Saturday, January 12, 2008

Yes....and No

(from the comments at pinkraygun - NSFW - re: the now infamous playboy/WW cover)

But secondly, female sexuality is a power, and I would argue that sexuality has always been one of the things that makes Wonder Woman strong, in addition to her physical strength and other abilities/weapons.

I'm going to set aside the whole issue of Wonder Woman for a moment - mostly owing to the fact that I'm hardly an expert on the subject - and focus on this part of the quote:

...female sexuality is a power.

That's one one of those statements that is technically true, but is often falsely used to mean more than just the literal definitions of the words in question.

Why, after all, does one always feel the need to say that female sexuality is a power? Is not sexuality itself a power? (Really people, I cannot possibly be the only one watching the first season of The Tudors now that it's out on dvd.)

Or, more precisely, isn't being sexually desireable a power?

Since, of course, one's sexuality is made up of more than just how other people view you. Yet, when one is discussing Playboy type looks, one is very obviously discussing how other people view you, not everything that falls under "female sexuality." Feminine desires are part of the conversation only when/if they intersect with being on display.

The Pinkraygun reader is trying to argue that being sexually desireable is just one of the many weapons in Wonder Woman's arsenal. However, the fact that we (usually) only attribute such powers to women makes it a gendered power, which - for various reasons - makes it more of a requirement than an asset. It's not just that it's useful to Wonder Woman that she is beautiful and sexy; by defining male and female sexuality the way we do, we also make being ugly more of a liability for women than for men - superheroes included.

Because, for some reason, we consistently define feminine sexuality as very passive - one is desired but does not desire* - and define male sexuality as very active - one desires but is not desired. Needless to say, the fact that reality is otherwise creates some major problems.

Female sexuality feels more powerful to people than it is because the desire (straight) men have for women tends to undermine the premise that men do not fall prey to emotions. But it isn't a superpower - it's an often an illusory power; being an object of desire is only useful if you are high enough in the hierarchy to use that to your advantage. (Henry VIII vs. Duke of Suffolk vs. Anne Boelyn vs. Buckingham's daughter)

Or, more perhaps accurately, female sexuality feels powerful to people because when one is bargaining, the power dynamic between hagglers is largely determined by who is more willing to walk away without a deal having been made.

When we define sexuality only by men's desires, we make it seem as if straight men are always at a disadvantage; we write a cultural narrative in which women are always the ones willing to walk away and men never are. Reality, however, is quite different. (As the characters from The Tudors can attest to.) Plus, being willing to walk away from a deal is not only determined by how much one wants something, but also by if one is physically, financially, and legally able to leave. When we define reality by men's experiences (and usually powerful men's experiences, at that) we forget how often women and other disadvantaged groups are put in the position of not being able to walk away.

(spoilers for the first episode of The Tudors)

I keep going back to one particular scene in the first episode of The Tudors. In it, the king asks Lady Blount if she consents to having sex with him. She says "yes," and very obviously desires him as well. And yet...she's also just a little bit hesitant. And I can't help wondering what would have happened to her if she said "no." I'm fairly certain that she wondered the same thing at one point, and that both of us came to the conclusion that she would have suffered for denying him.

And then, of course, we have Charles Brandon's seduction of Buckingham's daughter (does she even have a name?). This is very obviously a case where the (modern) cultural narrative doesn't work. He chose her mostly in order to hurt her father; it's almost certain that he would have made sure her father knew of her actions if chance had not done so for him. On the other hand, whatever her reasons, it's obvious that desire was one of them. In this case, the man is the one who is using his attractiveness as a weapon and it is the woman who literally cannot walk away from this world of men.

Female sexuality is a liability in a world where sexuality is defined by male desires, and where this definition is enforced by laws and cultural mores. Being a sexually desirable woman is a possible advantage, but how much of a power it is depends upon one's status, which is in turn determined by whose opinions and desires influence culture and law. Women's status may have vastly improved for the better since the time of the Tudors, but as long as our definition of sexuality is (mostly) shaped by male desires, and as long as women as a group still have less political and economic power than men, women will still be at a disadvantage at the bargaining table.

(People who know the character better than I do are welcome to disagree, but...)

I think that Wonder Woman's beauty and sexiness is a more useful power to her in her home world, where it is seen as an asset rather than a requirement, and where she is afforded enough status that her own desires are not disregarded and where other's appreciation of her beauty isn't used to undermine her other strengths.

Which is pretty much the opposite of what most people mean when they talk about female sexuality being powerful.

Plus, what Ragnell said. In spades.

*even women that are viewed as sexually aggressive are usually viewed as being eager to take whatever men want to do to them, rather than having desires of their own

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