25 Reminders Of What ‘Obscene’ Really Is

People are quick to label things as “obscene” these days—including teen girls’ online photos and pop star performances. So Soraya Chemaly wants to clarify what obscene really means when it comes to girls, women, bodies, what they do, what they’re for, and what happens to them in our country.

Earlier this month, hot on the heels of Miley “Queen-of-Obscene” Cyrus’ MTV Awards performance, a mother (of boys) wrote a viral letter to girls about their social media summer selfies. She was just focused on regular photos, not even texts. Of course, boys and girls post photos and sext in equal measure, it’s just that boys share images at twice the rate of girls, who are more often penalized. Girls take revealing, often porn-pose-inspired photos of themselves because they know what’s considered worthy and laudable in society. Otherwise, they’d be uploading photos of themselves reading Tristram Shandy or posing with their AP Chemistry test scores.  

Cyrus practiced her routine beforehand with backup dancers. With producers. With sound people. And executive producers. And media people. With costume designers. With trusted advisors and managers. Her performance, though lewd, was rehearsed, approved and profitable. There really was very little about it that was transgressive, especially in the Middle Age of Raunch. When it comes to performers and their “shocking behavior,” we are Pavlov’s dogs. But, whatever.   

Cyrus’ performance and girls’ use of social media didn’t disregard our mainstream moral or ethical principles. On the contrary, they reinforce them. It’s mainstream moral and ethical principles, sodden with sexist ideals, that made her performance and responses to it what they were and that motivate teens to sext.

Girls are routinely penalized because of our rapey double standards. I mean, really, Cyrus’ new “Wreckingball” video was produced by a man with a history of sexually abusing young models and yet he continues to be powerful, respected, and influential. Her entire performance was conducted around Feminist Freedom Fighter Robin Thicke who stood, clothed, in the center of the stage. No Parental Television Council outrage over “Blurred Lines,” a song, now banned at the University of Edinburgh, that uses “from the mouth of rapists” language and plays on common rape myths. “Corrosive” doesn’t begin to describe our rape tolerances. 

The creation of these images is not remotely sexy, it’s about production not seduction, objectification not agency. As with hand-wringing concerns about teenage girls, most of the critiques of Cyrus’ vulgarity can be distilled into various ideas about women’s bodies, how they are used, by whom they are used, and for what purposes. Otherwise, we’d be talking about men doing everything that she does. I mean, remember what happened when five-time Grammy nominee Miguel simulated sex on stage during a concert earlier this year? Maybe we’ll see a symbolic gesture of forgiveness coming Cyrus’ way 40 years from now, but I doubt it. 

None of it, the songs, the dancing, the sexting, ultimately, is about sexual agency. These outraged media flashpoints simply echo long-held ideas about scary unfettered female sexuality and the intrinsic sinfulness of women’s bodies—that they should be controlled, that they are dangerous, and that they are, either inherently or by implication or activity, obscene. The mom of viral letter fame wants to protect her sons from what she must think is “skimpy,” “sultry,” “sexy”…obscenity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that word in the past few weeks.

Obscene is THE word most frequently flung about in this context. The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines “obscene” this way:

1: disgusting to the senses : repulsive

2  a : abhorrent to morality or virtue; specifically : designed to incite to lust or depravity

b : containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage <obscene lyrics>

c : repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles <an obscene misuse of power>

d : so excessive as to be offensive <obscene wealth> <obscene waste>

I thought it might be helpful to compile a brief list of what better fits the definition of “obscene” when it comes to girls, women, bodies, what they do, what they’re for, and what happens to them in our country. What is truly obscene is…

1. That Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is the theme song for large swaths of our judicial system.

2. That Blurred Lines is nothing compared to a bottomless pit of “sexy, sharpsongs that glorify violence against women, with catchy refrains.

3. That tens of thousands of people cheer when a singer gets on stage and verbally attacks a woman using words like “cunt,” “bitch,” and “whore,” while calling for her violent death. Of course, maybe he was joking.

4. That stalking victims are overwhelmingly women, but that women agreed to roles in The Bitch Came Back.

5. That advertising regularly glamorizes abuse of women, idealizes battered bodies as an aesthetic ideal, and makes even eviscerated, dismembered, dead women “hot.”

6. That movies, television, and games pump images of sexual exploitation and violence against girls and women into the air like a numbing, toxic gas.

7. That shock jocks make millions of dollars degrading girls and women publicly every day.

8. That “upstanding communities” produce people who, by the age of 15, are incapable of intervening when they witness girls being humiliated, bullied, and assaulted. That they actively do the opposite and pile on until girls kill themselves.

9. That girls and women often cannot walk or run or explore, anywhere, without the fear of assault.

10. That pornography fetishizing violent, male domination, resulting in younger and younger boys and girls having no idea what healthy sexuality is, is the driving force of the Internet.

11. That some corporate executives think “girl power” is about embellishing girl children’s underwear with words like “eye candy,” while others mock homeless people, 92% of whom, if they are female, have been sexually abused.

12. That countless people “like” images of women’s pain and misery but can’t muster the energy to literally lift a finger and support efforts to help stop it, or vote for people who will.

13. That we have guns, guns, guns, and tens of thousands of children and women shot to death by intimate partners every year.

14. That religious leaders and institutions shield rapists instead of their victims and remain unpunished.

15. That transgender people are significantly more likely to be attacked and murdered and that people debate that this is a hate crime.

16. That we don’t have elected officials who respect women’s rights to control our own bodies or trust them to be morally competent.

17. That college and university administrators keep their jobs year after year after year while they give campus rapists and apologists slaps on the wrist and act surprised to hear about rape chants, “who would you rape” frat games, and other “traditional” activities.

18. That 15-year-old girls are killing themselves after they’re gang raped by groups of boys and men and, if they live, that they might be called spiders and sexual predators by adults who abuse their power.

19. That boys’ athletic careers are more important than justice for girls.

20. That military leaders who allow the sexual assaults of tens of thousands of service members fail to understand that it is their behavior that damages military cohesion.

21. That we have increasing numbers of unplanned and compulsory pregnancies because ignorant people use shoddy and perverted ideas about women’s bodies and science to inform our legislation and education system.

22. That we have not one law regulating male reproduction but hundreds regulating women’s.

23. That we live in a country where rapists can sue for custody of children borne of rape in more than half of our states.

24. That judges aren’t removed from benches after they shame victims, blame children for their own abuse, and release predatory rapists in order to protect powerful people’s rights to act on their impulses at any cost.

25. That the buying and selling of humans is increasing and that more than half of those traded are children and 70% are female.

This is just in the United States. I suspect that even Hanna Rosin, who recently announced, with a flourish, the end of “patriarchy” would agree that these are more than “slights.” I’d suggest that this level of cultural production, tolerance for and practice of gendered violence is a legitimate “huge obstacle” that has yet to be overcome. All of this is, of course, amplified along axes of racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and transphobia. 

This reality is “disgusting to the senses,” “abhorrent to morality or virtue,” and “designed to incite to lust or depravity.” These facts are “repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles.” Indeed, they are “so excessive as to be offensive.” And yet, talking about it openly is “regarded as taboo in polite usage.” Misogyny and its effects are obscene.

Miley Cyrus and skimpily dressed 15-year-olds? You have got to be kidding me. 

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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