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Sexuality in the media means trouble

Scandinavian newspapers are filled with angry reader letters against sexualised images in the public sphere. But do these images depict something viewers need to discuss and deal with? FORUM talked with Norwegian media researchers Wencke Mühleisen, who advocates a less biased view on popular culture

FORUM/20.12.2004 - Sexuality was once safely contained within the confines of the private sphere or restricted to "lowbrow" culture. Now it oozes into every conceivable aspect of the public sphere. Loud, vulgar and explicitly present, sexuality is everywhere to be found - in commercials, movies, TV, journalism, art, or research for that matter. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to label the presense of sexuality in the public sphere "pornophication". Sexualisation and pornography are different things, says media researcher Dr. Wencke Mühleisen, who recently spoke at a conference on gender and media in Oslo.

According to Wencke Mühleisen, pornography as a genre is distinguished by usually being banned in its time or only being available in limited places. Moreover, classic pornography usually transgresses the norms and moral values of the majority. Hence pornography is quite different from eroticism, sexualisation and "soft porn":
- If pornography does not clearly transgress the majority population's norms, morals and sexual mores, it has lost that which is its essence constitutes it - namely a fascination with transgression. The mainstreaming of various pornographic features, that we see in soft porn and in the general sexualisation of media represents a departure from classic pornography. Historians have for instance pointed out, that modern pornography up to the nineteenth century challenged religious authority and acted as a social critique of authorities in general, who then responded by banning it. Pornography is in its essence "in opposition".

Wencke Mühleisen would rather use the term "sexualisation of media" to describe the many recent representations of sexuality in the public sphere. These representations range from acceptance, rejection, imitation and parody to documentary investigation. She refers to French film directors such as Catherine Breillat (Romance (1999) and Virginie Despentes (Baise-moi (2000), who both make films with an explicitly sexual and pornographic content. The Danish production company, Zentropa, experiments with the pornographic genre, targeting women and gay people.
- What's more, a number of TV programmes also deal with sexuality, sexual relations, relationships, and divorce, and provide the viewer with reports from non-experts on how they experience and livechanges regarding sexuality, gender and relationships in general, says Wencke Mühleisen.

Pornography completely ignores the divide between private and public. And although sexualisation of the media cannot be put into the same category as pornography, it creates similar disorder in and realignment of this divide:
- Many feminists have observed this and accuse sexualisation of the media of wrenching sexuality out of the responsible, relational, familiar and intimate private sphere. However, the close relationship between sexuality and the private and familiar, is a modern development and connected to the relatively recent dominance of the middle classes. It is also tied to the construction of the modern, autonomous individual, explains Wencke Mühleisen.
- The model for our notion of a public sphere is based on a privatisation of sexuality, and a sexualisation of the personality as demonstrated by social theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. In the essay "Sex in Public" (2000), queer theorists Laurent Berlant and Michael Warner point out that the privatisation of sexuality, which historically is a quite recent phenomenon, necessarily leads to an instinctive rejection of a public sexual culture.

- Perhaps the stereotypical, tasteless and individualistic representations of sexuality in popular and "low brow" culture can be interpreted as a desire to move into public and political spheres, says Mühleisen provocatively.
- Sexualisation actually seems to express something that the public is concerned about, something that yearns for intellectual, political and aesthetic analyses. The question is, whether we are ready to meet this challenge, or prefer to push sexuality back into the warm, intimate, private and familiar sphere of heteronormativity.

For many social commentators, pornography and the sexualisation of media is a clear sign of society's moral decline, according to Wencke Mühleisen. Closely linked to the perceived tastelessness and "low brow" status of sexuality, is a concern for how pornography and sexualisation influences young women and girls in particular.
- When it comes to sexualisation of the media, people are mostly concerned about its influence on young, vulnerable minds. They are, however, rarely concerned about the nation's young men. It is young women we wish to protect. Even today they carry the nation's honour, disgrace and future aspirations on their tender shoulders and bodies. That is the reason for the intense media focus. Claims about the bad influence of cultural images are consistently linked to lowbrow media such as pornography, movies, comic books, or sub-cultural forms such as gangsta rap. The sex, violence and stereotypes of highbrow culture are rarely seen to have the same damaging effects on its relatively educated and reflective consumers like us.

Is the personal no longer political?
In the 1970s, women fought for sexual liberation and an important message was that the personal was political. What has happened in the last thirty years?

