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“WE SIMPLY DON’T FEEL LIKE YOU REALLY WANT IT.”

Sky’s the Limit

“WHY YOUNG WOMEN TODAY WANT TO BE BEAUTIFUL RATHER THAN SMART.”

(Natasha Walter, living dolls: The return of sexism, london)

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Excerpt from I LOVE YOU MAGAZINE, NO.07

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The typical girl prefers the color pink, plays with dolls, has a knack for language, loves to communicate and gets poor marks in mathematics, whereas the typical boy likes blue, is comparatively taciturn and prefers to run around outside with his buddies. No, this is nothing new, but one might have hoped that since the women’s movement, these stereotypes would have changed, that today a girl would be able to climb trees without being considered a “tomboy”, but could simply be a girl who would rather climb trees than play with dolls; that the magazine Gala wouldn’t need to quote psychotherapists to certify that the behavior of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the daughter of Angelina and Brad who prefers sturdy boots, baggy pants and loose shirts with neckties to sundresses and ballet slippers, “is a very healthy activity for a little girl”; that a boy could also enjoy dressing up and playing with dolls without those around him drawing conclusions about his future sexual orientation. 

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Talk to young girls today about their goals, and you may come to a somewhat disturbing conclusion: for many, traditional female career ambitions to be a veterinarian or a kindergarten teacher have been replaced with another dream: to be a supermodel splashed across the glossy pages of international fashion magazines. Where once there was an interest in a particular discipline and the specialized training required to master it, girls today seem more focused on the development of their outer qualities, their physical appearances. The success of television shows that have made it their goal to turn the most awkward of ducklings into swans marks the beginning of a sociological shift that demands further inquiry. Are they merely supplying an existent demand, or are shows like America’s Next Top Model in part responsible for producing this growing demographic?

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“Perhaps you are the best Germany has to offer!” was the casting call for the seventh season of the German version of the international model casting series. A sentence like this raises the hackles of authors such as Natasha Walter. In her recently published book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, the British journalist asks “why young women today want to be beautiful rather than smart.”

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The turnout for the auditions is always enormous. Countless young women compete globally in front of thousands of viewers to demonstrate their beauty: they let themselves be covered in insects, do acrobatics between skyscrapers, do whatever they can to appear particularly “sexy” to the jury. In the process, these women inevitably wind up in tears and embroiled in on screen catfights, all in the hope that just maybe, they might one day be given the chance to strut on international catwalks. That this format is successful has already been widely discussed in professional circles. That is not the concern of this essay; rather the question of why gender equality suddenly seems to exist only in the fact that both women and men of all ages sit together in front of the TV to witness the spectacle, albeit with different interpretations.

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Marie Schmidt wrote in the German newspaper Die Zeit that shows in the vein of Germany’s Next Topmodel “promise us again and again the calculated performance of a well oiled scheme” and therefore performe a similar service to pornography, in which a relatively limited range of human incidents is guaranteed to occur. It can be assumed that the function of pornography lies in “completely objectifying its protagonists to the extent that the viewer feels a sense of possession over them,” as cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen wrote in the 2006 essay, Über das Verhältnis von Pornografie und Popkultur (On the Relationship Between Pornography and Pop Culture) in Texte zur Kunst. The analogy has become even clearer: young, beautiful women willingly turn themselves into objects, on which individuals are allowed to live out their envy in the form of collective animosity. While GNTM allows boys and men to satisfy their inferiority complex in a two-fold family-friendly way the girls are on one hand, passive beings whom one can “penetrate” as one likes, and on the other hand, young, inexperienced and weak the show is particularly popular with preteen girls: “Presumably they feel it is the truth of the regime that awaits them in the near future, from which their parents still try to shelter them,” writes Schmidt.

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Against this background it is hardly surprising that the first chapter of Natasha Walters’ aforementioned sociological study deals almost exclusively with the contemporary sex industry. Its mechanisms, in her opinion, map the state of the gender struggle in an alarming way by pretending to encourage the autonomous participation of women. The show appropriates the language of women’s emancipation, making frequent use of the term “empowerment”. It is in our society a sign of “emancipation” when the Turkish – German actress Sila Sahin becomes the first Turk to pose naked in Playboy, proudly proclaiming to Bild newspaper that she wants to show other young Turkish women that “it’s okay to live as they want to live,” or when the American Sasha Grey boasts of revolutionizing the porn industry by engaging in an on screen gang bang at the age of 18.

