Young women in crop-tops, miniskirts and fishnet stockings mow down Nazis with automatic weapons. A scantily clad cheerleader chops up zombies with a chainsaw while spouting suggestive come-ons. A young woman gladly consents to an abusive S&M relationship with a controlling older man.
It’s enough to make even the most jaded reviewer flinch. But believe it or not, all of these have been described as “empowering” by various social commentators.
One of the most disturbing trends in pop culture is the appropriation of female exploitation as entertainment. Much has already been written about this topic, but’s what new is that exploitation is now tinged with neo-feminist angst. Content that would have been censured in previous years as “objectifying” or “chauvinist” is now excused on the grounds that it somehow “empowers” women. For decades, critics and scholars have derided a “male-dominated” culture obsessed with the pursuit of sex -- now, strangely, the tides have turned.
From Zack Snyder’s girls-and-guns action flick “Sucker Punch” and video games like “Lollipop Chainsaw” to E. L. James’s bestselling “Fifty Shades of Grey,” inversion of traditional attitudes seems to be the cultural flavor of the hour. Even the family-friendly superhero film “The Avengers” spent plenty of time leering at Scarlett Johansson’s tight catsuit. Yet few feminists have complained. “After all,” goes the justification, “these are strong, confident women boldly expressing their sexuality. We need more of that.”
No, we don’t.
This is not a question of art versus censorship. (“Fifty Shades” began as “Twilight” fan-fiction.) Serious-minded artists will continue to explore questions of gender roles and the relationship between male and female. This differs markedly, however, from the ongoing cultural destigmatizing of the aberrant.
Willing surrender to degradation is not empowerment. Rather, it’s merely another form of exploitation -- exploitation of oneself. The fight against illegal drug use won’t be solved be depicting strong and successful people boldly using drugs. In the same way, the fight against the degradation of women won’t be solved by depicting women voluntarily demeaning themselves. Portraying women as aggressive, sexually voracious alphas is no affirmation: Rather, it is a validation of men’s most depraved paradigms.
According to the biblical worldview, human sexuality is a beautiful and grace-filled gift -- a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the Church. Too often, this has been subverted by abuse, pornography, and domineering patriarchy. Those are evils that both believers and nonbelievers may rightly censure. But society’s answer has been to appropriate and affirm, rather than condemn, the sexual degradation of women.
None of this is to say that culture should depict women as Victorian-era damsels in distress. But the currently “chic” association of femininity with destructive sexuality is a worrisome trend that should concern both genders. Objectification is always wrong -- no matter who’s doing the objectifying.