Monday, June 2, 2014

Sexual display and polite fictions

Sexual display fascinates me and it fascinates me for exactly the reasons you would guess. But I don't want to talk about that here. I want to talk in as serious, non-titilating way as is possible about the subject.

Let's start with Janeane Garofalo. This video I link below is pitched as a defence of pubic hair. It isn't. It was also pitched as funny. It isn't. I know, so why am I making you watch it? Because this is one of those cases where we will find, if we step back and forget what we've been told to see, that what actually happens is really quite revealing. The embed function isn't working so you'll have to go elsewhere to watch it.

First, let me say that while I approve of grooming generally, it strikes me as crazy to have your pubic hair waxed away. Nothing is worth that sort of pain. Second, while repeating the above point about the desirability of some grooming, I find pubic hair aesthetically pleasing and it's absence not so much. If it were up to me, the 80 percent of women under the age of 30 that Garofalo says do this would not do this. But I don't think it is up to me and that, as it turns out, is a key difference between me and Janeane Garofalo; she thinks it should be up to her to dictate.

I mention that because the key point that you'll notice if you ignore what you are told to see and pay attention to what actually happens in the video is that Garofalo isn't defending pubic hair but attacking women who have it removed. And she is attacking them in a vicious way.
For anyone who does [pause] pander, and I'm sorry but it is pandering.
"Pander" is an interesting word. It means to gratify or indulge another person's immoral or distasteful desire. That is to say, the assumption is that you take no pleasure in this desire yourself but do it in order to influence or manipulate others. The point here is that Garofalo is slandering these women in a big way.

She gets a shot at men in too but it's a throwaway line at the end of the video. It's only there to try and hide the extent to which this is an attack on women.

A point I've often made before here is that some "feminists" aren't interested in advancing women's rights so much as they are interested in controlling other women. What Garofalo is trying to do here is called social policing and she does it with as much determination as Lady Augusta Bracknell, and probably for the same reasons.

And one of the most fascinating things about sexual display in women, speaking from a sociological perspective, is that it is subject to social controls driven by women. Garofalo is unlikely to succeed in her mission to convince 80 percent of women under thirty to change but other kinds of control do work.

Some examples may help. Right now, it is also socially accepted that young women will display a lot of their breasts by wearing low-cut tops. Just a decade ago, that was considered a little over the top and women were expected to be much more restrained. On the other hand, pants and skirts of a decade ago had waists cut so low that they created extravagant displays of other parts of women's bodies when they bent over. A woman who dressed like that today would be seen as desperate in her need for attention.

Okay, that is pretty obvious. But there is another kind of display that involves a polite fiction. That polite fiction might be expressed this way: "She doesn't realize ...". What makes these kinds of display interesting is that they represent an attempt to get around the social controls by making it appear as if the thing just happened rather than the calculated effect it actually is; no one can claim a plunging neckline just happened but you might get away with pretending you didn't realize how much your otherwise not-revealing, loose-fitting  top gaped open when you bent over.

Let me give you an example of this. Back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, there was much talk about erect nipples showing through the fabric of women's clothing. Crass remarks along the lines of, "She has her high beams on," or "Are you cold or just happy to see me," were common currency. Sometime women would show pity for other women this happened to by saying, "The poor thing."

But here is the thing, how often do you see that happen today? The reason it doesn't happen seems obvious: bras are made of much thicker material now. But let me tell you about a little secret that I discovered by accident. I friend of mine, whom I'll call Sophie because that isn't her real name, worked at a lingerie store called Lila's Lingerie here in Ottawa in the mid 1980s. I used to go meet her after work and take her out sometimes and she would leave me to wander around the store while she cashed out. It gave me a rare opportunity to examine and comment on the wares for sale there, a habit Sophie encouraged me in as it provided opportunities for flirting. Anyway, after a number of visits I realized something what was, for me at that age, a shocking discovery. About one quarter of the bras on sale were made such that the weave on the material was intentionally thin (and it wasn't a subtle thing) where the nipple would sit; these bras were manufactured to intentionally produce what every one took to be an accidental effect.

I got two significant payoffs from this discovery. The first was that Sophie, when I said something about it, blushed deeply. The second was a fascinating sociological fact: this obviously intentional effect was not advertised. And it couldn't be could it? If it were advertised, the whole polite fiction of "she doesn't realize" would be lost.

On the other hand, there have to be people who are quite openly and ruthlessly exploiting this in order for the game to work. Those bras didn't get that way by accident.

