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Butter Up Your Stud Muffins, Girls!

As I understand it, the latest boy band phenomenon, One Direction, is a group that was packaged from solo talent auditioning for The X Factor in the UK.  I note that because it absolves them of the songwriting sins I am about to censure.  No, the fault lies with  Rami Yacoub, Carl Falk and Savan Kotecha, writers of the perky, and very listenable, What Makes You Beautiful.

First, let’s talk about what I think makes you beautiful.  That would be your confidence, your sense of humor, your intelligence and ability to carry on a conversation, your drive and ambition, the way you navigate through traffic, how you bake, your ability to sew anything out of nothing, your ability to do math in your head, the way you can make people feel at ease, your bartending skills, your laugh, how you know exactly the right thing to say, your ability to always choose the most amazing presents for people…you know, little things like that.

What do Yacoub, Falk and Kotecha think makes you beautiful?  Your insecurity, your great skin, your nervous hair flippery, your inability to maintain eye contact. 

Why do I care?  What does it matter to me, a 41-year-old woman, what a group of adorable, mop-topped, English stud-muffins are singing?  Especially since the song has a great hook, a great beat, and I can car dance to it–why do I care?

I care because I used to be 13-years-old, and I used to be in love with Duran Duran.  (Yes, all of them.  Well, not really Andy, but I thought he seemed like someone who could teach me how to shoot pool.)  And, being in love with Duran Duran, and being a 13-year-old, my friends and I would scour their song lyrics to determine what would make us attractive to them.  Not easy, considering Simon LeBon’s lyrics are about as straightforward as a Faulkner novel. 

Still, by the time the Duran Duran side projects, Arcadia and the Power Station, had come out, we had at least pieced together that these men seemed to like women who read books and knew philosophy (Last Chance on the Stairway), enjoyed art or could at least identify Rembrandts (The Reflex) , could dance well, were strong and fiery, and who knew just how much they were admired, and used it to their advantage (Rio), were take-charge types (Election Day), were comfortable with their sexuality (Girls on Film), presented a challenge (Hungry Like the Wolf), but who were not opposed to enjoying a no-strings encounter (Save a Prayer), who were memorable (Careless Memory), and who were built like trucks, oh my (Get it On.)  No wallflowers or milquetoasts for these once adorable, mop-topped, English stud-muffins.

I mean, we studied the lyrics!  We used music as a manual for what was desirable in women.  Forget Cosmopolitan, AC/DC told us that men liked women who kept their motors clean and were in good enough shape to outlast any rocker.  Prince told us that women, not girls ruled his world.  Foreigner was sure that a woman could teach what love was.  Bon Jovi’s type was a woman who gave love a bad name.  We considered what Night Ranger told us, what Hall and Oates were saying, what Wham was suggesting, and we put it all together, dressed it neon belly shirts and fedora hats, and walked out the door trying to show that we were confident, secure, intelligent women-to-be, with hair bigger than God’s head. 

None of our idols told us to simmer down and wait to be noticed.  They told us to rock out with our–well, they liked Madonna as much as we did, and we know that Madonna rocked out with her everything showing.  And she said who, she said when, she said how much.  Good lord, even our idealized hookers were more confident.  We weren’t victims!

It drives me mad to think that right this second, there is a gaggle of girls huddled together in the locker room of their YMCA daycamp/standing in front of the mirror in a pink bathroom/squeezed into one seat at the back of the bus heads bent over a lyric sheet, working out that to get a One Direction member’s attention, she must pretend to be shy and think she is ugly.  It aggravates me that instead of practicing their steps to the left, and flicks to the right, little girls are practicing how to flip their hair in such a way that it telegraphs insecurity and a need for outside validation of their worth.

Then again, my little friends and I were emulating strong women.  We grew up with Wonder Woman and Isis, Charlie’s Angels, and strong, intelligent, well written married and single mothers on television.  We had Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Terri Nunn, Pat Benetar, Tina Turner, Sade, The Go-Gos, The Bangles, Sheila E., Janet Jackson and, yes, Madonna in music.  Women who were all confident, self-aware, self-sufficient, and in-your-face with their own acknowledgment of self-worth and desirability.

You know, all the things I would want my daughter to be.  All the things I want the girls I know to be. 

In your face KNOWING they are beautiful.

Butter your stud-muffin with that, girls, and enjoy.

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I watched 30 Rock last night and laughed myself silly over the lampooning of If you’re not a Jez reader, the show requires some set up. It goes like this:

Months ago, Jez accused The Daily Show of having a sexist hiring policy, in that they did not employ many female writers or on-air personalities. Female TDS employees fired back. No, they didn’t employe many female writers or on-airs, but there was a whole herd of women involved in other aspects of the show. Jez also takes issue with Olivia Munn for being hotter than she is funny, and wonder regularly if she would have her job if she looked like, say, Roseanne.

Last night, a feminist website accuses the fictional The Girlie Show of having a sexist hiring policy, so Liz Lemon hires another woman writer. The new girl, Abby, turns out to be a bastardized hybrid of Sarah Silverman’s gross-sexy-little-girl schtick, and Jenny McCarthy’s boobs.

