THE BLOG
10/25/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Porn Chic, Gender Performance and Halloween Fashion

It's Halloween season, so naturally there is an uptick in social commentary about what children's costumes reveal about the state of U.S. culture. For many years now, Halloween has been a case study in our ongoing cultural schizophrenia about entertainment media, where adults alternately lament the loss of youthful innocence and then facilitate, if not openly encourage, our children's exposure to exploitative sex and violence.

Most of the conversation steers toward hand-wringing over the hyper-sexualization of girls, a year-round phenomenon, but one that has special poignancy on this, the most performative of American holidays.

Many feminist scholars and activists have written insightfully about the sexualization of girls in a culture where sexual harassment, abuse and rape are disturbingly common. Two books that stand out are M. Gigi Durham's The Lolita Effect (2008) and Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne's So Sexy So Soon (2008).

An important development in the literature about this sexualization is the concept of women and girls' self-objectification. This topic was explored by the journalist Ariel Levy in her best-selling Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2006). The political science scholar and activist Caroline Heldman delivered a powerful TEDxYouth talk on this subject.

A recent addition to this genre is Porn Chic: Exploring the Contours of Raunch Eroticism, (2012) by Annette Lynch. Lynch, Professor of Textiles and Apparel at the University of Northern Iowa, studies fashion and the construction of gendered identities. She is also one of the central forces in the creation of UNI's Center for Violence Prevention, which is pioneering institutional approaches to sexual assault and relationship abuse prevention education.

This combination of scholarly inquiry and social activism animates Porn Chic, which is why I wanted to interview Dr. Lynch as catalogs arrive and seasonal mall stores hawk sexy costumes to young girls and violent ones for boys, reproducing the gendered dichotomies that have contributed to disturbingly high rates of sexual and domestic violence and other persistent problems in our gender culture. (Full disclosure: Annette Lynch is also my colleague and friend.) The interview follows.

JK: Can you define "porn chic"?

AL: Porn chic emerged as a term first in Great Britain to capture the hyper-sexualized culture leading up to and opening the Millennium in both the United States and Britain. In terms of dress and culture scholarship, it is a useful term that includes fashions and related trend-based behaviors linked to the porn industry that have now become mainstreamed and are widely viewed as normal in the United States and Britain, particularly among young and urban population groups. Building on well-documented patterns of sexual objectification of women in the popular culture of the 20th century, the porn chic trend intensified patterns of self-objectification as young girls and women eager to fit within the new porn chic norms adopted hyper-sexualized fashions and behaviors.

JK: You're a Professor of Textiles and Apparel. Can you provide some background information about your academic discipline, for example the kind of research you do and the theoretical frameworks you employ?

AL: My research focuses on the role of dress and appearance in the cultural construction and transformation of gender. I am particularly interested in flashpoints when the cultural orthodoxy is challenged by either emerging identities and/or quests for social justice that involve deconstruction of accepted normative gender constructions. I use a mix of anthropology fieldwork techniques and popular cultural analysis to attempt to get inside of the performances of gender that surround us. As a college professor educating young professionals who are going into the fashion industry, I engage my students in exploring branding and product design as a means of empowering consumers, rather than simply dressing to the norms that are currently offered on the racks. I have also directed Women's and Gender Studies on my campus, and teach some courses cross-listed in that program.

JK: You write,

When a little girl shops for a Halloween costume, she is bombarded with choices and poses that flirt with and attract sexual attention, teaching her to self-objectify and court the male gaze in advance of the blossoming of her own sexuality... what is most damaging is the normalization of this patterned response, with girls taught to shop, dress and behave while imagining the response of a male audience... this patterned response to these messages become ingrained and natural to these girls, who then carry the patterns into adulthood.

JK (cont.): Can you talk about why you think many parents, who are rightly worried about protecting their daughters from sexually harassing and violent behavior from men, would nonetheless buy them these sorts of outfits?

AL: While the most intense porn chic trends are post-millennium, the cultural patterning of girls to seek power indirectly through attracting attention based on being cute, pretty or sexy is deeply seated in the normative gender constructions of the 20th century. While boys throughout the 20th century and the millennium have been and are socialized to compete for power and attention based on a concrete accomplishment -- making a touchdown, sinking a basket, or perhaps winning a Robotics contest -- girls quickly learn as they enter the tween years to use an indirect route to power, by attracting the attention of a boy or man with social or structural power.

