Do you understand the new feminist take on female nudity? No, me neither. Let’s start with breasts. It seems that the world is divided into Good Breasts and Bad Breasts, depending on who is revealing them and why.
So, when Lena Dunham, the star of Girls, drops her top at the slightest pretext to show off her bosom, it is supposed to be A Good Thing. But when Miley Cyrus takes off her top to writhe around a Wrecking Ball in a video by the same name, that is A Very Bad Thing indeed.
Now, how exactly does this work?
The sub-text, insofar as I can glean it, is this: If a woman who is judged unattractive by the cookie-cutter standards of the glamour industry bares her breasts, then she is striking a blow against the standards of the beauty business. She is showing that she does not subscribe to the normal perceptions of beauty or sex appeal. That she has the self-confidence to show off her own body, even though it doesn’t meet the standards set out by the Sex-Appeal Police. And in doing so, she is giving hope and courage to other less-than-perfectly-proportioned women like herself. So, that’s Lena Dunham sorted then.
But Miley Cyrus? No, no, no. A young and pretty girl like her has no business stripping off for a music video. If she does so, she is just falling into the trap set by the music industry and commodifying herself for commercial purposes (and we have everyone from Sinéad O’Connor to Annie Lennox lining up to tell her that). This kind of behaviour makes her no better than a stripper or even a prostitute. So, if she wants to retain the respect of the world, she really needs to put them away, and sharpish.
Not that it’s just about Pretty Breasts v/s Ugly Breasts and the mile-long cleavage between them. It’s also about what I like to call Fashion Breasts, which are perfectly fine viewing in expensive glossy magazines, and Porno Breasts, that are meant to titillate men who flip over anxiously to Page Three. Again, Fashion Breasts are good: they are an aesthetic appreciation of the female form. But Porno Breasts are bad: they demean women everywhere (hence the feminist protest against the Page Three girls of Britain’s The Sun).
Well, I am sorry if I am being dense, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. Are we really going to judge female nudity on the basis of what feelings it brings forth in others? Is male arousal or the lack of it going to be the benchmark by which we decide which woman is allowed to go topless and which one isn’t? Are feminist values now going to be decided on the basis of the male gaze?
And then, there is that little thing called the ‘Slut Walk’ that rears its politically-correct head every now and then. I am sure you have heard of it. Maybe you’ve even participated in a few. And no doubt, you have your own ideas about it. Well, I have been grappling with the concept, so allow me to share with you what I have gathered so far.
Mini-skirts, bikini tops, spaghetti straps, bum cleavage, breast cleavage is all good so long as it is being revealed by women who are participating in something called a Slut Walk. This is – stay with me here – good because women are demonstrating that they are entitled to dress any way they like without being judged for it. They are, they argue, reclaiming the word ‘slut’ for themselves. And in the process, they are shaming the men who tell them that they get objectified, harassed or raped because of what they are wearing.
So far, so good. I can get on board with the broad sentiment, though 10 hours of sustained water-boarding couldn’t get me to ‘reclaim’ that nasty word (slut) for myself. But hey, ladies, if that’s what rings your bell, knock yourselves out. But once you’ve gone on the mandatory Slut Walk, and stood up for your right to wear sexy clothes, stop complaining when scantily-clad women are used as sexual bait to sell everything from ice-cream to motorbikes. If you can dress that way to make a point, these women can dress like that to make a living. (And no, nobody is pointing a gun at their heads; they are doing so of their own free will.)
We cannot live in a world where it is okay for women to bare their breasts so long as they remember to do it in a politically-correct and feminist-approved manner. If a woman can revel in her sexuality at a Slut Walk, she can do so on the floor of an ad film as well. You can’t celebrate the one and pour opprobrium on the other.
If we are going to make any sense of feminism, we need to be clear on our principles. If we believe that every woman has the right to walk down half-naked on the street – as they do on their Slut Walks – without the fear of being molested or harassed, then we cannot take away the right of other women to bare these breasts on Page Three if they choose to do so of their own free will. If we applaud Lena Dunham for baring her breasts on her TV series, then we can’t shame Miley for doing the same in her music videos. The principle can’t change on the basis of whom it applies to; or else it isn’t much of a principle at all.
From HT Brunch, October 20
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