What do you do if you are a trio of female country singers, who have spoken out against the war, and suffered some backlash as a result?
You pose nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, of course.
Such was the trajectory of the Dixie Chicks, popular recording artists from Texas, who told a London audience back in March that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George Bush. According to the BBC News (4/24/03), anti-Chicks protesters have burned their CDs and even threatened to kill lead singer Natalie Maines and her fellow band members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison.
Some say that sales of Dixie Chicks CDs have slumped, but others contend that singers’ anti-war stance actually improved their popularity. Michael Moore, citing an article by Frank Rich in the New York Times (4/6/03) wrote that “their album is still at 1 on the Billboard country charts and, according to Entertainment Weekly, on the pop charts during all the brouhaha, they ROSE from 6 to 4.”
Whether being anti-war helps or hurts the ratings of U.S. pop stars may be up for grabs. But what seems clear is that female nudity sells. What does it sell in this case? First and foremost, it sells copies of the May 6th issue of Entertainment Weekly — featuring, as it does, the eye-catching photograph of the three beautiful and naked Dixie Chicks. It also sells Dixie Chicks products since the cover story is great publicity for their music and their upcoming tour.
Maybe it also sells the anti-war message. The Dixie Chicks have used the publicity around their nude posing to reaffirm their anti-war stance (though Natalie Maines said she regrets her “disrespectful” choice of words at the London concert). Maybe it is positive for public debate that the Dixie Chicks managed to use Entertainment Weekly to bring an anti-war message into popular culture. Who cares if they had to be willing to pose nude in order to gain access?
Does it matter?
Yes, it does. Female nudity in this society is used by marketers to get people to buy things. Furthermore, and perhaps more damaging, it trains us to think of women as consumable objects, and it works to flatten complex human relationships (such as those expressed through sexuality), and convince us that human needs can be met in the marketplace.
I don’t know why the Dixie Chicks agreed to pose nude for Entertainment Weekly. Was it a publicity stunt designed to up their ratings? Or was it the most honest way they could figure to get their message out? Perhaps their motivations matter less than the possible effects.
One result of their nude posing is that it softens their anti-war stance. The Dixie Chicks’ nudity soothes their detractors by suggesting, “Look, you shouldn’t feel threatened by us. We’re just babes underneath it all.”
And the Dixie Chicks played into that by agreeing to pose in the nude.
They took off their clothes and took their place among a long list of objectified women whose bodies are used to sell everything from beer to real estate. You could almost get whiplash from the non-sequitur contained in the headlines, “Dixie Chicks Pose Nude in Response to Backlash.” How is posing nude a response to getting death threats? Who knows? But most of us don’t bother to ask the question because we are so used to consuming images of naked or scantily clad women whose job is to associate shopping with sexual allure.
Maybe by uncloaking themselves, the Dixie Chicks meant to reveal the labels that have been put on them since they came out against the war. In the photo, their naked bodies appear to be inscribed with the epithets as well as the praise that has been directed their way: “Dixie Sluts,” “Traitors,” “Saddam’s Angels,” and “Proud Americans” are the labels they “wear” for the cover photo.
The problem is, they flatten their message by making their sex appeal our entrÃ©e to it.
Men don’t have to pose nude as a way to comeback after getting slammed for their ideas. Men are not expected to promote their opinions via the shape of their thighs or the curve of their backsides.
It would be nice if we had a culture that celebrated all our bodies and our sexualities. But we don’t. Is that the anti-war movement’s problem? I think so. Gender politics get played out in our movement just like they do in every niche of society. While we should support the Dixie Chicks in their anti-war efforts, we should also work to create public space for women to speak even when they don’t take off all their clothes.
I know that sounds radical.
But the Dixie Chicks remind us that gender plays a significant role in determining who gets to speak out, and how.
The peace and justice movement should be one small (but growing!) forum where women’s voices are not only allowed, but nurtured. We should promote women writers and speakers and activists from within our ranks — making sure we do not replicate sexist structures that leave men doing all the talking and women doing all the data entry. By taking care of these priorities in our own movement, we would be changing the gender balance in the mix of public voices. We would be re-writing the norms about who speaks out when and what happens as a result.
The anti-war movement has not done such a bad job in many ways. As reported recently in the L.A. Times (4/13/03), “There is a preponderance of female leadership in today’s antiwar movement, in groups national and grass-roots, with women taking the lead in organizing candlelight vigils and protest marches.”
Just as our analysis of world events must keep the left end of the political debate alive, so must our movements push to break down sexist barriers that limit women’s expression. The Dixie Chicks remind us that consumer culture doesn’t expect us to speak out, and if we do, it expects to be able morph the message into something that can be delivered via a beautiful blonde’s naked torso. That’s not the kind of world we want. Let’s be sure we’re doing our part to counter it and present alternatives.
Cynthia Peters ([email protected]) works for SEIU Local 285, and is an activist and writer.