Rihanna and Christina Aguilera are just too sexy for The X Factor and their respective performances have raised quite the stir, at least for over 2,000 viewers who have launched complaints to Ofcom (UK communications regulators) about the two “scantily-clad” pop stars in what some reports have classified as “raunchy.”
This of course brings to mind the 2004 television spectacle in which Justine Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime bonanza set CBS into a tailspin because Jackson had the audacity to let her breast be “exposed.” The upshot: Jackson and Timberlake were threatened with being turfed from the 2004 Grammy Awards if they did not apologize for their bawdy high jinks. Timberlake apologized for the “wardrobe malfunction” – a phrase that was appropriated immediately into the pop culture vernacular.
But what exactly is it about women’s bodies that create this social anxiety? Just exactly where is this magical mystery sex line drawn between what is appropriately “sexy” and what becomes straight up “dirty.” And why is “dirty” bad? Or is it in its very “badness” that makes it good … perhaps too good? As Foucault argues, “to deal with sex, power employs nothing more than a law of prohibition” (History of Sexuality 84).
Perhaps what is being dealt with here is not just the material body, but rather a woman’s prerogative to control it. The moment women take that perilous stiletto-step across the boundary away from “proper conduct” she is castigated into the realm of raunch.
The questions beg for comparisons: How does this outrage compare with other images of women that don’t draw the same ire? Not a peep, for example, was heard when 18-year old Aisha was featured on the cover of Time with half of her face brutally cut off? Similarly, no complaints were launched when Nicole Brown Simpson‘s beaten face was displayed on magazine covers in grocery store line ups. It’s worth noting that along with the publication of Brown’s battered face, Demi Moore appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Moore posed naked while pregnant. Shock ensued. Sobeys pulled the copies from the shelves. Brown’s image remained next to confection items without notice.
As reported by Jennifer Peltz in the Associated Press concerning the Time magazine cover:
If the response proves it’s still possible for pictures to provoke a visually saturated culture, it also shows how much viewers have come to accept graphic images. Time braced for an outcry — even consulting psychologists about how the photo might affect children — but relatively little of the ensuing discussion has centered on the graphic nature of the image.
So why do certain images make people complain (women asserting power through their sexuality) while some images do not (women brutalized by violence)?
Judith Butler’s theory on the subject of sex, gender, and desire locates “gender in the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that conceals over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (44). The fetch of history is indeed long and we see a particular sex line in the sand being drawn in 1484.
The Malleus Maleficarum, Latin for “The Hammer of Witches,” or “Der Hexenhammer” was written to inscribe that there are in fact witches, most of whom are women; here are the steps to find them; here’s what you do when you do. It is a nasty bit of literature that demonizes women and was taken up in the 19th century by Dr. Jean Martin Charcot when inventing his iconography of hysteria, a gendered template that continues to a/effect women’s sexuality, their bodies, and most certainly their agency. (This is material for other entry). Shall we recall Britney’s Spears and her bout with hysteria? And why did Jackson have to apologize?
As outlined in The Hammer of Witches:
All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.
A woman asserting her sexuality transgresses the standardized behaviours and ultimately disrupts what must be controlled, among others – the domestic/the family (which is tied implicitly to the economy). Again, I’ll leave this for another day; however, it is worth mentioning that in the UK’s Metro’s reporting on the Rihanna and Christina Aguilera’s “scandal,” it was stressed that “children must be protected by appropriate scheduling from material that is unsuitable for them.”
This form is the law of transgression and punishment, with its interplay of licit and illicit. Whether one attributes to it the form of prince who formulates rights, of the father who forbids, of the censor who enforces silence, or of the master who states the law, in any case one schematizes power in a juridical form, and one defines its effects as obedience” (Foucault, History of Sexuality 84).
Rhianna and Christina are indeed disobedient in a social system that demands women to perform under certain codes of conduct and in a system in which punishment against those who are defiant is normalized.