By Jayn Griffith for The Establishment. Originally published on March 11th, 2016.
Whether you keep up with celebrity affairs or not, you can’t really ignore the Kardashians—and you definitely can’t avoid knowing what people think about them. When Kim Kardashian posted a nude selfie on Twitter this week, there was a smattering of “you go girl” support, but also a wave of criticism about her immodesty or her pathological need for attention. The response from the public and from other celebrities said a lot about what we think of Kim Kardashian, but even more about what we think of women’s bodies and sexuality. In a culture where we see billboard-sized images of boobs on the daily, why is it this nude picture that makes everyone clutch their pearls?
When a woman is depicted in a sexualized way, with no depth beyond her appearance in order to sell beer, cars, or sandwiches, we call it advertising. We see it everywhere in public space and in media, and hardly anyone ever objects.
When overtly sexual or nude photos and videos of women are posted online or nude photos are printed in magazines, we call it porn. We don’t see it everywhere in the public space, but we’re aware of its ubiquity, and as a culture we look the other way. We say, “Boys will be boys.” Looking at porn is as all-American as sneaking a look at your father’s Playboy. Yet being a porn star is considered incredibly shameful for a young woman.
It’s okay to look at porn. It’s okay to consume images of women’s bodies. It’s not okay to offer up your body to be seen.
The women in porn are almost always presented as passive to the male gaze, unyielding, with no complication of a personality, no danger to the male ego of possibly hearing the word “no,” existing only for the pleasure of men’s eyes. The women in advertising are often cut up into body parts—just a midriff, just a pair of legs—or turned into objects. Those are the times a woman’s form and sexuality are acceptable. But if you are a woman just feeling yourself and expressing your sexuality, presenting yourself the way you feel like at any given moment, or leveraging your own power or sexual energy, you are condemned and disrespected, maybe even threatened, assaulted, or killed.
When a woman is feeling good about the way she looks—empowered, beautiful, or confident in her appearance—and expresses this feeling by taking a photo of herself, clothed or nude, and sharing it online, we punish her. We call her names like “slut,” “trash,” “attention-starved,” “a bad mother,” “a bad role model.” If her photos are stolen, we say she deserved it. The message is that it’s okay to commodify a woman’s body, it’s okay to co-opt female sexuality, as long as the woman in question is passive in it and it’s for someone else’s commercial gain or the express use of men’s sexual titillation and gratification.
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