We live in profoundly unsexy times.
I’ve been stewing on this thought lately, after seeing “WAP,” the cartoonish, baboonish mating display by Cardi B intended to “reclaim female desire” hit #1 on the Billboard charts last week. Then, there was that viral trailer for the new HBO Max show “Unpregnant,” a Ferris Bueller style teen adventure flick wherein the main character’s central mission is to kill her unborn child without her “Jesus freak” Catholic parents’ knowledge. And finally, also last week, Netflix was forced to apologize for (but not remove) a movie about an 11-year old girl who “explores her femininity” by joining a “twerking team” against the will of her traditional Muslim parents.
It happens once a quarter. Some dementedly vulgar media moment becomes a hot topic because healthy people are momentarily jolted from their slumber. They react with disgust, validating their opponents’ political fantasy and the internal narrative of the movies themselves: that the movies’ subjects are victims of right wing reactionary oppression. (Of course, any form of resistance against totally libertine behavior is coded as such.) A torrent of feminist explanations for bare asses and bad plots follow. Ohhh, we croon. This is about freeeeeedom.
Controversy as a marketing tactic isn’t new, but the extent to which the products themselves have internalized and incorporated the conservative-authoritarian bogeyman as their central selling point might be. Having run out revolutions, new enemies must be invented to maintain interest. The demand for oppressors does not meet the supply. Pre- and post-production, creators and journalists are compelled to reintroduce the semblance of meaning or purpose into what has long been emptied of both.
This seems to represent an interesting shift in the trajectory of sex as represented in media, and each of the examples that emerged last week represent a node on that trajectory. How did we get here?
The imagination is first blunted by vulgarity. This is most clearly represented in “WAP,” which, while retroactively claiming the mantle of feminist revolutionary spirit, is the most traditional of the three in the hypersexual overtness of its presentation. In the music video and everywhere, when the sex act is reduced to a arbitrary interdigitation of genitalia by unfeeling and utterly disconnected people, it loses its potency. Hard to say when this shift happened, but it was a long time ago. Sometime in the eighties, maybe before then… whenever the sexual revolution went from insurgent to orthodox, when fornication went from exciting to expected. Perhaps later, when pornography became widely accessible online. Regardless, contemporary media cannot inspire the kind of longing that sex symbols of years past did. It cannot even demand the sustained attention required for that level of eroticism. Our brains are fried.
Devoid of intimacy and mystery, prurient lyrics and images give the mind nothing for which to strive or upon which to meditate. It’s all too on the nose, feeling much less like art and much more like a cheap commodity, meant to be consumed, free of consequence, and forgotten very quickly.
An oversaturated and uninspired audience then begins to crave two things: first, sinisterly, they seek more and more deviant, i.e. titillating, content. That the subjects of these kinds of productions are minors (from “Unpregnant”’s underrage protagonist to the actual, real-life children starring in “Cuties”) should concern parents deeply.
Secondly, partially as a result of the first, people seek some form of absolution, justification, or distraction from their own bovine consumption of a spiritually corrosive product. The confessional instinct is deep seated and universal, like humanity’s capacity for self-delusion. If one can convince himself that his consumer habits are about “liquidating oppression”rather than consumption qua consumption, he relieves himself of boredom and shame.
So we see monsters made of Catholic and Muslim parents in “Unpregnant” and “Cuties.” The actual content is actually more demoralizing and sexually perverse than “WAP,” and it is precisely for that reason that the focus shift from muh genitals to muh oppressors. Refocusing on a liberatory political project saves the audience from having to confront deep psychosexual anxieties: their own mental slavery to the ceaseless consumption of smut, manifest in either the loss of libido or the attraction toward increasingly perverse behaviors.
Of course this is what all the examples listed in the introduction are really about. “Reclaiming female desire?” “Reclaiming female bodily autonomy?” “Reclaiming girls’ coming-of-age?” No! The political projects that demented producers and commentators attribute to these forms of media before and after publication serve only to excuse the most abject commodification of people as objects of consumption, which seems to involve younger and younger subjects as time goes on. It’s a psychosexual sleight of hand. Healthy people are turned off by this.
Hypersexualization conceals desexualization, while paving the way for the normalization of truly abject behavior. It’s soul-crushing, really. That’s the point. But in the end, healthy people who share in a negative reaction to these types of things have a responsibility to cut the cord. Healthy people should cancel their Netflix accounts. If not now, when? It is only by our sedation that the sickness is permitted to fester.
No one can crush your soul without your permission. Time to unplug.