Photo of Suran Dickson

Suran Dickson

Babes on the Box

Wednesday September 14, 2011

A woman with a disproportionately small waist for her G cup chest runs down the beach in a red swimsuit cut so high her hips appear to end in her armpits. The music reaches a crescendo as her now slow-motion figure bounces into ankle deep water to effortlessly drag a floundering hairy-chested man onto the beach while gaspy-faced onlookers gather to watch her begin a more romantic resuscitation procedure than could reasonably occur in real life. The hairy-chested man splutters, gazes into her eyes with just-survived-a-near-drowning-in-one-foot-of-water intensity and rests his head in one hand (aka manly beach pose) while his face breaks into a cheeky, flirtatious grin. The lifeguard gets up, flicks her immaculately tousled blonde hair, smiles back in a boundary-setting manner and saunters back to her watch post. You guessed it - Baywatch.

These were the television images of my youth, along with Married With Children and the Dukes of Hazzard. New Zealand had a combination of America and Britain's finest TV shows back-to-back on its two channels, therefore in most households it was a battle between kids and parents over the conservative grey-tinted English shows or the glossy excitement of stars and stripes fare. When we were old enough, my parents caved into our demands for Married With Children so my brother and I could lounge on the couch and giggle at Al Bundy's hand-in-pants, disgruntled working man approach to life. Revisiting some of those scenes on YouTube is a blast from the past. A sexist, ridiculous, gender constructing, heterosexist blast from the past.

While we've all laughed at the sheer lunacy of 1950's style adverts suggesting men blow cigarette smoke in their ladies' faces because 'she'll love you for it' and the 'tips for housewives' coffee table books we now buy for friends with heavy irony, it was interesting to note how much things have changed from the 80s-90s through to today. Married With Children featured resentful father, Al, who worked in a shoe shop while wife Peg tottered about on high heels smoking and begging for money, sex or both. With her Pamela Anderson waist-to-breast ratio, she was mother to Kelly; the epitome of a dumb blonde with poor taste in men, clothes and everything else, and Bud; a quicker-witted son who made it all the way to college but never to second base. While it is obviously a parody and like most TV shows, an extreme and unrealistic view of life, these are the images which filtered into our brains and, along with a multitude of 'real' experiences, helped to standardise our beliefs about men and women.

Obviously we didn't all turn into Kelly Bundy or Pamela Anderson clones; there were enough alternative female role models to give us other options. Plus, our mothers stood around tsking and muttering about 'how ridiculous those shows are and do you have to watch them' so we knew there was something gloriously inappropriate about those portrayals. And nowadays, young people have an even greater variety of role models which allows them freedom to pursue different ways of expressing themselves. So perhaps a little bit of humour and stereotyping doesn't do that much damage. However, life isn't quite so innocent anymore.

In 2011 young people have access to hundreds of channels (we were excited when a third channel finally hit our screens), games consoles, and the dreaded internet which allows access to everything from innocent chatrooms to hardcore pornography. This presents an interesting situation; while many TV shows portray women in far more empowered roles, display greater equality between the sexes and even some same-sex relationships without huge flaws or damaging stereotypes, most kids have access to pornography. It's free, it's exciting and it's educational - not the kind of education we'd like our young people to have, but nonetheless, to them, it provides some sort of education. Kids have candidly told me what they watch, how and why. And this is alarming. Young women and men are getting ideas about how to behave sexually from over-the-top, unrealistic and mostly misogynistic porn scenes.

And if heterosexual young people are seeking porn for 'further education' I would wager that lesbian and gay students are doing the same, not for further education, but for any education at all. While the basics of heterosexual sex are mentioned in schools, or by parents, homosexuality barely warrants a mention. While I'm not suggesting we introduce a 'how to' guide into schools, we do need to think about how our lesbian and gay young people will learn if they are offered well, nothing. Fortunately there are some great forums for young people to discuss their concerns anonymously, sites which treat homosexuality equally to heterosexuality, but one must sift through the plethora of 'adult-orientated' sites first.

I've heard that lesbian dance clubs often employ strippers to entertain their customers. By all accounts, the strippers behave in exactly the same way they do with men. And the observing women, who have usually just gone out for a drink and a dance, respond in exactly the same panting, yelling, braying, excited manner that men do. Is this just an example of women being free to express their sexuality without the dominating presence of men? Or is it an example of women having freedom to express themselves and therefore emulating men? Food for thought anyway. I'm not sure what I prefer; the totally heterosexual but overtly sexist portrayals of the females of my youth, or the more diverse but rampantly sexualimages that these young lesbians have been privy to. Maybe anything is better than Peg Bundy's knee-length, vomit-explosion of a woolly jumper.

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