Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Which I Take An Episode of "South Park" Far Too Seriously

Just a few thoughts about the latest episode of—of all things—South Park. I've always thought the show was cute, but one of the side effects of cohabitation is that I'm now suddenly exposed to a lot of South Park, and I've become a full-on convert of its inspired mix of goofiness and social criticism and blah blah TV critic circa 1999. Anyway, it's always a treat when I see a media outlet besides the usual suspects take on my pet topics, which Trey Parker and Matt Stone did last night.

For those who don't watch the show or didn't see last night's episode: When one of the main characters tells a girl who asks him out that she's fat, the suddenly feminist cheerleading captain, Wendy, sets out to prove a point about unrealistic beauty standards by Photoshopping the girl's picture. But Wendy's plan backfires, as the boy now believes the girl is actually "hot"—and when the girl's manipulated photo goes viral, she's the school catch. Soon the entire cheerleading squad hits the gym—in truth, a computer lab where a trainer yells at them to digitally whittle their bodies faster—leaving Wendy alone and frustrated that her point has been totally missed. Worse, everyone from the school counselor to the nightly news team assumes she's taken up the crusade because she's jealous (or "jelly," in the show's parlance). The show ends with—spoiler alert—Wendy giving up by digitally manipulating her own photo so she looks as "good" as her friends. (There's also a side plot involving Kanye West's slow discovery that Kim Kardashian is the inspiration for The Hobbit. It is South Park, after all.)

In my recollection, this is the only episode this season—and one of the few overall—that has focused on the girls of South Park Elementary, and this is the topic they chose. And it's with a decidedly male perspective; men ages 18-24 are South Park's top viewers, and the prime target audience. Perhaps this was meant to cater to the show's female audience, but I don't think so: I'm guessing this was a (relatively) straightforward Parker-Stone perspective shown, as ever, through the South Park lens. Which means that on some level, the whole unrealistic-beauty thing is of concern to the target South Park audience—witness the last scene of the episode, where Wendy, with a tear in her eye, hits "send" to circulate her edited babe pic to the entire school. It was a quiet, surprisingly sincere ending, one that echoed the ending of last week's trilogy, when the main characters decide to put down their video games and actually play with each other.

What struck me about the episode was how the ability to manipulate one's own image was seen as a psychological gold mine—none of the girls besides Wendy saw it as anything other than a way to attract attention, and maybe as a way to trick themselves into thinking they truly looked as picture-perfect as their, well, pictures. (Now, to be clear, we're talking about a student body that has previously embraced mass murder as a route to scoring XBoxes, as well as defecating out of their mouths, so I'm not trying to say that the show is remotely rooted in realism here, mkay?) The focus of the episode was not so much on the other students' dismissal of Wendy's critique but of their embrace of the ability to edit their own images. It's this that's being mocked, not Wendy—the potential narcissism that accompanies the sudden ability to look as good as your digital skills allow. 

While calling out digital photography as a cesspool of narcissism is hardly new (and let's not forget that narcissism existed before social media), it's rare in the forthrightly feministy circles I tend to run in to see someone blatantly call a preoccupation with one's own image flat-out vain or narcissistic. I'm likelier to frame it in terms of social pressures, a psychic tradeoff for women's growing power in the world à la The Beauty Myth, or self-esteem or whatever. And I'm quick to defend the occasional charge of, say, makeup use as vanity (especially when it comes from men), because it is something usually leveled squarely at women. But, yes, narcissism does play a role, at least potentially—and it's interesting that this is what two male creators talking with a male audience come up with in regards to women/girls manipulating their own photos: the masses discarding the (righteous) political points surrounding the issue. It's interesting because the accusations of self-interest are still done with a relatively sympathetic hand: The girls see the rewards becoming digitally "hot" can bring them, so why wouldn't they go along with the plan? I wonder if Parker and Stone's—AND THEREFORE ALL MEN'S, ha—emotional distance from the question of visual self-representation is what allows them to squarely finger the role of self-absorption in image control. And more than that, I wonder if the reason they're looking at this topic now is because men are becoming evermore enveloped in these questions. (I see the sign on the clubhouse now: Boys allowed!)

Now, I'm hesitant to say that a single episode of a single cartoon indicates any sort of sea change for men's attitudes about beauty standards. But the first scene of the show that followed South Park last night makes me wonder. Comedy duo Key & Peele (another show that's grown on me) are walking in some sort of warehouse that's being redone with paint and plaster and the like, and a blob of paint falls on Key's shirt, right on his pecs. He smears it to the other side of his shirt, then laughs, "It's like I have two paint titties"—and then Peele suddenly can't look Key in the eyes, so transfixed is he by Key's "titties." The gag goes on just long enough, when another blob of paint falls on Peele's shirt too. The duo look up and see a painter above them, leering, "Hey, ladies!" They're literally subject to the male gaze, and they don't like it.

So I don't know, I'm drawing no Big Thoughts here, but it doesn't seem a coincidence that along with the boom in the "grooming" industry for men comes little bundles of criticism on the matter. And the only study I've found so far on the matter actually shows that that men are more likely than women to use an edited photo as their profile pictures on social networking sites. I can't help but wonder: Are men who don't necessarily identify as feminist paying more attention to appearance standards? Will the fallout be a shift in those standards, or just cleverer, deeper encoding of them? Are men likelier than women to call out vanity or narcissism in people's reactions to the beauty imperative?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Tentative Exploration of The Female Gaze

The first thing I noticed? The thighs.

Several years ago, I was taking a class where I hit it off with one of my classmates—our first conversation was one of those where you wind up gasp-laughing in a way you normally only do with people who are already your friends (or people who are as drunk as you are). He was new to the city, and while he’d made friends at his job, his wife hadn’t had such luck, and would I like to go out to dinner with them on Thursday?

