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Female Objectification and Sexism in Mainstream Media

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Yes, the French are right. This is, perhaps, not a popular position to take in these United States of America at this time, but the French do have it right about one thing: the American media’s snickering, schoolboy, pubescent attitude disguised as a Puritanical and neo-Victorian negative emphasis on sexuality in general, and the female form specifically, is both laughable and sadly hypocritical.

That was indeed a long sentence attacking a big subject. I cite two widely covered examples of media sexual frenzy in violinist Lara St. John’s 1996 debut recording Bach Works for Solo Violin’s CD cover and Brandi Chastain’s celebration after the United States Women’s Professional Soccer Team won the 1999 World Cup.

That these examples approach or are a decade old is immaterial. Pull up any Internet page at Yahoo, Google, or even the old big three news centers. At Comcast, the feeds are currently concerned with whether a) Britney Spears is wearing panties, b) Britney Spears shaves her private parts, or c) Britney Spears is going to lose custody of her children to her loser ex-husband Kevin Federline.

The comparison of my subjects with Britney Spears is not the point. Spears is a Louisiana cracker tart with no talent and a lot of money. Lara St. John and Brandi Chastain are supremely talented and gifted artists (if an athlete can be an artist) trying to make a living at what they do.

What the three have in common is how American media is more interested with where each crossed some Scarlet Letter line. This is all they are ultimately remembered for (this is okay for Britney though, the only thing memorable) because of the prurient focus of our western media.

The former of these examples created a titillating stir among serious and cultural critics alike. Canadian violinist Lara St. John’s debut Bach Works for Solo Violin CD cover depicted the then 24-year-old musician au natural, pictured from the waist up, and her 1779 “Salabue” Guadagnini strategically covering the violinist’s breasts. The violinist is an attractive young woman. The CD cover is beautifully provocative and not just possessing a little whiff of marketing genius.

Rather than sing the praises of superbly performed Bach, serious and pedestrian critics both insisted on spilling more ink on the ground than the seed by Onan on the daring album cover, characterizing it as “indecent,” “tasteless,” and “pornographic,” while at the same time referring to St. John’s debut as “St. John's Passion: Violinist Lara St. John plays some R-rated Bach” (Willamette Week) or “Selling 'jailbait' Bach” (U.S. News & World Report).

One might read such and believe St. John is in danger of being burned at the stake as a hérétique. These particular characterizations of the marketing of Bach Works for Solo Violin betray an astringent prudishness that, at best, makes the critics sound naive and, at worst, simply stupid.

The second example of media missing the whole point was Brandi Chastain’s celebration of the United States Women’s Professional Soccer Team winning the 1999 Soccer World Cup (read: the Big Enchilada). On July 10, 1999, at the Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, after scoring the fifth penalty kick to give the United States the win over China in the final game, Brandi celebrated by peeling off her jersey and falling to her knees in a black Nike sports bra, her fists clenched in victory.

In every interview conducted with Chastain after her and her team’s brilliant play, the first question was, “Whatever possessed you to remove your shirt?” Certainly not, “How does it feel to be at the top of your profession?” No, the media had to ask Chastain about her delicate sports lingerie, apparel worn by millions of women each day while exercising. All of this attention prompted Chastain to name her personal website, “It’s Not About the Bra."

American media lives to exploit that faux-Victorian “decency” factor to such an extent that consumers of its products no longer really know what is decent or indecent, acceptable or unacceptable. A review of such is completely appropriate here as it would have been 10 years ago, had I been so annoyed about it then.

The Internet is a beautiful miasma of the sacred and the profane in quantities so great that we pedestrian users take its content completely for granted. I am no prude and neither am I completely permissive in my cultural attitudes. When a classical music critic characterizes Lara St. John’s Bach Works for Solo Violin’s CD cover as indecent, it makes me ask, “At what level?”

To such characterization let me lend the description of a picture readily available on the Internet that may more appropriately be termed “indecent.” This photograph depicts a naked young lady with her legs spread and a full Miller Lite bottle protruding, capped end exposed, out of her gaping vagina. The caption to the picture is, “Fuck yeah it’s Miller Time!” I submit this photograph might deserve to be considered “indecent” when contrasted with Bach Works for Solo Violin’s CD cover.

In the case of Brandi Chastain’s shameless celebratory bra-bearing moment, I submit a contrasting video, also readily available on the Internet, portraying yet another naked young lady with her legs spread. This time the viewer hears a muffled cell phone ringing. Over the next ten seconds, the naked young lady extrudes the ringing cell phone from her vagina and answers the call (I suspect all those Kegel exercises really paid off for this future star). I further submit this video might also deserve to be considered “indecent” when compared to Chastain’s ecstasy.

