The VMAs and a Book Review
Yesterday I watched the VMAs and today I finished reading Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex. The former, a parade of unintelligible men and Kardashian-inspired women (minus Beyoncé, who resides in a category all her own) and the latter an exploration of everything that is wrong, and thoughtful guidance toward all that is right, about how we communicate with our youth about sex.
It was deeply ironic that Britney Spears’ much anticipated “comeback performance” was nothing more than her showing off her body in what was basically a metallic yellow ribbon (though at one time she was inexplicably covered with a raincoat?) and lip-syncing what few words there were to her latest single. As a pretty big fan in the late 90’s, I was thoroughly disappointed.
And then there was Kanye’s typically narcissistic, awkward and poorly executed introduction of his new video, complete with a tongue in cheek reference to a phone call with Taylor Swift and the fued that followed. All concerning the lyrics of a song in which he claims to have “made that bitch famous” and that he “might still have sex” with her one day. All the while, Kim looking on with reverence and tears in her eyes. So proud. And then he debuted his video which I can only describe as the complete and total objectification of a woman. And then she turned into catwoman or something.
Look, MTV hasn’t been Kurt Loder reporting on the death of beloved Kurt Cobain for years. We all know this. Times have changed. But what it has devolved into is so much worse than we could have expected. Video didn’t just kill the Radio Star, it gave her roofies and a pair of pasties and started filming.
In her book, Orenstein credits many things for the trajectory of sex education since the 50’s. It has a curious history that was terrifically affected by the free-love of the 60’s, the introduction of The Pill, by abstinence education, by Bill Clinton and the infamous blue dress, by Britney Spears and Anheuser-Busch and the definition (and re-definition and re-re-definition) of consent and, perhaps more than anything else, how effective we are as parents at talking about all of these things.
I appreciate that the most stunning performance of the evening was indisputably Beyoncé, who, despite her thong and high-heels, does seem to serve as an advocate for women, her music and lyrics speaking for victims of all kinds of horrors and abuse. But I can’t help but hate that it is contained in the same program as Kanye’s catwoman, and his gross and abusive comments toward another artist, his wife who seriously was dressed as though she herself was perhaps recently a victim of assault, and Britney, her big chance to show the world how she has grown up, changed, and instead she mouthed her own words and grabbed some guy’s crotch.
I realize, of course, that the VMAs are not intended to take the place of sex education. But the real problem is that MEDIA IS FILLING ALL THE VOIDS that regular sex education leaves.
And it is within these voids that our childrens' understanding of advocacy and consent is tragically skewed. Where “no means yes and yes means anal” becomes a chant at Yale and a banner at Texas Tech.
We can do better than this. We can do better than brochures and vague warnings and the comparison of a woman who has had sex to a chewed piece of gum.
I’ll leave you with Orenstein’s words and the strong recommendation that parents read this book, or at the very least this advisement:
“They deserve something better than the distorted, false voices that blare at them from TVs, computers, iPhones, tablets, and movie screens. They deserve our guidance rather than our fear and denial in their sexual development. They deserve our help in understanding the dangers that lurk, but also in embracing their desire with respect and responsibility, in understanding the complexities and nuances of sexuality.”
And it isn’t just for girls:
“Parents need to discuss the spectrum of pressure, coercion, and consent with their sons, the forces urging them to see girls’ limits as a challenge to overcome. Boys need to understand how they, too, are harmed by sexualized media and porn. They need to see models of masculine sexuality that are not grounded in aggression against women, in denigration or conquest."
For me personally, I hope that when the time comes my version of “doing better” will be inspired by and reflective of Chris Dennison, a California Sex Educator who says her “whole job is to help kids make as many decisions as possible that end in joy and honor rather than regret, guilt, or shame”.