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It follows that a young would be model who is averse to flaunting herself scantily clothed or rolling in the sheets with a male model in front of the camera is branded an unrealistic spoilsport and risks being taken out of the running. “We simply don’t feel like you really want it,” is a common reaction from the GNTM judges and one dreaded by the contestants (in Die Zeit, Schmidt aptly compares it with the pornographic fantasy, “Du willst es doch auch”, “You want it too”). Such a conclusion is often followed by the dream ending verdict: “Unfortunately I have no photo for you today.” (Translation: “Baby, you just didn’t do it for me…”)

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Walters stresses that her point is not “to subscribe to some dour and politically correct version of feminism in order to move towards greater equality.” She believes that “it has to be a woman’s own choice if she makes a personal decision to buy into any aspect of what might be seen as stereo typically feminine behavior, from baking to pole dancing, from high heels to domestic work.” But she states that the freedom to decide how one would like to articulate one’s femininity was relatively recently acquired, and that the idea that a woman who depicts herself as a sex object is asserting some kind of “feminist ideal” is “a strange distortion of (the notion of emancipation’s) original meaning to feminists.”

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“Women can be sexually active without facing social ostracism,” the other goals of the movement, that women would attain political and economic power and that men would become more engaged with the family sphere, have not been realized to the extent once hoped for. Instead of facilitating the full development of the freedom and potential of women, the new hyper – sexualized culture defines female success largely within the narrow context of sexual attraction, “the essence of which is often embodied in slim, busty exhibitionists.”

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This link between femininity and eroticism begins, according to Walter, in childhood. As far back as the 70s, feminists have criticized the appearance of the Barbie doll, with her wasp waist, large breasts and perfect facial features, but at least she was also portrayed as a successful professional woman – a pilot, doctor and astronaut – not dependant on her longtime boyfriend Ken. Barbie’s latest competition, Bratz dolls, are a make-up- slathered, pouty-lipped, clubbing- and shopping-crazy girl clique in crop tops and mini skirts. The merchandising constructed around them – pink, glittering memorabilia, films and video games leaves little space for fantasies outside the sphere of beauty salons, shopping centers, and nightclubs.

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The typical girl prefers the color pink, plays with dolls, has a knack for language, loves to communicate and gets poor marks in mathematics, whereas the typical boy likes blue, is comparatively taciturn and prefers to run around outside with his buddies. No, this is nothing new, but one might have hoped that since the women’s movement, these stereotypes would have changed, that today a girl would be able to climb trees without being considered a “tomboy”, but could simply be a girl who would rather climb trees than play with dolls; that the magazine Gala wouldn’t need to quote psychotherapists to certify that the behavior of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, the daughter of Angelina and Brad who prefers sturdy boots, baggy pants and loose shirts with neckties to sundresses and ballet slippers, “is a very healthy activity for a little girl”; that a boy could also enjoy dressing up and playing with dolls without those around him drawing conclusions about his future sexual orientation.

With the increasingly wide acceptance of the sex industry, its related sectors and its “emancipated” protagonists, one hardly detects a change in gender roles elsewhere. If it’s true that the women’s movement and the closely intertwined sexual revolution have brought about a time when

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Walter attributes this reemergence of gender stereotypes to what she sees as a renaissance of biological determinism. By this logic, men and women are from birth assigned to different social roles, women to the maternal, domestic sphere and men to the public, working arena. Women today who strive for power outside the home are seen to be exhibiting “male” traits, as opposed to qualities natural to their gender, while men who choose to devote themselves to the household and the raising of children automatically relinquish their masculinity.

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Those in power have long espoused supposedly inherent explanations for the difference between the sexes in order to legitimize the prevailing social order. In the 19th century, for example, women were advised not to read challenging books, because certain forms of mental activity were said to be incompatible with their fertility. In 1874, the psychiatrist Sir Henry Maudsley wrote that, “a woman does not easily regain the vital energy that was recklessly spent on learning if a woman attempts to achieve the educational standards of men  she will lack the energy necessary for childbearing and rearing.” For a long time, the smaller brain of the woman was seen as an indication of lower intelligence. Later, higher intelligence was associated with the pronounced development of certain regions of the male brain. In her book Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men and Women, the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling reflected on these ongoing explanations of women’s perceived differences and, more often than not, inferiority, which changed regularly like “fashions in skirt length”: “The popular scientific press greeted each new theory with fanfare, ticker tape and lengthy articles, but it consistently failed to follow up, if the thesis was later discredited.”

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In opposition to biological determinism is the theory that gender categories are essentially culturally determined. These views were first crystallized in 1949 by the French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Accordingly, what we call “male” or “female” are only the results of social processes that, from a feminist perspective, must be overcome.

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In their book, Liebesgeschichten aus dem Patriarchat (Love Stories out of the Patriarchy), Cheryl Benard and Edit Schlaffer discuss the question of why women show an excessive willingness to “come to terms with what is at hand”, a “male hegemony” that will accept women at best as wives, muses or collaborators. The two social scientists and radical feminists supply useful ways of thinking about how women themselves participate in the preservation of patriarchal structures, which in turn are actively created and nurtured by men. They see the man as the “enemy”, with whom the woman lives, although he takes away her rights, because there are hardly any alternatives “to the contemporary, available men”. The authors paint a picture of an actively male dominated society in which the woman only retains the decision to cooperate or leave and fight for her human rights.

