The Abuse of Power in Narrative (aka Game of Thrones and Strong Female Characters)

Representation, not only of particular characters and social groups, but also of events and their significance, seems widely misunderstood, and Game of Thrones is a great example of this. Representation is often considered at surface level only: as what, instead of how. 

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The Game of Thrones Debate

I initially decided not to watch Game of Thrones because, in general, anything resembling Lord Of The Rings and me doesn’t mix, and I didn’t want to eat into any time that could be spent elsewhere, valuably slagging off fantasy fiction. Many friends of mine with great taste assure me of how well it’s written, how many breathtaking pixel amalgamations there are, and how many Strong Female Characters rise to power to rule over the land of their teeny dragon mates and their wooly and metallically clothed, Stoke-accented subjects.

Yet after unavoidable glimpses of clips, trailers, recaps and reviews, I couldn’t help but notice how naked and raped the women kept getting. Tedious.

Danielle Henderson agrees. After posting her much-circulated article in the Guardian (GoT: Too much racism and sexism – so I stopped watching) to my social media, I sparked one of those long debates where everyone gets offended and disagrees forever.

You might not find the sexual violence in GoT tedious, you might find it mesmerizing, titillating, or entertaining – my hope is that at the very least, viewers find it disturbing. I assure you it is intended to be all of these things; the vast majority of all entertainment media is. If the gruesome events in GoT were simply disturbing, people would not watch it en masse (weekly screening of Irréversible, anyone?) If they were simply a demonstration of the realities of sexual exploitation, it would not have necessitated the coining of the word ‘sexposition’.

I choose not to watch it because the continual sexual violence and exploitation displayed in GoT feels both disturbing and tedious to me, considering the paradoxical nature of women’s roles in GoT in particular, and the abuse of rape and sexual violence as a narrative device in the entertainment industry as a whole. If I can remove myself from being exposed to it (which, actually, I can’t until everyone pipes down) why does it matter? If there are plenty of rich female characters in Game of Thrones or any other media, how can it be ‘sexist’?

Representation

One rape scene may be different than another. One Asian character might be a racist representation and another not. It’s not that we need to simply put more women, people with disabilities and people of colour in films, or censor certain events from being broadcast at all, necessarily (except for A Serbian Film. Seriously, fuck those guys.) Rather, we need to understand the process by which ideas of normality and magnitude are created and perpetuated, and how these are delineated through existing discourses of power and visibility.

The gratuitous use of female nudity and rape in Game of Thrones is a pertinent example of this. The representation of any kind of power inequality is problematic when it is not heavily examined and critiqued from the point of view of the oppressed party. Having characters who are oppressed grow to seize power is not an act of redemption which ‘corrects’ the wrong of rape and renders everything just, it is simply using rape (a very real, and very frequent event that too many of us experience) as a tool in their narrative. The event itself is not usually critiqued in any more depth than ‘That Was Bad.’ That the oppressed characters in the script might be ‘strong’ (usually in the very shallow sense of being magic, or using weapons) is not the same as actually discussing and critiquing rape and its reality, those who rape, and the processes by which this is normalized by societies, real or fictional.

For example, why are there numerous rapes of women, but not numerous rapes of men? (Trolls, NB: I am not advocating raping men, or that raping men is ok, or necessary for equality, or anything else that you could employ to dismiss all my other sentences.) Unfortunately we are increasingly aware of how many more males experience sexual violence than was originally known, so if we are going to be die-hard about its realism, is it realistic that zero men are raped? Why aren’t there consistent gratuitous scenes of naked men? Do they bathe clothed? The opportunity to exploit anyone is there, though which opportunities a creator chooses is significant.

Further, in the words of Kevin Smith, it’s all bullshit. GoT has fantastic elements throughout (dragons, skeleton zombies….other magic shit), why not create a really interesting and new topsy-turvy world where non-white people hold any sort of power and have lines of dialogue, no one is sexually subordinate to anyone, and ready-made sandwiches grow in bushes? THIS IS A FANTASY WORLD. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. YOU ALREADY HAVE PEOPLE WHO CAN POSSESS ANIMALS, WARGS, AND THE FACE-CHANGING GUY. This absolute need for ‘realism’ (as opposed to drama) as a nonchalant defense of continued exploitation of women in narrative does not hold up without explicit critique of that exploitation.

