Sunday, July 5, 2009

Whose Fantasy?

So, I understand that pointing up the misogyny in cyber-culture is like shooting fish in a barrel. But lately, I've been seeing some internet ads which I feel deserve comment. Not because they are particularly awful, but because they're an exquisitely good example of a particular brand of sexism, one that permeates our popular culture, on-line and off.

There ads are for a virtual world know as the Utherverse. Unfortunately, I can't post the ads themselves--how exactly does one link to a banner ad? But they're thirty-second videos, which run something like this.

Two male avatars are talking. A beautiful brunette woman walks up to them. As she approaches, one of the men abruptly leaves. A thought bubble appears over the woman's head: "Why won't he talk to me?"

To find out, she reads his Utherverse profile, where he has posted the phrase "blondes rock!" Another thought-bubble epiphany ensues: "He likes blondes." The female-avatar then does a quick transformation, and acquires some extremely blonde hair. She then runs into the man from before. This time, he notices her, and says "I don't remember seeing you here before." Immediately, they start making out. At this point, some text appears on the banner: "Experience the thrill. Live your fantasy."

I may be getting a few of the details wrong, but that's the basic idea.

This Is Why I Shouldn't Surf the Internet

Now, there are some obvious problems with this little scenario. First, there's the affirmation of ethnocentric beauty ideals. Yes, this is only one ad, and they could only show one character's transformation. But somehow, I doubt it's a coincidence that they showed a brunette going blonde, and not the other way around.

Then, there's the way this ad portrays the dating game. Yes, the woman is an agent here. She goes out and wins the object of her desire, rather than passively waiting for a man to choose her. But she still has to rely on appearance alone to attract a mate. And it isn't enough for her to simply be extraordinarily pretty: she must be the exact kind of pretty this particular man prefers.

Not only that, but the man in question is not exactly a beacon of feminist enlightenment. I understand that a thirty-second clip doesn't offer many opportunities for character development, but that's no excuse. The man in question refuses to talk to our heroine, just because she has the wrong hair color. Once she becomes a blonde, he's ready to sex her up, no questions asked. To this fellow, women are interchangeable sex objects, whose desirability is determined by a few physical characteristics.

The message, overall, is that men are shallow cads, who care only about appearance, and that women should expect no better. This, in and of itself, is an excellent example of why women often feel uncomfortable on internet forums. (For an amusing take on this issue, check out this comic.)

Whose Fantasy Are They Selling?

On a deeper level, this ad is a perfect illustration of a troubling cultural phenomenon. We've all heard the expression "sex sells." But, as Lisa at Sociological Images points out, it's almost always women's sexualized bodies, and (straight) men's desires, that are sold. And the sexualization of women is sold to everyone. Even ads which seem to cater to women, or to sell women's sexual empowerment, frequently selling male fantasies, and female objectification.

I think this ad is a great example. On one level, it's targeted at women. The woman is the protagonist of the video. She's the one who gets her sexual desires fulfilled--albeit by conforming to the preferences of the man. But the story is still fundamentally about male power, male sexual subjectivity, and female objectification.

The ad instructs (female) viewers to "live your fantasy." But is this really about a female fantasy of sexual empowerment? Hardly. Instead, the narrative offers women the "freedom" to cater to men's whims. Of course, it would be nice to be able to change ones appearance at will. But it would be nicer to live in a world where women weren't judged solely based on appearance, or where men weren't conditioned to believe that only a narrow spectrum of traits could be attractive.

If I were to design a sexually-charged on-line fantasy world, things would be quite a bit different. I would play as a short, chubby, near-sighted brunette. And I would have an intelligent, devoted young gentleman friend, who loved me exactly as I was.

Actually, I just described the real world.

The Utherverse might be a fun place to hang out. (Then again, it might also fill your computer with Trojans.) But if this ad is in any way representative, the wish-fulfillment fantasy it offers to female users is an extremely limited one. Ultimately, the Utherverse ad is selling a male fantasy: that women are endlessly malleable creatures, eager to transform themselves to suit a man's taste.

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