Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TV Pundits, Slut Shaming and Community

Britta Perry is a sexual being, and she will not be shamed for it. And if you
try, she will shoot you in the face. Source.

Rush Limbaugh's stunningly offensive remarks to Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke have launched a thousand debates about sexism and slut shaming. (I'm not going to provide a link; if you haven't heard about this incident by now, you are clearly living under a rock without internet, and you therefore can't be reading this blog.) The conservative radio host's personal attack on Fluke - whose crime, apparently, was testifying before a senate committee about how birth control can, in some cases, be a medical necessity - was appalling and indefensible. And it wasn't an isolated incident; Kirsten Powers over at The Daily Beast wrote an excellent piece that contained far too many examples of slut-shaming by television personalities on the liberal side as well as the conservative side, and on tonight's Daily Show, Jon Stewart eviscerated Limbaugh and the conservatives who refuse to take him to task for his actions.

The thing is, though, that denunciations of the very deserving Limbaugh don't actually deal with the issue of slut shaming in our culture. Most people aren't Limbaugh or Bill Maher or Rick Santorum (offenders mentioned by Powers and Stewart, respectively). They're not stupid enough to come out and say that any woman who has sex is a slut. If you consume enough popular culture, however (which I do), you start to realize that implicit slut shaming is depressingly common.

Last week, I wrote a post about a Daily Beast interview with the women of Community. I focused on the incredible sadness of Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs sobbing over the possibility of the show's cancellation, but the more interesting facet of the interview was Jacob's analysis of Britta Perry as a "feminist icon":
The thing that's unique about [Britta] is that she is never the object of slut shaming. Like, she's one of the only female characters that doesn't ever get punished for having an active sex life [...] [Britta] is not pigeonholed as the slut, even though she and Jeff are the most sexually active people in the group. Because if implied inferences in the script are correct, I've slept with most of the men at Greendale.
Jacobs is right in singling out Britta - for all the character's faults, the thing she isn't criticized for is her sex life. And, unfortunately, she's also right about the character's uniqueness in that respect, because slut shaming is everywhere.

It's a well-known trope of horror movies that the girl who makes it to the end is almost always a virgin. But women punished for sex by death is a trope that appears again and again. Shannon and Ana-Lucia were the first major female characters to die on Lost, and they both died immediately after sex. Angel's well-known post-coital metamorphosis into a soulless killing machine on Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of many examples that undermine Joss Whedon's self-proclaimed feminism. (If you want to read more about the problematic women of Whedon, you should look here, here and here.) And while I generally think that the women of Battlestar Galactica are fantastic, that show has a very uneasy relationship with female sexuality, as played out in the treatment of the various Sixes.

Of course, slut shaming comes in other forms than punishment by death or physical harm. Scrubs was generally disapproving of people having sex outside of committed relationships, but most of that disapproval was focused on Elliot. Sometimes this behavior was a way of discrediting slut shamers by pointing out their actions (as in the second season, when she has a one-night stand and immediately gets cast as a "skank"), but more often than not it was seen as a result of Elliot's bad judgement, like when she hooked up with the married father of a patient. Still, Scrubs has nothing on primetime soaps. On Desperate Housewives, Edie is essentially defined by her promiscuity, and on Smash, which I otherwise quite like, there is a very strong dichotomy set up between Ivy, who slept with her director, and Karen, who had the fortitude to refuse his advances. And strangely enough, a lot of more implicit slut shaming happens not at the hands of men, but other women (Carla and Mrs. Wilk on Scrubs, the other housewives on Desperate Housewives, Karen on Smash).

This is why shows like Community and a few others (like the predictably progressive Happy Endings, which never implies that Penny is a slut despite her well-documented sexual escapades) are important to those of us who think that slut shaming needs to be stopped. You would think that, a decade after Sex and the City started a frank, open discussion of female sexuality that was free from judgement, we would have moved past this problem. Slut shaming, however, is still very present. We might object to it when someone as foul as Rush Limbaugh shouts it to the heavens, but nobody seems to be complaining about the more insidious iterations of slut shaming that populate our TV screens. It shouldn't need to be said, but I'll say it anyway: mocking, punishing and harassing a woman for her sexuality is never okay. If Britta Perry has taught me anything, it's that.

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