After reading Melinda Tankard Reist’s article about Kanye West’s ‘Monster’ video, and seeing her petition to ban it, I of course dashed off to view it, expecting to be horrified.
And I was. But no more horrified than I was during the lost moments of my life spent in front of the Twilight series. Like Twilight, it’s full of fetishised and zombified women who exist in a world of male violence. As in Twilight, the women are plastic in their lifelessness and their ultimate purpose, dead or alive, is to be sexual scratching posts for men.
I don’t want to pretend that the carefully airbrushed portrayal of romantic fantasy vampires and virginal mortals is the same as depicting dead women hanging from the ceiling in fetish gear. But at least you can see the women hanging from the ceiling. In the sanitised sets of tween vampire movies and many TV dramas, the hanging women are hidden off screen.
West’s video is low hanging fruit for feminist culture critics. Not that low hanging fruit’s not worth picking — it’s just that it’s there for everyone to see. West’s video is meant as satire. Except of course that some images are so strongly embedded in their own cultural meaning that they don’t respond well to satire. The Onion put it well in a satirical article titled "Ironic Porn Purchase Leads to Unironic Ejaculation".
Kanye’s video is not a rebellion, it’s a tantrum. Its satire fails because for satire to succeed, the artist must have an understanding of subtext. And for Kanye, women are still unknown territory.
So how does this monstrous imagery become acceptable?
The psychological core of this kind of violent imagery is a disowning of experience: the simultaneous inability to hold and accept legitimate anger, and the denial of personal weakness and fragility. In other words, we are often brought up in environments where we are not able to respond angrily and protectively to threats, which can result in different forms of self harm and harm to others.
At the same time, the childhood experience of being unable to protect ourselves emotionally or physically can lead to the inability to tolerate limits in others. We are hurt, silenced, and we become divorced from our own experience. If we don’t have an opportunity for healing, we become numb to our own responses and to the pain of others. In a social context where violence against women is tolerated and subtly forms part of our daily experience, we create a climate where dead and silenced women are eroticised.
Current research on the effects of pornography on men points to an increasing lack of interest in the bodies of real women. Some feminists, including Naomi Wolf, have seen this as a reason to avoid porn, not through censorship, but as a personal choice designed to support sexual interest and intimacy between men and women.
But this deadening of interest in so called "real" women is nothing new, and doesn’t appear to be exclusive to the new rise of porn. Rather, it is more of the same sexual numbing common in patriarchal and capitalist societies where there is an ideal, sexual or otherwise, against which flesh and blood women are found lacking. It is the violence of this comparative measuring, the core of objectification, that is the real killer. It can kill quickly, as in West’s video, or more slowly, as in say One Tree Hill.
One way to understand how we become more vulnerable to the acceptance of misogynist imagery is to see it as related to a conditional acceptance of the self. Body acceptance begins long before words. It is communicated through physical touch and eye contact in infancy. It is the way we first learn to experience our bodies. Later we are given words for body parts, feelings and experiences. I communicate my feelings about my baby’s body through my care of her, and I also communicate my feelings about my own body by my responses to her touch and looks. This is not something I can lie about. What I feel will be communicated in some way.
Although the restriction of violent material is initially protective, it does very little for our feelings of body shame. I learned to hate parts of myself long before I was encouraged to mutilate them through advertising or "The Biggest Loser". We will always be vulnerable to the next airbrushed or otherwise dismembered image until we address our core fragility, or our conditional acceptance of ourselves.
This fragility makes us vulnerable to attempts to paper over our feelings of inadequacy with bravado and false courage. We either attempt to view our self hatred as loving, as in the case of dangerous procedures dressed up as self-esteem enhancers, or we applaud works like "Monster" as expressions of artistic or sexual freedom. Isn’t he brave?
There’s no doubt that "Monster" is full of all kinds of wrong. So full in fact, that it doesn’t take complex feminist forensics to uncover it. In many ways, the video highlights our increasing tolerance for "softer" images of assault; the agony of comparison and the consequent violent adjustments necessary to find oneself acceptable in the face of the ideal.
I don’t want to see images like those Kanye has offered up for ridicule, and I don’t wish them on anyone else either. But fetishism, or the substitution of a part for the whole, is everywhere. After all, dead and deadened women tell no tales. If we can challenge all attempts to rob us of our whole selves in exchange for partial acceptance, we have a chance to avoid life as zombies.
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