The cover of Rolling Stone has afforded the means for countless pop-culture princesses to bridge the virgin-whore divide and construct new identities as promiscuous sex symbols. Take the 1999 cover of Britney Spears: Clad in a black push-up bra and polka-dotted panties, her lips suggestively apart and her right index finger gesturing toward her privates, the singer exudes mature sexuality; at the same time, her male companion—a stuffed Tinky-Winky—and her ostensible engagement in frivolous girl-talk affirm her status as an adolescent rendered sexually unattainable by both law and taboo. The magazine’s most recent cover relishes its role as an extreme-makeover guru, peddling a sort of sexual plastic surgery. Pushing their Gossip Girl personas’ decided lack of naiveté to a new extreme, Blake Lively and Leighton Meester jointly lick a cone topped with two scoops of ice cream in an unapologetic allude to the phallic. Blake’s innocent “come-hither” gaze and her prominent cleavage combine with the child-like sweetness of the strawberry-ice-cream-cone-turned-sex-organ to create an image that, while explicitly sexual, remains frustratingly ambivalent—caught somewhere within the fantasy of defiling virginity, the allure of girl-on-girl action, and the magnetism of the sexually mature woman.
These images fuel the flames of modern-day sexual politics: the ongoing struggle to demarcate acceptable sexuality and “sexiness” from impermissible vulgarity and “sexism.” Here, the feminist sexual libertarians, who hold that woman’s empowerment hinges on her ability to both express and claim her sexuality as she sees fit, confront the so-called radical feminists, who deny the possibility of female empowerment through sexuality, as this term is constituted within a patriarchal culture where what is sexual is what gives men pleasure. The former would applaud Rolling Stone’s cover girls for assuming control over their own bodies and asserting their freedom to be sexual. The latter would lambaste the images for reducing women’s bodies to sex objects and for commercializing female sexuality to satisfy the demands of the male consumer.
The disagreement between the two camps reflects the contradictions inherent in contemporary Western feminism. Grounded in Simone de Beauvoir’s notion of “becoming women,” today’s feminists maintain that being a woman is not a natural consequence of having a female-sexed biological body; rather, a person becomes a “woman” through assimilation into a socially constructed category defined in opposition to “man.” Yet the ambiguity of the verb “becoming” invites both passive and active interpretations of Beauvior’s concept. Passively construed, the phrase contends that a person is made into a woman by social forces beyond her control; coerced into compliance with norms of femininity that she has not chosen, a woman, in expressing her sexuality, is merely reifying the oppressive social constraints imposed on her. Actively construed, the phrase implies that women can consciously engage in the formation of their identities, insofar as they can choose to either comply with or resist prevailing gender practices. In this vein, by encouraging women to appropriate their sexuality for their own self-defined and freely chosen ends, the feminist sexual libertarians have attempted to invert the hegemonic norms that place sex fully under male control.
The logical and philosophical viability of both interpretations poses the most profound problem facing modern feminists. If women can derive both degradation and empowerment from public expressions of sexuality, can feminists ever agree on how to evaluate representations ranging from Blake and Leighton’s relatively subdued ice-cream fellatio to more extreme pornographic images and films? Who has the power to define which representations are to be condemned for affirming the instrumentality of women as mere means to male satisfaction, and which are to be lauded for enhancing female autonomy? And by what objective criteria can we evaluate the righteousness of these categorizations?
Ultimately, feminists cannot opine on the precarious line between sexy and sexism without legislating the location of that line itself and, therein, relinquishing all claims to the universality of their conclusion. Indeed, modern feminism, with its valorization of the lived experiences of women, esteems individual subjectivity too highly to provide a satisfactory answer. That is not to say that this valorization is an inherently bad, or even flawed, component of contemporary feminist thought. Women should have the right to choose the manner in which they express their sexuality, regardless of the content of their choice (unless, of course, it results in foreseeable harm to others). Likewise, they should also have the right to judge which representations enlighten and which offend their sensibilities.
Yet the ability to make these choices and pass these judgments is not without consequences: Such conflicting ideals of feminism as rebellion, empowerment, and sexual pleasure come at the expense of alternative ideals of genuine community and sisterhood, which can only be realized through a baseline level of consensus. Yet, if these tensions are an inevitable component of the representational politics of feminism, perhaps the best that feminists can do is ensure the unencumbered expression of each ideal. In this case, feminists should accept that sexualized images in Rolling Stone and other media outlets, while certainly not neutral, are neither innately empowering nor disempowering. The prerogative to make that distinction lies only with the female subject herself.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.