What should we do when people in the mainstream media spend inordinate amounts of time talking about parts of a woman’s anatomy? Should we refrain from pointing out the sexism at the root of the focus? Or should we call the responsible parties out on their sexism, knowing that it will pique the curiosity of some readers who might not have otherwise heard about the ordeal? I’ve decided that the latter is the lesser of the two evils, but if you don’t want to read further, I certainly don’t blame you.
If you haven’t heard yet, a music video featuring Katy Perry and Elmo from Sesame Street was released to YouTube, and Perry’s cleavage is visible in the video. In the wake of this conservative parents in the US have howled words of protest, and entertainment news reporters (I’m looking at you, Access Hollywood) have engaged in the sort of snickering I grew out of before I entered my freshman year of high school. And, yes, I did say that this is conservative outcry. No, I will not be silenced by people shrieking, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” There were breasts, and they were jiggling. That’s what happens to breasts when people who have them run, and it doesn’t take a physicist to explain why they move that way. There is nothing inherently erotic about this. Despite what patriarchal culture tells us it is not the case that we cover breasts because they are erotic. Rather, breasts are erotic because we cover them. In some societies women routinely go topless, and people don’t find them especially arousing. In other societies people blush when they see a woman in a sleeveless shirt, because they’re not used to seeing bare arms. If sensible people were interested in keeping erotic images of breasts from appearing on television, encouraging Katy Perry to keep her breasts covered would be the last thing they would do.
Yes, I’m sure there are people who eroticize Perry’s breasts in the video. But there are people who eroticize everything. Parents, if your kids are prepubescent, they’re not going to be all that interested in Perry’s cleavage. And if they are pubescent and wired to like women, there aren’t enough layers of clothing that will keep them from becoming aroused. In fact, when I hit puberty one of my first vivid sex dreams was about a woman who appeared regularly on Sesame Street. (Talk about the day my childhood died; the street just wasn’t the same after that.) It had nothing to do with the way she dressed—she always dressed conservatively, if my memory serves correctly—and probably the most titillating thing she ever did was announce that the day’s episode was brought by the letter O. But my newly hormone-infused body responded all the same, because I was a healthy, young queer girl.
As much as the uproar angers me as a woman, it absolutely infuriates me as a queer person. Why? Well, it wasn’t too long ago that Katy Perry appeared in another music video. In this video she showed a lot more skin, and one of the aims of the video really was to titillate the audience. I’m talking of course about the music video for “I Kissed a Girl”. Was there outcry then? Well, actually there was, and it came from the queer community. The video features a woman (Perry) who is presumably straight, singing about trying on same-gender intimacy for her own temporary gratification. In other words she plays the trope of temporary lesbianism entirely straight (no pun intended), abjectly failing to respect the many women for whom same-gender attraction is not a choice. Were children hurt by this? Well, the target demographic of music videos is adolescent youth, and as someone who was once a queer girl, I imagine this depiction of girls’ kissing would have left me wondering if the first girl I kissed would be using me as a disposable means of pleasure. Even if we set aside the fact that some of the fathers who now complain were all too happy to see Perry gyrate to music and sing about kissing girls—even if we set aside the fact that some of the mothers who now complain were all too happy to imitate Perry and try on lesbianism to make the men in their life horny—the current outrage is infuriating, because our society, dominated as it is by straight men, has given Perry a free pass until now. If the mainstream media is our guide, when the potential injured parties are queer youth and the people who object are also queer, it doesn’t deserve nearly as much attention.
So what do I think of Perry? I understand that our sexist society holds women in entertainment to a double standard and expects them to appeal to men in a way men are never expected to appeal to women. But it’s not like her producer was putting a gun to her head, so I don’t think she can be excused for her role in exoticizing queer women in the “I Kissed a Girl” video. Even so, none of this excuses the attention the same sexist society is now giving her and her body—not the least bit. As I can’t emphasize enough, it’s awful that I should feel the need to address this topic at all. Really can anyone honestly tell me that one one third of a cis man‘s breasts has never been visible during children’s programming?