Quantcast

«

»

Feb 27 2013

“We Saw Your Boobs” and Distorted Views of Female Sexuality

I’ll leave it to others to thoroughly excoriate Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars. What I want to address specifically is his gloating “We Saw Your Boobs” video, and the interestingly skewed notion of sexuality that it presents.

If you believe MacFarlane, and others who think like him, sex is a sort of competition between men and women. Whenever women engage sexually with men–for instance, by appearing topless in a movie that is viewed by men–the man “wins” and the woman “loses.” In the video, the women whose boobs MacFarlane says he saw are portrayed as shocked or embarrassed, whereas Jennifer Lawrence, whose boobs MacFarlane notes that we have not seen, is shown to be celebrating.

In this view, women have no agency to experience sexuality on their own terms and for themselves. MacFarlane et al. do not realize that a woman might want to appear topless in a movie not (just) to be viewed by men, but because it makes her feel good or because it increases her opportunities as an actor, or for any other reason.

Of course, that’s arguable, because nowadays in Hollywood female actors’ opportunities are so limited unless they’re willing to appear topless. So for an actor who doesn’t want to do a nude scene for whatever reason but feels pressured to do it because there’s not much of a choice, doing a nude scene is a sort of loss. But not because “hur hur we saw your boobies,” but because in the society we have set up, people often have to do things they find objectionable in order to make a living.

This view of sex as a game or competition is embedded in the language we use to discuss sex–for instance, in the case of virginity. Although men are also sometimes thought of as being virgins or having virginity, traditionally it’s a concept that only really applies to women. Virginity is something that women “lose,” “save,” “give up,” “give away.” Although you could certainly argue that sometimes we can also lose things that are bad and that we’re better off for having lost, it’s still interesting to think about the connotation that it has to say that women “lose” something when they have sex for the first time.

It’s similar when we talk about “playing hard to get,” which is a role that’s traditionally been assigned to women. A woman “plays hard to get” until she finally “gives in” and lets the guy “get” her–he wins, she loses. (Interestingly, the “hard to get” role is becoming more associated with straight men, as well–thanks to PUAs, the cultural ideal of apathy, and probably tons of other factors.)

(As an aside, it’s interesting and also discouraging that some of the most problematic aspects of traditional views of female sexuality–virginity, playing hard to get, etc.–are increasingly being attributed to male sexuality as well. Equality shouldn’t mean making things suck for everyone.)

Why must women “lose” when they have sex with men or allow themselves to be viewed sexually by men? Because it seems that some people still believe that ultimately, women don’t really want to be sexual. It’s good to remember that views of female sexuality have varied widely throughout history, and until fairly recently one of the predominant views was that women didn’t have sexuality. They “gave in” to sex because men wanted it and because they wanted to please men. When I read The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, a landmark 1976 study of women’s sex lives, for class, I was stunned at how many women reported that their male partners didn’t really seem to notice or care whether or not they were having orgasms or otherwise getting pleasure out of sex. It can’t be that all of those men are just terrible people who don’t care about their partners; it’s more likely that they simply didn’t realize that that could even be a concern.

At the time the report was published, prevailing notions of female sexuality were already beginning to shift. Many of the women who responded to the questionnaire said that they faked orgasms for their male partners because the partners expected them to have orgasms–but only from whatever the men enjoyed (generally, vaginal intercourse).

Of course, there’s usually more than one view of any given thing circulating in a given culture at a given time. Interestingly, an alternate and sort of opposite view of female sexuality from MacFarlane’s is the one championed by Girls Gone WildCosmo, and hookup culture: that sex with men is empowering for women and that if you’re out there flashing your boobs in front of a camera or hooking up with as many guys as you want, you’re not “losing” at all–you’re winning. There’s a reason this sort of ideology is so popular with young women: it appears, at least on the surface, to affirm and empower female sexuality as opposed to treating it as something shameful or even nonexistent. You could view it as a direct repudiation of outdated views like MacFarlane’s.

But ultimately it falls short, because in this view, sex and the female body in general are still things that exist for male consumption, whether it’s the leering guys behind the cameras of Girls Gone Wild or the mythical and almost deity-like “he” constantly being referenced in Cosmo headlines: “Drive him wild with pleasure!” “Find all of his erogenous zones!” “Make him feel like a real man tonight!”

A few nights ago my friends and I were laughing at a book of Cosmo sex tips and someone asked if the magazine ever even mentions the possibility of sex with women. We shook our heads. Although many people see Cosmo as a celebration of independent female sexuality, the fact that it completely ignores the existence of queer women suggests that it’s really just about female sexuality for men.

In this sense, the Cosmo view of female sexuality isn’t actually that different from MacFarlane’s wacky sex-as-competition view. Whether women “win” or “lose” by engaging sexually with men, the reason they ultimately do it is always for the men, and never for themselves or for any other reason.

