Sex and Women in Popular Culture

As popular culture began to emerge throughout American society, new views of sexuality and relationships began to abound. The rise of consumer culture and advertising go hand in hand, and as the two phenomenon worked together, a new view of buying, as well as sexuality, was created. The years after World War II introduced a new American sentiment and popular culture mimicked these feelings. Films began to offer more realistic plotlines, books incorporated sex into their stories and marketing, and advertising began to take a more sensual tone. The introduction of sex into popular culture during this time period offered its consumers a new view on sexual politics, and although it seems as if the emerging consumer culture did not target them directly, the country’s youth took a strong hold on the market. This large demographic took the messages of popular culture to heart; their views of sexuality shifted with consumer culture to spark the beginning of the sexual revolution.
Prior to and during World War II, sex did appear in America’s culture, but it was significantly repressed. “Behind-the-counter” publications appeared in saloons and barbershops and pictures pin-up girls were passed around army barracks, but most of society never acknowledged their presence. Film offered sexual undertones throughout this time, but these sexual suggestions were usually so discreet that they became difficult to decipher. Sex was hidden from the majority of society, and especially from the youth.

When America’s soldiers began to return with gruesome stories of war, a pessimistic shift occurred throughout the country. Popular culture began to incorporate these emotions into consumer culture with the rising popularity of pulp fiction novels and the emergence of film noir. Literature at this time rapidly grew more sexual and violent. “[C]lassics were frequently recast as steamy tales of lust, and science fiction and detective novels regularly featured half-naked women on their covers” (Bailey, 42). The introduction of Playboy and its many imitators demonstrated the height of this sexual incursion into mainstream literary entertainment. Film during this time also played a major role in integrating sex into popular culture. The introduction of film noir, with its bleak tone and cynical views, gave post-war America an outlet for their frustrations. Although the plots of these films usually revolves around a violent act, a sexual act is usually an underlying motivator for the violence. Erotic objectification of the female protagonist is at the center of the sexual undertones in these films. Writing in the 1970’s, amidst the feminist movement, Laura Mulvey looked at the conventions of Classic Hollywood cinema through a psychoanalytic eye to point out the effects of this type of objectification on the female spectator.

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, “the function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is twofold: she first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis and, second, thereby raises her child into the symbolic” (Mulvey, 198). This threat of castration opens into various outlets of disavowal for the male subject including things such as fetishism and narcissism, which is often played out to extremes in film narrative. The eroticism of the femme fatale in film noir, for example, tends to be a focus on the feet or legs, similar to the first shot of Phyllis in Double Indemnity- a medium close-up of her calves, which is a common Freudian fetish – “a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against itâÂ?¦sav[ing] the fetishist from becoming a homosexual, by endowing women with the characteristic which makes them tolerable as sexual objects” (Freud, 154). Since the male must fragment the female body to find it sexually pleasing, “the look, pleasurable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallizes this paradox” (Mulvey, 202).

“According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the physical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” (Mulvey, 204). Through the use of a male character who controls the structure of the plot, the male spectator is given not only a sexual object on which to project his gaze (the female), but also a figure with whom he can identify. The role of the male protagonist within cinema is, therefore, that of Lacan’s “image ideal.” This “ideal-I” occurs in the mirror stage (the point in a child’s life when he is able to separate himself from those around him). As the source of secondary identifications, the “ideal-I” presents an image of relative perfection that the male subject strives to be but can never achieve (Lacan, 1-7). The male protagonist plays the role of the ego ideal not only through his control of the screen space, but also through the use of Hollywood’s star system and the glamour associated with its status. While the male spectator is fulfilled on both sexual and psychic levels during the classic film viewing process, the female spectator is offered neither.
This psychic phenomenon progresses throughout film, as well as popular culture in general, as history passes. At the time the women’s movement peaks, sexual objectification of the female body is boldly represented in almost every medium. Female nudity begins to appear in films, and advertising during this time promotes everything from cars to kitchen utensils with the feminine physique as a backdrop.

Mulvey’s writing exemplifies the importance of sexual narratives and depictions throughout the duration of the feminist revolution, and these sexual currents seem to be at the heart of the rhetorical campaign for female freedom. “Anger, not joy, gave shape to most of [the] women’s liberationist writings on sex. Sex appeared most often as a site of pain, a locus of oppression” (Bailey, 193). The women of this movement began to speak of sexual exploration in relation to “self-knowledge and self-help” (Bailey, 191), in contrast to the previous vocabulary of love and pleasure. Although the sexual undercurrents of popular culture played a role in the discussion between members of these liberation groups, the actions of the feminist movement took on a completely different tone. Politics overpowered sex in the protests and marches of these female groups, and by desexualizing the movement, their demands were probably received in two very different manners.

The complete avoidance of sex throughout the activity of the women’s campaign helped to disrupt the stereotype of woman-as-sexual-object that consumer culture fed to America prior to the liberation movement. Since popular culture offered women to society as sexual objects for so long, this type of image could have worked in favor or against the movement. The seriousness of the demands of these women (equality in the workplace, affirmative action, women’s healthcare) encouraged avoidance of sex because there was no correlation between the subjects. By avoiding the presence of sex as an underlying factor in the movement, the demands by these various groups were give more validity. The naturalness of woman-as-object portrayed in all facets of popular culture, on the other hand, seemed to work against the women’s campaign. Evasion of this topic altogether works to devalue the movement as a whole. Fighting for equal rights without mentioning the most prevalent topic of the campaign seems to make no sense. Without reacting to the representation of women in the everyday world, society has no reason to question their practices.

Popular consumer culture has always had a strong hold on American society, and its influences are apparent throughout history. The connections between the sexual objectification of women in popular culture and the beginning of the women’s movement are extremely visible. Although decades have passed since this revolution began, much of the political demands made by these women have been fulfilled, but the objectification of women in popular culture is still very prevalent. The success of these groups in achieving their goals is amazing, but it also leads to one to question whether these groups would have had the same success if they had fought strongly against the stereotypes of women as portrayed in popular culture. Perhaps these images would still remain today whether they were disputed or not, but at this point, no one will really know the answer.

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