At last count, there were just seventeen women of poor character remaining in the wild and to each of them, I offer the customary gift of a bourbon and semen-soaked brunch coat at the holy codeine temple of Tallulah Bankhead. Our redemptive age has all but succeeded in the devastation of the bad girl and it now takes no little moral strength to be thought of as lazy, evil or a whore and it is sadly impossible to become a lazy, evil whore. Transgression has become some very hard work.
This is not to say, of course, that one can no longer be a wayward lady in the west. There are thresholds and a price for crossing them. But, these are not as plain as they were in the era of the whore and a girl doesn’t really know how she might do feminine wrong until she does it.
There is, it seems to me, one sure-fire route to lady-evil and that is simply to fail to declare opposition to the bad girl. To say both that you don’t really care that there are women posing for men and for money in the altogether and you doubt that such depictions will end in particular harm to your gender is unladylike.
Well, colour me Tallulah if I don’t see the value of another campaign that opposes Bauer stick-mag ZOO Weekly.
This “lads’” publication has provoked consistent protest since the internet made the matter of protest a push-button affair and recent months have seen change.org pages created to protest its various tacky promotions, likely devised just to create publicity in the form of change.org page creation. The magazine’s search for “Australia’s Hottest Asylum Seeker” prompted a petition and its Anzac day sexy-digger cover was censured both by certain proper feminists and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Last week, a young activist decided to petition the whole gauche lot and asked that major supermarkets Woolworths and Coles remove the title from shelves on the grounds it was a tool of “rape culture” which both prevented young women from “navigating” their way around the pop culture and endorsed the crime of rape.
Various studies are cited in the petition and the writing around it that claim “the language of rapists” is indistinguishable from that of the copy in ZOO. While I have no truck with the kind of PUA motivational cant of the magazine and worry for those subject to its cheap and horrid echo, I think the assertion that certain similarities in expression between convicted rapists and copy editors will provoke crime is as legitimate as every other media effects argument about imitative violence. Which is to say, not very.
To be very clear, this scepticism about the real-life power of unpleasant materials is not a vindication for rapists. Nor is it a call for a narrower definition of rape and nor is it to be read in any way as an endorsement of ZOO or of mass culture titles more broadly. It is, however, an urging to rethink the currently popular doctrine of media effects and a call to re-examine the potential for disruption by the “bad girl”, discussion of whom we have all but forgotten by consigning her to victimhood.
Before that, though, I would like to offer a brief critique of the common strategies employed in this particular case and suggest that they are doomed from the outset to fail.
First, there is no doubt that ZOO craves and courts such attention. Across the last decade, magazines aimed specifically at men through the use of images of women have either ceased publication or suffered drastic decline in circulation. Radicalised “rapist” language or the Charlie Hebdo-like anti-clerical parody of the “Saint Mary Mac and Her Holy Rack” piece on Mackillop are designed less to engage readers than they are to create cheap publicity. If you suppose for one second that the editors of this failing title are not counting on feminist opposition to buoy their miserable sales, you haven’t been “navigating” the culture with a compass. The exploitation of social media networks to advertise a brand is common. When Carlton beer released a low-cost social media campaign depicting women as slaves to the ironing board, I called an advertising acquaintance to address my suspicions that this had been created particularly to incite the prominent outrage of the then newly created activist group Destroy the Joint. “Yep” she said. “Oppositional marketing works like a dream”. Just as Carlton cheaply became the lager of choice for anti-feminists, ZOO becomes the official reading material. Certain men don’t read ZOO or drink Carlton because of the products’ use-value but due to the fetish created, free of charge, by clear feminist opposition. The advice to “Ignore the bullies, all they want is your attention” is frustrating and, in many cases, poor. But when your attention has been factored in as a low-cost advertising model, you might want to think about withholding it. ZOO is doing a good job of fading into market irrelevance all on its own. If you don’t believe me, check those circulation drops.
Second, and as some feminist thinkers have opined, this is not a moral problem but a problem of mass culture. Magazines aimed at a large market are almost exceptionlessly shit. Exploitation is not an optional extra for the culture industry but, rather, its stock-in-trade. As we have recently learned, the supermarkets that sell these titles depend on the exploitation of bodies in a much more material way than ZOO itself. There are few titles aimed at men or women that do not have the unattainable object as the centre of much of their inquiry and, frankly, if you’re going to object to pornographic depictions of women ensnared by male primacy, then you might want to start with Modern Bride.
This is the thing, innit? If you’re going to say that the culture industry causes rape, you don’t legitimately get to choose which parts of it are the most inflammatory. There is a current view that overt sexism in a culture corresponds with higher numbers of conviction for abusive crimes against women. Then, someone always mentions Scandinavia. Even if this correlation can be adequately demonstrated, then it discounts a number of other factors influencing the lives and crimes and conviction principles of those in progressive social democracies and it fails to offer us a more meaningful basis for analysis of violent crime than “magazines cause it”.
As I have no forensic expertise whatsoever, I have nothing meaningful to offer on the origins of sexual violence. But, what I do have is a great impatience with the gratingly simple public conversation whose terms, even if we accept them, seem to be inadequate to describe the mechanism that starts with a ZOO subeditor and ends in horror. Even if we accept the simple doctrine of media effects and say that rape is caused by disrespectful depictions of women, then let’s burn down the whole damn lot including Modern Bride. If men see women content in the fancy dress of the institution that once permitted them unfettered, legal entitlement to rape, then surely that’s an endorsement?
Personally, I have little time for media effects hypotheses and I don’t think bridal titles cause crime any more than I think sticky books do. I don’t like that there are widely available manuals for male and female behaviour and if I had my way, we’d all be reading Marx Monthly. Available free-of-charge to the united workers of the world who had seized the means of production and taken as read Adorno’s theory of the culture industry as always and necessarily a vehicle for the deployment of mass ideology. And petitions and social media campaigns have begun to fulfil the same role. Even though these moments of anti-porn feminist activism appear to interrogate a mass view, however much the unpopular ZOO has ceased to reflect a mass view and persists only because readers feel they are doing something illicit, they bolster an orthodoxy.
And that is: bad girls must cease to exist.
I utterly understand the need and the will to detonate the virgin/whore dichotomy and it is from this basis that such feminism proceeds. But, rather than redeeming us all from the tedious choice of two feminine roles, activism of the type continues the work of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union and tries to make us all good.
It may be “good” but it is not especially useful to take what amounts to a moral, and not an anti-market, stance against “vice”. The idea of vice and of cultural materials that cause specific harm overlooks the fact of a broader complex of events that necessarily exploit and cause harm. It is a fiction to think of “vice” and it is a fiction to be morally good within the market. You can’t ask publishing companies or supermarkets or any part of this complex to act morally because, well, capitalism just doesn’t have a human face. We should stop the dangerous presumption that the market has a heart.
And, we might think about our unspoken revulsion for the “bad girls” who appear in the titles that attract so much censure. We think of them, at best, as workers and, more commonly as victims and in so doing, we fail to see their potential to transgress.