On Rashida Jones, the ‘Pornification of Everything’, and ‘Slut Culture’

Rashida Jones

I will be forthcoming and say that I have had some harsh words here for Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian. I am unapologetic about those opinions. I own them. And, they are linked to what “Parks and Recreation” actress, everyone’s favorite somebody, and daughter of hit producer Quincy Jones, Rashida Jones, is getting at when she discusses the “pornification of everything.”

However, when it comes to ‘slut culture,’ there is a lot more complexity than that.

How Did Rashida Jones Find Herself in this Feminist Nightmare?

On October 19th, Jones tweeted:

And, after receiving varied responses, she wrote the following for the January edition of Glamour:

“That was at the end of October, a month that had already brought us the Miley Cyrus cross-continental twerk-a-thon and Nicki Minaj’s Halloween pasties. With the addition of Rihanna writhing on a pole in her “Pour It Up” video, and Lady Gaga’s butt-crack cover art for the song that goes “Do what you want with my body,” I was just done. I’d had enough.

I don’t know when the pornification of pop stars became so extreme, but as Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video played in the background—naked fantasy women bouncing around and licking things—I realized that the lines were not really blurry at all. They were clear. A new era had arrived.”

She went on to clarify her thoughts.

“And then there’s this: What else ties these pop stars together besides, perhaps, their entangled G-strings? Their millions of teen-girl fans. Even if adult Miley and Nicki have ownership of their bodies, do the girls imitating them have the same agency? Where do we draw the line between teaching them freedom of sexual expression and pride in who they are on the inside? Are we even allowed to draw a line?”

I read an article on The Frisky by Jessica Wakeman basically admonishing Jones for calling other women names.

“I didn’t disagree with Rashida Jones’ observations. But using “whore” as a derogatory term? Not cool. And implying women are “whores” for behaving sexually in ways you may not like? Really not cool.”

While I understand Jones’ sentiment, it seems others were mainly offended by her word choice. That’s understandable.

Truth is…She is Kind of Right

Let me begin by decoupling this conversation from sexual abuse, and “rape culture.” I will deal with that later in the piece.

Jones is discussing those in Hollywood who have the financial power to control the sexual imagery in music, film, and television. Her qualm is with women who DO have sexual agency projecting a one-dimensional image of sexuality which could be dangerous for regular Joanies like us who DO NOT have the same sexual agency or protection. When Miley and Rihanna sing about drug induced sex or having multiple partners simultaneously – whether they actually do those things or not – they present a very limited picture of female sexual empowerment. The lens is squarely on physical assets rather than inherent worth. That seems, to me, to be Jones’ issue.

Though she went the Cliff’s Notes route with the 140 characters on Twitter, and she only mentioned folks showing their unmentionables on TV, she was attempting to address the commodifying of women’s bodies as a form of currency. And, well, can anyone disagree with that? Is Wakeman right about name calling? Yes, probably. But sometimes, if it quacks like a duck, waddles, and has webbed feet, you just gotta call it what it is.

On Rape Culture…

Why does ‘rape culture’ have nothing to do with ‘slut culture’? Well, because they are explaining to wholly different things.

In grad school, I once wrote a paper arguing about the origins of culture. After reading some of the preeminent philosophies on the subject, I settled on the work of Hannah Arendt. Though her criticisms of the ‘banality of evil’ – epitomized in the bureaucratic nature with which non-soldiers carried out the murderous will of Hitler in Nazi Germany – apply to orthodoxy, they work well to fit this scenario of hyper-sexuality as well. We have accepted such extremes in sex and sexual representation in this country that we – almost bureaucratically – assimilate. This is how “culture” is created. Our assimilation seeds social norms.

Slut culture has taken time to create but it seems we have figured it out. We say that jutting tongues, pelvic thrusts, bottom breasts, and g-strings are sexuality. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe they are for some but not for others. So, in fairness, shouldn’t everyone have the right to define their sex for themselves (as long as health and self-preservation are primary)?

Jones may not have had enough characters to articulate this but that is how I have viewed our ‘slut culture’ for quite some time.

Conversely, rape culture is what Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell swoon about in “Blurred Lines.” Their claims that a girl “wants it” is the notion that you can just look at someone and know they are interested in having sex with you without them actually consenting. Sadly, just “knowing” someone wants you can make you a rapist. Whomever you are with, they should be able to – legally and vocally – articulate their interest. I say legally because children cannot consent.

Rape culture made me think my first sexual experiences were consensual when they weren’t. In high school, escaping an abusive home environment just to have a twenty-something-year-old man in a position of authority tell me, “If I come pick you up and get you outta there, you know what we are going to have to do” isn’t consensual sex. This is a byproduct of rape culture.

