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Our Bodies as Wonderlands (for men)

I have been biting my tongue about the Twuffel sexcapades of the infamous Issue 34. Perhaps I should keep biting down. I don't read the comics. My main interest lies in the TV series, and I mainly find myself amused by the reactions to the comics.

However, I know that #34 was a controversial one, and I know that a number of women feel almost violated on Buffy's behalf by the graphic nature of the scene. I also know that there's a lot of unknowns that could affect consent issues and such, and that causes a large amount of squick.

I can't address any of that because, as I said, I don't read the comics.

So I'm not gonna write about the comics. I'm gonna write about the contextual backdrop of female nudity and sexuality that the comics were written in. If you try to argue with me about the comics, I will give you a spanking icon.

It's perfectly possible to have female nudity in a non-exploitative fashion. It's difficult. There's a very, very long history of female sexuality being up for male consumption.

I've been reading Surpassing the Love of Men by Lillian Faderman. In case you've not heard of it, it's a book about lesbians in history, basically. It's a bit disheartening in that the earliest "records" of lesbianism were fictional erotica stories written by men, for men. And, as can be guessed, the lesbians in the stories quickly moved on to "real" sex with men.

There are few early accounts of actual lesbians by lesbians. They are the exception rather than the rule, and you have to specifically seek them out to find them.

The history of female sexuality has been written by men.

The history of my sexuality was written by men.

What's more, the fictional stories these men wrote were sometimes about real women that they disliked. Women that were strong-minded and outspoken. So the men wrote fictional depictions of the women as being "sexual deviants" to put them in their place. To humiliate them.

That's not to say that men never have their sexuality used as a weapon against them. After all, it's a common tactic to connect homosexuality or femininity to a man you dislike.

However, that's not the entirety of their history. Men will also be able to find depictions of men as virile love machines, pleasuring fifty women at once. It's all over history.

Me? I have stories intended to humiliate and degrade. That's my sexuality.

What about the present day? Surely, we have powerful depictions of female sexuality by women, for women?

Yes, we do.

We also have a mass of mixed signals and the same ol' "lesbians want the dick" porn that they had back in the olden days.

Those empowering representations are fighting against the baggage of historical context which cannot be erased. That history lives on. Its effects are still with us in the mainstream. Porn is for men and is, largely, not very empowering for women. Non-porn images of sexuality are still primarily for men. Still primarily by men.

There's another factor to consider, though, and that's bodily autonomy. The revolutionary idea that women are in control of their own bodies. I use "revolutionary" quite seriously. It's only recently that women have started being accorded the rights to make decisions about their bodies. Not even one hundred years ago, women were being arrested for giving out information on birth control.

The battle's not over on that one. It's being fought everyday in frightening practical realities.

When I was a kid, my sister and I were at the playground. It's a few blocks from our house, and we'd go up there by ourselves. One day, a man followed us as we left the playground, and he exposed himself to us.

Early lessons in the idea that other people have designs on my body. Lessons that were reinforced later in junior high, high school, college. Even as I'm screaming out loud that my body is mine, I've had to wrestle with people who feel it should be theirs, as well.

Why do women walk to their car at night with their key between their knuckles? Because they know that they might have to fight to keep control of their body.

As such, a lot of women tend to have an almost visceral reaction to anything that impinges upon their bodily autonomy.

Nothing can be divorced of its context. The culture created it, and it'll, in turn, affect that very same culture.

I've gone on quite long, but I want to end with little discussion of Xena.

As mentioned above, society now has a mish-mash of portrayals of female sexuality. Not all of it is negative.

Xena gets naked a fair amount of time in her show. Part of it is, certainly, titillation for the male audience (and the female audience, as the producers recognized that they had a large lesbian fanbase). However, what was empowering for many women was that Xena was always in control of her nudity. She owned it. She rarely used it with the purpose of seducing a man. Usually, it was incidental (Xena being interrupted while bathing or Xena changing clothes for some reason).

It was a woman in control of her body, in control of her sexuality, and unafraid of it. It wasn't humiliating. Xena was never embarrassed by her nudity. Never embarrassed by her body.

Then came the series finale, A Friend in Need. In it, Xena is killed and her ghost ends up in servitude to the villain, Yodoshi. In one scene, Yodoshi whips Xena, causing her robe to be tattered so that she ends up face-down naked on the floor.

Fan's hated it. Because suddenly, the Warrior Princess' sexuality was being used to humiliate her. It was degrading. It was violent. It was against everything the show had given them before.

This, magnified by Gabrielle having to fetch Xena's headless, naked corpse that had been strung up in the center of town, shows the contrast in positive and negative portrayals of female sexuality. Who's the nudity for? Think of both the consumer of the media and the in-show context. Who's benefiting from it?

Xena showed me that I didn't have to be ashamed of my body...then she was punished for it.