Unfortunately, it is not quite so simple. The patriarchal structure, as it manifests today in Western societies, is a highly complex entity with a long history, at the beginning of which the world split into male and female principles. For those who believe in spiritual movements, the union of these inverse spheres is the foundation of all healthy development.

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The sociologist Christina von Braun examines how this division into male and female plays out in the scientific field: “The relationship between knowledge and gender hierarchy was and is influenced by the nature/culture or mind/body dichotomy,” a bifurcation which itself implies a hierarchical relationship between the constructed culture and nature, which must be tamed or reconstructed anew. This dichotomy was again “naturalized”, according to von Braun, by the assignment of genders to the two poles of the symbolically gendered hierarchy: “Masculinity represented spirituality and culture, while nature and the body were encoded as “female” – an allocation that was to be continued well into modern times, and which remains influential today for a certain sort who speak about the “irrationality”, “unpredictability” and “unscientific nature” of “women. ” The very ame dichotomy has also led to a gendered division of the different research fields, whereby the natural sciences are seen as “hard sciences” and “masculine”, while the humanities are considered “feminine”. This kind of symbolic association, posits von Braun, is not “a reflection of gender specific talents or interests,” rather it is a product of the fact that “when women, at the start of the 20th Century, were finally granted access to higher education, the majority opted for medicine or a scientific subject, while the humanities were longer reluctant to grant women access to their science.” It is surprising then that today, female academics in the natural sciences are the exception, whereas they are well represented in the humanities. “Ability,” says von Braun, “cannot explain such a development, but rather the gender specific encodings of the knowledge system.”

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To link the symbolic dichotomy with the actual biological gender and then to accept this structure as a given leads to a tremendous narrowing of identity and legitimizes the unequal gender hierarchy, where “female” is associated with “compelling” nature and “male”, with “compelled” culture. Thus, following this structure, the task of the man as a representative of the masculine principle is to “compel” the woman as representative of the female, to tame and cultivated her nature, to keep this female wildness locked away, and thereby to overcome his own fear of the uncontrollable.

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The feminist Naomi Wolf sees this picture reflected in the obsession with beauty. In The Beauty Myth, she describes beauty as a “political weapon” and “a violent backlash against feminism” with the goal of stopping “the advancement of women”. To the degree that women succeeded in freeing themselves from “the feminine mystique of domesticity,” according to Wolf, the beauty myth has taken over its “work of social control”.

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But unlike Schlaffer and Benard, she doesn’t suspect any male conspiracy, but rather the “the need of today’s power structure, economy and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women”. Beauty functions as a “currency system”, as a “belief system that keeps male dominance intact”. And that which is valued as “beautiful” is merely that which the society in question considers to be desirable, in this case a pattern of behavior rather than specific external qualities. The beauty myth as we know it today originated, according to Wolf, with industrialization and the consequent emergence of a public sphere reserved for men and a “separate sphere” of domesticity, which supported the new labor category of the “breadwinner” who left home for the workplace during the day.” Women were not directly involved in the economic process. Instead, “a new class of literate idle women developed on whose submission to enforced domesticity the evolving system of industrial capitalism developed.”

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Technical achievements made possible the widespread distribution of idealized images of women who found their fulfillment in domestic work. Thus, the beauty industry can be understood as a reaction to destabilizing movements like feminism: “Inexhaustible but ethereal beauty work took over from inexhaustible but ephemeral housework.” The system plays on anxieties about rapid social and economic change, establishing and perpetuating myths, like that of feminine beauty: “Possibilities for women have become so open ended that they threaten to destabilize the institutions on which a male dominated culture has depended, and a collective panic reaction on the part of both sexes has forced a demand for counter images.”

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In fact, it was the fear of both sexes that led to the backlash, and the greatest enemy of the feminists is arguably in their own ranks on this point Wolf, Benard and Schlaffer are in agreement. Twenty years after The Beauty Myth, we live in an era of “porno”, in which many believe that the true emancipation of women can be found in this extreme and particularly one sided expression of feminine identity. Thus pornography is a fenced off area, a “separate sphere”, where emancipated women can live out their desires without endangering the system. The supposed freedom of the woman posing naked in Playboy differs little from that of the 50s housewife who proudly presents her latest baked creations; only the environment has changed.

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The point is not to defame women and men who have consciously chosen to live out certain stereotypes. But given the absence of possible alternatives, in the context of free speech one can hardly see the industry as anything other than a one party democracy. The fact that men, in their more privileged position, feel less incentive to change things is not surprising, yet the prevailing

 

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