I would, and I did, and I was rewarded with more of that good cheer; I liked her as much as I liked him. And when she got up at one point to visit the restroom, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done before: I did not look at her thighs. 

To be clear, it wasn’t like I made a point of looking at the thighs of every woman I met. I’m not saying I’m above ever having compared another woman’s figure to mine, but for the most part I think I approach other women as potential allies, not competition or a measuring stick of my own appeal. No, my thigh-checking was more akin to a tic, like compulsively clearing one’s throat, or saying “you know” all the time. I knew I did it, but it was such an automatic act that it wasn’t something I ever thought I could not do. Plus, it’s not like I’d go around staring at other women’s legs or anything. It was always a glimpse, a landing point for my eyes, and I’d look away quickly thereafter. I didn’t think anyone noticed. I mean, I barely noticed, really.

That is, I barely noticed until I noticed that I didn’t do it. It had been a while since I’d met someone new who so easily gave me a sense of mutual recognition—and a couple at that! the holy grail of people my then-boyfriend and I could maybe hang out with together!—and I didn’t want to blow it. When the woman rose from the table, my brain slowed down for just long enough for me to recognize that I was anticipating, as in I was really looking forward tobeing able to look at her thighs. Which meant my brain slowed down long enough for me to stop it. It’s not that I was afraid she or her husband would see my eyes flicker down to her legs (though I do always wonder how perceptive others are about the object of our gaze); it was that I recognized that I really didn’t want to know what her thighs looked like. If I knew what her thighs looked like, I might begin to care—I mean, not really care, not care enough to measure her as a person by it or anything remotely that distasteful. But I’d care in my own, private, ugly little way. I’d know whether her thighs were as large as my own, or larger; I’d know whether they were firm and muscular or soft and fleshy. I’d be able to add it to the enormous resource bank of thigh-images that I’ve catalogued in a dark part of my psyche for as long as I’ve recognized that women were supposed to think thighs were A Problem. And I realized I just really, really didn’t want to add this awesome woman’s thighs to that collection, and that I didn’t want to add any woman’s thighs to my image bank ever again. (Hell, I didn’t want an image bank at all, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?)

So I didn’t look at her thighs. Not then, anyway; at some point, months later, I recalled that moment, and realized that at some point since then my mind’s eye had gone ahead and taken a snapshot anyway. But I’d taken in the larger point: My eyes automatically went to women’s thighs, any woman’s thighs, every woman’s thighs, upon first seeing them. And if I could recognize this, maybe I could stop it.

But you’ll notice the first words of this post: Several years ago. I’ve noticed it, but there it is. I don’t think I literally look at the thighs of every woman I pass on the street, but do I find myself still looking at women’s thighs on the street, in the coffeeshop, in the gym? Yeah, I do.

I’d be more embarrassed to put this out there were it not for my hunch—now verified by Science!—that this is so common as to enter the realm of “duh.” recent eye-movement-tracking study shows that women spend more time looking at one another’s bodies than they do looking at their faces. (The same was true of how men look at women, but that’s another story.) To add to it, men and women alike visually process women’s bodies as being parts, but see men’s bodies as being whole. (Thanks to Sally for the link.)

Both of these facts seem to come into play with my thigh gazing, but when I looked at the studies, I was thrown for a moment: The scholars identified themselves as objectification researchers. Which makes sense; after all, when you see a human and focus first and foremost on particular parts of it, you’re, ya know, reducing them to an object, at least in part. But I’d never stopped to think of the ways I’d been participating in objectifying other women, even if my motivation (or what I assume was my motivation) was more tied to my own anxieties than tied to a predatory mind-set. For that’s what I primarily associate with the word objectification—predatory men, or at least men who bathe in the power imbalance that comes when half the world is seen as parts, not people. If I ever thought about women objectifying one another, I thought of it cartoonishly: Women tucking dollar bills into strippers’ g-strings, getting lap dances, raunchily commenting on babes walking by—Female Chauvinist Pigs-type stuff. And that’s part of it, yes.

But this sort of objectification—the kind of objectification I subtly take part in when I gaze out the coffeeshop window and, if I don’t consciously work my way out of it, see a parade of lady-thighs—seems more insidious. Not only because of what it says about how women’s own gaze might be defaulting to what we used to call “the male gaze,” but because of what it says of how we view ourselves. One of the reasons beauty can be so effective as a bonding mechanism between women is that we see ourselves in other women. It’s also my explanation of why so many straight women become aroused by watching women in porn, not just men or male-female couplings: We see the image of sex itself as being inherently tied to our bodies as objects of desire. Desire including our own. (Cue a Google Scholar rabbit hole for search term “self-objectification.”) 

At this point, it’s no mystery why my brain chose to zero in on thighs. Thin Thighs in 30 Days was first published when I was six; not long after that, I heard a television character use the phrase “positively bulbous” used to describe her own thighs, and I instantly knew that’s what my own stubby, childish thighs were—positively bulbous. (The one and only critical comment my mother ever made about my body was about my “Gaskill thighs”—in other words, it was a criticism of her own thighs too.) As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela writes in her fantastic, spot-on take on all that Lululemon jazz, women’s thighs are “one of the most fraught areas on women’s bodies.” And I’m beginning to understand my thigh thing intellectually, though who knows how much good that’ll do me in actually changing the behavior. So my questions are to you: Do you find yourself zeroing in on certain parts of women’s bodies? Do you notice it when you’re doing it? Are you bothered by this, or do you see it as something neutral or positive? And a plea, from me, who really wants to stop this automatic zoom-in on the thighs of the world: Any thoughts on how to put the kibosh on this?