Selling, Stalking, and Shaming

Superbowl 2004 offers a revealing window into how our culture views sex and sexuality. Namely, sex is a tool for persuading you to consume, for oppressing and demeaning others, and for making people feel guilty and confused about something that should be a right and a pleasure.

By now everyone is aware that Janet Jackson wears sunburst jewelry on her nipple, that Justin Timberlake felt he was “booby trapped” by Janet’s “malfunctioning wardrobe,” and that commentators from right, left and center are scandalized by this supposedly unchoreographed bit of nudity during the Superbowl half-time show.

But in my opinion, it wasn’t Janet and Justin’s feeble bumping and grinding and stripping on stage that was the most sexual moment during the Superbowl.

Oh no. Not by a long shot. It was the Charmin toilet paper commercial that gets the award for the most explicit erotic content. I may have some of the details wrong. I was watching the Superbowl in a crowded bar, after all. The place was rowdy. I was trying to keep an eye on my kids who were playing darts in the corner. But the Charmin commercial definitely caught my attention.

It featured a professional looking football team getting ready to make a play. The quarterback is bending down to receive the snap, but he is distracted by a length of Charmin toilet paper hanging down the back of the center’s waist. (For those who are not savvy about American football, it is apparently common for the guy who hikes the ball to the quarterback to hang a cloth down his rear end so that the QB can dry his sweaty palms before reaching between the hiker’s legs to receive the football.)

In this case, however, something goes wrong. Or right, depending on how you look at these things. The rag is not a rag at all, but an irresistibly sensuous bit of toilet paper. It lays right down the center of the hiker’s rear end, which of course is turned up and presented directly to the quarterback’s expectant hands. The quarterback strokes the Charmin gently.

As he caresses the toilet paper, which lies provocatively down his teammate’s butt crack, the quarterback goes into a reverie. He forgets the game and appears to be transported to a pleasure zone that is far away from the gridiron, the rules and regulations of the game, and competitive, high-pressure expectation that he complete the play.

Football, the multi-billion dollar homoerotic sport provides the backdrop for a jaw-droppingly-explicit homoerotic sales pitch. As commercial portrayals of sexuality go, this one isn’t that bad (although points off for promoting sports as the only legitimate channel for homoerotic feelings). No one is hurt or victimized. The erotic moment happens in the context of a game where the players are more or less equal. The quarterback’s erotic reverie flies in the face of the “rules of the game,” and seems to promote simple pleasure in a non-judgmental and not very loaded way.

Contrast that with Justin Timberlake essentially stalking Janet Jackson on stage, and belting out threats “to have you naked by the end of this song.” These two can’t even sing, much less dance. Their choreographed mating ritual — which consists of approaching, rejecting, flipping hair, and gyrating hips — is somewhere along the spectrum of scary/boring/unpleasant. There’s no reverie, no fun, no eroticism — just the age-old script: man rips off woman’s clothes. Man gains access through force. Man is the actor, the agent, the one with uncontrollable urges who *will have his way.*

In this case, race is also part of the script. The black woman — no matter that she is more than a decade older — is the sexual temptress. She is a slut and therefore a deserving victim.

But wait! News reports indicate that Janet Jackson actually rigged her outfit to come inappropriately undone. Now Justin Timberlake appears to be the victim. Did this aging, surgically altered, and declining-in-the-charts diva set him up to unknowingly rip off her bustier? Despite her portrayal on stage as the passive one, maybe she was actually in charge of the whole scene?

That’s true, I suppose, but only insofar as you can argue that a bit player in a much larger drama has control over anything substantive. The parameters of female sexual expression are very narrowly defined in U.S. culture. We don’t even get to act out playful (if repressed) homoeroticism in Charmin commercials. Rock stars are as restricted (if not more so) than the rest of us. If they want to act out and get attention and do the things that rock stars do to increase their sales, it seems the only way to do it is take the already demeaning caricatures of female sexuality, and find ways to make them even more demeaning.

Everyone is fixated on the fact that her breast was bared. Except for Howard Dean, that is, who attributes his nonchalance about nudity to the fact he’s a doctor. (Seen one breast, seen ’em all.) But focusing on the bare breast misses the point. It’s not the nudity that was obscene. It was the choreographed date rape that was offensive — and the cultural stamp of approval that it received from the NFL, CBS, MTV and the other media overlords who were in charge of the show.

The relentless focus on the breast as the great offender is affecting other networks. NBC felt pressured to cut a 1.5-second shot from “ER” in which an exposed breast appears in the background and “in a medical context.” John Wells, the executive producer of “ER” found NBC’s censoring of the scene “terrifying and disturbing,” according to the New York Times (2-5-04). Besides, “she’s 80 years old,” protested Mr. Wells said. “To think there is anything salacious there is absurd.”

So, if we could just be reasonable (like Dr. Dean) and see breasts as medically packaged body parts, then producers at NBC wouldn’t be denied the right to tell their story, goddamnit! Oddly, I didn’t notice any of these producers protesting CBS for censoring the anti-Bush Move-On commercial, which it ironically refused to air because it wanted to avoid controversy.

Corporations use sex to increase profits in two key ways. One is exemplifed by the Charmin commercial, which titillates in order to imprint a brand name on your subconscious and thus find a way into your wallet. The other, exemplified by Jackson and Timberlake, is to continually construct sex and sexuality as anything other than a mutually gratifying, non-commercial pleasure. We can’t have people thinking they can express their sexuality outside the confines of oppressive power relations now, can we?

The whole monstrosity of corporate media, so richly on display during the Superbowl, is an exercise in censorship and greed, and yet we are being told to feel aghast at the sight of a breast! One of the first things my kids and I did after the Superbowl was to watch a slow-motion, close-up replay of the whole thing. It’s not breasts that are shameful, I hoped to communicate to them. It’s the enormous wealth and power that is dedicated to flooding the airwaves with demeaning images of women that is loathsome.

(I know the corporate owners claim to be victims of Janet’s last-minute decision to put her nipple art on display, but they are not completely lacking in responsibility here. After all, they signed off on the choreography — on the dancers stripping down to bikinis and on the predator/prey sensibility of the show. You can’t put mega corporate muscle behind a show that screams sex! sex! sex! and then cry foul because a breast appears unannounced.)

The football Charmin commercial made me remember the one that used to run when I was a kid. The camera zoomed in on some lowly shopper caught in the act of squeezing a voluptuous 4-pack of toilet tissue. A commanding voice from off-camera warned, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.” Meanwhile, in case anyone has gotten a kick out of seeing Janet’s breast, the media — after setting up the whole exposure — now must put tremendous resources into shaming us all for looking.

You can’t exactly rebel against the omniscient off-camera authority because it’s embarrassing and pathetic to be getting off on toilet paper, even if it is squeezably soft. You can’t reclaim the breast from the shocked (“shocked, I tell you!”) commentators because Janet’s little “wardrobe malfunction” happened in the context of something that looked like stylized date rape.

And that’s the point — to create so much noise that there’s no room left for an independent feeling. Mainstream media fills the air waves with messages about sex. They use it to sell us stuff, to remind us of the narrow oppressive power relations that we have to function in, and to shame us for being interested in anything more.

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