The Politics of Women:
Volume I Issue 3 Editorial
Publishing a small-press magazine is kind of like dropping a rose into a canyon and waiting for an echo. These things typically take ungodly amounts of work to produce, have circulations smaller than the number of reporters working for Newsweek, and are about as profitable as a career playing kazoo. So, on the rare occasions when a half-dozen or so people actually take enough of an interest in your publication to, say, send you a letter, it's a matter of some rejoicing. Which brings us to the contents of Xero #2's mailbag, remarkable for the number of diatribes it contained about how we, the editorial staff of Xero, are all (ahem) a bunch of misogynists.
Okay, so we may have set ourselves up for it. Yes, the cover of #2 was a photograph of a woman, and yes, she was in chains. That, and Sean's story "Hypnotized by the Blue Light" (narrated by a woman who has been abused to the point where she can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy), prompted a fair number of complaints, which I think warrant an answer here--and maybe a diatribe of my own.
Addressing the simpler issue first: "Hypnotized by the Blue Light" was not supposed to be a happy story. The main character was quite clearly not in her right mind, and her interpretation of her situation was just as clearly a psychological escape mechanism. The story is fundamentally more about how people fail in psychologically corrosive environments than it is about sex, and it no more advocates degradation of women than does the Julia Roberts movie "Sleeping with the Enemy." 'Nuf said.
That takes us to the second issue, which is the depiction (in photography, or poetry, or prose) of women in sexual situations. There is a mindset which says that this kind of depiction, of any sort, is inherently demeaning to women. Curiously, it's a mindset that's found in some feminists, who are (one would expect) exactly the last people who ought to believe such a thing.
People--a category that includes women--are very complex animals, and exhibit a wide diversity of habits, and tastes, and philosophies. There are men who are sexually aggressive and predatory; there are men who are sexually passive; there are men who like sexual power and control; there are men who are aroused by being controlled; there are men who are entirely asexual. Same goes for women.
But for some reason, what's good for the gander is not for the goose. Let a man be portrayed in a sexual situation, and it doesn't reflect on all mankind; portray a woman in the same way and you automatically demean all women. Never mind that women, like men, are individuals; never mind that women, like men, have their own ideas about their sexuality; never mind that women, like men, sometimes choose to be seen in a sexual light.
Never mind that women, like men, sometimes want to be seen in a sexual light.
Now there's a can of worms for you.
The basic tenant of feminism, at least as I understand it, is that women are, in all matters not requiring physical possession of a penis or a vagina, the equals of men. A good philosophy, and one I endorse. But, for some reason, there's a double standard at work here. Women, it goes, are inherently equal to men, and as such should be accorded full measure of the respect, authority, privileges, and prerogative that men enjoy. But... Should a woman choose to be party to a form of artistic expression that displays her as a sexual being, then she is automatically being degraded in the process; at best a dupe, and at worst a victim of the men who are putting her on display, to the detriment of all women everywhere.
This idea makes sense only if you accept the argument that women are not the equal of men; that they are not capable of judging their own personal situations; that they cannot give informed consent in any sexual situation; that they are helpless to defend themselves against exploitation at the hands of men; that they need to be protected from anyone who suggests that there may be an element of sexuality to their being. Accept that premise, and it follows logically that sexual expression degrades women by showcasing their inferiority and their inability to make rational decisions about their own image.
You can't have it both ways. Either you must accept the equality of women, and with it the idea that women can choose for themselves how they want to be portrayed and the manner in which they express themselves, up to and including the manner in which they express the sexual sides of themselves; or you must accept the idea that women cannot make those decisions without degrading themselves because they simply aren't qualified to. You cannot simultaneously believe both. Women either have the right to express themselves or allow themselves to be expressed in any manner they choose, or they are inherently weak and need to be protected from exploitation. Pick one. Nobody can simultaneously be empowered and be a victim.
The photographs of Angie which appeared on the cover of Xero #2 and in the poem "Boundaries" are both sexually charged, and they both show her in chains. The ideas for both photographs originated with her. Either you believe that she, as a member in full and equal status of the human race, had the right and the ability to make that decision for herself, with full understanding of the situation, or you do not. There is no middle ground.
"But," the dogma goes, "any sexual depiction of a woman portrays her as a sexual object! It denies her as a full member in equal standing of the human race, because it focuses narrowly on her sexuality, and on nothing else!"
The interesting thing about that argument, aside from the fact that it's rarely made for sexual depictions of men, is that it's used against anything that expresses any kind of sexual aspect of a female subject, and sometimes against anything that involves a female subject at all.
Context doesn't seem to matter; if a woman is shown as sexually submissive, it's obvious she's an object for the use of any man who wants her; if she's sexually aggressive, it objectifies her because it exaggerates her sexuality (as if sexually aggressive women were a fiction that is never found in nature). The argument is hermetically sealed; sexual depictions of women objectify those women because all sexual situations objectify women by definition. (Taken to its logical conclusion, this must mean that all sexual situations are for the benefit of men, not women--presumably because either women do not enjoy sex, or because they are unqualified to make informed decisions about sex.)
And why do all sexual situations objectify women? Because they create a context in which the woman's sexuality is the most important thing about her. What this argument neglects is that any situation will, by its nature, exaggerate those qualities which are relevant to that situation. A photograph of a female executive emphasizes her role as a decision-maker and corporate officer, to the exclusion of her hobby as a scuba-diver or her accomplishments as an amateur pianist. That doesn't mean that she has been objectified or that those other aspects of her are unimportant; it simply means that one photograph must be limited in scope.
No single work of art can possibly hope to represent every facet of all humanity. Any work of art must, by its nature, narrow its focus to only whatever few elements the artist chooses to explore. Human sexuality, in all its myriad forms, is a significant part of the human experience, and is therefore a legitimate subject for an artist to explore. To suggest otherwise is to deny us the right to express part of what it is that makes us as a species separate from everything else that exists.
Xero is a publication that reflects in many ways the tastes and artistic sensibilities of its creators, but it doesn't reflect our tastes alone. Like any open-submission periodical, it succeeds or fails on the quality and quantity of material that's contributed to us.
If you don't personally like the sensibilities or philosophies you see here, don't complain about it; send us something you do like! If it's good, we'll publish it. If you don't like the kind of artwork you see in here, send us some of yours! Better yet, start your own magazine, and rake us over the coals in your editorial. Variety is always better than monotony. If you don't agree with us, fine! Let's talk--but bring something to the table.