The Empire of Images: Discourses of Female Sexuality

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The Empire of Images: Discourses of Female Sexuality

Amy Pennington

"What a misfortune it is to be a woman! And yet the greatest misfortune when one is a woman is not to realize that it is one." -Kierkegaard

As women, many of my peers and I grew up unaware of our own 'misfortune.' Perhaps for this reason, the dominant discourse of female empowerment as espoused by my generation is most often characterized by disinterest rather than passion. Like Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, my peers seem to believe that "we are no longer like our partisan elders; by and large we have won the game" (Beauvoir 687). Ironically, it is Beauvoir's very theory which this essay utilizes to prove the need for a revival of feminist resistance amongst the women of my generation, and which makes her one of my feminist foremothers.

Unfortunately, it is not Beauvoir's theory but her message of political passivity which we were raised to accept. Growing up, girls have little reason to distrust her message. We hear and see it constantly, in one perverted form or another, gracing the packaging of every product made with little girls in mind. Susan Bordo, another of my feminist foremothers, utilizes one example from Susan Lamb's book on young girls' sexuality to describe the pedagogical effect of this element of the "empire of images" into which my generation was born serfs. Her quote from Lamb's work perfectly describes the feminist message of female freedom as it has evolved into a marketing slogan for little girls' dress-up games: "(these girls are) 'silly and adorable, sexy and marvelous all at once' she tells us, as they 'celebrate their objectification,' 'playing out male fantasies...but without risk'" (Bordo 6). From childhood, then, women of my generation have been taught that their ability to 'celebrate their objectification' through the 'playing out (of) male fantasies' is concrete evidence of their freedom. As young women grow into adolescence and adulthood, graduating through Seventeen to Cosmopolitan, the message stays the same: the sexualized woman is a liberated woman.

On the surface, this argument seems fairly logical, and is thus all too easy to swallow. Women today do not face the sexual repression which was protested by feminists of the fifties and sixties; "by and large," haven't we won the game?

The answer, of course, is no. Just as Beauvoir's theories lacked political impetus as a result of her belief that feminism was a historical topic to be reflected back upon rather than a living movement to be joined, women of my generation have failed to take feminist political action because they are unaware that such action might be necessary. It is the purpose of this essay, therefore, to reveal the dominant discourse of female sexuality as previously described for what it really is: a limiting discourse which constructs all possible female forms of sexuality and beauty within the confines of the male gaze. After all, why should little girls celebrate male fantasy and their own objectification when they could be subjectively playing amidst their own female fantasies? The "Empire of Images" described by Bordo must, I argue, be understood as an empire constructed within the social frameworks of male as Subject and female as Object theorized by Beauvoir. Images in popular media can thus be revealed as reinforcing woman's status as the Other while forcing her to interpret her body, and thus define her sexuality and her understandings of beauty, solely in relation to male desire. By establishing a narrow set of sexualities and forms of beauty acceptable to the male gaze, this discourse precludes any options for female pleasure and self-interpretation which fall outside the boundaries of the male fantasy.

The dominating and inescapable nature of this discourse as it functions in the lives of women is described by Susan Bordo as an "Empire of Images." As Bordo argues, the "empire" in which we now live functions as a pervasive "perceptual pedagogy" which teaches everyone, women in particular, how to interpret their bodies (1). Bordo describes the twenty-year-olds she encounters in her audiences at lectures on her work in the same way I would describe myself as a member of that group:

I simply catch the eyes of the 20-year-olds in the audience. They know. They understand that you can be as cynical as you want about the ads -- and many of them are -- and still feel powerless to resist their messages. They are aware that virtually every advertisement, every magazine cover, has been digitally modified and that very little of what they see is "real." That doesn't stop them from hating their own bodies for failing to live up to computer-generated standards... Generations raised in the empire of images are both vulnerable and savvy (4).

Young women are largely forced to function within this discourse of images because they are provided few alternative portrayals of beauty and female sexuality, many of which seem to preclude heterosexuality. Furthermore, the discourse which identifies 'normal' standards for female beauty and sexuality is, as previously noted, enmeshed in the dominant discourse of female empowerment, for the empowered woman is equated with the sexualized female. Young women are thus simultaneously told that they are free from oppression because of the public nature of female sexuality, and that this 'freeing' sexuality must conform to the narrow standards of male fantasy as constructed by consumer capitalism.

Beauvoir's theory of gender frameworks as elaborated in The Second Sex can help us to why it is male fantasy which defines standards of female sexuality and beauty and thus why I have posed the dominance of this discourse of images as a specifically feminist problem. Beauvoir asserts that the woman—"a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other" (688). Beauvoir argues that, in the relationship of 'the two sexes,' man is the Subject, while woman is the Other:

Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man...she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being...She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential (676).

If woman is primarily defined in society by her difference from and relationship to man, then definitions of her sexuality and standards of her beauty will necessarily be created in relation to man and his desire. Further, if the female is relegated to the role of Object by the male Subject, images of her will inevitably reflect the viewpoint of the male. The woman, deluged by popular images of the female as created by a media which assumes the role of the male in assessing its object, will learn to view her body critically through that male gaze. Once young women learn to view the female body through the male perspective, they will continue to reproduce that problematic perspective in their own understandings and representations of themselves and other women.

When applied to Bordo's concept of the "Empire of Images," Beauvoir's theory makes it clear that the dominant discourse of female sexuality as constructed by the popular media is a male-focused discourse, despite its reproduction by both women and men. As a result of this male focus, the dominant discourse of female sexuality does not function as a domain of female freedom, despite popular assertions to the contrary. Instead, this discourse actually provides very few options to women who seek to understand themselves as sexual beings within it. The current dominant discourse surrounding female sexuality limits the language with which women can construct and describe their sexualities and prevents them from fully realizing their individual potentials for pleasure as they might define them apart from their relationship to male desire.

The Empire of Images cannot be ignored—it teaches us how to interpret our bodies—and it is built according to Beauvoir's framework of man as Subject and woman as Object. Standards of female beauty and sexuality are defined ever within the male gaze, through which men view women and women view themselves. The sexualized woman as portrayed in the dominant discourse is thus not so much a liberated woman as she is a woman with a limited set of tools for constructing her sexuality. The expansion of this discourse and the subsequent proliferation of the vocabulary with which women can define themselves as sexual beings require that women recognize the limiting nature of their popularly defined sexual 'freedom.' Women must recognize the male-focused nature of their received definitions of female sexuality. Only then can feminist resistance to this discourse facilitate the creation of alternative options for female sexuality and beauty and thus expand opportunities for female sexual pleasure.

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