Looking Sexy in the Face

I should’ve known better.  But this is part of what I do in hotel rooms: watch a little television.  I don’t miss not having a television at home, but down-time in hotel rooms warrants some guilty pleasure.  So, today I watched the Fuse top 100 sexiest music videos of all time.  Well, I caught the top 60 – and that took much of the day. I muted through the commercials and some of the songs, and I also did some dancing.  But what else do you suppose happened to me while I watched?  Think about it for a moment – before I tell you, I’ll share the backdrop for this sexy video extravaganza.

I’m in a downtown hotel room in State College, PA, as the sounds of drunken revelers drift up from the street.  February 25 is no holiday, but here at Penn State, it’s known as State Patty’s Day - a day of drinking and debauchery that now has much of downtown State College closed down – yes, bars close rather than selling alcohol on this day because students can be so destructive, so irresponsible in their behavior that even the business owners who stand to profit from such revelry would rather not support the inevitable injuries, sexual assaults, harassment and general dreadful behavior that will result on this day. It’s a parent’s nightmare, of course.  They’re young and foolish and looking for attention and affirmation.  The mother-part of me wants to scream “Go home!” and “For Gawd-sakes, put on a sweater!”

Why State Patty’s Day?  St. Patrick’s Day – a good “drinking holiday” in America – normally falls during spring break.  And some students a few years back felt cheated out of reveling with their friends, so they instituted State Patty’s Day – the last Saturday in February – as make-up day.

I am here, on this of all days, to participate in an event that happens each year at this time – the brilliant Cultural Conversations festival, led by Dr. Susan Russell.  This festival offers theatre, music, dance and film surrounding a topic of cultural importance.  This year’s theme is Difficult Differences and the offerings include Dr. Carrie Sandahl’s documentary, Code of the Freaks, about the representation of disability in Hollywood, and my solo show Dykeopolis: Queer Tales and Travels in our Times.

The week also included five student plays, an art display on racial and cultural differences, plus a town hall event on “growing up gay in the USA.”  And, then there’s Body Language, one of the most amazing efforts this festival undertakes each year in which a performance results from Dr. Russell’s months of work with local middle and high school students.  This year, their show was called LGBT Citizens and Allies Asking and Telling.  The Body Language shows are stunning — this is the second time my work has been invited to Cultural Conversations and the previous Body Language performance I saw focused on body image and the bullying that comes from body bigotry.

This brings me back to the results of watching five hours of music videos – something a lot of young people do on a routine basis.

And these were not just any music videos – someone had deemed them the “Sexiest Music Videos of all Time.”  Each batch of ten videos was presented by a different young woman wearing a party dress and high heels, speaking intros like “Justin Timberlake and 50 cent using high tech equipment to spy on sexy girls? Saweet!”

My initial reaction was to shake my head and feel a bit smug for working with Cultural Conversations and Mamablogger and all of the great feminist folks I know.  That reaction is almost dismissive though, isn’t it?  I was watching for pleasure, after all.  How does popular culture affect me personally?  I may be a feminist scholar and a mother and queer — and I’m also just a woman alone in a hotel room watching a little television.

As I watched, I worked at the computer and got up to dance periodically and suddenly I noticed that I was scrutinizing myself in the mirror more than usual.  As I imitated some of the women’s moves (because yes, most of the images on screen were nearly nude women) I began to compare myself to them.  Oh, there’s no comparison, but the mind likes this game and the culture has trained me for it.  The dancing felt good, and then, a weird melancholy started seeping into my mood.  This is so subtle, it’s hard to connect it to the images on the screen, right?  And I just allowed myself to feel it: that strange mixture of arousal and disgust and a vague yet pervasive discomfort.  All the while, women’s high shrieks and men’s loud guffaws and taunts rose to my sixth floor window from the celebration in the street below.

Having seen them earlier – and the last time I was here for State Paddy’s Day – I know that many of the young women were wearing very short skirts, bare legs and high heels, despite the 30 degree weather.  The gendered attire is striking at this temperature; sure, some girls wear jeans and boots, but the imperative to show skin is strong.  And on screen, women in lingerie and bikinis writhe around fully clothed men who stare stoically at the camera.

Finally, I pushed the melancholy aside enough to jot down some of the thematic patterns in these “sexiest” videos.  There were only a few and they were highly repetitive: 1) women dressed as either school girls, girl scouts, brownies or filmed from above, rolling on the floor like toddlers, bright child-like colors, 2) men in dominant positions, stoic and either controlling women or singing about pimping them, 3) blow job references: men as “candy” (often combined with the images of women as children wanting candy) and 4) eroticized violence including stalking, quickly alternating sex and violence, domestic battery and murder. Sometimes the song lyrics echoed the images but they were never critiquing nor ironic in their treatment of violence.

The cataloguing and deconstruction of sexism is important still – and we can all do it, with a little awareness.  We need programs like Cultural Conversations to present heartfelt and alternative representations of women’s experiences.  It was a tough day, looking my culture’s concept of sexy in the face. And yet, we’re best served to stay in our bodies and experiences as we examine the culture.

Kimberly Dark is a mother, professor and an award-winning writer and performer. Her favorite son is a senior at UC Berkeley and she’s grateful that traveling to perform allows her to spend time with him often. www.kimberlydark.com.

Photo credit: Sil kobieta 2 by mzacha | MorgueFile

 

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