Friday, October 16, 2009

Selling sexiness back

In my last post I mentioned I'd read the book 'For Her Own Good' and - after a Facebook-based debate about the views expressed by women about women in The Daily Mail -I feel the need to explain how this book has helped me figure out further why the birth control pill is so rarely and reluctantly criticised. Bare with me, and I'll try to condense all the thoughts down so I don't loop out theorising forever.

The writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English begin with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the 19th century author of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' - a partly autobiographical short story about a woman who, feeling unwell, is prescribed the 'rest cure' by her doctor. In that era there was something of an epidemic of sickness amongst middle class women. These women had servants and maids, only a few acceptable ways of entertaining themselves and were entirely dependent on their husbands. What Gilman called the 'sexuo-economic' relationship between husbands and wives made women, as she saw it, little more than well-kept prostitutes.

With no work to do, and no allowance for thinking, reading or learning, concentration was on their bodies. Women fell ill and took to their beds in response to this situation. The fainting, weak, child-like woman was seen as very attractive at the time - think of it like the 'heroin chic' of the mid 1800s. Being sickly was so much the fashion women would drink vinegar and arsenic to bring on symptoms.

The uterus was considered the controlling organ, the rest of women's bodies centred around it. The focus on this was not however connected to an understanding of women's sexuality - that idea was a threat to their main reproductive role. Doctors believed the uterus competed with the brain, that there was no possibility of them working harmoniously together. This discord showed that women were intrinsically, inately sick as a result of their very womanliness. Femininity was a mental illness. The sickness of the middle class 19th century woman was always directly linked to her reproductive organs.

But the doctors realised that if women were truly sick all the time, then they wouldn't be so good at having babies. They feared all these women taken to their beds would cause a fall in the birth rate. Likely part of women's enthusiasm for sickness was that it got them out of having more children. This is when the idea of hysteria was introduced, which I've spoken of before. If a woman was hysterical then she wasn't really ill and could have babies. Simple. The writers suggest that hysteria was also used by women to express their anger over such manipulation.

Children became the focus of medicine. Society put all its hopes for progress into the idea of the child. Motherhood and the raising of children was elevated to a high level of importance. But far from giving women a better foothold and more control, doctors insisted women were not to be trusted with such a vital role. The child held a much better status than the mother. To enable their own involvement in the child rearing process, doctors decreed that pregnancy brought out in women the 'horror of being female.' Women would try and satisfy their own needs over the baby's and thus cause psychological damage.

Fast forward to the 1950s and the growing consumer economy gave a certain power to women. They were the ones buying all the stuff for the house and therefore the market became very attentive towards their wants and needs, at least in terms of appliances. Men, however, blamed the changing economy for making them feel unmanly. Success now would come from selfishness, ruthlessness and individualism. Women were still in the home, looking after their families rather unselfishly. This presented a problem, a problem solved when the medical authories branded maternal self-sacrifice as masochism. In this culture of self-gratification women's mentality, their self-denial, was a disease. Women were masochists, and as such liked the menial labour of housework and a good dose of sexual humiliation.

The discovery of hormones in the 1920s gave doctors the necessary 'evidence' to continue to twist the use of psychology in female biology. Menstrual problems and infertility were caused by 'incomplete feminisation.' If women were unhappy with their housewife and mothering duties it was because they were rejecting their femininity, and as such not well in the head. Pregnancy was the most obvious sign to women that they were indeed female, and so women manifested illnesses so as to not get pregnant.

Of course, women were rejecting their feminity - or the idea of feminity that they had been presented with for so long. They didn't want to be restricted to the marriage, housewife, children cycle. They did want to work, have careers. But, very interestingly to me, this movement was entirely supported by the needs of the economy. Men and women were being encouraged to buy more and more stuff, particularly after the introduction of a TV into every home, and they couldn't buy it all and have holidays on the man's salary alone. So women had to go out to work to pay for this aspirational living.

The number of single women grew as a result - they could work and support themselves without men. In 1962 'Sex And The Single Girl' by Helen Gutley Brown was released. Clearly, this was a good move, women could be independent. But, yet again, this was fully encouraged by the market - more single people means more demand for stuff. Rather than sharing the stuff, they each needed their own. 'For Her Own Good' contains a brilliant quote from the director of market research for a major company taken from a 1974 interview:

"There's nothing in this that business would be opposed to. People living alone need the same things as people living in families. The difference is there's no sharing. So really this trend is good as it means you sell more products. The only trend in living arrangements that business does not look favourably on is this thing with communes, because here you have a number of people using the same products."