- That's a very interesting question. The message that the personal is political was a call to take a hard look at the traditional protection of private life as something separate from politics, power and economics - which all belong to the public sphere. It was imperative to make the implications of the personal, intimate and sexual on power and politics visible. This also led to changes in media culture. Subjects such as relationships, care-giving, illness, leisure acitivites, hobbies which previously were safely relegated to magazines and stamped as feminine and lowbrow have now entered into the public sphere via TV, radio and newspapers. Seen from a gender, ethnicity and class perspective, these changes have been very important for increasing the general political awareness of these previously overlooked issues. Now issues such as abuse of women and children, and homophobia are on the public agenda.

- The social acts that structure households, intimacy, gender and sexuality - i.e. the "personal" or private - are not neutral. They are an expression of power relations, which are open to negotiation. Early feminism proved the social aspect of the family: The social and political aspects of the personal, and the social and political construction of the personal. This, however, does not necessarily mean that the divide between public and private needs to be erased. What it does entail, though, is a general rethinking of the two spheres, says Wencke Mühleisen.

Today many feminists are highly critical of how sexualisation of the media has removed sexuality from the private and intimate and they ally themselves with conservative forces in a critique of pornography and the sexualisation of the media. But the two are questionable bedfellows, argues Mühleisen:
- Feminist alliance with conservative and fundamentalist Christians in the fight against pornography and sexualisation is hardly a new phenomenon. Eager to criticise mechanisms that objectify and sexualise women, they find themselves supporting norms that dictate how sexual relations and sexuality should be realized, norms based on a patriarchal foundation. Often the only model left standing will be the one that privileges heteronormative family values. Here sexuality is seen as the individual's innermost essense and identity. Sexuality is seen as the most authentic expression of the subjective and personal, particularly with regard to women.
- Relegating intimacy to the private sphere, implies that the sexual, personal and intimate be separated from the work sphere and the political and public arena. When eroticism and sexualality pollutes working life or the public sphere, it meets with resistance and causes the kind of uproar that we see in the debates concerning sexualisation of media.

Women are often portrayed as objects or have an eye-catching function in the media - and it is particularly this objectification that many feminists are against. But is it at all possible for women to no be used as eye-catchers in a predominantly visual media culture?
- Even though men are increasingly being staged as objects, and stage themselves as objects in the media, this tendency is not comparable to the way women are objectified. Women are to a greater degree tied to the notion of gender, because in the dominant visual culture women are seen through the male gaze, and embody the position as object, as the Other. And it goes on and on. It is a cultural sluggishness. On the other hand, feminist media research has also shown, that women actors and TV hosts and in commercials utilise their eye-catching function and exploit sexualisation in a power play with and postmodern parody of sexist[wm24] images. Danish media researcher Vibeke Pedersen has pointed this out in several analyses of Danish TV hosts.

Sexuality on the agenda
At the conference in Oslo, Wencke Mühleisen discussed how sexualisation of popular culture can be interpreted as a type of non-articulated attempt to put sexuality on a public agenda. In her research and in interviews she has advocated the view that current visual, popular culture is seen as a break with, and perhaps a rebellion against, middle-class culture:
- Sexualisation of the public sphere does not share the same transgressive potential of pornography. On the contrary it is conventional and stereotypical. But not just. Since sexualisation of the media indeed does flirt with pornography's desire to transgress, it also creates a disturbance of boundaries and conventions.
- There is more than one reason for that. The limitations in our culture's discourses on sexuality and its stereotypical visual representations are creeping in on us. And more so than many people want. When reality shows on TV openly show so-called intimate details and stagings of what we perceive as private sexuality, some of us become anxious. Instinct tells us, that this is out of place and belongs behind closed doors - and beneath the covers, says Wencke Mühleisen.
- Contrary to this discomfort most parents send their children off to sex education in school. There they are quite certain you only risk affirmation of preconceived norms and representations.

- As researchers, I believe that we should begin to wonder whether this sexualisation of the media and the public sphere, in its own tasteless and stereotypical way, does not provide a new and different role for sexuality than what the tradition public sphere could provide. My argument is, that from a feminist point of view it is necessary to deconstruct and revise the divide between the private and the public, which has proven so efficient in keeping women in place and in reducing sexual culture to its traditional "patriarchal genuflexion".

Translation: Annette Nielsen and Bettina Frank Simonsen

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