Female Sexuality, Feminists, & the Superbowl

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This Sunday, 100 men in the prime of their lives will repeatedly line up and violently run full speed into each other. For the entertainment of 100 million people (and several million dollars and world-wide fame), they will risk permanent disability, paralysis, and even death.

Welcome to the Superbowl.

Because 100 million people watch, the TV commercials during the three-hour show are the most expensive on earth. And, of course, the most watched. And so it was big news when NBC rejected the ad proposed by the vegetarian activist group PETA (disclosure: I DO eat meat and wear leather).

The stylish 30-second ad shows rapid cuts of a half-dozen beautiful women wearing bikinis or lingerie fondling various vegetables with erotic delight. There’s a sexy instrumental soundtrack, with a single message overlaid in big letters: “Studies show vegetarians have better sex. Go veg.” It’s signed “Peta.org.”

The NBC censor rejected the ad, saying it “depicts a level of sexuality exceeding our standards.” NBC said PETA had to cut the following 1-second moments before they’d reconsider the commercial:
· “licking pumpkin
· touching her breast with her hand while eating broccoli
· pumpkin from behind between legs
· rubbing pelvic region with pumpkin
· screwing herself with broccoli (fuzzy)
· asparagus on her lap appearing as if ready to be inserted into vagina
· licking eggplant
· rubbing asparagus on breast”

Mind you, this all takes place in less than 30 seconds, so you can imagine how long the camera could possibly linger on any of these images.

Morality in Media is thrilled, commending NBC for rejecting the “home strip-tease” and “PETA smut.” This kind of reflexive censorship and its support is drearily familiar. But a more troubling criticism has arisen, the so-called “feminist critique.” Being a long-time committed feminist myself, I frequently agree with both BlogHer and Feministe. But unfortunately, they and their supporters are critiquing the wrong thing here.

Since we don’t live in a perfect world, everything must be evaluated relative to the alternatives. So I ask my feminist colleagues: aren’t you troubled about the censorship–of sexuality, and of FEMALE sexuality? Isn’t that the more important, less ambiguous sin here?

True, it would be better if the PETA ad showed sexy men, too (their other ads do).

But in this commercial the vegetables are not stand-ins for men. The ad honors straightforward female eroticism, which is NOT something we can take for granted in the mass media. The ad references sex without disease, violence, unwanted pregnancy—or marriage. It shows women quasi-masturbating—for themselves, not for their lover. For mainstream TV, this is a big deal. It beats Oprah’s sexual fear-mongering by a mile.

Besides, the whole ad can be viewed as a parody of commercials in general, particularly the Superbowl ads. PETA’s ad is actually witty. Mistaking it for sexist crap is intellectually lazy, exposing us to the age-old argument that feminists and feminism not only lack eroticism, but a sense of humor, too.

Of course, NBC will show plenty of commercials featuring sex. But they’ll all have men in them, and they won’t portray women as independent sexual agents. Besides, where’s the “feminist” critique about men—not people, men—being encouraged to risk death to entertain us?

A display isn’t automatically sexist or degrading just because it features female sexuality, or the woman is beautiful. If we can’t celebrate female eroticism and we can’t laugh at ourselves, where does that leave us?

The joyless, humorless, Morality in Media.

Is that who we want to be in bed with?

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