The irony of MacFarlane’s song is that a bunch of the nude scenes he mentioned are actually rape scenes. The female actors in these scenes weren’t topless in order to titillate (male) viewers, but to depict a cruel and tragic part of reality. And Scarlett Johansson’s “nude scene” was actually not one at all, but rather the nude photos of her that were leaked to the press. She certainly didn’t take off her shirt for MacFarlane’s smug pleasure.

Of Charlize Theron’s nude scene, Salon’s Katie McDonough writes:

[T]he only time we see Theron’s breasts is in a quick shot in the bathroom, following a brutal rape at the hands of a john, in which she examines her badly beaten body. The “boobs” that MacFarlane sang an ode to are made up to appear badly swollen and red from the multiple times she was kicked in the stomach by her abuser. The nudity isn’t there for cheap thrills, it’s a snapshot of a terribly beaten body that should evoke horror — not giggles — from the viewer.

While giggling about a rape scene is several orders of magnitude more egregious than giggling about the fact that a woman showed you her boobs, the common thread is an inability on the part of MacFarlane (and, I’m sure, others) to see the “purpose” of women’s bodies and sexuality as anything other than entertainment and titillation on the part of male observers.

19 comments

1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Ace of Sevens

    Is it true that “nowadays” it’s hard for an actress to make it without appearing topless? While there are lots of movies I haven’t seen, it seems like there is much less nudity in modern movies than there was forty years ago.

    Since this was part of a sketch about McFarlane being a terrible Oscar host, I would say that idea that he was being terribly crass and missing the point of the movies is the joke and a parody of the people who drive sites like Mr. Skin and the horror reviewers that include a boob-count as part of their review, but I can think of several ways to sell that a lot better. It’s hard to support anything but the shallowest interpretation of this bit.

    1. 1.1
      Gretchen

      I would say that idea that he was being terribly crass and missing the point of the movies is the joke

      Yes, but unfortunately the joke took the form of inviting the audience to be crass right along with him, and many of them happily accepted. Those who did not, including those who are the targets of that crassness, are now being branded as humorless– an entirely predictable result.

    2. 1.2
      glodson

      Since this was part of a sketch about McFarlane being a terrible Oscar host, I would say that idea that he was being terribly crass and missing the point of the movies is the joke and a parody of the people who drive sites like Mr. Skin and the horror reviewers that include a boob-count as part of their review, but I can think of several ways to sell that a lot better. It’s hard to support anything but the shallowest interpretation of this bit.

      That’s the problem. If I think he was trying to mock those who miss the point of those scenes, he failed to make the point effectively. Which means that the joke came off as sexist and promoting a twisted view of sexuality. That is further complicated by Scarlett Johansson being included as she never consented to her nudity being made public.

      And it is that Scarlett Johansson was included makes me inclined to believe the shallowest interpretation of this bit is the correct one.

  2. 2
    CatBallou

    I agree with Ace of Sevens. Although this bit was framed as an example of terrible hosting, the bit itself was completely free of satire or an acknowledgement of its own crassness. Greta Christina has a great take on it (do I even need to link?): You can’t preach about the importance of comedy in society and simultaneously say “It was just a joke. Get over it.”
    As for Cosmo, back in the day (1970s), I saw it as the complement of Playboy: The “Cosmo girl” was exactly who the “Playboy man” was hoping to meet.

  3. 3
    Hunt

    Always listen to Capt. Kirk.

  4. 4
    Sam Adams-Lanham

    Yeah, I kinda feel like the conceit of this piece being one he was advised against doing let’s him have it both ways: “I, of course, know better than to do this awful thing…but isn’t it funny when I do?”

    My daughters wanted frozen custard as the Oscars were starting, so the three of us missed the first few minutes, and came home to find my husband looking really uncomfortable. Having teenage daughters puts a whole different spin on those jokes.

  5. 5
    doublereed

    The whole bit was so weird and confusing.

    The whole point is that he’s showing how awful a host he was supposed to be by doing all these crass and offensive things. But to demonstrate that he does all the crass and offensive things. Like it would work as a joke if they just described it or even showed snippets of it (If instead of showing the song, Shatner was like “You sang a whole song about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs!”). Instead they show the whole thing, which plays the joke totally straight. You’re obviously supposed to think the song is funny, not just awful.

    Like they’re trying to be meta-ironic, and end up playing everything completely straight. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Well, also, self-deprecating humor is just so difficult to do properly, because it often comes across as very fake and presumptuous and more like “wow look how terrible I am except really I think I’m awesome and so should you lololol.”

      There’s definitely a time and place for it, but I find it much more endearing when it’s coming from an amateur stand-up comedian than from the host of the damn Oscars.

      1. 5.1.1
        doublereed

        Actually, this would fit Seth very well, because people are expecting him to be crass and offensive.

  6. 6
    first time reader first time commenter

    Good post. I felt the same way after watching this but I couldn’t articulate the thoughts, as well.