This bothers Liz because she worries that Abby feels like she can’t get ahead in a male dominated industry (television writing) without pandering to erections. This bothers Jenna because her schtick is pandering to erections. Liz sets out to help Abby feel comfortable enough in her skin to act naturally.

In a pretty hilarious standoff (that mirrors another standoff between the privately disgusting, but comedically genius Alec Baldwin and the fantastic Chloe Moretz, whose mouth is so pretty it is mesmerizing), Abby tells Liz that her hot pants in the snow, fuzzy pink jacket, pigtailed, popsicle sucking persona is her natural state, is how she wants to be, and is what makes her happy.

Like many a Jez commenter, Liz cannot believe that a life of baby-talking, boob baring, boorishness is one any woman would choose because it makes her happy. I’m one of those women who can’t understand that choice, simply because playing dumb is so exhausting, and it irritates me when people stare at my cleavage. My eyes are up here.

***Spoilers follow this line.***

It turns out that Liz is right. Abby is living in a version of a self-imposed witness relocation program, and has changed everything about herself in order to hide from a psycho ex-boyfriend.

So the episode begs questions that Jezebel fumbles around all the time. Jezebel editor Irin Carmon writes:

The unsettling feeling of several conflicting ideas being simultaneously true persists throughout the episode, as when Liz’s apparently feminist dismay at Abby being a baby-voiced sexpot aligns with Jenna just plain wanting to tear her down. We would say that the relevant question is not whether she’s sexy or not — it’s whether she’s funny at all, in addition to being hot, not an either-or proposition. Sadly, on 30 Rock, we only see Abby being funny when she’s in her sardonic brunette mode. In the end, it’s a cop-out when her entire sexiness gets chalked up to hiding her identity from an abusive man, unless Tina Fey’s ultimate point, as Fleshbot editor Lux Alptraum suggested yesterday, is that there can be no girly performance of sexuality without it somehow having to do with what a man did to her.

I think there is more to it than that.

When Liz is talking to Abby, Abby tells Liz that her look and her persona are none of Liz’s business. Liz begs to differ. She tells Abby that it is Liz’s business because Abby is representing her show, and representing women in her industry to the world. Abby has gone from being an island in her own comedic ocean, to being part of a team that will produce content for the consumption of a larger audience–likely an audience over whom she will have some sway, and for some of whom she will become an example of how to get ahead in business.

It isn’t that Abby is funny or not. It is absolutely about how she conducts herself.

I was born in 1970, so I had my childhood in the 70s and 80s. I feel like I had fairly decent models of women on television and in the media. I grew up with Wonder Woman, who was scantily clad, yes, but she was clearly boss. I grew up with Charlie’s Angels, who reported to a man, and who were frequently sexed up in their appeal, but who were good detectives and solved crimes. I grew up with Laura Holt, and Jennifer Hart, and Murphy Brown, and Julia Sugarbaker, and Maddie Hayes, and Claire Huxtable, and the Golden Girls. There were plenty of strong, successful women, who were happily pursuing careers in truth, justice, and the American way. And maybe the Angels were using sex appeal on the regular, but the rest of these women were known for their brains and hard work, and their good looks were just gravy.

Girls have so many mixed messages about sexuality, though. We grow up being socialized by media (maybe not our parents, but definitely by magazine covers in the check out line, commercials, television, movies, radio, video games) that sexual desirability is the goal. The more sexually desirable we are, the easier it will be to find a mate, find a job, find success, and find happiness.

Part of sexual desirability is the appearance of sexual availability. We are socialized to believe that our style should offer some hope, or at least inspire some interest. We should be physically fit, and we should dress to show off the bodies of our hard work.

However, until we are of a certain age, or until we are in a committed relationship, we must not ever appear to enjoy our own sexuality or looks. Only sluts have sex and like it. And only bitches like how they look in the mirror.

What a hard way to grow up! Look sexy and like you might be available, but don’t you dare feel sexy and actually offer access to your bits.

And it is very difficult to be a modest woman in business. If you don’t laugh at the jokes, you’re an uptight prude. If you do laugh at the jokes, then the jokes become suggestions, and the suggestions become demands, and it is a vicious circle. God forbid you should be bold enough to ask men (or women) to cut it out. [Remember that I’ve been in a job where a man rubbed his penis on me, then couldn’t understand why I didn’t appreciate it.]

No wonder some women take the message and run with it. No wonder there are Abbys out there! No wonder there are women out there who are happy to do Go-Daddy commercials, and who feel no compunction about being reduced to their secondary sexual characteristics rather than being lauded for their achievements and accomplishments. They feel like they are appropriating the sexual double standard and making it work for them. And for some of them it does work very well.

But it doesn’t work well for women in general. Appropriation doesn’t make it go away. I don’t want another woman’s boobs in my face any more than I want a man staring at mine. Appropriation only makes the original perpetrators confused, and allows them to believe it is now okay to continue their bad behavior.

I don’t knock an Abby, though. I understand. Like Liz said, the constant conversation about, and the constant struggle forward, and the constant need to question, evaluate, and reset is “Perhaps correct. Definitely exhausting.”