Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Little Women on the Verge

[Note: I've corrected a factual error below. I wrote that a commenter had said that "if boys of the same age were taught to be 'little Chippendales', the shit would hit the fan." In fact, it was the blogger herself who brought up "little Chippendales." I quote her words below, and added one more quotation and some more discussion later on.]

A writer at The Hathor Legacy linked to a post of mine, so I’ve been looking in over there from time to time. Today I read a post and the comments thereto, inspired by a now-removed video at YouTube, which showed a bunch of pre-pubescent girls in their dance class, being taught to dance like pole dancers, hiphop hoochies, and other sluts.

I shared the writer’s displeasure and distaste, but the more I read the post and the comments it inspired, the more I found that something else was bothering me. I’m not a woman, I’m not the parent of a daughter, so of course I don’t understand from the gut the way the writer feels. But I’m also not a pedophile, so I was a bit shaken by the writer’s claim that these girls, and others like them in the gender meatgrinder, were being costumed and taught to dance so as to signal their “sexual availability.”

Well, no. An eight-year-old can’t signal her sexual availability, no matter how she’s dressed or how she moves. The writer and some of the commenters seemed unclear about the gap between how straight males might respond to the children’s moves and what those moves actually signified, let alone offered. To repeat: an eight-year-old cannot signal her sexual availability. It’s hard for me to understand how an adult male could look at such a performance and conclude that a child is offering herself for his penetration.

Which is not just because I’m gay. The blogger wrote, "And if it’s such an okay idea for girls, where are the little eight-year-old Chippendales? Wouldn’t that be cute? No, people: it would be disturbing." Maybe; I'm not as sure of the sensibilities of other adults as she is. I don’t like big Chippendales either, but a group of eight-year-old boys couldn’t signal sexual availability to me no matter how nekked they got or how they gyrated. Maybe when I was eight years old they would have, but contrary to the current therapy-culture assumption that even an eight-year-old can be a pedophile, I don’t think it’s the same thing.

And this raises another point. An adult pole dancer is not “signaling her sexual availability” either. I’ve never gone to a strip club, gay or straight, but I have read enough, and talked to enough men who do, to have an idea of their etiquette. If an audience member, inflamed by the spectacle and assuming it was for his benefit alone, were to climb up on stage and assault a dancer, not only the bouncers but probably some of the other audience members would stop him, beat him up, and throw him out. The same goes for a streetwalker, though many people, male and female alike, don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with raping or even killing a prostitute. Still, she’s not signaling her sexual availability to all and sundry either: a price has to be negotiated, and limits observed. Any pro-sex feminist knows this, I think, so why is this blogger essentially conceding that “bad” women (or little girls), as defined by their body language and dress, are ‘asking for it’?

A feminist, pro- or anti-sex, ought also to know that rape culture has nothing to do with how a woman is dressed or carries herself. Little girls (and adult women dressed modestly or immodestly, fat women, ugly women, old women) are raped not because they went to dance class and worked up a version of “Let Me Entertain You”, but because rapists won’t take No for an answer; many think that if they’re attracted to a female, it’s because she’s sending out sex rays that mean she really wants it, no matter what her lying mouth may say. That’s rape culture, and dressing up little girls like hookers or strippers has nothing special to do with it.

This reminds me of an issue that is still with us, but which I first encountered in the pages of the student newspaper: Islamic “veiling” (the word in English at least is a euphemism) of women. Back in the 80s, I believe, controversy erupted on campus from time to time over this practice, especially at that time because a few American Christian women were converting and being very pious about it. (The Muslim Hedonist’s blog seems to be defunct, unfortunately, for it comes from one woman who joined that movement and came to regret it.) When non-Muslims said or wrote that the veil oppressed women, some of the converts wrote letters insisting that they were just being modest, and that it was American sexual culture that oppressed women and encouraged them to be immodest. (This is the flip side of women and gay men who say that they embrace makeup and drag because they want to be beautiful, as though you couldn’t be beautiful without those accessories.) I later ran into a young woman who, though I don’t believe she converted, gushed about the “spirituality” of Muslim piety, though she’d never have said such a thing about southern Indiana Pentecostal women who embraced and practiced “modesty” in almost exactly the same terms.

The Muslim women (and their male counterparts) were wrong, of course. It’s veiled women who are immodest; that’s why they need to cover themselves. American women who walk around in short shorts and halter tops with their faces and hair uncovered are not immodest; that’s why they don’t need to cover themselves. As you can tell by the range of coverings in Muslim societies which range from just a headscarf that leaves the face uncovered to the full chador which includes a mesh to keep even a woman’s eyes invisible, there’s no clear line between modesty and immodesty. To a devout chador wearer, a Malaysian woman who wears a scarf, a blouse and trousers, instead of a portable tent that covers her entirely, would be little better than an American pole-dancer. It’s notorious that in Victorian England and America, even a glimpse of a woman’s ankles would drive a man wild with lust; it’s less often acknowledged that if she weren’t middle-class and had no male protector in view, a woman would be assumed to be asking for it if a man’s lust proved to be “uncontrollable.”