Next is where slut culture comes in. My self-worth and esteem were so low that intimacy in that way made me think I had accomplished something. Beautiful women and men in media like Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, R. Kelly, Lil Wayne, and most of R&B artists at the time taught me that at least part of my worth lie in my genitals. And, to cash in on that worth, I had to use them accordingly otherwise I was just some churchy prude. Because of slut culture I was socialized in, I accepted statutory rape as intimacy. Why? Well, because in seeking to navigate the treacherous roads of adolescence, that message of hyper-sexuality and the currency in my panties was very clear. And, having too few counter-messages to properly filter the images I saw, I gave in to an unhealthy perversion of sexual agency. Instead, I allowed myself to assimilate to what I thought I saw these beautiful, rich men and women doing on my television screen.

As Jones said, “There is a difference, a key one, between ‘shaming’ and ‘holding someone accountable.'” To call a rape victim a slut is unconscionable. Victims cannot be held accountable for someone else’s violent sexual aggression or unwanted forced sexual intercourse. It is antithetical to the definition of accountability. I am no more responsible for someone else’s sexual activity than they are for mine. So, folks really need to stop with the rape projecting nonsense. But, we also have to put an upper bound on what we are willing to have paraded about as sexual freedom.

The two theories address hyper-sexualization in American culture but two separate facets of it. Both are promoted by singers, athletes, television personalities, and other prominent figures capable of influencing culture. They are definitely correlative but they are not causal at all. Neither causes the other. Neither requires the other to exist and thrive. And, it is time we, as Americans, take responsibility for the exploitation we are complicit in when fostering them both.

Why Feminists Lost With ‘Slut Shaming’

I think that men and women can act like sluts, hoes, skanks, and whores. I have never seen the term as gender-based.

How does one act in such a way? To me, it doesn’t actually require sex. We don’t walk up to people while they are having  sex and call them sluts. It is about presumption. It is about decency politics. We think someone is whorish so they get the scarlet letter.

I, personally, think that “slut” is a behavior. I see it as an adjective more than a noun. When Justin Bieber grabs his crotch and sticks out his tongue insinuating sexual behavior in front of 9-99 year olds, he isn’t expressing sexual agency. He is acting like a whore. Why? Well, because he thinks he is supposed to. The reaction from the crowd makes him feel important and special. He gains monetarily and in notoriety by allowing himself to be exploited by record execs set to cash in on his hyper-sexual image.

Sexual agency is a personal right. It usually starts with the individual and manifests itself in intimate personal relationships. It requires intimacy. There is a reason why quiet settings are referred to as “intimate.” They don’t typically include millions of onlookers, ticket services, televisions, or the like.

It’s like “whore” and “slut” have become the n-words of the feminist movement. And, I can totally understand that. As someone who has experienced unwanted sexual advances and been victim of over-sexualization at an early age (since I never looked my age), I get the hurt associated with those terms. And, like the n-word, there really is no way to take on the moniker without also taking on the implications associated with it.

I think, as feminists, we dropped the ball with the term “slut shaming” though. The term itself is confusing and oxymoronic. It basically says that calling someone a slut is shaming them for ANY sexual behavior. But, the problem is, the term slut should refer to UNHEALTHY sexual behavior – something we should indeed express concern about. It seems that the dum dums of the world have over-used this word to the point of making it entirely too all-encompassing shaming women (and usually, only women) for having any sex at all. So, there is certainly merit in Wakeman’s argument.

What I Have Taken From This Experience

I engaged a feminist writer, self-proclaimed “Curator of Ratchet” Mikki Kendall aka “Karnythia,” on Twitter about slut  culture to help me formulate my thoughts. Kendall is also the creator of the very timely hashtag #FastTailedGirls.

Ms. Kendall, in response to a few tweets from me, clarified her perception of the term.

It was Ms. Kendall’s final tweet that resonated with me most. Sexual agency and exploitation are both in the gray areas of our cognition when it comes to sexuality. That’s just an unfortunate truth.

Maybe Kim K., Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj feel that they are expressing sexual agency when they sing about fake penises, take pictures of their behinds and breasts, or otherwise simulate sex in the public arena for money and fame. Maybe what Jones and I are really concerned with is public versus private expressions of sexuality. Maybe we should start addressing the deeper issues we have with instilling self-worth in little girls (especially those of color) to prevent the confusion of agency versus exploitation in the first place. I’m not sure.

Do I want to see Nicki Minaj traipsing around with a dildo? No, not really. But, maybe that’s just me being a judgmental prude.