American media and viewers, grow up. Just as you are what you eat, you think what you see and read. In each case, it is a choice what we, the consumers, consume. Consume junk and that is what one will provide as opinion and attitude – junk.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • duane

    I have nothing to add concerning Chastain, but re: the violinist:

    The violinist is an attractive young woman. The CD cover is beautifully provocative and not just possessing a little whiff of marketing genius.

    That’s just it. It’s a marketing ploy. It’s insulting to people who are interested in serious music. Oh, she’s gorgeous, no doubt, but what does that have to do with music? She will outsell Agnes, the violinist with a trace of moustache, simply because she’s cute, even though Agnes can outplay her in the dark standing on one foot.

    These particular characterizations of the marketing of Bach Works for Solo Violin betray an astringent prudishness ….

    It has nothing to do with prudishness. It has to do with being disgusted by the blatant pandering to musical illiterates to make a buck. It is indeed in the same class as the Britney phenomenon.

  • Doug Hunter

    Well said duane. Saved me from having to make the point.

  • http://www.cmichaelbailey.com C. Michael Bailey

    Splendid criticism of my faulty reasoning. This article would have served the reader better as two separate articles as they nominally address two separate issues.

    I do direct readers to Lara St. John’s recently released complete Bach: The Six Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo. These recordings are the finest of the last decade, demonstrating a maturation of the artist without the loss of spirit or personality.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/amanda_bittle Amanda

    On St. John: okay, so maybe it was a marketing ploy. Or maybe not. Her breasts were covered up, right? So isn’t it possible that the designers were trying to make an artistic point about the raw relationship between an artist and her instrument? It could be symbolic of being stripped down, uncomplicated; she’s not all dressed up (or dressed at all), because it’s just her and her violin.

    I’m not saying I know what the marketers were thinking. It could be either interpretation, or some other one entirely. But to assume it’s sexual, just because you find it titillating, is narrow-minded. If we labeled every image that could possibly inspire an erection as “indecent,” we would be in serious trouble.

    Nudity is not inherently sexual. To automatically criticize a product that includes nudity (especially such non-explicit nudity as the Bach cover) as sexual is reactionary. It indicates a lack of belief that nudity can be anything BUT sexual. THAT’S where the French got it right. Lots of nude beaches in Europe are less “meat market” than many American dance clubs are.

    On Chastain: Again, why does this have to be sexual? It’s a freaking sports bra, for crying out loud. Go to any swimming pool or beach in America and you’ll see women half as covered up in so-called “decent” bathing suits.

    Great article. I hope it continues to spark debate and to get people thinking about ingrained cultural assumptions.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/amanda_bittle Amanda

    Another point to consider: Assume for a moment that the St. John cover WAS simply a marketing ploy. What if people who would otherwise not think to pick up a classical CD think “Oooh, boobies!” and get exposed to something new? Maybe they’ll really dig the music for its own sake. Is their introduction somehow tainted because they were intrigued by a provocative cover?

    If Agnes doesn’t sell as many CDs as St. John because St. John has nudity on her cover, there is no reason to believe Agnes has “lost” any customers. Boobie-buyers weren’t going to pick up Agnes’ album to begin with. If anything, a provocative album cover that ends up creating new classical fans increases the potential market for other classical artists.

  • gdggt

    wow i love this it reallyhelped with my school assignment D
    ♥♥♥

  • fatova mingus

    I agree with you on this and probably a thousand other things. Unfortunately, you probably sailed this message right past those needed to hear it. I learned once that we can make Stravinsky accessible to a hillbilly if we speak in the least sophisticated voice of our own inner self. It actually works and I have been able to turn “hillbillies” on to The Rite of Spring (www.fatovamingus.blogspot.com). Of all things. I will never receive literary accolades. Art dies with awards, it lives with the passing of one hand to another. So while the French may snicker at our inability to hear Bach because we’re distracted by tits, they would be of better service to Bach, to culture, to humanity and man even to god, should there be one, were they to help us hear the music and stop us from looking at the pictures. Know what I mean? I think you do. I think that’s why you did not include the pictures in the article. Thank you for writing it.

  • http://www.kritinaknief.com Kritina

    I linked to this article from my blog post on OBJECTIFICATION in photography. Great article but as Fatova Mingus pointed out, lay terms are sometimes the best terms — even if it means altering our language to the lowest common denominator (as it were). Otherwise the writing risks a loss of audience and reserved for only the elite. Our society almost demands a dumbing down of things.

    Thank you for writing it all the same — I enjoyed reading it. : )

    http://www.kritinaknief.blogspot.com (to see the post from which i linked to this article)