Attractiveness also translates into higher levels of peer group popularity for girls and young women, dating back a full century. Girls look up and like other girls they think are cute, pretty, attractive to the boys in the school. Given this long period of gender patterning, the mothers, and many of the aunties and grandmothers, have been socialized to accept as normative the costuming of girls to attract indirect power, and their brothers to be superheroes. The gradual sexing up of costuming for younger and younger girls has been in concert with a popular media culture that has also upped the ante in terms of explicit sexuality, so even concerned parents can quite easily be made to feel old-fashioned and prudish for challenging a daughter who wants a cool, popular but quite hot Halloween costume.

JK: In the 1960s and 1970s, some girls and women dressed up in suggestive and playfully sexy outfits on Halloween. But today, explicitly sexual clothing and costumes are closer to the norm for girls on that holiday, with children as young as five-years-old (and younger) sometimes outfitted to look like strippers and prostitutes. How much of this increased sexualization do you attribute to the influence of an increasingly misogynist and callous pornography industry?

AL: What has happened with the hyper-sexualization of tween and young girl Halloween costumes is part of a larger pattern in which sexualized fashions and trended behaviors have moved down from college students, to teenagers, to younger and younger girl markets. This trend should be considered in light of other sexual behavior trends such as increasing rates of coercive acts within committed relationships and a pressuring of girlfriends toward sexual acts that combine violence and eroticism which are influenced by young boys' early exposure to pornography and also video games that link sexual arousal to violence.

JK: In Porn Chic you write that women's expressions of "raunch eroticism" are by and large performances for straight white males, with everyone else playing supporting roles - including men of color, gays, women and girls. How do you respond to young women who say "I dress sexy for myself!"

AL: That is probably the hardest question for me to answer in this interview and one I wrestle with as I work to engage particularly teenage girls and young women in discussions about self-objectification and sexy dressing. One technique that has worked is to compare Facebook and texting behavior of teenage boys that they know, with their own female peer group. The sexy Facebook selfie is a very typical posting of young girls and the use of the sexy text photo to attract male gaze and interest is very common. When I sit down with girls with this behavior as a discussion point they are often able to think through the audience for the online performance, and understand the impact of male gaze on their behavior, particularly if we compare the Facebook posting with their male peers, which do not typically focus on the sexy selfie.

JK: Gloria Steinem was recently quoted as saying, in response to the latest Miley Cyrus "controversy," that given the society in which we live, women are going to make certain choices. But the focus should not be on individual women and their choices as much as it should be on changing the culture that shapes and limits those choices. I see your book as attempting to offer a cultural context for some of women's (and men's) choices around sexual expression, erotic or "raunchy" attire, and so on.

AL: I think we need to offer young women and girls cool popular culture role models and brands that resonate and activate identities that begin to shift away from reliance on sexy versions of attractiveness for power. The risqué behavior of Miley Cyrus draws less attention if we have a popular culture rich with other options for young women. Judging or blaming individual women who are following the cultural pattern of using sexuality to attract attention and gain celebrity status doesn't solve the problem.

We need to populate media, store racks, and online purchase web sites with creative, diverse and engaging role models and brands that can compete with the rather simple advertising reliance on using mostly very white versions of female sexuality to sell product. We have allowed a very small number of very profitable companies to have an extreme amount of control and influence over mass media and products being sold to young women and girls.

A real step forward in the pop culture arena are the host of 30-something influential (and funny) female comedians, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Kristen Wiig among others who together create discourse and offer a more diverse range of choices for young women--and successfully compete for male attention through wit and smarts, not strutting sexuality.

Another step forward that I have seen in children's apparel advertising is the inclusion of racially diverse models not only in the catalog but also in prominent cover shoots on the web site or in the paper catalog.

If we are to successfully act on Gloria Steinem's directive to change culture we need to use creativity to wrest away popular culture domination from those using the tried and true formula of selling product to girls by the "It will make you hot" formula. Coco Chanel became popular and influential by offering women a modern look, an alternative to the turn of the century post-Victorian looks that no longer resonated with young progressive women of the 1920s. We need to offer young women alternative millennium identities that move them forward and out of the crippling gender constructions many young women are currently laboring under.

JK: Early in your book you identify a new masculine archetype: The Millennium Unapologetic Bad Boy Pop Culture Icon. Can you explain the ways in which "bad boys" such as Tucker Max, Howard Stern, Eminem and Charlie Sheen embody and exemplify this identity and how they've influenced men's sexual objectification and degradation of women, and women's self-objectification?

AL: The Millennium Unapologetic Bad Boy presents himself, even if he has a law degree from Duke (as does Tucker Max) as an Average Joe, battling his way through a sea of difficult and not particularly compliant women. An absolute obsession with sex and achieving orgasm is a required component of the icon, as well as a callous disdain for women who do not measure up to porn chic ideals. In order to build rapport with his audience the Unapologetic Bad Boy complains about bad bosses, uses humor to excuse blatantly misogynistic behavior, and often self-admits to a smaller than normal penis size and less than measure-up studliness.

