Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cake. They Want Cake.

There was a fantastic article in the New York Times Magazine about female desire last Sunday, the 1st. It was a generally insightful article with lots of perspectives, or as many perspectives as could be wedged into a relatively short space.

But perhaps the best part were the responses. Generally, even in the Times, the letters section is a wasteland of idiotic ranting and people who think they have something to say. This one was notably different. The insights of the writers were a profound addition to the original body of the work. I enjoyed reading every one, even the obligatory feminist rant.

Thankfully, the Times also posts the letters section. If you're prompted to "sign up" for the times (It's free! Like, yay!) and you don't want to, go to http://www.bugmenot.com and get yourself a sign in.

May of the responses highlighted the difficulty in separating innate sexual drives and culture. It's obvious that what is and isn't attractive can vary greatly from culture to culture. In some cultures fat is hot, and in others, it's thin. Hairy, not hairy. Broad and stout, willowy. But certain characteristics transcend culture. It's very difficult to say we know which is which with certainty.

A couple of them targeted the claim that female sexuality is narcissistic, or females are not specifically desirous, themselves, but want to be the object of desire. The first response, from Aruna D’Souza, and the third, from Dalma Heyn, both highlight that women may not be specifically narcissistic, only that in a world dominated by female-oriented imagery, women must respond in a way that connects their sexuality with the male-dominated sexuality of the outside world.

Heyn specifically mentions that the Times' own choice to litter the article about female sexuality with images of females, which is an assumed male perspective, as opposed to images of males, or an assumed female perspective, illustrates the social problem.

I think this is a biting insight, but I respond with the Cosmo argument. Cosmo magazine is written by women for women. As such, it can certainly maintain and perpetuate stereotypes, social expectations, and all sorts of negative psychological constructs, but one would expect it to cater to the underlying, primal psychological makeup of women to sell magazines. Even here, the magazine is filled with images of women. Obviously, there are a few men, but it's primarily women.

Granted, the same goes for the counterpoint to Cosmo, Men's Health. It's filled from cover to cover with images of ripped men. Still, the male market has a litany of lad-mags, such as Maxim, FHM, and Stuff, which cater almost exclusively to male sexuality. And what is that? Lots of hot babes in skimpy clothing. There is no analog for females. There is no Maxette Magazine that's loaded with images of men. Playgirl magazine failed and is now basically soft-core porn for gay men.

If there was an underlying driver, even if it was squelched by culture and society, I just don't think that these magazines would have behaved in this way. Playgirl would not have failed. And there would be something that vaguely resembles a female Maxim on the market. Yet here we are, with all of the female oriented magazines filled with images of women.

So while I'm unsure of the narcissistic theory of female sex drive, much of it rings true. To what extent that is the result of evolution and culture is to be decided.

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