In Memory of Her: The Woman as a Meaningful Pursuit

by Ms. Andreea Bălan

The word pornography generally conjures up images of erotic films, dirty magazines, or famous adult-entertainment performers such as Jenna Jameson. We often have a rather limited definition of pornography that is usually restricted to triple X-rated movies. Pornography, however, does not have to be overt to be present. The entertainment industry promulgates such “softer” images (e.g., semi-nude models simulating sex acts), which are proliferating at an alarming rate, creating in the process an addiction that is just as dangerous as hardcore porn. The fad of depicting females in sexually submissive positions adds a distressing dimension to the problem, as it promotes, perhaps unintentionally, violence against women. The exploitation of the female image is as ancient as visual art itself and by no means a sign of the moral decadence of our society in contrast to the virtue of past generations. Even the presence of sadomasochistic themes in various publications or on T.V. is not a recent phenomenon, as one can find it, for example, in music videos from twenty years ago bearing Madonna’s signature. What is new, however, is the ever-increasing tolerance in our culture, especially among young people, as an acceptable way of portraying women: it is becoming the norm rather than the exception. These images of nude females in sexually vulnerable positions threaten the Scriptural view of the woman as a creature made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) who, as an integral part of the royal priesthood and the holy nation of God, is called to preach the gospel and serve humanity. Furthermore, they distort the sanctity of the human body by encouraging the audience to view the body simply as a sexual commodity and not as a temple of the Holy Spirit, as the Scriptures enjoin us to envision it (1 Cor 6:19-20).

Even a perfunctory glance at our entertainment industry reveals the pervasiveness of the motif of the sexually docile female in our culture. The March 2010 issue of Details magazine, for example, greets the reader with a familiar visage, in a somewhat unfamiliar pose: Robert Pattinson smiles enigmatically, snuggled by the legs of a woman with no face, gingerly touching her right shin with the tips of his fingers. As if in a trance, one skims through the pages until locating more pictures of Robert, all of which involve unclad females pressing their bodies against each other or the photogenic actor. Some are even blindfolded or photographed in submissive positions, the  theme not exactly subtle. Perhaps the most startling aspect of the entire spread is the (intentional?) half-shadowy physiognomy of the female models.

Such images have become so mainstream that they pass under most people’s radar when it comes to what constitutes shocking or impermissible content. Regardless of the public’s numbness to it, this kind of sadomasochistic imagery in particular (and pornography in general) depersonalizes the woman, focusing all the attention on her body and erasing, almost completely, any interest in her personality (i.e., her spiritual, rational, and emotional aspects, which are essential components of the human person). Furthermore, it reinforces existing sexual stereotypes (e.g., the female is weak and submissive, while the male is strong and dominant), which are contrary to the Biblical command to mutuality and self-giving in sexual relationships (Eph 5; 1 Cor 7:4).

The unsettling phenomenon of the hidden female, or the female with no face, is not limited to the world of newspapers and glossy magazines: music videos pick up this same theme and harp on it with somewhat of a vengeance. Enrique Iglesias, the Spanish singer who has a rather large female audience, recently released two music videos that underscore women’s bodies at the expense of their faces. “Tonight (I’m loving you)” unabashedly displays blindfolded women in G-strings, while viewers become privy to Enrique’s sexual escapades with strange women in strange places, such as public restrooms, balconies, and hallways. In “Dirty Dancer” we see Enrique being given a private show by a pole dancer. The surprise does not come until the end, when, having finished her routine, the woman starts walking toward the singer, only to reveal that she has no eyes; a couple of seconds later she disappears from the screen, which promptly informs Enrique that his credit has expired: this all took place in a virtual reality!

The origin of the theme of the present-yet-hazy female, as well as the added aspect of virtual reality, is puzzling and merits a careful examination in its own right. Due to space considerations, let us only suggest that a picture such as the one Enrique’s video offers blurs the markers that would help identify the woman in question in a crowd, and thus cementing the split between the female’s physicality, on the one hand, and her character and personality, on the other. The woman is no longer seen as a human being with the capacity for rational thought and a person made in the image of God. To confer such a “status” upon them would demand that we treat women with deference and see them as more than one-dimensional physical entities. Such a view, regrettably, rarely sells magazines or attracts YouTube viewers.

Sadly, it can no longer be said that semi-pornographic images or sexually violent renditions of women are solely the domain of men. Many females in the music world launched videos that portray them in various stages of nudity or attired in sadomasochistic gear. Some have built an entire career on it. Christina Aguilera’s “Tonight Not Myself,” Rihanna’s “S&M,” and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” rank, arguably, among the most disturbing. A whole slew of violent, sexual paraphernalia is on display in these videos: leather apparel, whips, chains, ball gags, blindfolds, collars, masks, and leashes.

It is ironic that the depiction of women in bondage comes on the heels of feminism, largely credited with bringing awareness of the abuses of women in the workplace and at home. We have seen major steps taken to protect women in our society. In the 1980s, for example, law enforcement agencies started taking domestic violence seriously. Even though the U.S., to this day, does not have a national law classifying rape as a crime, many states have enacted their own legislation concerning this sexual aggression, making it possible for women to prosecute their perpetrators in court. The battle, however, is far from over, as society is resisting, to some extent, the emancipation of women, which resistance is often helped by the females’ tendency to uphold sexual stereotypes. Our popular culture reinforces this proclivity, as it seems only to want to bury us under a deluge of damaging images that seem to impede the progress made. Nevertheless, it would be extreme to suggest that our celebrities, so fond of being depicted in sexually vulnerable positions, advocate rape or abuse of any kind. These images, though, do seem to betray a modicum of thoughtlessness on their part about the long history of women’s suffering, or at the very least they seem to point to a disconnect in their minds between the past and their current artistic exploits.