In any show, or film, it would feel too extreme to see (when they appear at all) men being raped over and over again; men always having to overcome abuse and being violently downtrodden by women, often accepting this and being shown to masochistically enjoy it; having men constantly get their balls out while the camera lingers over their soft scrotal skin, giggling and making their pecs dance for paying customers; and feeding their female superiors an endless supply of ready-grown sandwiches.

Why is it not too extreme to see this constantly, consistently, of women in the name of realism? (I have no beef with the sandwich bushes.)

A: Because we consider it ‘real’, and thus ‘normal’. Acceptable, or understandable, even if we express distaste for it.

I expect better from creative people. And then, this is hardly a jaw-dropping update.

Years and years of ‘normal’ life.

GoT aside, this is industry-, and indeed, world-wide. Women are under- and mis-represented in the vast majority of positions of power throughout globalised society. It is not that the representation of women in media is more important than in, say, politics; they are simply different symptoms of the same long-standing power imbalance that runs deeply through the landscapes of our beliefs. But media is particularly significant; not only because it saturates our lives to such an extent, but also because as a visual medium it informs our imaginations which in turn forms our actions and creations. It is culturally and mythically creative; the way in which we communicate, understand, and learn about ourselves. We (and by we, I mean those in power) are telling symbolic stories to each other, and ourselves, about ourselves, and each other. Beliefs, not laws or physical actions, about humanity are created via narratives, and beliefs determine how we behave, what we fight for and against. These beliefs come from the meanings conveyed; you will* (*may) not believe that dragons are real after watching Game of Thrones, but you will believe that strength in numbers and companionship are important (and that CGI is getting awesome.) You may also, then, understand rape and domination as something that happens to women because men want to have sex with them, and that is normal, and something that they must overcome to become advanced characters in life. And in the same vein, that whoever has bare crossbow skills (agility/precision/adaptability) and uses them for ‘good’ (benevolence/conscientiousness) will (or should) defeat those who are evil and have big hammers or maces, or swords (might is right.) These are all subconscious processes, which inculcate us before we began watching GoT, or any other adult media.

The above meaning-creation process in the way rape is often used in narrative is not an original creation of these narratives, merely reinforcements to the way that rape, prostitution and other forms of exploitation are often understood in society. That they are found frequently in narratives in which the non-white/straight/male/able-bodied characters have actually been given some depth is not surprising. We have legislated away the official and explicit prejudice that we could not openly defend; yet those beliefs, still replicated, persist. It’s only been a little while; we do have to give ourselves a bit of time. But we can’t do that if we don’t understand the mechanisms by which these beliefs are reproduced subtly, once explicit prejudices are ‘gone’. (Covered up.)

The Defense

The defense of GoT (and often other stories containing storylines of graphic violence) is often centred around that realism issue. George R. R. Martin, writer of the original novels on which the show is based, recently told the NYTimes that

“Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day […] To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”

This is true, and I believe that Martin and many viewers will understand them as such. That he states explicitly that there is a negative judgment value put upon the sexual violence in his books is encouraging, and surely sincere. Novels also benefit from allowing much more of the characters’ thoughts and feelings to be directly communicated. However HBO’s version has been widely criticized for emphasizing and changing certain aspects of the sexual violence (specifically Jaime’s rape of Cercei, which, in the books, was consensual sex.) Whether the TV show has had to condense more of the story yet has kept all of the sexually violent material for drama, or whether they are relatively true to the books, I don’t feel a need to know. Why would I want to watch depictions of ‘happy hookers’ and rape that are, as noted by comic book writer Mariah Huehner, treated “cavalierly”? Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, echoes this: “The best depictions don’t just leave it at the dramatic device of the rape itself, they use it to tell a deeper story about recovery and what effect it has on that person.” I would add that they should also centre around the abuse of power and the structures by which that power and violence came to be imbalanced in the first place.

