Does history repeat itself, but with more porn?

In 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos.

And network TV used to be a major source of exposure. I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview, because it was a big deal (OK, I was a culture studies major). The correspondent intoned: “nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.” They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time). In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:

Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.

Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.

The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)

mileymadonna1

No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”

Of course I think this because I’m old, but I think the conversation has slid backward. In Lisa Wade’s excellent comment, she draws on a 1988 article, “Bargaining With Patriarchy,” which concluded:

Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.

I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?

mileymadonna2

Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.

The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”

She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.

When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”

Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:

I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and . . . people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?”

And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”

I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence. But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation.

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10 responses to “Does history repeat itself, but with more porn?

  1. vijay

    There was a conversation?

    The comparison point is Britney spears; the transformation to a vamp or trashy kitsch is planned to sell more downloads. Remember “the all new Mickey Mouse club” => baby one more time => MTV awards with Christina Aguilera? The same little girl=>virgin teen=> shocking image on an award show has been done so many times, that I believe there is someone in the record company that choreographs the whole transformation deal.

    In summary, nothing to talk about equality/feminism/etc. It is an adult pop star transformation ritual. Those who do not learn from history, etc, etc.

    Separately, why is Madonna considered a major cultural icon benchmark to be compared against, now?

  2. Phillip – please tell me the link to Gale Dines was meant to be ironic. I’m no fan of the porn industry but Dines academic work is just as dishonest and politically motivated as the right wingers you rightfully criticize. She regularly allies herself with the religious right in her quest to make pornography illegal, with little regard for collateral damage done to the LGBT community.

    • Nope, not ironic. I have no beef with her. I guess I don’t know what you know.

      • etseq97

        If you are interested, the New Left Review published a series of contrasting articles by Dines and Sarah Dilum about Dine’s contention that “porn” (which is a problematic category to define, especially in the research literature) is form of violence against women and causes psychological harm to men and women who consume it. Dilum’s rebuttal touches on the problems with Dines cherry picking of evidence, which offers no clear empirical support for the claims of psychological harm, and how Dines completely discounts women’s autonomy to decide for themselves what practices they find desirable or degrading. Dines relies on a narrow essentialist definition of sexual desire, which is a variation of the old women want romance and men want physical pleasure, a view shared by some feminists but contested by many others. Dilum argues that these questionable ideological assumptions undermine both her academic analysis and her actvism to legally restrict or ban pornography, which flows directly from her assumption of the psychological harms. The fact that she completely excludes any consideration of non-heterosexual porn further weakens her credibility to make categorical statements about the negative effects of “porn” and only highlights the how her ideological commitments have blinded her to evidence that contradicts her analysis. I obviously agree with Dilum’s crituque of Dines but even if you are not persuaded, Dilum makes reasonable arguments that are worth considering and demostrates that Dines is controversial among feminists it’s not just the anti-censorship groups that take issue with her. Here is the link: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/porn_hijacking_our_sexuality

  3. I’m skeptical of assessing social change by looking at pop culture, especially a single figure. I’m also skeptical of assertions of pop-culture causation. When Paglia says that “Madonna has taught young women to be fully female,” I wonder how many young women were in class that day . . . and paying attention. (BTW, I wonder why you chose that picture of Madonna doing Dietrich, or was it to illustrate the idea of historical circularity?) I find it hard to get excited about what Sinead said about Miley and similar controversies, though maybe that’s because I’m old. As Lisa said, focusing on the performer or the performance ignores the system. But nobody’s going to go on the Today Show and chat with Matt Lauer about the structural and economic constraints that affect everyone of the music biz. Too complicated, too boring.

    • But Madonna did go on Nightline and talk about censorship, sexuality versus violence, and artistic freedom in the media. She didn’t jusy make jokes about Forrest Sawyer’s sexuality. Maybe it was a different time.

      (I chose the Madonna pictures just to try to match up images from Justify My Love and Wrecking Ball.)

    • Also, there was at least one book that sort of studied how young girls were responding to Madonna, Reading the Popular, by John Fiske, who looked at fan mail and drew conclusions similar to Paglia’s.

  4. I’m not sure what I think about the issues you raise here. But I know I care a lot more about the issues you did not raise, which have to do with the racist connotations of Miley’s performance. For anyone who wanted more info on that, I’d suggest starting with the convo that took place on Twitter…

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