When added up together, young men and boys are presented by this panoply of bad boy ideals with a popular culture recipe for how to use humor to dismiss misogyny, blame women for their own victimization, and bond with other men over sexual conquest and defeating the boss. Women join in the game by attending a book signing to get a picture of themselves with the king of the college bad boys, Tucker Max himself: or, as I document in my book, bragging to all her friends "I was f@%ed by Tucker Max," as a symbol of having made it as a successful young woman in America.

JK: In Porn Chic you make it clear that men are not just passive spectators of women's objectified bodies. They play an active role in pressuring women to conform to certain standards of sexualized presentation. Can you talk about this, with special reference to your discussions about the Girls Gone Wild phenomenon, women flashing their breasts at certain public gatherings, and women's genital shaving?

AL: I have been doing fieldwork following around Girls Gone Wild filming crews on college campuses for over a decade. It was this experience that really helped me to understand the interplay between cultural pressures on women to self-objectify and male audience members who have been socialized to expect women to conform to porn chic ideals. In the earliest years I was doing the work out in the street on a Midwestern small college campus in near riot conditions with young men who had sometimes traveled across the country to see a well-publicized Girls Gone Wild-style college girls show.

Typical of the GGW franchise, the focus of the cameras was on white college girls, following trends outlined by Gail Dines who has pointed out the lack of racial diversity within the GGW lineup. Given the crowd conditions, flashing was done by young women perching on the shoulders of young men in the crowd. While a majority of the young women got up on the shoulders of friends willingly, I also observed girls being hauled up against their will. Once elevated above the crowd the girls attracted an audience expecting a show, and failure to deliver resulted in thrown cans, rude comments, and groping.

The assumption was made by men in the audience, some of whom had traveled all the way from Texas for the Iowa show, that if a woman was in the street she was there to flash. In contrast many of the young women I interviewed said they came down to the street because they wanted to be at the party, see what was going on, and had no intention to participate as a flasher. In more recent years the flashing has moved inside of bars who partner with the GGW enterprise to increase bar traffic, but the patterns in terms of male and female participation are similar to the earlier years in the streets.

In terms of genital shaving and waxing, I have found, again similar to Gail Dines, that in both high school and college young women are pressured by their boyfriends and their female peers to conform to patterns of genital shaving or waxing that first emerged as a trend on porn sites. While young women and girls will pressure each other to have what they consider a well-groomed pubic area, the audience they are clearly concerned about is male boyfriends. What often happens is that the expectations of male peers are used by girls to judge each other, another indication of the power of the male gaze to be internalized by girls to not only judge themselves but to judge others.

JK: Referencing debates between so-called Third Wave feminists and Second Wave radical feminists, you state that "the question then becomes whether the women enacting raunch erotic ideals are conforming to unwritten but strongly enumerated roles serving the male gaze, or demonstrating their sexual agency in the creation of newly liberated sexual ideals. As someone who has given this question a great deal of thought and research, where do you find yourself positioned in this debate?

AL: Overall I am optimistic. Popular culture is trending toward acceptance of a gender continuum, rather than a rigid adherence to a male/female dichotomy. My home university made history this year by students electing a transgender Homecoming Queen, and given our Midwestern cornfield location I think this breakthrough signals the opening up of the gender continuum across the United States. As I close with in my book, burlesque performers on many college campuses, including Sissy's Sircus on my home campus, feel free to pull identity and sexuality cues from anywhere on the gender continuum resulting in individualized looks that are not easily boxed into "masculine" or "feminine" stereotypes.

As a result not only the performers on stage are given license to experiment with gender identity, so is the audience. Within Sissy's Sircus performers are not only escaping boxed-in gender constructions, they are also expressing a matching openness to body type, race, and class, with performers celebrating diversity using the widest possible net. What we need to do is move some of this fluidity down into the younger age group through creative branding, role modeling and bystander-based interventions like your program, Mentors in Violence Prevention.

As you look at time periods when boxed in gender has cracked it has often been signaled by the emergence of a gender continuum. To go back to Coco Chanel.....Coco pulled across the gender continuum for her looks, often literally borrowing menswear from her male lover's closet to put together novel appearances challenging the orthodox. One of the most fun set of interviews I have ever done was interviewing Iowa farm women who followed Coco's lead and got their hair bobbed in the 1920s, often running off to town while their husbands were out in the fields. "He adjusted to me," an elderly farm widow told me, still delighted by her act of sheer will, "he got used to the new me."