Another frequent dismissal states that there’s nothing wrong with the show’s continued use of rape showboating, because it also showboats the murder of a young boy’s parents in front of him, infanticide, torture etc. This argument comes up also in defense of rape jokes, which again misrepresents the issue. Rape does not need to be specifically cloaked where everything else should be fair game; rather, the treatment and understanding of rape in society, its epidemic nature, and the tone of its portrayal in jokes (or its ‘cavalier’ portrayal in screen media) renders it an abused topic. Not one which needs scrapping from view entirely because it’s icky, but one which gets bandied around in the wrong way by people who do not understand it. Lindy West has notoriously and beautifully set the standard for discourse on understanding why most comedians get it wrong:

“The reason that “rape jokes” become such a contentious issue as opposed to, say, “cancer jokes” or “dead baby jokes” (yawn) is because rape is different from other horrors in some very specific ways.

Say you knew for a fact that in any given audience there was at least one person who had been mangled in an industrial threshing accident—JUST STICK WITH ME HERE—and that we lived in a culture where industrial threshing victims were routinely blamed/shamed for their own death and/or disfigurement because they wore the “wrong” overalls, and people were afraid to report threshing accidents because the police department just employs a bunch of threshing machines in badges and little hats anyway (and everyone knows threshing machines protect their own), and historically humans were sold into marriages with threshing machines where they could just be tossed in there and chopped up willy-nilly. Oh, and also 90% of the comics in the show (yourself included) are threshing machines too, but since you’re this young, liberal brand of threshing machine with newfangled safety guards and you fervently don’t believe in mangling humans, you think it’s fair game for you to make “jokes” about idiot humans getting their faces and limbs shredded by those more sinister other threshing machines. But do you really think that isn’t going to traumatize the fuck out of some humans? Even if you’re “joking”?”

This is just one paragraph from a much larger (and less fantastically metaphorical) article that, if you’re interested at all in this debate, from whichever side of the fence, you just have to read in full. It’s a fantastic demonstration of why any topic IS fair game –in the same way, there is a difference between jokes about race, and racist jokes. We don’t have a parents-getting-killed-in-front-of-their-children problem (currently in Britain, at least) of epidemic proportions – and if we did, would it frequently be played for laughs by numerous comedians as standard, and provoke a fetishisation and trivialization of the experience of orphans by those who have parents? (I’m not going to make a joke about rape victims being the Batmen of society.)

This type of reliance on shock value and cynical titillation is learned behaviour. The more extreme a show is (and the better its writing and characters, as is the case with GoT, clearly) the higher the drama; the more people will talk about it and create desire for it. The underestimation of the significance of the events being shown, also, comes from an inexperience with and misunderstanding of that structural power which exists in society. Is it a coincidence that power is held largely by white men who have grown up in a white-male-dominated society, and that most protagonists (and thus those whose stories are presumed to be most valuable, most relatable, the default for ‘human’) are white men, at the expense of other demographics? We must understand the difference between blaming someone for having utterly failed, and critiquing groups of people and society at large for patterns of misunderstanding. Representation needs to be critiqued by those who are not in positions of power, for the health of future work.

I Heart…

The phenomenon of fandom is one that creates in us huge amounts of love, wonder and joy. Of course nobody wants to hear criticisms of their favourite creations. I love Breaking Bad more than I love my own family (I find my parents marginally more tolerable now they’ve finished Season 5) and I have a hell of a time even trying to critique Breaking Bad but, a couple more great examples of shows with representation/ideology issues are early-sixties race comedy bungle The Help and, I have to admit, Breaking Bad.

Both are brilliantly written narratives with engaging, mostly rich characters, and exemplary formal execution. And, it is also important to understand the structurally racist and sexist ideology imbued in them. Considering the depth, goodwill and skill that have gone into them, their reflections of the industry’s chronic prejudices remain so slight that they go almost unnoticed. When they are noted, people wont hear it out of frustration, and/or protectiveness. Again, critique does not render something all bad, unwatchable, or unenjoyable.

