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“B” Is For Boobies

September 24, 2010

Katy Perry wore a corset to stroll down Sesame Street and, in an instant, a show that has a long history of fighting for justice and liberty by normalizing things like interracial relationships and international cultures – and even homosexuality – became the frontline of America’s fundamentally prudish need to demonize and control women’s bodies. A show that was born the same year that I was, and to which I give partial credit for the fact that my generation was the first one with a shot at eliminating prejudice from our daily lives, showed us that the fight for autonomy and respect is one that should be surrendered to some angry mommies. Angry mommies, after all, are scary.

I’ve watched the Youtube video a bunch of times, and although I’m still no fan of syrupy pop songs (and pleased that my daughter prefers Vampire Weekend to Katy Perry,) I think Ms. Perry, and her bouncy boobies, are just fine. She seems smart, funny, fun, engaging, talented and strong enough to run down a street singing her own song. That’s what I want for my daughter. That is a great message. Especially since my daughter’s boobs are growing right before my eyes, and although it traumatizes me, I don’t want her to be ashamed of them – or her own song.

So I’m listening to all these mothers bitch and moan about Ms. Perry’s perky pair in her golden corset, and I can’t help but think “what a bunch of hypocrisy.” How many of these mothers let their kids watch The Little Mermaid? Have you seen what that chick wears? Pasties! She wears pasties! (Granted, if I had boobs like that, that’s all I’d wear also.) She also wears a “skirt” that is so far below her navel that if she were old enough to have pubic hair, Sebastian would have to become a pubic crab of the Brazilian sort of pluck those pubes under the sea, and everywhere else.

I’ve long had an issue with The Little Mermaid. It’s not that I don’t agree with the fundamental premise that “everything’s better down where it’s wetter,” it’s that the lesson of the film is that the girl should give up everything she is and has in order to be “part of your world.” She sets her eye on the guy, and her entire world becomes consumed by getting his attention and fitting into his world. That’s bad enough (and, to be clear, the mass of most of mass-media messaging) but she LITERALLY gives up her voice and her ability to swim and therefore to be with her friends and family. Rendering her mute and imprisoned. Nice. That’s right honey, in order to get the guy, you give up your strength and autonomy, and need to look just like the rest of their world. Ugh!

I am guessing that the mommies who are so angry about Katy Perry’s teenage ta-tas were perfectly happy to let their little girls absorb that aqueous nonsense of The Little Mermaid, and didn’t bat an eye. As much as I’d love to run through the whole Disney line-up (especially the fact that the reason you never see pictures of Tinkerbell bent over from behind is that you’d be able to see the magic cave where she keeps her fairy powers) this is actually a serious issue.

The messages that we send our girls about their bodies will, whether we mean for them to or not, shape how they feel about their bodies, their value in the world and their own power to both protect their bodies from harm and use them for pleasure.

Step one: teach our daughters that their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. When the entire world goes into an uproar because Katy Perry was shown to have boobs, we teach girls everywhere that they should be ashamed of the fact that they have boobs. (And we didn’t even see her nipples, like the infamous Janet Jackson ‘wardrobe malfunction,” which also made mountains out of very lovely mole hills. )

Ladies, you have boobs. They are beautiful, all of them, and you should be proud of them. They are yours, to do with as you please.

Which brings us to step two: teach our daughters that because their boobs are wonderful, and are theirs, they have the right to decide what to do with them. That means that no drunk and groping frat boy can touch them if you don’t want them to. They are yours and no one can tell you what to do with them.  It also means that if it gives you pleasure to have some boy or girl suck on them, you have the right to request that of your lovers. Hooray for sexual autonomy. It’s never too early to lay the groundwork to crack that nut.

And that gets to the heart of the reason why this is a serious issue. Beyond the very obvious and oft discussed issues of self-esteem with women, is the very important issue of body-autonomy.  Either we are a culture that values and empowers women and their bodies, or we aren’t. But by separating women’s rights from their various body parts, we start sliding down a slippery slope in which women’s bodies can be dehumanized. If we dehumanize them, then it becomes okay to do any number of things to them. In an environment where we have taught women to feel shame about their bodies and not speak up for their power, that can be very dangerous.

The rhetorical end of this argument is female genital mutilation. One thing I can tell you, for sure, is that cultures that practice this do not feel that they are harming women by doing it, because their vaginas are not seen as an essential part of who they are. They have successfully separated a woman’s body part from the woman herself – literally. The same is true in cultures in which rape is accepted as a means of coercion and punishment.

Think those cultures are far away? Think again. Right here, right now, in the good old USA, 1 in 4 rapes are committed by people who were known to the victim. And, in many cases, the victims are people who didn’t realize that they had the right to say ‘no’ to the person who was telling them what to do with their bodies. The victims are people who felt shame about what happened to them, using their own bodies, and don’t speak up.

Or picture the awkward nights that we have all lived-through, when we were young and messing around with someone, and got way more sexually involved than we really wanted to, but we thought we “had” to be cool, or “get the guy.”  It wasn’t because we saw boobs on Katy Perry, Janet Jackson or anyone else. It was because no one taught us how proud we should be of our bodies, and that we had the right to control what we did with them.

This last point is a bit more nebulous, but just as important. We have created a world in which “victim blaming” is accepted, because not only do women not have the right to control their own bodies, but people can’t be expected to control the impulses that come up as a result of seeing women’s bodies. If the sight of Katy Perry’s boobs is too much to handle, then the guy who attacks her as a result of seeing them can’t be held accountable for attacking her.