I know a few things for sure though. For one, I don’t want my daughter to learn about sexual agency from these women’s displays because their ideas about intimacy (from what they’ve shown) don’t look healthy to me. I would like to set the tone for her when the time comes.

The other thing I know now is that I should probably stop calling people names that once drove me to make unhealthy decisions. Shaming is shaming. So, I will probably dial the names back a little go forward.

Not to trivialize this issue, but, am I the only person who remembers the advent of the dual side-slit skirt? The late singer Aaliyah wore one in her 1998 video for “Are You That Somebody?” After that, very high, double side slit skirts were everywhere. At 14, I owned two. In much the same way as her influence on fashion, Aaliyah was setting an example about women’s beauty and sexuality. What was a wardrobe change for her was a movement for teenaged girls and some of us were too young to understand the differences between instruction and entertainment.

Jones is simply asking that we be cognizant of the emulative nature of fans and onlookers. I just can’t fault her for that.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

5 Responses

  1. i am 100% on rashida’s side. i’m not a prude and i love when women take ownership of their bodies, but i think when that’s all you’re doing and offering not much–if anything–else and making a profit off it what’s separating them from paid sex objects?

  2. Aidan Monis says:

    Greetings from Toronto! Jess, I’m quite new to your website, but I must say that I love the work you’re doing. keep it up!

    I like this article, but I do feel that it is incomplete. The biggest problem with the liberal (as opposed to radical) feminist movement is that it presents what are essentially structuralist arguments. Mainstream feminism (which I cannot conflate you with, since I don’t know you) presents the hyper-sexuality of our culture purely as a matter of personal choice. If only men were less sexist, if only women valued themselves more, etc. I’m not saying that personal choice doesn’t matter, but it ultimately is futile if the power systems of our society remain in place. We live in a white supremacist, homophobic, misogynistic culture. I’m sure you would agree with this proposition. However, how can we start to move away from such a dehumanizing culture? I believe the answer is much bigger than simply having women like Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj present more empowering ideas of womanhood. The answer, ultimately, is the destruction of capitalism. The doctrine of capitalism holds that there are some people who are worth less (labourers as a whole). The employer/employee relationship is, at its heart, rape. Even at their most inclusive and humane, the workplace is of the average person is overwhelmingly fascistic. There are people above to command, and people below to be commanded. The people ‘below’ are expected to accept their dehumanization at the hands of emplyers, the government, society, etc. While it’s 100% accurate that famous women like Cyrus and Minaj are literally making things worse for women, they ultimately do so at the behest of an inherently inhumane system. If one truly desires a free and just society, it cannot be organized along the lines of white, capitalist patriarchy. It must become something else entirely.

  3. Aidan Monis says:

    Sorry I meant to write Jenn! It wouldn’t let me edit the post. Sorry!

  4. Wow. You are completely right and give a great comment.

    Capitalism is an inherent threat to the equality desired by modern feminists.I think there are just too many gray areas that remain uncharted and undefined when we have the overarching conversations. The system is broken. And we all play a part. The question is: How seriously do we take our role in that system and are we willing to be honest about it?

  5. Aidan Monis says:

    As Audre Lorde wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In order to bring about meaningful change, one must be able, first of all, to critique systems of domination. This means examining social structures from the outside. It is simply not enough to say that women are oppressed, for instance. This is undoubtedly true, but the truth is so much more complex. White women are oppressed by white men, but white women also oppress Aboriginal women, and women of colour. Even Beyonce, who has been hailed as the new ‘bad bitch feminist,’ is guilty of this. Miley Cyrus was rightly condemned for her use of black women as props at the VMAs, but where is the outrage of Beyonce doing the same in any one of her million videos? Marginalized women, and black women in particular, are at best viewed as decoration in our society. What has Beyonce, an arbiter of culture in our society, done to combat this image? Nothing. I am not condemning her, though, but system she serves. The unspoken ideological idea behind her entire career is that black women exist to be simultaneously lusted after and to have violence enacted against them. I would argue that the system is not broken, from a purely literal standpoint. The point of white capitalist patriarchy is to oppress, degrade and destroy. This is just what Miley, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj have gotten rich off of. Audre Lorde is totally right when she argues that the way forward is not the classic feminist binary (men/women), but the radical feminist pillar of intersectionality. It is not enough to see Beyonce or Rihanna on the TV, shaking their asses for millions of dollars. Equal representation is not the solution. The solution is a total rethinking and restructuring (along the lines of sex, class, race, sexual orientation, ability) of how we interact with each other. The liberal idea of individual empowerment must also fall, leading the way for collective consciousness and empowerment.

    http://www.muhlenberg.edu/media/contentassets/pdf/campuslife/SDP%20Reading%20Lorde.pdf