The Help is a powerful film, with sharp performances all round. Viola Davis, rightly, gets the majority of the attention from critics for her warm and devastating performance, and Emma Stone renders her slightly bland protagonist likeable, as ever. Many critics agree that the narrative and form was largely faultless, if a little broad and formulaic (hence why it “works.”) But to what extent should we really defend a film about racism, and specifically highlighting the stories of black people in a white dominated society, whose protagonist is a beautiful, successful rich white girl? While Aibileen plays a vital role, it is a supporting one. The storyline focuses on Skeeter’s coming of age arc (exemplified by the absolutely redundant romantic subplot), and the redemption of individual ‘good white people’ by indirectly reprimanding the individual ‘bad white people’. The triumphant air-punch comes when Minny is told by her benevolent white employers that she is to continue being their servant for life, if she so chooses. This is genuinely the resolution of the film.

Hallelujah.

Breaking Bad’s gender and racial roles are hugely conservative, also. All of the Latino cartel members are without redemption (except maybe Hector Salamanca) – the only variation in their character-type is the choice between calculated or passive evil. There is certainly a comment on the ignorance of the US middle classes, but not a huge amount of humanity given to anyone else. The female characters (the white ones, that is) are all given depth, and plenty of screen time, and in contrast to what many have expressed, I found Skylar to be a hugely sympathetic character played expertly by Anna Gunn. However, her role remained as wife to the protagonist, mother, and supporter of the actions of her husband. There were few subplots involving Skylar, Marie or Lydia which involved them acting rather than reacting to male-driven deeds, except Marie’s short-lived kleptomania/therapy subplot which, in hindsight, appears to be an interesting but shoehorned method of giving her depth.

Again. Both fantastic stories, fantastic narratives which I relished – and both going some way to being progressive mainstream representations of important issues and fuller characters. And both remained within a prescribed framework of whose stories and values are foregrounded according to the ‘human nature’ of traditional roles and supposed ‘audience preference.’

These pervasive ideologies need to be debated; disagree, or be undecided, but don’t shut debate down because you, personally, find remaining structural inequalities to be a-ok. It’s not about whether or not intentions are good, or about historical accuracy, or an all-or-nothing bash at the value or watchability of one particular show, but the ever-changing relationships between people and their representation, perpetuation of stereotyping and what is considered ‘normal’.

Culture is both reflection and instruction. You can’t argue that we’re shown rape because it’s true to life, and then that it doesn’t matter because it’s fiction.

Women in Pornography: Annabel & Grace

chongI was first introduced to Sex: The Annabel Chong Story in the second year of my Film Studies degree in a week titled The Pornography Debates, part of the segment on gender representation. Now that I choose to write about gender in culture I regret not plunging myself into full engagement with the course; but despite my mental absence, I remember this documentary with trepidation.

 

Grace Quek is a Singaporean woman, better known under her porn star alias Annabel Chong, who gained notoriety for breaking the record for having sex with the most men at one time (251 in 10 hours) in The World’s Biggest Gang Bang. Her story caught the attention of student filmmaker Gough Lewis (who I recently learned was her then boyfriend,) who directed the ‘Annabel Chong story’, a story in fact about Grace Quek, sexual politics, the pornography industry, exploitation and emotional instability.

 

Quek’s story is both mesmerizing and frightening, and as a character she evokes immense respect, frustration and pity. I distinctly recall troubling, hugely ambivalent feelings of anger vs excitement, and dismissal vs curiosity; on first viewing, I had no idea how I felt about the story of Annabel Chong: a plastic, often embarrassing character that essentially never existed. I now see that Quek’s story is “where it’s at” (one of Chong’s favourite phrases), and it raises fascinating questions. The Pornography Debate’s place in gender theory is as frustrating as it is appropriate, and this film delineates the complexity of this regrettable dynamic.

 

Perhaps the most obvious question could be phrased as “is being a porn star a feminist act?” This reductive question has a longer answer. Quek went about being a porn star in the name of equality and expression and it could be convincingly argued that her venture was a feminist act. (Though Quek never uses the word ‘feminism’ specifically she often espouses feminist rhetoric.) Definitions of ‘feminist’ are often very disparate, and pornography debates illustrate this. Her claim that attempting to sleep with 300 men was a piss-take of the masculine notion of ‘stud’ is a legitimate concept found in both academic and everyday discussions of sexual politics. A student at USC during production, Quek’s academic excellence is evident in footage of her contributions in class and her teachers’ testimonies to the fact; she clearly and purposely conflates her academic work with that of her chosen career.

 

I don’t see Quek’s actions as ‘feminist’ ones, regardless of having faith in her stated intentions. The most solid insight that the film gives is that the pornography industry operates on a strong current of violence and sadism and systematically engages in exploitation. Much of this is directed at women, whether genuinely or just for show, and women participate either knowingly or with a view to ‘liberating themselves’. Quek’s claims that she wants to change views on female sexuality from stereotypes of passivity to aggression, and that she really enjoys sex, are just fine. Yet these claims are somewhat eclipsed by other revelations, and the insight provided into the industry she participates in. Participating in something on its own terms and claiming it as your own does not equate to subverting or defeating it.

 

Some of the most telling scenes are those in which Quek is at work; in an interview discussing her upcoming record attempt, John Bowen, director of the World’s Biggest Gang Bang, who speaks either for or over her, matter-of-factly informs the interviewer that “Little Annabel” is going to “take them orally, anally, vaginally, any way you can do it” for “as long as it takes”. After continuing “right now, we’ve got a nationwide search for 300 guys who wanna come in and fuck ‘er”, she is eventually addressed directly, with a pat on the head: “Why don’t you stand up, sweetheart, and take your clothes off and let the people see what they’re gonna fuck.” Quek giggles, smiles and agrees throughout, constantly glancing towards and deferring to Bowen and jumping up to strip meekly at his word. Later we are introduced to the notorious Rob Black (Porn Director of the Year 1998, who made his name with rape fantasy films), who, in discussing the commoditization and legislation of sex work angrily asks why you can’t “have a guy fuck a girl, and while he’s fuckin’ her, have another guy come over with an axe and cut off her fuckin’ head?” This regulation on “our sex”, he believes, is “bullshit.”

 

It is, of course, wholly possible to be a ‘feminist’ porn star (though an indistinct, nebulous concept), yet in the 90s porn industry Quek needed to do more than turn up for work, have sex and inform us she likes it to be advancing her agenda of destroying the cultural limitations on female sexuality. Other than a phone call with Black in which Quek sternly demands more money than her co-stars, she is rarely seen challenging anything of the ideology or systemic exploitation of the industry. In an admirable though contradictory statement, she also claims that she doesn’t care that she never received the $10,000 that she is owed from Bowen for the record she set, because she didn’t do it for the money.

 

As the film progresses, the more we learn about Quek, and the more her self-exploitation/liberation becomes unbearable. After discussing being gang-raped as a teenager, and subsequently addicted to drugs, we see her self-harming while tearfully admitting that “life makes you numb” and this is a way to feel her pain. I don’t feel it right to speculate on the exact link that all of these elements of her life have, but on seeing her advertising the gang bang, uncomfortably and monotonously inviting us to have “intercourse” with her while batting fake ‘come-to-bed’ eyes into the camera, it is all the more upsetting to know that a vulnerable and victimized individual is actively pursuing a venture which requires her to be an object for others’ pleasure, in a potentially masochistic process of hyperbolic de-ja-vu. Quek’s face during the gang bang scenes displays immense pain; we learn that the reason she stopped at 251 men instead of the intended 300 was due to tearing in her vagina.

 

The original ambivalence that I felt after seeing the film reflects the ambivalence and complexity borne from the issue of female sexuality and its exploitation under patriarchy, specifically as a commodity. Long misunderstood as sinful, shameful, and worst of all, commodifiable objects in themselves, many women continue to understand their sexuality and bodies on these terms. It then follows that choosing to sell one’s own body and sex equates to liberation from the sinful, shameful, externally-owned scenario. In fact, it ensures the perpetuation of a cultural climate that understands the owning, selling and availability of women for others’ pleasure as commonplace and inevitable. Feminism is about improving the lives of women, away from violence, disrespect and wider inequality and under-representation. To promote equality in the porn industry, the violence, degradation and dehumanization of women must be attacked. Quek bravely and determinedly participated in the porn industry for her own complex reasons, but hardly on progressive terms. She has since retired, and I sincerely hope she has spent time healing.

Navigating a Culture of Sexual Objectification

…is something 52% of the population must do, daily.

In fact, it’s something 100% of the population must do daily, but 48% (probably) don’t internalise it as self-image. Although…I’m sure there are tribes that never see any mainstream media, and people who don’t leave their houses or have a television or have the internet….

