I am amazed at the recent media frenzy around the photo shoot that a few Glee cast members did for GQ magazine. All week Jian Ghomeshi has been reading letters from listeners concerning this explicit shoot, and we have heard various condemnations which, among other things, have included absurd charges of 'child pornography.' The whole thing is remarkable.
Men's magazines like Maxim, GQ, and others routinely contain such photos, some of them more explicit than this. The cast members from Glee are grown adults in their mid-twenties which makes talk of child pornography more than a little bizarre. If people are upset that women in their twenties are being portrayed as sexual beings in a high-school setting I am surprised that people are not radically up in arms about the tv series Hellcats which itself verges on soft-porn. The fact is that women much younger than Lea Michele are routinely portrayed as ultra-sexualized, including many on Family Channel. Young teen girls are often seen on television and in print in a very sexualized way. Yet many of these girls are not legally responsible for their actions and arguably not mature enough to make the judgements concerning the portrayal of their sexuality. And yet it is the Glee shoot that is causing a stir.
There is, at the heart of this situation, something strange. A lot of vitriol has been targeted at the Glee cast members. But condemning a woman like Lea Michele for making her own decisions concerning her sexuality is something I find kind of offensive. Here is a young talented prosperous woman who, though pretty, has actually established her singing career on her genuine artistic ability. She appeared on Broadway as a very young girl long before she was a sexual being. And now that she is in her mid-twenties and a recognized singing talent all over the world, a bunch of people want to come out of nowhere and decide for her whether her actions are proper or not.
The fact is that we certainly haven't reached anything like gender equality in the world and I understand why some people would be troubled by the objectification of women in the media. But there is a flipside of this issue too. When any group that has been historically oppressed or disadvantaged begins to become empowered they, as a group or individuals, may make decisions some of us don't like. But that is what empowerment is all about; the ability to make decisions for yourself and not have them dictated by others. Now unlike many young women in the media, Lea Michele has been genuinely exploring her talent and being recognized for it. She was in musical theatre and not making pop videos at the age of fifteen trying to exploit her sexuality like so many young women have done (or been compelled to do). Now Ms Michele is making her own decisions. You may not like her decisions but they are hers to make. She is not a victim except to the degree that we are all victims of the age and society in which we live, and she is not simply trading on her sexuality as so many people in the media do.
If you don't like the GQ don't buy it. And certainly don't show it to your young daughter. I agree that such images are not healthy for young kids who don't understand the implications of them. And if Lea Michele was your daughter or friend you could engage her in a debate about the pervasiveness of such imagery and the need to change these images. And it is probably a good idea to mention that such the photo shoot was in a "Men's" magazine and the entire episode was probably dreamt up by men with little interested in women's (or anyone else's) empowerment. But let's not loose sight of the fact, as many on the left are wont to do, that freedom and empowerment are about the ability to make decisions and, as with democracy, we may not always like the decisions being made. Furthermore, I for one, can envision a time when we have gender equality and women (as well as men) may continue to play sexual games with imagery and art and yet still be equal and strong. If we can't imagine that then we are selling ourselves short.