He also explained in the interview that business dealt with the threat of communal living by keeping the idea out of the media. Instead the glamour of singleness was, and is still, promoted. Singleness opened up whole new markets for selling - travel, liquor, leisure, clothes, cosmetics...Single women would spend, not save. This ethos of individualism and self-gratification infiltrated relations between men and women. If you are only responsible for yourself then a relationship should only be continued as long as it is 'emotionally profitable.' Your needs are legitimate and important but people are entirely replaceable.

Single and married women went to work and were pushed to imitate men, but remain attractive. They had to deny that they had any different needs in order to succeed - such as allowances for pregnancy, child care, that they would leave work only to start their second job as housewife and mother. Children presented a conundrum to the early consumer economy - they were a spanner in the works. So, it was necessary for it to be understood that women choose to have a child, and if they can choose to or not to, then there's no neccessity for supporting a working woman who does fall pregnant.

Let's back up - the pill was released in 1960 - allowing women to choose more easily whether to have a baby or not and when. It stopped all the talk about women being fit for work alongside men, and all the talk about the battle between women's heads and reproductive organs. The pill shut those damn reproductive organs up. Now they were out of the debate, life was meant to be much easier. Faced with the constant speculation of doctors worrying over their uteruses and ovaries, it's understandable women happily took a pill that could silence the issue. Even if it meant the medical authorities kept their control. 'For Her Own Good' doesn't talk about all this. I'm just wondering now.

Also, if you could be single, but knew you couldn't be single and pregnant and keep working in a world that had only just let you in and you'd have to get the man to marry you, then the pill must have been very attractive. As I said before, I guess feminists retrospectively see the pill as a catalyst in the change of situation for women. When in a way, the pill was helping women fit into a still male-dominated society, and keeping everyone happy - except her, once the high estrogen content kicked in with depression. By taking the pill, women were choosing as the economy wanted, and that meant the workplace didn't have to give support were a woman to be pregnant. Similarly a single, or married man didn't have to support the woman who got pregnant by him.

Enrenreich and English go on to argue that sex during this time was fully separated from reproduction - as it was, with the pill, although they bizarrely don't say this. Once sex and reproduction were no longer connected, it was easier to detach sex from commitment or affection, even. Sex could then be commodified, and sold back to people in the form of 'sexy' cars, clothes and so on. The introduction of the pill allowed the market to develop its main selling technique, the method that is utilised to great effect to this day.

Ariel Levy's 'Female Chauvanist Pigs' makes this point well - again, though, without not one mention of the pill in the entire book (sorry I just can't believe it):

"Making sexiness something quantifiable makes it easier to explain and to market. If you remove the human factor from sex and make it about stuff then you can sell it. Suddenly sex requires shopping."

In the same book, Candida Royalle is quoted as saying:

"Revolutionary movements tend to be co-opted - swallowed up by the mainstream and turned into pop culture. The real power is pretty much dissipated."

Feminists hedged their bets at this stage, and now looking back, with the individual choice emphasised by the economy, by those looking to make more and more money. The pill represents choice. Individual choice led to individual rights, rather than social change. The movement is entirely defensive of this stance. The goodness and rightness of choice has been promoted for its own sake, despite the choices presented not being formed or created by women. Women had choices, but they didn't select what they could choose from. Ehrenreich and English believe as women were accepted into a man's world, they were also marginalised, and along with them 'human values' were pushed out to make way for socially supported selfishness and individualism.

What I took from this book was that the birth control pill is kind of intrinsically connected to the development of society, and as the values and morals of the consumer economy are still very much with us today, the pill still holds the same position of power. All that was believed then, is still believed now, but far more strongly. The ideas - the profitability of relationships, the drive for self fulfillment - have really settled in and solidified, as has the pill. People no more question the pill than they will question why they want to another handbag or sex toy.

Then if you think how the pill effects women's bodies, their emotions and responses to the world, you can see how it could actively help separate men from women in the 'war of the sexes.' Plus, the sex sells method of advertising aside, if women don't feel sexual, let alone sexy, in a world obsessed, because of the pill's impact on their hormone levels then they are more likely to want to buy stuff that will help them feel that way - toys, clothes, brazilian bikini waxes. And perhaps the more detached we are from our bodies the more we are happy to put it through in order to feel sexy - breast implants, liposuction, collagen injections. That detachment might also drive us to act like our bodies don't even belong to us and take pole dancing classes for exercise, become strippers to pay for college, make amateur porn for youporn.com or star in a Girls Gone Wild video.

I'm just speculating here.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece, a lot of very interesting valid ideas in there, it would make a fab Adam Curtis type documentary! CR

    ReplyDelete