Cynical sex/uality

August 16, 2010 at 11:39 pm | In health, just_so, media, offspring, social_critique | 3 Comments

Interesting article in Macleans Magazine this week: Outraged moms, trashy daughters (How did those steeped in the women’s lib movement produce girls who think being a sex object is powerful?), by Anne Kingston.

On beauty “standards”:

“It’s worse than the 1950s,” says the mother of a 24-year-old, referring to the ubiquity of Photoshop and cosmetic surgery creating beauty standards more unattainable than ever. (source)

Kingston references the work of Susan Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, who might well be leaning on Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason. Sloterdijk explains cynicism as an “enlightened false consciousness”:

…a sensibility ‘well off and miserable at the same time,’ able to function in the workaday world yet assailed by doubt and paralysis. (source)

In other words, enlightened false consciousness (or cynicism) is that awful, gooey, nudge-nudge-wink-wink sort of “enlightenment,” where you get to joke about your chains …because you’ve already given up on ideals like freedom or equality – including freedom from constant “doubt and paralysis” about your looks…

“Enlightened sexism” makes an awful kind of sense in a world already furrowed by cynicism. The seed is easy enough to sow. From Kingston’s article, quoting Douglas:

“Enlightened sexism” is Douglas’s term for this new climate, one based on the presumption that women and men are now “equal,” which allows women to embrace formerly retrograde concepts, such as “hypergirliness,” and seeing “being decorative [as] the highest form of power,” she writes. What really irks her is how a Girls Gone Wild sensibility has been sold to women as “empowerment,” that old feminist mantra. But in this version, men are the dupes, “nothing more than helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves” of “scantily clad or bare-breasted women [who] had chosen to be sex objects.”

Douglas says she was inspired to write the book after noticing what seemed to be a glaring disconnect between the prime-time shows aimed at her generation—Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Closer, all featuring tough-talking, assured women who don’t use their sexuality to get what they want—and the programming aimed at her daughter. Eventually she came to believe both kinds of shows were perpetuating the myth that feminism’s work was over: “both mask, even erase how much still remains to be done for girls and women. The notion that there might, indeed, still be an urgency to feminist politics? You have to be kidding.” [emphasis added] (source)

There’s a resonance with cynicism in the embrace of “hyper-sexualization” that suggests to me that we’re talking also about economic and class issues, as well as socialized power structures (peer groups), both of which can exert pressures independent of gender issues (even as they’re expressed at that level).

Re. the latter (peer groups): As readers of this blog know by now, I home-schooled my son and daughter (which, depending on your point of view, makes us very odd or puts us at the cutting edge of edu-punking the school system). Both of my kids (aged 19 and 16) are now at university, entering their 3rd and 2nd years, respectively. (That is, they’re not chained to the bed-posts in their rooms, or otherwise hiding or being hidden away from “society” – just thought I should make sure that’s understood…)

And: we also don’t watch TV (except for what we can watch on the internet or rent at the video store – but no cable for us). This cut out two immense forces of peer pressure and homogenization – forces that are often negative. (I’m not a fan of the alleged “socialization” provided by the K-12 factory school setting.) Reading about girls who think it’s ok that MTV uses as promotional material a clip of Snooki (a female participant in Jersey Shore) getting punched in the face by a guy makes me wonder if we’re all living on the same planet. My 16-year-old daughter wouldn’t agree with 15-year-old Olivia, quoted in Kingston’s article:

“It’s so ridiculous, it’s funny,” she says of the show. “I don’t relate that to my life at all. I wonder, ‘Why would you do that?’ But it’s enjoyable to watch.” [emphasis added] (source)

If you think about it, you have to conclude that Olivia is cynical – full of enlightened false consciousness.

And then you have to ask yourself why a 15-year-old girl could be cynical – and what will that look like when she’s several decades older.


  1. I thought about it, but I don’t quite get what you’re saying about Olivia. Can you elaborate?

    Comment by Davin Greenwell — August 17, 2010 #

  2. I will … as I promised when we talked this evening! (Nice to run into you, by the way!) 😉 But right now I’m feeling too frazzled… Got home from my meeting a little while ago, and now the clock is ticking on my self-imposed deadline of a-blog-post-per-day. And it’s closing in on 11pm… :-/
    But as I said when we were chatting, I feel it has something to do with laughter, and the knowing difference between “laughing with” versus “laughing at.” Olivia laughs at the characters in Jersey Shore, so she’s quite knowing about their foibles (deficiencies?); and while she doesn’t really want to be like them, she can’t help watching them. I’m saying that that’s a kind of enlightened false consciousness or cynicism, which functions as self-protection, too.
    I used to like watching Ab Fab, particularly the early series, and my response was probably the same as Olivia’s to Jersey Shore. Laughing at Eddie and Patsy and their trainwreck of life, career, and motherhood (in Eddie’s case) made it possible to be a voyeur into that life (which, were it real, I’d flee from), even as I knew that the characters were totally messed up. (The last season got really crass and nasty, though, and I found I couldn’t laugh at it anymore. I stopped watching – everyone has their limit, I suppose.)
    Something of the nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude seeps through: the “see, we’re trash and you know you just love to vicariously experience trash, even as you say ‘I don’t relate that to my life at all. I wonder, “Why would you do that?” But it’s enjoyable to watch.’” See what I mean?
    And then you get it (the trash, the message) anyway, through osmosis (sort of), even though you might know it’s not particularly good for your mental equilibrium or your sense of reality (which underpins your sense of freedom – from chains, from feelings of inadequacy). It’s like what you said tonight, Davin, about unsubscribing from a particular blogger (who shall remain nameless) because, as you put it, you eventually take on his language and his attitude and his a-hole-ishness. You can choose: stop reading the guy, or continue to read with cynicism, with a knowing distance, …an enlightened false consciousness.
    I’m not saying the choices are always clear-cut, either. I think we live in a world (here, anyway) that’s saturated and dominated by cynicism – you have to become cynical to some extent to protect yourself against all the asinine stuff or negativity or crap, so we’re none of us innocent. And we all laugh at stuff …to protect ourselves from letting it sink in too deeply.
    Look at that, now I spent over 30 minutes after all writing a comment back, even though I’m so bushed from my crazy day of running all over the place nonstop! I think I’m just going to link to this comment as today’s blog post, and basta, be done with it!
    It’s still all just a half-thought/ thinking out loud, and hardly well-argued. But it’ll have to do for now. 😉

    Comment by Yule — August 17, 2010 #

  3. […] Greenwell asked me, via comments, to elaborate on yesterday’s blog post, Cynical sex/uality – he posted his comment about an hour after I published my entry, but by then it was past […]

    Pingback by » Cynicism, laughter, and not enough time Yule Heibel's Post Studio © 2003-2010 — August 17, 2010 #

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