  7. 7
    Ann

    What really depresses me is that so much of the audience still doesn’t get it. I glanced at the comments on the Salon piece and nearly brained myself *headdesk* Thank you for this.

    1. 7.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I have NO idea why the comments on Salon are consistently the worst thing in the world, but they really are. It basically goes straight to ugly ad-homs and never goes back.

  8. 8
    Dark Jaguar

    At first, Family Guy seemed to be pushing feminism now and again. First wave feminism that has mostly already been accomplished and ignores larger goals, but still an attempt was made. Well, with notable exceptions like vilifying some weird straw feminist in one early episode.

    After they were renewed, I started seeing some rather unfunny jokes at women’s expense. Little things at first, but it has accelerated out of control over the years until now, I can’t even bear to watch new episodes of Family Guy. (It isn’t just the sexism, I watched 3 episodes in a row that made the EXACT SAME racist joke about black people being “noisy in restaurants”, and the characters making these jokes used to be the ones who chided Brian the dog for his racist jokes). It seems like Seth has been surrounded by some sort of echo chamber of unchallenging underlings who simply say “pfft, that’s not sexist or racist or anything, that’s funny!” and no one outside that group has been able to penetrate it long enough to tell Seth “oh hey, that joke isn’t funny, because the entire premise, the punchline, rests on an assumption that rational and compassionate people don’t share”.

    I think it came to a head when I saw an episode where the dog Brian said “How come all women are such bitches?” to a women next to him, and this women responded “Yeah, we really are.”. Brian as a misogynist? That alone could be funny if it was clear that most of the other people in the episode disapproved of it, shown by punching him in the nose for 3 solid minutes or something. At that point, I couldn’t come up with a single alternative explanation to allow me to enjoy that episode.

    At best, I could say I had no idea whether Seth wrote it, or just allowed it (or even if he allowed it, as I had no idea who was running Family Guy any more). This stupid song kinda gives evidence to the notion that it likely was all him. Far worse jokes seem to be cropping up since that awful joke. I switched to American Dad since that one felt a lot more like classic Family Guy and was actually funny more often than not. Unfortunately, even that show appears to be decaying into racist and sexist jokes now. Ugh… I won’t watch the Cleveland Show.

  9. 9
    Ryan Grondin (@TheRyanGrondin)

    Although I agree that it may have been tasteless, making a comment that Seth Macfarlane thinks sex is a competition is equally as tasteless. That is just your opinion, not a fact. I highly doubt that it’s Seth’s decision what gets performed at an award event, so blame the producers of the event who allowed it. Not the performer

    1. 9.1
      Gretchen

      Although I agree that it may have been tasteless, making a comment that Seth Macfarlane thinks sex is a competition is equally as tasteless. That is just your opinion, not a fact.

      It’s called an interpretation, and a fair one.

      I highly doubt that it’s Seth’s decision what gets performed at an award event

      Uh, he wrote the song. It’s his song. Try again.

    2. 9.2
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      That is just your opinion, not a fact.

      Wait, my blog contains my opinion?! Why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?

      Seriously, though, do you understand how blogging works? I am not a journalist. I am not a research scientist. I am not a textbook author. I am not required to present nothing but “facts” on this blog, and I have never pretended that I was.

  10. 10
    throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble

    The boob-shaming of Ashley Judd, relevant, I believe:

    As Alyssa Rosenberg says, in a piece dubbing this “theatrical slut-shaming,”
    “It may come as a surprise to the Daily Caller, but actresses don’t generally take their clothes off on-screen as an expression of some sort of groovy seventies lifestyle, or as a way to have sex with people who are not their spouses or partners. Rather, getting asked to take off some or all of your clothes is, for a lot of actors, a frequent requirement of the job, and something that until recently, tended to be asked of women more frequently than men.”

    But that would imply that Judd’s critics were looking for context. If they had been, there would have been so many more warning flags!

    Pretty much sums up why, when the self-deprecation fell flat for MacFarlane, all we were left with was an uncomfortable truth staring us in the face.

  11. 11
    eucliwood

    I totally agree with the obvious truth that women also have sexual wants, etc, and they’re not just people “receiving” crap, but I’m skeptical on the claim that women have less of a chance in Hollywood than men, unless men are starting to play women’s roles. They need women in movies, because there are female characters in the script, and I don’t really see a bunch of instances where a woman is topless and it is rather irrelevant to the plot – ruling out that they add in “topless” scenes for female characters to be in. It is not as if is more likely for a woman to get a role in being nude vs not.

    1. 11.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I’m skeptical on the claim that women have less of a chance in Hollywood than men

      As am I. In fact, I didn’t say that. :)

  1. 12
    About That “Laughing at Male Victims of Violence” Video » Brute Reason

    […] thinking. Namely: men are women are opposites. Men and women play a “game” in which men “win” by “getting” sex and women “lose” by “giving&#82…. Anything that’s “good” for women is “bad” for men and vice versa. […]

Comments have been disabled.

%d bloggers like this: