For those of us who grew up through the feminist and gay/lesbian rights struggles of the seventies and eighties, for those of us who organised into mens’ groups to critically explore issues of sexuality, the whole explosion (forgive the Freudian metaphor) of raunch culture has been deeply troubling. It’s not bad to be troubled, we learnt that a long time ago, but to what extent can we sit idly by and not criticise (for fear of being boorish and prudish) the adoption of male-centred pornographic iconography as a form of “female empowerment”.
You see, the whole new lads culture was an interesting marketing ploy which sought to capture a new confident mood amongst heterosexual men to redefine themselves. Although it is often been charged with being pre-feminist, it is indeed an attempt to recast “traditional” models, cars, drinking, looking at pictures of topless women (so-called pre-feminism) with a concern over image, hedonism (irresponsibility/childishness) and, most of all, consumerism. Being a “little sexist” was part of naughty charm of this new consumer movement. We cannot understand today’s metrosexuality without this nor should we dismiss the effects of gay culture on this mainstream “heterosexual culture”. Of course, while all this was going on (or maybe in reaction to it) we had “Girl Power”, epitomised by the truly dreadful Spice Girls. Girl Power was apparently about being confident and sure of your own sexuality.
Now all this happened in a period of massive retreat for the left and organised working class. A much narrower identity politics replaced socialism and the broader feminist and gay/lesbian movement. As the credit card and new aggressive anti-labour practices “solved” the problem of stagnating capital, groups began to see themselves as isolated and increasingly organised themselves around a narrower agenda of cultural politics. If an openly gay man can become a member of parliament, if gay and lesbians can marry, if women can dress and behave raunchily without being called “a whore”, if a black man can become president of the US, then we have progressed. Now, here at MTG we wouldn’t argue against any of those “progressive moments” but we would argue that they only scratch the surface of oppression and inequality, leaving the main structures of power and inequality in tact. And what is worse, people become de-politicised believing that this is all that is possible given market/”dominant political order“ constraints.
In reply to this we have witnessed the rise of a new wave of feminism”, these feminists have taken on the dominant consumerist construction of “female empowerment” and pointed out that gender inequality still persists and raunch culture is nothing positive. Now we would agree with Nina Power, that we cannot go backwards and reverse history, what is happening is happening. Our job is not to moralize and blame but to go forward with a new libratory politics that has learned from recent events.
For example, there is much to be said about the positive effects of the “Madonna phenomena” on mainstream society. In a way she has truly raised what Judith Butler termed “Queer theory” to a wider public dimension. This does not mean we cannot be critical of Madonna’s politics or that we have to give the benefit of the doubt to crass popsters like Kate Perry or pale imitations like Lady Gaga. It does mean that what went before was no golden age of equality and ethics, the reaction against it was not merely a marketing ploy but borne of a real frustration over the construction of women’s sexuality.
And now the edifice of neo-liberalism is shaking and what went before is held up for quite obvious criticism, we can laugh at how stupid and infantile most of it was (compare this wonderful original of Raining Men by the Weather Girls with this unspeakably pathetic “raunch” remake by Gerri Halliwell). This wonderful pastiche of Kate Perry’s dreadful, “I kissed a girl” song says it all: