Last night I watched the first half of the Super Bowl with my husband and some friends. Which means I also watched the commercials in the first half of the SuperBowl. There are always sexist commercials in the Super Bowl—that’s as American as apple pie and Chevrolet—but this time I was keenly aware of them, as Miss Representation was urging people to tweet about the sexism with the hashtag #we’renotbuyingit. Miss Representation’s logic—which I believe is sound—is that if sexism stops being profitable, it will stop being prolific.
Ah, but here’s the problem—a big audience is buying it. And that audience isn’t entirely composed of men. Some of the people who are buying it are the same ones getting paid for it: the women in the commercials.
And oh, baby, are they buying it.
Now, I understand that an individual woman presenting herself as, say, a car or a cheeseburger might have a philosophy of power in which she is manipulating the system for her own gain. Those poor suckers out there aren’t walking away with anything, and she’s walking away with a paycheck. You don’t have to look any further than the Super Bowl halftime show to see this philosophy in action à la the mother of in-your-face sexuality, Madonna. (Who was upstaged by another artist giving us the finger—apparently missing the fact that Madonna has been giving us the finger for a couple of decades.)
So, maybe one or two of the women in these commercials aren’t buying it in their own minds—a slippery argument, if you ask me, but one I’ll accept for the moment. Because—and here’s the part I really want you to lean in for: her empowerment is not our empowerment. Her gain, financial or otherwise, is only hers. To the rest of us, she’s just another example of matter over mind. In twenty years or so, she’ll be replaced by a newer model, and none of us will be any the wiser.
Consider the meta-objectification in GoDaddy’s lastest:
Ah, the artistry astounds. Women in the traditional roles of men, wearing pit crew uniforms and painting the naked body of a woman posing as a vehicle. So many clichés rolled into one—woman in male role confirming male desire (in a really hot way—you know, the kind of lesbian overtones men can get down with, not the kind that excludes them), woman as something to be decorated—and, as she is posing as a car—not just ridden, but driven. Yes, here we have an original way of making sure that a woman who enters a man’s territory—Danica Patrick, who has broken records as a female auto racer—gets no traction whatsoever. Once a vehicle, always a vehicle, whether you’re behind the wheel or not. Obviously, I’m not buying it. I don’t know if Danica Patrick is or not—but I know she’s selling it to the rest of us. And I wonder if she’s accounting the cost.
This kind of sexism used to make me sick with anger. And yes, I am still angry. But the more of it I see, and the older I get, my primary emotion is sadness, connected to a deep sense of loss. Oh, I want to say, don’t you see what you are doing to us? To yourself? Please don’t do this to your beautiful self—to all our beautiful selves. We deserve so much more.
As I mentioned, I was watching the Super Bowl with a group of friends—my husband and two other couples. None of us—including the guys, who were the primary audience for all this blatant manipulation—were enjoying the commercials. As we discussed what we were seeing, someone mentioned Demi Moore and her recent struggles surrounding her divorce. I don’t wish to add to Ms. Moore’s pain, or to indulge in gossip. But I think she’s a really good example of someone who has struggled with the mixed messages of sexism and power, and who is suffering for it. I want to write for her, as much as I want to write for those of us at home, whose bodies will only be locally, and not nationally, assessed.
From Striptease to G.I. Jane to cougar incarnate, we have watched Demi Moore use her beauty as power, fight the power, and begin again. Now she has been stripped of cougar status, and I sense that she is grieving. Of course she is—she has built an empire on beauty, and even cougars have an expiration date. But here’s the thing: what if she reclaimed herself? What if she just refused to buy it?
I believe she has this potential within her—in fact, I believe we all do, given encouragement and faith.
One of my friends commented on the nude picture Demi posed for when she was pregnant, stating that he found it distasteful. I said I liked that picture, and he was surprised. Later, when I was considering it, I wondered if he’d ever seen the picture. It was controversial, and some people believed it was an attempt to objectify a pregnant woman. However, when I look at that picture I don’t see a sex object. Many others have posed naked and pregnant after Demi, including Britney Spears, and some of those pictures are sexually objectifying. The difference here is in the gaze—Demi is not engaging the audience, asking for our desire or approval. She is simply being. And she is beautiful.
We—women and men alike—do need to find beauty in our physical selves, and, oh, is it there. Sometimes it is there sexually, but sometimes it is just there—the human form can be breathtakingly beautiful, the way a mountain or a tree or a hummingbird or a lioness is beautiful. Sometimes there is so much there that one must pause, and appreciate. Some artists—both photographers and models—know this, and when the two come together, we have the most fabulous pictures of people in all their variety—young and supple, wrinkled and wizened, smiling, crying, raising arms in triumph or grief. Sometimes we see a pregnant woman in this way: as an example of that which we are, but do not fully understand. It is pictures like this that give me hope, not because we are capable of inducing desire, but because there is something in us that is so freaking transcendent that, if we only knew how to drink it in, we’d never doubt ourselves again.
Demi Moore has presented the world with both kinds of beauty: the kind meant for consumption and the kind that cannot be bought or sold. I want her—I want all of us—to know that, because she possesses the latter, the former cannot contain her.
In fact, objectification cannot contain any of us—no matter how American, or profitable, it is.