Why did the sex doll become the ideal?

Nov 2, 2006
Yvonne Roberts

Yvonne Roberts on how the ‘raunch culture’ of Paris Hilton et al is defeating today’s teenage girls

Paris Hilton is famous for starring in a home-made sex video seen by tens of millions and for wearing next-to-nothing on her nightly forays into the public eye. Half the female inhabitants of Big Brother, now 'promoted' to Celebrity D-list status, appear in public wearing so little they make regular underwear look overdressed.

Jessica Simpson in her music video for These Boots Are Made for Walking performs the classic soft porn ritual of washing a car practically using her breasts as dusters, and apparently attracts the envy of millions of teenagers.

Recently, pole-dancing has been promoted as the new women's 'liberation'. Girls are allegedly doing what they really, really want by behaving like strippers from the 1950s. So-called 'raunch culture' has given women the right to objectify their own bodies.

Once upon a time, girls wanted to be surgeons and pilots. Now, they long to be (famous) sex dolls. Or do they?

Once upon a time, girls wanted to be surgeons and pilots

The San Francisco-based Women's Foundation of California recently held nine focus groups with female teens, 90 young women in total. They also conducted an online survey of 700 women and 300 men aged 13 to 18.

While the findings have yet to be fully analysed (a report is due in 2007), almost all the teenagers polled said highly sexualised images in the media were "no big deal", just part of their daily lives.

"I know in my head the images are excessive, but to me they feel normal," said one 17-year-old. "Sex is what sells, even to me," said an 18-year-old, "even though I know it shouldn't because it is based on materialism and shallowness."

The young women polled in California can see the dangers of this raunch culture. Most of them noted that the images contributed to men's perceptions of women as sex objects - but they seem unwilling or unable to resist.

The problem is not erotica or what is sensual - it's that the so-called role models, such as Jessica Simpson and the Pussy Cat Dolls, act like airheads from a bygone era when women had only their bodies with which to trade, either in marriage or for sex.

Just when opportunities have never been greater for women, why are we reducing the ideal to a one-dimensional sex doll - devoid of wit, irony, talent or self-respect?

We have, of course, been here before. In Ways of Seeing written by John Berger 30 years ago, he described a woman in Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, a painting by the 15th century artist Hans Memling.

Memling's woman stands brazenly naked, in the middle of a field, (how raunchy is that?) shorn of pubic hair, admiring herself in a mirror. Then, Berger points out, pubic hair was removed by male artists because the men who paid for these paintings wanted women to be submissive, childlike. "Women are there to feed an appetite - not have one of their own," Berger wrote.

In the 1960s, when Nancy Sinatra sang These Boots Were Made for Walking, it was a song of freedom. Jessica Simpson sings it as a sadomasochistic woman trying to please her master; feeding an appetite not her own.

One teenager in the California poll said, "My parents' generation had women's rights... What do we have? Paris Hilton." Thirty or forty years ago, the girls now hanging burlesque tassels on their nipples would have been out campaigning against rampant sexism and working to remove the female tits and bums that festooned factory calendars and billboards.

Now, the images are back, apparently welcomed most of all by the women themselves - women who are happy to call themselves chicks, birds and bitches. Even more incomprehensible to those of us who fought for women's rights in the Sixties and Seventies is that these girls believe that, in their freedom to behave like slappers, they are being 'emancipated'.

No wonder men are confused and many of the women of the baby boom generation furious.

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