Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sluts And Celebrity

This is the cover photo from Lady Gaga's Born This Way release. I do hope that the irony here - an image of a woman so enhanced by make-up and prosthetics that she is unrecognizable - is clear enough. In any case, an intrepid and tireless critic of mine has named Stefanie Germonatta, pretty consistently, as one of three celebrities whose public image is a moral hazard when trying to talk about the word "slut".

Another is Britney Spears

Of course, no discussion of celebrities whose names are tied to sexual hedonism would be complete without Lady Madonna of Detroit.

It is dodgy to use celebrities as exemplars, either positive or negative, precisely because we in the public are exposed to an image. We encounter an artifice, a carefully crafted public-relations product rather than a human being. When we see Madonna in a bustier singing to women to express themselves if they want their man, we are watching a commercial. When we hear Lady Gaga sing a song, using a card game as an innuendo for oral sex, we are listening to product placement. When we hear Britney Spears tittering in her breathy soprano, "Oops, I did it again," it is not phony intimacy we hear; it is much worse - the phony come-on of the coquette, made doubly false by its inherent illusory quality as well as the inherent refusal of the coquette.

When anyone uses persons in the entertainment industry as examples of moral turpitude, we are playing the game the industry wants us to play. Whether or not Madonna, or Stefanie, or Britney are or are not sluts is a question they want us to ask so that we will pay attention to them and, hopefully, buy their music. Of course, the persona they create is what we are really purchasing, with the music the soundtrack to our thoughts about them; pushing the boundaries of bourgeois sexual propriety is not only the method by which we are enticed to buy. It is what they are selling.

More than anything, calling these women sluts, bad examples young women should not emulate, is to accept the lie of the image. Even if you believe the constant barrage of carefully placed "rumors" and "stories" in the celebrity press, alleging bad behavior, you are still participating in the game. Here in the entertainment industry, its insistence on visibility and image, we have one of the best examples of capitalism eating itself. On the one hand we have bourgeois morality, with its tsking and tutting about what is and is not "proper" dress and behavior. On the other hand we have millions invested in ensuring these boundaries and mores are clear precisely because they are traduced so thoroughly and consistently.

Which is all the more reason I don't buy moral scolding. Morality has always been a product sold. Whether in ancient times, or feudalism, or in high or late capitalism, the ruling classes have always set out rules for proper conduct, including sexual conduct, which they have refused to apply to themselves. The best examples, of course, come from high and late Victorian England, when a whole striving middle and upper-middle class refused to use the word "breast" when talking about chicken, or covered the legs of tables because it might induce sexual thoughts; all the while the aristocracy was coupling like ferrets in spring time, the only rule being that none of this behavior actually be discussed.

When a group of young women insist that the police not hold them responsible for their possible sexual victimization by labeling their dress or conduct "slutty", this is not acceptable, either, because the word is as much a way of managing the conduct of others as it is a moral epithet. Celebrities can and do dress and act slutty for the public's enjoyment and their profit. A young college student, or a group of friends out on the town, however, are forbidden from imitating this behavior.

Rather than play the game, which is rigged from the get-go, isn't it far better to encourage people to ask uncomfortable questions, including questions regarding how moral epithets are applied? Dragging celebrities in to the mix not only confuses the matter. It also continues to play by the very rules that are being questioned.

Virtual Tin Cup

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