Sexuality Misconstrued

In last week’s edition of The Phillipian, Will Allen ’05 argued that we should praise Janet Jackson’s racy performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, and insisted that it was an “ingenious publicity stunt.” While I agree that Jackson is being condemned for the wrong reasons, I think that if the infamous display of her breast was intentional, she is not above criticism. She was performing in front of an audience of varying age, and the Super Bowl halftime show was not an appropriate venue for such liberties in artistic expression. Unfortunately, the media scrambled to amalgamate Jackson’s performance with Britney Spear’s sexually-charged concerts and Christina Aguilera’s choice of dress. It was clear, then, that the scrutiny following the Super Bowl halftime show was more than simple criticisms of media censorship; it was also an assault on expressions of female sexuality. In concurrence with Allen’s argument, I think that too often, female artists who are expressive, aggressive, or comfortable with their sexuality are dismissed as lacking a sense of artistry or dignity. The complaint is laden with claims that revealing clothing, edgy lyrics, and overt, unapologetic exploration of sexual identities are merely products of sexist thinking and reversions to anti-feminist sentiments. The critics of female artists, however, offer a diagnoses that is too simple. It is accurate to say that some artists have fallen victim to the attitude that a woman should play the role of a sexual object and draw her power only from her sexual appeal and not from her other intellectual, artistic, and moral capabilities. Unlike Allen, I think that reducing a woman’s sexuality to a commodity that can be sold and bought is a psychologically damaging practice. While the female artists who proscribe to this line of thought may receive immediate monetary benefits and enjoy profitable careers, they also reinforce the social climate of gender-based oppression which feminists have so fervently fought to eradicate. Clearly, artists are not responsible for “baby-sitting” the younger audience which receives their messages and embraces their art. It is unconscionable, however, to completely ignore the tremendous role they play in sculpting the social and cultural attitudes which the younger generation, not endowed with the maturity or sophistication required to filter the inundation of media exposure it receives, then ingests. Artists who choose to target and appeal to a wide and varied audience do have the heightened obligation of circumspection with the messages they project. Not all female artists who are sexually expressive, however, embrace anti-feminist thinking. The feminism circled around female sexuality is not about being able to be sexually demure; rather, it is about fidelity to one’s sexual identity. In the year 2004, women should have the right to examine, define, and talk about their sexuality. Rather than a sign of moral decline, the fact that female sexuality from a newly female perspective is imbued in popular art is refreshing and empowering. In the context of modern American culture, female sexuality has become a complicated issue. No longer is it easy to distinguish the submissive, misinformed woman from the empowered, progressive woman. We should dismantle the archaic and unsophisticated language we use to describe female sexuality because it has become inadequate in light of the radical progressions society has taken in terms of our attitudes about gender. Revealing clothing and suggestive dancing cannot simply be denounced as indicators of a sexually oppressive and decadent society. Conversely, our judgments must extend beyond the aesthetic level to a higher, more complex plane.