When asked the reason for choosing a bondage-inspired themes for their videos, female pop stars usually resort to claiming that such a concept best reflects their creativity, which seems to advance into ever more aggressive territory with each new album they release or video they shoot. Expressions such as “women’s liberation,” “artistic expression,” or “ ”˜poetic license” are also heard, but they are so carelessly employed as to have become platitudinous and lost their meaning almost entirely. We are led to believe, then, that the independent, sexually-liberated female of the twenty-first century comprehends her freedom as license to do whatever she pleases with her own body, and the ultimate sign of this radical freedom is understood as her giving away this new found freedom to become completely the subject of another’s pursuit of sexual pleasure. This is the icon held up by our entertainers as worthy of emulation, an icon that heralds the age of the powerful, sovereign woman.

Ironically, this interpretation of freedom brings to light the real meaning of freedom: it begins (or ends) with a choice of masters, so to speak; him to whom we choose to be faithful determines whether we are truly free or deeply enslaved. The Scriptures, unlike popular culture, do not assume that our radical freedom is best exemplified in our relinquishing of our freedom to someone. Rather, freedom only starts when we become slaves of Jesus Christ (the Greek is that strong!). Freedom, at its core, entails worshiping the Creator rather than the creature (Rom 1:25). As servants of Christ then, we are not “free” to do whatever we desire with our bodies. As Paul teaches us, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As hard as it is for us to adopt this language, we have no choice but to do so. We are not our own; we belong to Jesus Christ and him crucified. To glorify God in our bodies does not translate into permission to do whatever we please simply because we are free in Christ (Gal 5:1). We are not to use our freedom as a pretext for evil (1 Peter 2:16), but are to bring our freedom in line with God’s will for us and his creation, which is ultimately revealed to be a life of communion with Jesus and our neighbor, a life of service, but also a life of joy and one filled with God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). We are all slaves to something – or rather, to someone (Rom 6). The question we must all answer is: to whom are we enslaved? To Jesus or to an idol?

Bondage, as we have seen, is intimately connected with the fading away of the woman and her half-presence. The Scriptural vision, however, restores women’s humanity and personhood by making them visible, integral members of the city of God. In Christ, we see women’s role as proper servants of the Lord revealed. John narrates how the risen Christ appears first to Mary Magdalene, and Mark relates how the women are charged with proclaiming the resurrection to the apostles, making them the first preachers of the good news. Furthermore, Jesus’ relationship with his mother, among many others, underscores women’s capacity for witnessing to the power and wisdom of God, as well as their instrumentality in God’s plan for creation. Luke tells us that when a woman in the crowd expresses her admiration for the one who gave birth to him (“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”) Jesus responds in a way that leaves no doubt as to the real dignity of his mother (“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” [Luke 11:27-29]). Mary is not blessed because she physically bore Christ; she is blessed because of her faithfulness to God and his promise. Hence, Jesus opens the door for us to see women as more than just sexual objects, but as human beings with full access to God and as reliable witnesses to the life in God.

Woman’s quest for her identity has been, and continues to be, a long and painful one, and the icon that artists such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna hold up as the ideal to which we must aspire appears, in light of our reflection, shallow and ultimately detrimental to our being made in the image of the crucified Christ.[1] It is easy, though, to blame solely those who are connected with the promulgation of these images (e.g., stars, music video directors, the media, etc.) and not to see our own participation in making sure of their continued existence. As long as we carry on watching videos portraying females in this way; as long as we continue labeling women in submissive positions as “hot” and “sexy”; and as long as we cannot get enough of “girl-on-girl action,” we perpetuate a way of thinking that promotes violence against women. Women can regain their dignity only when each one of us individually (and collectively) can resist the temptation to listen to the voices telling us what we must do and wear in order to be wanted by men; men can regain their dignity only when refusing to see women as disposable pleasures; and humanity will regain its wholeness and holiness only when we see our entertainers as victims of a destructive ideology and not as the enemies to be annihilated, as people who, like all of us, are in dire need of God’s mercy and healing.

[1] This short disquisition has not taken men to task as much as women. This is not due to an oversight, but to the fact that the author of this essay is a female and wanted to empower women to make choices that celebrate their womanhood in accordance to the Scriptural vision, rather than to the way of thinking so characteristic of the old creation, which is passing away (2 Cor 5:17). Men bear just as much responsibility, if not more, when it comes to how women are portrayed in the media: to care about women is not “feminism,” but an issue of universal concern for the Church. It is also worth noting that men, too, are exploited by our advertisement industry and it would be interesting to hear their side of the story, but this remains a topic to be picked up at a different time. The way the sexes are depicted in our society is something that should be of interest to both males and females because both sides suffer due to this depersonalization that inexorably takes place when one aspect of the human being (in this case, the body) is emphasized at the expense of the others.