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Post-feminist moralism

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Alessandra Stanley has an odd piece in the New York Times about the recent spate of “women behaving badly” shows, which she claims are demeaning to women. I haven’t seen the shows in question, and given the description I’m persuaded that they’re bad television. Parts of her argument are, however, somewhat puzzling. Doesn’t this strike you as an odd way to start an analysis of TV that’s demeaning to women?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when it became safe to be a stupid slut on television.

Well, if the women are consistently portrayed as stupid, that’s a problem. But I’m rarely convinced by a defense of women that uses the word “slut” prejoritavely. What does Stanley mean? She seems to mean “women who have sex more often or under different terms than Alessandra Stanley deems appropriate:”

The dismantling of feminism in popular culture began long ago, but on television, at least, “Real World” on MTV was a bellwether. When it began in 1992, that voyeuristic show took the music video images of wanton women out of the realm of MTV fantasy and into the reality genre, training cameras on the carnal pursuits of ordinary people and teaching teenagers that fame, however fleeting, trumps shame. “Sex and the City” in 1998 also lent casual sex dignity, or at least glamour, but the imitations it inspired, both on television and in real life, kept getting more tawdry.

Even for someone who, like me, thinks Sex and the City was one of the most creepily misogynist shows on TV, this isn’t very persuasive. It’s unclear how casual sex per se represents the “dismantling of feminism.” I’m guessing that most of the women hooking up on the Real World have male partners; I’m not sure why these “tawdry” relationships say something bad about women, specifically. This paragraph could fit nicely within a David Brooks pseudo-sociological thumbsucker.

It seems, in other words, that Stanley’s normative argument relies on accepting highly non-feminist double standards a priori. Of course, I’m pretty skeptical of a purportedly feminist analysis that refers to sex toys as “marital aids” (genuinely feminist emphasis mine.)


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