There’s more to equality than jumping on the raunch culture bandwagon.
When the far right gets hysterical about gender roles, one of their go-to paranoid delusions is the accusation that feminists are trying to turn men into women and women into men. There are extremists in any movement, to be sure, but the majority of third wave feminists are not interested in eradicating the idea of gender, only in expanding our definitions and creating more space for people to live their true selves without fear and harassment. We get nervous with words like “feminine” and “masculine” because they are so often used as code for, respectively, “delicate,” “submissive,” “ladylike,” and “aggressive,” “dominant,” “decisive.”
What does “ladylike” even mean exactly, and is it something girls should aspire to be? Its actual definition is “becoming or suitable for a lady,” but who gets to decide what’s suitable, and “becoming” to whom? Lately, there’s been a rise in raunch comedy starring women, from Sarah Silverman to Bridesmaids, Bacherlorette to Two Broke Girls, full of potty humor, sailor talk, and shock tactics. It’s probably not what most people would call ladylike, but is this progress?
The first time my mother saw Bridesmaids, she was not impressed. It was stooping to the lowest common denominator, she said, cashing in on easy laughs with toilet jokes and raunchy sight gags. She wondered if this is all we get when women finally get behind the camera and write their own stories, the same old lowbrow mess that Hollywood spits out when they aim for the hearts and wallets of 15-year-old boys. We get poop jokes.
While I see her point, and her disappointment that this movie, of all movies, was considered a great feminist success, I told her that I thought Bridesmaids deserved a little more credit. At its core, I saw it as a story about how we choose to live with our own choices while we marvel at the different paths of our friends. Under the layer of raunch, it was about trust and loyalty and the ever changing, constantly shifting, knotty, twisted, tangled beautiful mess that is adult female friendship.
But what about all the vomit and histrionics? What does crude bathroom humor do for women? Is mimicking the belching, farting dude vehicles a step up or a step down? Are we opening doors or closing them? On one hand, gross-out humor serves to de-pedestalize women in a way that I think is extremely necessary. It reminds us that women are not dolls, that we are human—messy, gross, imperfect humans—who have bodily functions, who eat Brazilian food, who occasionally experience torrential diarrhea. When so many women on screen are glossy, pristine, perfectly-coiffed cardboard cutouts, I appreciate the acknowledgment that we can be disgusting, too.
On the other hand, there’s a danger here that we slide too far past refreshing, humanizing, true-to-life humor, and skid into the arena of that lowest common denominator humor that my mother was so resentful of. The bottom of this slippery slope is discussed at length in Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, in which young women objectify themselves and each other as a form of faux-equality. If dudes can whoop it up in a strip club, why can’t I? If I holler at Girls Gone Wild, or tattoo a naked woman on my shoulder, or discuss Scarlett Johansson’s breasts, then I’m in on the joke, instead of part of the punch line. But of all of the things we’re going to borrow from dudes, is raunch humor really where we want to play copycat?
While I actively believe that expectations of bodily and behavioral perfection are damaging for women (and boys, who end up with some rude awakenings when they finally interact with real, non-photo shopped, non-pristine female bodies), I don’t believe that celebrating raunch culture is necessarily the best way to combat those expectations. There is something temporarily gratifying in a woman farting on television, but it’s a short-lived victory. In the long run, I don’t think our path toward equality has much to do with potty humor.
What we end up neglecting when we focus on equaling the gross-out playing field are the areas where women really shine, and where writing by women about women is able to capture something special and previously undocumented. Studies show over and over again that throughout their lives, women are better at making connections and maintaining relationships. (It’s one of the reasons we live longer!) This skill is partly a testament to the socialization of girls, but it is also one that men are not often given the chance to exercise or role models to emulate.
That’s what I think gets lost when we focus on the fart jokes. More women behind the camera and creating our media means we can get better, truer content that celebrates what we have historically been really good at. The fact that Bridesmaids had half a dozen solid, named female characters is huge. The fact that they talked to each other about men, yes, but also failed businesses, living at home, relationships with step kids, well that’s almost unprecedented.
My favorite moment in the Sex and the City movie is when Charlotte shits her pants on a Mexican vacation and her momentary humiliation is enough to knock Carrie out of her grief spiral and bring her back to reality. That feels true to me; I have cut the tension of a serious conversation, accidentally or not, with a fart. Who hasn’t? That intersection of real-life potty humor (we wouldn’t keep laughing at it if it weren’t funny, right?) and robust, sustained relationships is where we start to see progress. These relationships can be complicated and uncomfortable, there can be jealousy and insecurity, but there is no cat fighting, no backstabbing, and no name-calling.
What I want to see on my screens and celebrated in my media are portrayals of people, both men and women, as complex and fully realized. That portrayal can include potty humor, but that isn’t what makes stories interesting. Being as gross as the other guy is a pretty low bar to shoot for, don’t you think?
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.