Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Foxy Lady

An evangelical blog called Given Breath recently posted this open letter to a teenage girl concerning the propriety of her social media posts. It's basically an epistolary call to greater care and modesty on the internet, the primary argument being that girls should be careful what they post because boys, being boys, will sexualize them: "Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it?"

The target in question seems to be a selfie: "For one, it appears that you are not wearing a bra. I get it – you’re in your room, so you’re heading to bed, right? But then I can’t help but notice the red carpet pose, the extra-arched back, and the sultry pout. What’s up? None of these positions is one I naturally assume before sleep, this I know."

Fair enough. Selfies can be pretty dumb. Ditto the kinds of poses Western media seems to consider "sexy." There are any number of reasons not to post a braless selfie, and many avenues by which we might want to critique this. Does the girl posting the self-portrait really want to be objectified? Does she really want to capitulate to media standards of beauty and self-worth? 

Maybe she does. Maybe she wants to feel sexy. We can disagree with her that the selfie in question is going to accomplish this. Maybe she is, or wants to be, as sexually available as the braless selfie would seem to suggest. (Or maybe it's an ironic send-up of stupid selfies. Maybe it's playful. I have no idea). If that's not your cup of tea, or you don't want it to be your teenage sons' cup of tea, then yes, absolutely. Hide Selfie Girl, or block her, or whatever. Visual rhetoric is important. 

To that end, Mrs. Hall (the signatory of the letter) is correct to point out the pose. There is an egregious double-standard when it comes to men and women regarding beauty, sexuality, and what counts for modesty. Take, as an example, Men-Ups: Manly Men in Pin-Up Poses, which should be self-explanatory, or The Hawkeye Initative, which replaces female comic characters with Hawkeye similarly (un)dressed and in the exact same pose, with hilarious (and telling) results. 

This would be a good place to begin in critiquing the braless selfie, were one going to do so, but that's not the line of reasoning Hall uses. In fact, it's not a critique even available to her because, curiously, the accompanying photo is one of her teenage boys striking (admittedly humorous and ironic) manly poses on the beach without  their shirts on. [UPDATE: Hall has replaced the photos]. 

I'm not alone in finding this a little ironic -- many of the comments on the blog address it. It seems, at the very least, an odd choice given the content. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with the photo: the boys are cute but ordinary, in the kind of picture a mom might innocuously post on her Facebook wall. Ordinarily, I'd have thought nothing of it (which is part of the point, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Indeed, some of the comments, both on the blog and on the Facebook post where I saw it, defend the photo: "That's different," they say. "They're not posing" (except that they are, but these are not conspicuously "sexy" poses, apparently). "They're just boys having fun on the beach." "How many boys do you know go swimming with their shirts on?" And so on.

The apples-vs.-oranges rejoinder is well-taken, but in the end, we're appealing to a double standard to justify a double standard. What would it take for us to think that the boys in question were striking sexy poses, for instance -- or imagine what the conversation would be like if we gender-swapped the whole post, festooning a letter to young men about modesty and propriety with a photo of young girls in swimsuits. What would we say then? [Actually, it would be fun to do just that, and make the "letter" about that blog post. UPDATE: Somebody did something close to this. Somebody else did something even closer.]

Moreover, we're making this appeal with a rather frightening logic: Boys will be boys, but girls need to be careful how they're dressed. "Don't post braless selfies because my shirtless boys might sexualize you" is different in degree, but not in kind, from the logic of rape culture: "She was asking for it -- look how she was dressed!"

This is rooted in a troublesome anthropology in which men are uniquely sexual actors, even aggressors, who are nevertheless at the mercy of their drives and desires, for which women are somehow uniquely responsible. Woman must tame the beast (Gilgamesh comes to mind here), and at its most basic level this anthropology says that men have agency but not responsibility and women have responsibility but not agency. A double standard and a double bind.

This, in turn, is rooted (but with a twist) in patriarchal assumptions of women as property -- valuable property, to be sure, but property nonetheless. A woman belongs to her father until she is old enough to marry, at which point she belongs to her husband. 

This is actually quite literal in some evangelical circles, where the buzzword is "headship," and of course the concern for property gets sublimated through ideas like chivalry into a concern for the woman's honor and a need to protect her. Just as one would protect very valuable property. Her honor can be violated precisely because she belongs to someone else.

At this point, however, the logic gets convoluted: women must be protected from the gaze of the men charged with protecting them, but at that very point the woman is responsible for that gaze. "We hope to raise men with a strong moral compass," Hall writes, "and men of integrity don’t linger over pictures of scantily clad high-school girls" (emphasis original). Ergo, it is the woman's responsibility not to post braless selfies. Men of integrity don't rape women, either -- so watch your skirt length, ladies. Boys will be boys.

Again, I want to be clear: I agree completely that people should be careful what they post on social media. For me, this includes patriarchal justifications of rape culture.

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