I promise I’m trying, Inclusion and Accuracy.

Guesstimate: about 89% of the population see images, and films, and television programmes, and news items, and magazines, and adverts, and people that continue to sexualise cis-femininity. Daily. It’s toxic, it’s both surreptitious and brazen, and it affects YOUR BRAIN. And it will affect the brains of your children if you don’t teach them otherwise. This is why when you see any media which promotes anything Bad, you should punch your child. Hard. It’s called aversion therapy, and it works. (You’re welcome.)

Sociological Images has provided all of humankind, that is, everyone that is not one of the PhD-holding editors of the blog, with a series of posts about sexual objectification in (mainly advertising) images. The author, Caroline Heldman, defines the posts as “a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects.” Nice one Caroline; frankly, it’s about time. 24 years into my life (after being groomed by media for all of those, but studying and deconstructing media for four of them) I actively see myself as a brainbodysoul subject, and it feels good in my brainbodysoul. But the grooming runs deep in all of us (eww) and unfortunately, it seems that all people need a frequent reminder that we humans are complex beings and not just the shoulds and givens that our constructs and institutions insist and demand we are and be. So, in conclusion, stop watching and start reading.

There are plenty more interesting articles on sociology, and images, on Sociological Images. But first, check these out as a 101 to not caving to the continual insistence that the female body is SEXY, and that that fact is important to you (oh, and empowering. Definitely empowering.)

Part One: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/02/sexual-objectification-part-1-what-is-it/

Part Two: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/06/sexual-objectification-part-2-the-harm/

Part Three: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/10/sexual-objectification-part-3-daily-rituals-to-stop/

Part Four: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/07/13/sexual-objectification-part-4-daily-rituals-to-start/

On female nudity. (AKA NUDE GIRLS XXX)

beyonce-gq-coverThe naked body. Our instinct is to bloody love ‘em. Looking at one, touching one, being wrapped up in and by one. Mm. Damn.

What sensuality, intimacy and pleasure can be expressed and received between naked people. All for it. On board. Plus, the hypnotic motion of some appropriately-placed flailing genitalia or boing-ing boobs can be fucking funny. For most, nakedness is beautifully and inextricably tied to sexuality, and (again, for most) the sight and feel of a naked body is one of huge pleasure. Yet, as certain as my base instincts are of their appreciation of nakedness, most appearances of nudes in my visual field result in my brain and spirit becoming indignant and wanting to phone Terry Wogan to complain. But, of course it’s not the image of the naked body itself that pains me.

Various intersecting cultural values have tried to ruin nakedness for everyone, by gradually bastardizing it into the incessant, controlled, mostly female ‘nude’ we know and I don’t love. Nakedness now appears to be equated with pouting lips, firm peek-a-boo-ing breasts and shiny, tiny, toned, jutting bums. Consider, what’s the ratio of flesh you see that looks like this, to that that doesn’t? Visual Culture pioneer John Berger captured this distinction in his seminal work Ways of Seeing: “Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.” Writing in the 1970s, Berger was largely referring to nudes of European paintings, but his sentiments perfectly capture the rapacious commodification of nude and near-nude bodies in our omnipresent visual media.

Long ago, in the nascent stages of the creation of the corporate Mainstream Media, its CEO, Max White-Powerman (popularly known as ‘The Man’) confirmed for us that ‘sex sells’, and that this fact was a natural cornerstone of a wholesome western cultural perspective (alongside such sentiments as ‘violence is fun’ and ‘fractional reserve banking’). Troublingly, his definition of ‘sex’, like so many before him, was ‘The Fetishised Female Image’, and thus a longstanding trend of sexist oppression begat a newly-coded visual ideology of domination, via reproduction after reproduction of silent ‘feminine’ subservience.

Fast-forward to a less sarcastic representation of contemporary mainstream media, and as much as person after person fights for diversity in representation and the end of exploitation, the global market is saturated with the imaginary sexualised female. A deodorized, manacled and coercive idea of ‘sex’ is widely sold and desperately bought by most of us, marketed to men as innate power and entitlement, and to women as innate worth and empowerment.