There’s another thing about the eight-year-old pole dancers. The writer and commenters talked about the “premature sexualization” of these children. Isn’t it also premature when little girls are encouraged to fantasize about being princesses and having fairy-tale weddings? Or to practice motherhood with dolls? They know as little about the reality they’re miming as the girls in that video. (For that matter, is it premature if girls of the same age are put in charge of younger siblings to take some of the load off their overburdened mothers? That’s a traditional practice, after all, and not many people seem to be bothered by it. Indeed, there’s a sort of shrugged-shoulders fatalism about it – it’s natural after all, girls will be girls, of course they want to be princesses, just like Princess Diana. And we all know how well official adult marriage often works out, fairy-tale weddings and all.)

I remember being strongly affected when I first read Marge Piercy’s 1976 future-utopia novel Woman on the Edge of Time; among much else there’s a scene where the head of the children’s care center explains to another future character that in the 20th century, toys were used to teach children sex roles. It was so obvious, but at the time it was a new idea to me. One could say the same about teaching little boys to play soldier, or cowboys and Indians, or letting them do so, which also prepares them for the role they’ll play as adults – namely cannon fodder.

Another commenter pointed out that we know nothing about the background of that video. Were the little girls dressed up by their teachers with the full approval of their mothers? Or did they choose their look themselves? Not that it matters, though it would be interesting to know what the adults involved thought. [P.S. At least some of the parents evidently approved -- see the ABC News story linked below -- but were they thinking? Jeez, I'm so glad I'm not a parent.] Even if the girls nagged until they were allowed to dress like hookers and work up a “SuperFreak” routine, the fact remains that they didn’t know what it signified to adults, and in any case, children need to be protected from the self-serving aggression of adults. (That goes for adults of both sexes, including those who would “rescue” them.) As I indicated before, the blogger and some of her commenters conceded far too much to rape culture, by agreeing that the little girls were behaving in such a way as to invite adult male aggression while stopping just short of saying they were asking for it. (Suppose an adult were to respond to a little boy playing soldier by walking up and shooting him with a real gun. Would anyone argue that the adults in the kid’s life were responsible for his death, because they’d taught him to signify that he was a suitable target for a bullet?)

Like it or not, children want to grow up, and in the meantime they imitate adults, whether the ones around them or ones they hear or read about or see in the movies. I don’t much like some of the roles they try on for size either, but with the best will in the world you can’t stop them from needing to do it. What we can try to do is to hammer it into adults’ heads that whatever fantasy children are playing with, it’s a game and not real, and adults shouldn’t mistake the game for reality. That goes not only for obsessed straight men but for adult women.

Much of the blogger’s argument was based on her visceral reaction to the video, to children’s “beauty” contests, and the like.
Tell me when you watch the linked video, honestly: don’t you feel like you’re watching women? Women’s slim thighs, women’s hidden breasts, women’s buttocks? After all, women with curves have been out of style for forty years – little girl bodies have long been the ideal for all of us (which may be a whole other topic). If you’re attracted to women, doesn’t this video give you a creepy little hormonal twitch, probably followed by irrational guilt? Sometimes in reviewing media for Hathor, I try to imagine seeing women through white male eyes – it’s so easy, since I grew up in a culture that taught me to look at my own body to see if I had what men wanted or not. I watch this video, and I see what men want. My brain tells me I’m looking at little girls: my eyes tell me I’m looking at grown women.
As though only "white males" objectified women this way! Seen any hiphop videos lately? The blogger links to an ABC News story that quotes a "clinical psychologist" who says "It's pretty clear that this dance is erotic in a way that would be more appropriate for girls post-puberty." Physician, heal thyself. So much is in the eye of the beholder, you know. Why would it be "appropriate" for post-pubescent girls or women to pander to rape culture? It's also worth noting that many people did object to the video and the performance. But I have to add, from the clips included in the ABC story, that honestly, no: my eyes don't tell me I'm looking at grown women. And if you want to see premature sexualization of little girls, look at a ballet class.

The blogger just wasn’t as far outside of rape culture’s assumptions as she liked to think. I think there’s only one way to address this. A pole dancer isn’t asking for it. Nor is a prostitute. Nor is a college girl who shows her tits in a Girls Gone Wild video. Nor is a woman who walks into a chain bookstore and is greeted by an employee who can't take his eyes off her breasts. (The same blogger, as it happens.) It’s hard enough to get men to grasp this; if women (and especially feminist women) can’t grasp it either, then we might as well give up.