I can't speak to the Buffy comics. I'd say a lot hinges on the fuzzy consent issues right now, just from my bird-eye view. But I can speak to the visceral reactions I've seen from women who are seeing their hero being used for her sexuality. BtVS, the show, made little use of Buffy's sexuality. It spent far more time on the men's sexuality than the women's. This set a precedent and a standard that was appreciated by many female fans, myself included. Having the comics suddenly jump into the realm of utilizing Buffy's sexuality in such an explicit way is a shock. An unpleasant shock. Good? Bad? It's up in the air. But I feel for the women that are disheartened by this turn of events, because I've been there. It's a sucker punch to see that, oh yes, even your hero (who had previously managed to avoid this whole mess) is subject to having her sexuality used in this way. Her sexuality is no longer her own. It belongs to the comic readers and the comic writers. Her body belongs to them.

I'm not sure I explained that well. Subtleties often fail on the internet, so let me spell this out:

It's not about whether Issue 34 ends up being a positive or negative portrayal of Buffy's sexuality. That's unknown right now until the consent issues get settled.

It's about Buffy's sexuality being used at all, when it previously hasn't been. It's about women who had been given a show that's not about a woman's sexuality for once (remember the historical baggage here), suddenly finding out that, oh yeah, it is about her sexuality in a very graphic way.

It's the shift. Like the shift Xena fans had in the finale where Xena's sexuality, which had previously been empowering, was used to humiliate and punish.

It's taking something that had been safe for women (in a world where most media isn't) and plunging it into uncertainty, throwing thousands of years of baggage on it. What's more, it's in a medium (comic books) predominately by men, for men. Moreso than TV is.

Do not argue with me about the Buffy comics. This isn't about the content, per se. It's about the reactions to it, that I've seen quite of a bit of bafflement at. Apparently, it's hard to grok why women are uncomfortable seeing their hero's bodily autonomy in question while her sexuality is displayed for all to see. Well, here's why. It's in the history and the messages we, personally, get about our bodies. It's about the safety we feel in seven years of being assured that our fictional hero is not being used for her sexuality. And it's the turmoil we feel when we see that shaken.

You can argue about the positive vs. negative of the Twuffel sex all you want, but the feelings it's created can't be dismissed, nor are they illegitimate or any such nonsense.

...I have no eloquent closing statements. I'll just end, again, with the imperative to not argue with me about the Buffy comics. (Hopefully, if I repeat it three times, it'll sink in).


Apr. 29th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
I'd say we're looking at a semantic disagreement.

Buffy does use her sexuality, but she's not sexualized. Putting aside some of the skimpier outfits of the early seasons, she's putting her sexuality on display. Even the Buffy/Spike sexcapades of S6 show Spike as the more sexualized party - often naked, looking all tempting and sexy. Buffy is the one being tempted.

I'd say we're looking at a distinction between sexuality and the portrayal of that sexuality. Where, in the case of the latter, BtVS rarely succumbed to the standard notions of flashing Buffy's skin to "prove" her sexiness.
Apr. 30th, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
Ok but something feels not quite right about any exposure of skin being counted as sexualisation and, if I understand you correctly, objectification. I think it has to do with Madonna, since she's she's currently on my mind, and the way the men of Glee say she makes them uncomfortable. Back in the day Madonna was all about flaunting her sexuality but somehow rather than making men feel that gives them ownership of her it makes them afraid that she has ownership of them. Now I think of it this speaks in a way to what quinara was saying further down about the old Greek attitude to women, we're either blank slates for men's desires to be written on or we're dark forces of nature bent on their destruction.
Apr. 30th, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
Ok but something feels not quite right about any exposure of skin being counted as sexualisation and, if I understand you correctly, objectification.

I...don't think I've said that? It's all in how it's used. As mentioned with Xena, Xena was often nude in her show (Okay, not "often", which makes it sound like she walked around naked all the time), and it was sometimes sexualized, but it was in a way that left Xena in power. I wouldn't call it "objectification" (although I don't think I've ever seen people agree on a definition for that). In this way, with the nudity, Xena had shown a very positive portrayal of a woman using her sexuality.

Buffy, the character, was, likewise, in control of her sexuality. The show almost never showed her naked, she was rarely objectified, and she was rarely the object of the dreaded "male gaze".
Apr. 30th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
Buffy, the character, was, likewise, in control of her sexuality. The show almost never showed her naked, she was rarely objectified, and she was rarely the object of the dreaded "male gaze".
The first piece of evidence chosen to support the statement that Buffy was in control of her sexuality the that she (almost) never showed her naked. It doesn't specify whether naked for seduction purposes or naked as a metaphor for self confidence or naked for het male viewing pleasure. There's an implicit assumption hidden in that argument. Naked = sexualisation. Sexualisation = naked. I just don't think it's that simple.

Buffy was naked for sections of her Dead Things dream but that no more felt like something done to her than the fully clothed sex of Smashed. Maybe it's an equal exposure thing. Spike is subject to the female gaze for much of S6 and what makes him object not subject is that he's always the most naked person in the room. When both partners are stripped equally bare the viewer has to use different criteria to determine who's looking and who's being looked at. Who gets face time and who merely serves her pleasure.
Apr. 30th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
There's an implicit assumption hidden in that argument. Naked = sexualisation. Sexualisation = naked. I just don't think it's that simple.

I don't either, to be honest. However, nudity opens the door to possible sexualization. The lack of nudity means that door doesn't even get opened, therefore it's not even part of the equation.


The One Who Isn't Chosen

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