Now it helps to consider the history. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a lot of young women did not wear bras. Originally, comfort and feminism were advanced as the reasons for doing this. Inevitably, however, women noticed the attention they got because of the extra motion and erect nipples that were frequent side effects of going braless. Also inevitably, some women felt more comfortable wearing bras and so a compromise option was created. The most famous of these was a Wonderbra product called Dici that was marketed with the slogan, "Dici or nothing".

And somewhere along the line, companies started to make products that offered support but also allowed erect nipples to show through a woman's shirt as if she were not wearing a bra. Things got to where they ended up in little baby steps not unlike flirting: "What would you do if I ...?" followed by, "And what would you do if I ... just a little bit further?" Except that the whole game was played out in secret between women and the companies that make clothing for women.

Actually, that's not quite right. The whole thing was played out in secret between some women and some companies that made clothing for them. Most other women, especially, as Janeane Garofalo inadvertently calls our attention to, women over the age of thirty, have to be just as unaware of this as most men if the subset of younger women were to achieve their desired result of circumventing the social policing efforts of other women.

Another example. When I was in high school there was a particular brands of women's pants wherein the centre seam through the crotch was gathered in such that it produced a rather spectacular effect when women put them on. Very tight pants were popular at the time and the effect was often produced accidentally just as happens with leggings today. The secret of these pants was that they were designed to do it on purpose. Again, they never advertised this aspect of what they did but the women who wanted the effect knew.

And others didn't. My mother and her friends used to bemoan the fact that so many girls loved these pants and she'd say not only words to the effect of , "She doesn't realize ...", but also suggest that the problem was that the companies responsible for had also created this effect by accident, that they didn't know how to make the pants properly. She believed, and this is a point I will return to, that this intentional effect was a quality defect.

What fascinates me about all this is the amount of coded messaging and complicity required for this trick to be pulled.

I'll wrap this up with a limited defence of Lululemon. Anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years will know that the dominant "she doesn't realize" polite fiction has been the fact that black stretch fabric tends to become see-through under certain conditions. In many ways, black stretch fabric is the perfect choice because we don't think of black clothing as being prone to being see through even thought it carries a much greater risk of this than white clothing. Perhaps inevitably, clothing manufacturers started playing along with the hypocrisy leading to the Luon yoga pant which, as any male could have told you, becomes see through when the wearer bends over causing the fabric to stretch thinner.

Now the founder of Lululemon got into huge trouble because he suggested that the pants weren't right for all types of bodies. It's odd, in retrospect, that that was considered controversial. That is indisputably true as is also true of a lot of other clothing. It's not diplomatic to actually point this out to women and, although the anger directed at Chip Wilson was way over the top, he should have known better than to make the mistake he did.

What I'd like to suggest, however, is that the reason Wilson said what he did is that he was actually speaking in code in order to honour the polite fiction of "she doesn't realize". He knew that while the majority of women don't want their clothes to become see through when they bend over or step into bright sunshine, a significant minority will pay good money to play the game of "she doesn't realize". This significant minority, when spread across North America, is probably worth billions of dollars a year in sales but the whole phenomenon doesn't have a name for the simple reason that no one could speak it even if they it did.

At the same time, the women who play this game tend to be very good at it. They get attention and other women want to emulate them. They are unlikely to succeed for the exact reasons that Chip Wilson impolitically drew everyone's attention to but, and this is the important thing, he never would have felt he had to do so if he hadn't been playing along with the polite fiction of "She doesn't realize" to begin with. For if these women who complained had merely been wearing clothes that made them look ridiculous, as lots of other women and men do, it would clearly have been no fault but their own and no one would have had sympathy for them. Assuming I am right and the effect was no accident, they could hardly say so because that would not only not have appeased the customers who were complaining but also, and more importantly, it would have betrayed the trust of the millions of women who wanted the effect without acknowledging it. And this would have alienated not only the ones who specifically sought the see through effect but the ones who bought the clothes because they wanted to "do Yoga" or 'because they are comfortable", which is the female equivalent of the old male line of reading Playboy for the articles. This group was Lululemon's core customer base.

Not to worry, however, even as we speak, young women very interested in sexual display are working out the codes for the next "she doesn't realize" polite fiction soon to be seen in my town and yours. As soon as they figure out what this polite fiction is, some clothing manufacturers will start producing products that increase the likelihood of the desired result happening and everyone will be happy again.

(I'd wrap up by saying, "everyone but modern Lady Bracknells such as Janeane Garofalo", if I didn't suspect she enjoys being angry.)

No comments:

Post a Comment