The hijack of feminist ideals by market forces to delineate ‘femininity’ has rightly come under scrutiny of late, and we’re seeing the tenets of ‘masculinity’ increasingly examined. But a myth of diversified choices and empowerment gains for women is still stubbornly equated with the ‘power’ of ‘beauty’, and conforming to closely bracketed standards of an essential ‘feminine’ demeanour continues to pervade the public consciousness’s determination of true, innate female success. The visual and conceptual objectification that occurs when women are framed hyper-sexually and altered digitally maintains a false, but powerful and painfully tangible, bond between Woman and her status as an always-potentially-if-not-actually available commodity.

Two celebrated female writers who I’ve never seen nude, New Statesman columnist Glosswitch and Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, recently caught my attention. Freeman’s article Beyonce: Being photographed in your underwear doesn’t help feminism, generated a response from Glosswitch entitled Hadley Freeman: Telling Beyonce she’s not helping feminism isn’t helping feminism. In addition to such beautiful titular tittilation (neither of those was a Freudian slip) both articles are damn well worth a read. Glosswitch is ever-sharp, though my heart leans towards Freeman’s stance on this; if we were not presented with constant hyper-sexualised images of women, a huge part of the “semiotics of a patriarchal society” would be removed from our daily experience (that of the readers of shit, trendy magazines, at least.) Though Glosswitch states she’s not sure of the coherency of such a phrase, she’s made me consider the connectedness of patriarchy, power and semiotics. Half a century on from second-wave feminism, Beyonce is considered one of the most ‘powerful’ women in the world (certainly one of the most visibly present) and is constantly represented to us as a hyper-sexual object. An object with the ‘power’ of great vocal chords, revenue generation and of Being Beautiful.

The Beyonce Question is problematically framed as whether or not Beyonce specifically ‘should’ be ‘allowing’ her tidy badonkadonk and sexually provocative facial expressions to be photographed again and again for the gratification of both the paying consumer, and her temperature-controlled digital storage facility. But opening up this teensy microclimate of the definition of Woman to the wider, tangible world of sexual domination, in which half of the 2.5million trafficked souls on our planet are women and girls forced into prostitution, the question is not about Beyonce’s personal choices as much as it is about desperately needing high profile females to consider this tension between symbolism and the empirical.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”, says media organisation MissRepresentation.org; while the wording of that quote is actually pretty defeatist, I get the message. Everything we see and hear around us is so formative, and symbolic messages are being delivered to our consciousness every second via dogged ideological signals from the attitudes of people around us, and the people who control the flow of information about ourselves, our actions and our society.

Many recent strains of feminist debate have centered around feminist writers trying to speak on the behalf of all women. So allow me to spark some debate: personally, my view is (though if you don’t agree then, naturally, fuck you) that women, especially women in the public eye, need to think hard about their relationship to self-presentation and sexuality if they are going to address the pressing issues facing women with regard to sexual violence (and other inequalities). This is not a problem with nakedness, it is a problem with the ubiquitous visibility and promotion of submissive female nudity. The suggestion that we might contribute to a more equal collective consciousness is not a naïveté that ‘no more tit shots = equality’. But it is a genuine concern as to what really would “help feminism” in lieu of the invention of a vaccine for sexually aggressive neural processes. (Or perhaps we could just distribute this shock aversion therapy experiment to everyone.)

Perhaps Katy B, Jessie Ware and Ms Dynamite could collaborate on an album about the Fawcett Society, which samples speeches by Cynthia McKinney. In their videos they’d wear lush Aran jumpers, buttoned-up blouses and pin-striped slacks, next to backing dancers Noam Chomsky and Jackson Katz doing the running man. And then when they’ve restored harmony to our global society forever, we can represent nakedness in a more meaningful, realistic and loving way, bouncing hilariously into ever after. I agree with actress (and, I found out, dancer!) Neve Campbell: “I’ve never been opposed to nudity. What I’ve been opposed to is nudity for box office draw.”

Video: Real Men Say Something by Modern Primate.

This week I have been mostly: feeling grateful for Modern Primate’s brand of dialectic. Talked me down from a panic attack the other day via one of his YouTube videos and didn’t even know it (since it was pre-recorded). Man’s pushing hero status.