I have a bunch of new readers now and, since they’re don’t really know what to expect from me yet, I’m going to choose something lighthearted and palatable to ease them in, right? Nope.
Let’s talk about the commodification of women’s bodies and who profits from it!
Actually, though, let’s start by talking about personality tests.
I’m an ENTP, which Sixteen Personalities describes as a person who loves to exercise their “quick wit, broad accumulated knowledge base and capacity for connecting disparate ideas.” (…should that be the new description for my newsletter?) Anecdotally, my fifth-grade teacher smelled like maple syrup and told me that I was a lifelong learner.
This character trait serves me well as a writer, reader, and podcast fanatic. I absorb an insane amount of information during the week: from peer-reviewed scientific theories to pop culture phenomena to musings from the lifestyle bloggers that I still hate-read even though all their posts are #spon. Despite the wide range of topics, themes tend to emerge around one topic or idea and that’s what gets included here.
Over the past few weeks, there’s a topic that seems to be coming up in every little pocket of the internet that I explore. It’s something that feels so distant from my everyday (did you know women couldn’t even get a credit card without their husband’s permission until 1974?) and yet also very close (like all the accounts of sexual harassment that have come out of the tech industry in which I work). Here are a few of the ways that those ideas have been making me think, cry, and laugh lately.
1. Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On (Netflix)
I came down with a cold a few weeks ago and, after I’d blazed through every Netflix series that had been on my list, I clicked ‘play’ on a new release that looked promising (produced and directed by Rashida Jones of Parks & Rec fame!) called Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. This series looks at the relationship between sex and technology across microcultures including dating apps, chat rooms, pornography, and social media. It’s fascinating, depressing, and provocative to see the power dynamics at play — all centered around women’s bodies in extremely male-dominated industries.
In a few rare cases, the women themselves are calling the shots (either as directors or business owners or on-screen talent) but, as the camera lingers on their faces just a few seconds after they’re done talking, it’s clear that selling sexuality comes with a price — and it’s the women, not the men, who end up paying it. The irony is clear: women’s bodies are simultaneously degraded, devalued, and dehumanized by the very same institutions that sexualize, idolize and profit from them. This is not a new revelation, of course, but it’s one that’s being reflected in pop culture in intimate and incisive new ways that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
That same theme is particularly evident in The Handmaid’s Tale. This Hulu original series stars the indomitable Elizabeth Moss (Peggy Olsen from Mad Men!) as the lead character, Offred. Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, this show takes place in a dystopian version of the United States called Gilead where a new regime has divided women into categories that include Wives (who oversee the home), Marthas (who cook and clean) and Handmaids (who are forced surrogates for the high-ranking men and their “infertile” wives). Yet again, women’s bodies are the most precious commodity in this society, this time for their ability to bear children. Instead of being revered or respected, the Handmaids are stripped of their rights and dignity and relegated to “breeding stock,” right down to the red cattle tags on their ears.
As an antidote to its grim subject matter, it’s one of the most visually gorgeous pieces of cinema I’ve ever watched. Its columns of golden light and gorgeously intimate close-ups ensure that this admittedly dark show never feels too heavy. Still, it’s one of the only TV series that I’ve laid awake at night thinking about. It draws its inspiration from our own history: New England Puritanism, Saudi Wahhabism, the Third Reich, American slavery, and the East German surveillance state. It’s fiction, yes, but it’s also a vivid reminder of how quickly heretical ideas — especially as they apply to a human being’s value — can become the law of the land.
3. Rookie Mag & Rookie Podcast
Let’s end on a lighter note. As a pre-teen, I acquired a subscription to the now-defunct CosmoGirl. I liked it because you could usually flip past the beauty tips to juicy little bits about french kissing and thong underwear. Looking back, it was probably a lot more informative than the co-ed “health” class I took in which we learned about anatomy by holding index cards up above each other’s head and having our classmates SHOUT clues at us until we got it right. I went first. My clue was “sack”, hollered at me by a pubescent teenage boy. I guessed the answer (“scrotum”) right away and promptly began researching schools to transfer to.
Rookie is the resource I wish I’d had back then: it’s honest, funny, responsible, and whip-smart about all the topics that teen girls are actually interested in (because, as I demonstrated with my CosmoGirl research, they will always find answers somewhere). The Rookie podcast is hosted by creator Tavi Gevinson and features interviews with everyone from Winona Ryder to Lorde to George Saunders, all about “what it means to be a person” and, inherently, how to determine your own value and self-worth. My favorite segments are Life Skills, like how to correct someone when they mispronounce your name, and Ask a Grown Man/Woman, in which semi-qualified adults (including favs like Rashida Jones, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ira Glass and Kumail Nanjiani) answer questions from teenage girls with surprising wisdom, honesty, and empathy.
I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve had a chance to watch, read or listen to any of the things I mentioned above — it can be heavy stuff to process, so let’s do it together! Leave a comment to let me know what your favorite teen mag was as a kid or share your most scarring sex ed experience (so I feel less alone). To my new readers: it was nice knowin’ ya.