Wrong. In so many ways. I refuse to raise a daughter who believes it’s up to her to make sure nobody is ever made uneasy by the site of her beautiful body. How about putting all that energy into helping people learn how to understand, control and consensually use their impulses in a safe and “proper” way? As soon as we put that responsibility on the boob-owner, we justify doing anything necessary to hold down and control the boob-owner, for society’s own good. Wrong. In so many ways.

When I watched the Katy Perry video, I saw a strong and empowered girl singing a song. I saw a show that has a long reputation for subtly empowering generations of youth put forward an image of a joyful young woman, and I loved it. There was nothing wrong with her outfit.

I was, however, outraged when I was watching The Today Show over the summer, and a decidedly street-walker looking Ke$ha sang Tik Tok as a bunch of 8 year-old girls in the audience sang along to the lovely lyrics, “..brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, ‘cause when I leave for the night I aint coming back… aint got a care in the world, but got plenty of beer, aint got no money in my pocket but I’m already here, and now the dudes are lining up ‘cause they hear we got swagger, but we kick ‘em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger…  I’m talking about everybody getting crunk….”

A woman having breasts is not outrageous. It’s natural. And beautiful. But the insidious stories society sells our girls – in obvious ways like Ke$ha or insidiously subtle ways like The Little Mermaid – terrify me. And no one protests them.

Where were the angry mommies when the Little Mermaid was giving up her strength and identity to get the guy? Where were the angry mommies when little girls in The Today Show audience were joyfully singing about getting drunk to get guys?

I know where I was. I was raising a daughter to love her body. To love it enough that if any guy tells her what to do with it, she will say “no” if she doesn’t want to. Enough to wear it proudly, but not cheapen it by dressing like a little slut. To love herself enough to know that she has the right to speak up about anything from her own body to the plight of women, or to sing any song she wants and to feel joyful and empowered walking down any street. Even Sesame Street. A street that I hope will rise up to it’s own occasion and remind us all that we are strongest when we embrace and empower our bodies and ourselves, rather than cowering to the cackles of control and insecurity that seek to contain us.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristen permalink
    September 24, 2010 1:44 pm

    Well said, Alyssa!
    I recently attended an evening where someone read from the writings and research of Fuambai Ahmadu on women who underwent female circumcision. It was an eye-opening read in a direction I had not heard before….these were women who did not feel it was demeaning, and who still experience amazing sexual pleasure afterwards. As someone who is already aware of the American viewpoint on female circumcision, I would encourage you to seek out and read a little of the work by Ms. Ahmadu. You might be surprised in a way you did not expect. 🙂

  2. Jennifer permalink
    September 24, 2010 1:51 pm

    Bravo, Alyssa…

  3. Brian Threlkeld permalink
    September 25, 2010 11:08 am

    Some people consider her outfit in that video scandalous??? “Bizarre” doesn’t even begin to cut it for such a reaction.

  4. September 25, 2010 9:07 pm

    Wow. Awesome post!!!!

  5. Cheri L. permalink
    September 28, 2010 4:45 pm

    Though I have to agree with you about “Kei$ha” and her ilk (an girl, do I have a soapbox about that sort of display), as well as the horrendous way women are treated worldwide, I have to disagree with you about the Little Mermaid and KP’s outfit.

    Personally, I thought her (Katie Perry) dress was really cute, however I don’t think it was appropriate for a show directed at preschoolers. It has nothing to do with being ashamed of her body, and everything to do with when and where it’s appropriate to display it. Sesame Street wasn’t that place. That’s all I have to say about that.

    My impression of the Little Mermaid was one of a beautiful, strong, independent young woman who loved a world she knew little about and did everything she could to learn about it. Ariel was a strong, empowered young woman who ignored the racism (Speciesism?) and the fear her people had of a different culture/world and who pursued her love of that strange place and in the end found love. If you watch the follow-up movie, you see that she is happy in the human world, and still sees her family fairly often (until a bad guy pops up and threatens her daughter anyway).

    In no way did she have to submerge who and what she was. Nor did she just surrender herself to a man. She saw something she wanted and siezed it. How much more empowering a message can you get?

    Perhaps I’m seeing it from a different point of view because of my excessively sheltered and abusive upbringing, but I’ve always admired Ariel for her strength and determination. She takes second place only to Belle in my heart as some of my favorite heroines.

    Well, either way, I think you and I are reading too much into a film intended to be entertainment. So let’s pull up our kids and a big bowl of popcorn and enjoy!

  6. Tara S. permalink
    September 29, 2010 5:04 am

    I especially disagree with what I am going to call the “Little Mermaid Argument” simply on the premise that the Little Mermaid can represent a womans independence. In the film, Ariel is in love with the “other world” simply because it is new and different. She has always longed to be there. She had the strength not to follow the norms set by her fellow merpeople and follow her own dream. I agree with the rest; if we let our children watch something like Telletubbies, where there is no plot, story, and simply makes no sense then we are assuming they lack the intelligence to really understand whats going on besides colors, ABC’s, and counting.

  7. September 29, 2010 6:17 am

    Nice blog! I think this is an, unfortunately, typical over-reaction from a section of the American society that feels it has the monopoly on morals. You might also enjoy this:

  8. March 24, 2011 8:24 pm

    “…the reason you never see pictures of Tinkerbell bent over from behind is that you’d be able to see the magic cave where she keeps her fairy powers…”

    Love it, love it, love it.

    Just discovered (via the hexayurt list, of all things) your wonderful sexuality blog. (Which also is your wonderful blog about sexuality. ) And am glad that I have. Wow!

    Wish you’d been writing this (and I’d known about it) back when I was writing about sexuality for “Men’s Health.” I would have referred readers to you. Still will. But don’t have that influential, though somewhat twisted venue to shout from any more.



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