Don't Blame Porn For The Plastic FemaleS

Certain critiques have been leveled at Western culture so often that they've almost become truisms: plastic surgery has gone too far, children have been overly sexualized, women just don't know what they want. But these (valid) criticisms raise certain questions.

First and foremost, everyone wants to know just who is to blame for the hypersexualization of children and the plasticization of celebrities. Actually, Rebecca Dana at the Daily Beast doesn't much care how it happened, all she is interested in is cataloging the phenomenon, which she calls "the rise of the fembot." This sci-fi sounding creation is actually a sweeping generalization Dana applies to Heidi Montag, Kendra Wilkinson and... Kate Hudson? Yes, this is the new woman, and not only is she artificial, she's also ruthless:

Modern-day Fembots aren't just debatably pretty faces. They're also lawyered up. Last week, Montag announced she is suing Hills creator Adam DiVello, without whose intervention she would probably still be an anonymous aspiring fashion designer in Los Angeles. She alleges unwanted touching. And then, of course, there is Gloria Allred's entire legal practice. In the last year alone, Allred has become the first name in pre-emptive Fembot litigation. Southwick will likely employ celebrity divorce attorney Robert Kaufman, if she goes ahead with the divorce.

Dana clumps together a group of celebrities who have had plastic surgery - and aren't afraid to talk about it - and extrapolates a dubious trend from there. She even appears to call out Montag for suing a man who may have sexually harassed her (a justifiable reason to "lawyer-up," by anyone's standards). She takes a group of women with fake breasts and turns them into a caricature. Basically, she wrote an article about Heidi Montag and inserted some other names to flesh out the paragraphs. However, she did get one thing right: the standard of beauty has become more plastic than ever before, streamlined and falsified, more rigid and unforgiving.

I've never felt much personal animosity towards porn; my attitude is generally that of bemused curiosity or sustained tolerance. But recently porn has been on my mind - partially because of the impending Fembot uprising meticulously documented by Dana. The aesthetic of mainstream porn is that of big, fake breasts, plump, fake lips, acres of fake blonde hair and skin that has been buffed, polished, and waxed with the same rigor that goes into the upkeep of a brand new Ferrari (and I realize there is plenty of good feminist porn, un-retouched porn, and porn featuring "real" women, but that is still the exception rather than the rule). This look - the Fembot look - is becoming common outside the realm of adult videos, and as trite as it sounds, that is what scares me. Sex appeal has become more unattainable than ever as the "hot girls" have become ever more similar.

The "pornification" of our culture is also the subject of Mary-Anne Toy's piece in The Sydney Morning Herald. Toy focuses primarily on the way that "raunch culture" has altered childhood, perhaps irreversibly. She expresses her fears that the new visibility of sex will lead to a generation of vapid, insecure little girls. Toy lists just a few of the problems she sees in modern Australian society:

On television and billboards, and in shop windows, sex is a popular way to sell everything from the obvious - men's clubs, brothels and treatments for erectile dysfunction - to an idealised, celebrity-based concept of success. The adult classifieds are thriving in local weekly papers, there are pole and lap-dancing classes in the suburbs, and demand for labiaplasty, to make female genitals conform to a perceived porn standard, is increasing. Our language has coarsened. Bloody is mild. Variations of the word f—k seem hardwired into every visiting comedian and forget ''yummy mummies'' and cougars, even kids know what MILFs are (Mothers I'd Like to F—k).

Kids as young as four and five are now wearing "little bras," "and some of them think they're sexy," adds schoolteacher Neta Kirby. Far more frightening are the words of Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation. Tucci, who is currently campaigning to ban the sale of "soft porn" and lad mags from convenience stores and supermarkets, claims that the increasing visibility of sexual images has had a direct effect on the way children interact with each other. As a social worker, he has seen many cases of sexual abuse, but he claims in the past decade, he has begun to see "kids who had no known sexual abuse" engaging in inappropriate, and often dangerous, behavior:

The foundation now receives more than 150 referrals a year to treat increasingly younger children who are sexually abusing other children. ''It used to be inappropriate touching and threats … now the behaviour includes penetration, force and planning, such as waiting for opportunities to be alone with another child and in a room which can be locked.''

Tucci, like researcher Anastasia Powell, places the blame directly on the "pornification" of society. Powell argues that, instead of freeing women, the sexualization of culture has trapped young women in a double-bind: they must appear to be liberated and independent, while working daily to please their men (Cosmo's "fun, fearless female" immediately comes to mind). ''But certainly the young women I have spoken to … aren't at all confident in negotiating sex. They still feel as though they have to meet the boyfriend's needs first before their own," she said. It seems that this is what it comes down to: how are women supposed to navigate a world where sex is highly visible, but still shrouded in a certain level of unreality? How does one be "sexy" when the messages are so mixed?

This confusion, however, is not new. It's been 50 years since Lacan stated that "the woman does not exist," and while we've come a long way (baby) since that time, as a culture, we're still pretty damn confused as to how to handle sex, sexiness, porn, and the sexuality of children. Things aren't that great for men either, but what men want - or what they are supposed to want - has a more straightforward answer.

Which is why I would argue that porn is not the problem, and in the end, neither is "raunch culture." Both these things have problems within (see: streamlining the beauty aesthetic, convincing little girls they need bras) and both contribute to the larger issue, but they are only points in the web, not the entire picture. Toy and Dana show us one side, yet there is another: the so-called "new prudishness." Jessica Grose has written about this twice at Slate, and she's not the only one. Back in 2007, Ada Calhoun noted the backlash against promiscuity. Since then, the sides have been drawn with many women falling into one camp or the other. It's as though we're unconsciously dividing ourselves into the old Madonna/Whore categories, leaving little room for nuance. Instead of choosing sides, I'd like to see a new dialogue about sex and sexualization emerge, one that saves space for sexiness without feeling the need to defend Girls Gone Wild or Jenna Jameson. But for now, at least we can all agree on this: There has got to be a better answer to the question what is woman? than what do men want?

Rise Of The Fembots
[The Daily Beast]
The Porn Identity [Sydney Morning Herald]