heaton, "In Hot Topics, we were talking about keeping your man happy. Do you need to stay on your knees? You've been married for a long time."

"It's very simple. It's very simple. It's exactly what Gwyneth said," Heaton replied. "I had an actor say to me once, 'All men want you to do is to blow a kiss in the direction of our...' They're very simple, they like long hair, which is why I'm growing mine out, and they like uh, affection."

It's always a sad moment when relationship advice for women in the 1960s mirrors relationship advice for women in 2013.

Here is the main takeaway. When all of these women, real or fictional, were faced with a relationship problem, they saw it as solely their problem. Arguments don't fall out of the sky. People have intense arguments for a reason. Something is wrong and it needs to be addressed. It appears that none of the women involved thought problems with their husbands were shared problems, or even a problem that he was responsible for creating. But no matter who is more responsible for facilitating the problem that led to the fight, both people need to communicate if they are to work on their marriage or relationship.

It's not sage advice. That's common sense. Ignoring problems doesn't make them go away. If you're angry with your husband, and you give him a blow job, he's not angry anymore. But you are. The problem momentarily disappeared for one person. Hardly a success story. In this scenario, only one person's feelings count, and they are those of the husband's.

This is a reflection of a much bigger assumption: That women are the stewards of relationships. Even today, women don't expect men to communicate and work on the larger problems within their relationship. The solution is to sacrifice so that you don't give him a reason to argue with you. Not once have I heard a man on television suggest that a husband ought to consider giving his wife make-up oral sex. But in one week I hear four television stars and one movie star advise women to give their husbands blow-jobs to resolve fights. Clearly the expectation as to who will mend the relationship is still on the woman's side.

We need to stop putting all of the onus of maintaining our relationships on ourselves. We can never carve out an equal place for ourselves in our personal lives if we take all responsibility for our relationships and friendships' failures. Ask something of your significant other now and then. Don't be Megan Draper.

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.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Catcaller Response: "Maybe You Shouldn't Have Moved to Harlem."

I was walking my usual route on a beautiful May day and the same things happened. People scrambled past each other on the same narrow scrap of pavement. People boarded and exited the buses, blocking my way. People yelled stuff at me. Not all of the things people yell at me are bad. Sometimes people say I have a nice hat. But I get tired of people who feel the need to tell a stranger what they think of how she looks. I don't exist for you. At this moment I exist for feeling the hot summer sun on my skin or buying some milk because it ran out. At this moment I exist for perusing Essie nail polishes at Duane Reade, deciding I don't want any, and leaving. I don't exist to please you.

I was close to the end of my route. I was almost home. And then someone called out to me:

"You look nice in that outfit today. Damn."

It definitely wasn't the most offensive thing I'd ever heard but it was the last straw. All week I encountered men on the street who walked within inches of me, leaning forward, staring at my ass as I passed by, whispering not-so-sweet nothings to me. They muttered "compliments" behind my back, startling me. He was also walking behind me when he said it, and this startled me yet again. I looked at him. He was all smiles and sunshine as he walked jauntily alongside me. He didn't look menacing. But I was tired of it and I said:

"I think women just want to walk down the street without being bothered."

"What? I didn't say you look hot! I didn't say..."

"That's okay. Nevermind."

I was beginning to wonder if it was really worth it. I had better things to do than talk to this guy. I could already tell he wasn't going to take me seriously. As I turned the corner to my apartment, he kept yelling at me from afar.

"What? There's nothing you can do about it. It's not my fault. Maybe it's God's fault that he put you here on this earth. Maybe you shouldn't be in this neighborhood. Maybe you shouldn't have moved to Harlem!"

Wonderful. First he used flattery to persuade me to back down. You're beautiful, so it's not my fault I noticed, mean lady. But he really said "You exist to be ogled. God made you to be ogled because he made you into a woman. How is it my fault that you're a woman and you exist?"

Then he put down Harlem as a neighborhood. I have received catcalls in Harlem, the Lower East Side and Times Square. I may have received more catcalls in Harlem because that's where I live and walk on a regular basis, but for every one of him there is a man in Harlem who didn't catcall me or anyone else. Someone should stand up for those guys.

I wish I hadn't given up. I wish I had tried. But this gets exhausting. And some men still question if this really is sexual harassment. Some men think it's rude but that it isn't sexual harassment because the attention has to be unwanted, and how does the man in question know she wouldn't appreciate it? Just take a minute to think about that. You don't know for certain if a complete stranger wants your feedback on how she looks, but you're going to err on the side of "Yes." Why is that? Is it because you've been raised to think women always care about how their physical presentation affects you? Because you think this is vital information that she needs to know?

Catcalling exists because a) Some men truly believe that women care about their feedback on how they look by virtue of the fact that they are men and women exist to visually please men, among other things, b) They enjoy exerting power over women they don't know on the street because they can't exert power in other relationships with women, and this is what they settle for, and c) They're bonding with other men over their tastes in women like they would over a menu at a new restaurant they're trying.

There could be a myriad of other reasons that I didn't list, but "They like to give compliments." is not among them.

The next time I have this conversation with a stranger on the street, I'll follow through. I'll say the words I've been meaning to say for a long time but never had the courage to muster: "I don't exist for you."