The female lead?

// 27 August 2010

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Let’s not pretend social pressure on women no longer exists, argues Tugela Barnes in this guest post

A few days ago, The Sunday Times’ Style supplement ran a story celebrating the success of popular lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur. Written by Kate Spicer, it featured an interview with the current creative director, Sarah Shotton, as well as a history of the company and analysis of its winning formula. Spicer describes the brand as “having clothed the erotic revolutions of the 1990s (female laddism and sex as lifestyle statement) and the Noughties (rampant exhibitionist experimentation)”. As a feminist, I took issue with a couple of aspects of this article, and I’d be interested to hear if anyone else agrees.

To start, the article takes a subtle ‘feminists-are-demanding-and-cross’ stance, which didn’t exactly win me over. Towards the end, Shotton says: “I’m not a feminist. I’m not angry.” A well-trodden path of association, there. More from Spicer: “In the decades before [the ‘90s] it had been all about demanding orgasms and the feminist fight for your right to the ‘zipless f**k’. Sure, it was in-yer-face, but it didn’t seem to be fun or sexy.”

Language like “demanding” and “fight for your right” and even “in-yer-face” paints an all-too-familiar image of feminism as angry, snippy and controversial for the sake of controversy. It’s always easier to remember the people who shouted the loudest and lewdest, but was that really the whole stance of the Second Wave regarding sex? What about awareness and acceptance of female sexuality and sexual equality in terms of pleasure and respect? And, hell, just the fun of it all?

It then goes on to mention how Agent Provocateur introduced “fantastic frillies and split-crotch knickers, not as symbols of feminist oppression, but of female empowerment”. A couple of points here – firstly the idea of sexy pants being part of ‘feminist oppression’ – surely they mean ‘male oppression’? Unless there were loads of Second Wavers forcing crotchless lacies and peep-hole, ribbony bras on their followers? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I’ll ask my mum.

Secondly, ok, yes, I see that wearing daring and classically stripper-type lingerie can really feel exciting, fun and powerful for some women in their sex lives. So maybe this article isn’t so bad really, although I think the use of the word ’empowerment’ is a bit token. But, just as I was thinking “ok, yup, I get that”, the writer just throws herself, and any argument that this raunchiness can be linked to empowerment, out the window. For the very next sentence is this:

“By the Noughties, you were nobody if you weren’t having beautiful-people orgies, or pole dancing in your bedroom, or able to swing your breasts in different directions while wearing a pair of £100 pasties over your nipples.”

Ay, there’s the rub. Yes, the examples are comically overstated, but the fundamental point remains – you’re nobody if you don’t buy into this notion of sexy. There it is again, the idea that this narrow view of sex and sexuality is the only option. The bottom line for those who don’t conform is this – “Don’t want to take part? Well, then you’re not sexy, or even empowered.”

Where are the choices? Not every woman or man is turned on, or even comfortable, with this very visual, sometimes porny vision of female sexuality. Ariel Levy points out in Female Chauvinist Pigs that, in recent years, it seems Western society’s “interest is in the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure”. This seems to be applicable here – you mould your appearance and behaviour to a preconceived model. It’s all about the visual, what you project, not what you necessarily feel. There is no room for gentleness, subtlety, or just being relaxed and happy in yourself, which is often the most sexy thing of all.

The journalist goes on to say: “Nobody in academia or at the The Guardian liked it much. But women didn’t care. They were buying it.” But can she seriously argue that it came down to something as simple as independent choice on the part of women? She states herself that only ‘nobodies’ were not complying to this trend, and we know how uncool it is in our society to be left out of the current lifestyle fashion. If women are being sold an idea of what it is to be sexy (and in today’s world, ‘sold’ is synonymous with ‘bombarded’), and with it comes the status of being on-trend, is it really free choice which leads us to buy those crotchless panties and a pole to dance around? For some women, yes. But not for all. Some might say that it’s just a case of supplying the demand. Yes, but where does this demand come from? It’s a classic example of supply (in shops, TV shows, magazines, everywhere) creating demand, rather than the other way around.

I’m for free choice. For me, that’s empowerment. Today, women are freer to express and embrace their sexuality, which is great. But let’s not be so naïve as to say that social judgement no longer exists. It does, and is encouraged by articles like this one – it’s just on the other side of the spectrum these days, judgement about not being sexy ‘enough’ or in ‘the right way’. This recent vision of female sexuality has all the appearance of progress, but lacks the real freedom of it.

Photo of Agent Provocateur store front, by michaelpickard, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

sianushka // Posted 27 August 2010 at 2:04 pm

i totally agree.

don’t they realise that without second wave feminism empowering women to say yes to sex and enjoying satisfactory sex lives, agent provocateur prob wouldn’t exist?

and please, AP, don’t tell me how i should be having sex! that is just as repressive as the people you say were repressing women’s sex lives. duh!

Lindsey // Posted 27 August 2010 at 3:57 pm

The quotes you’ve included are really telling: “you were nobody if you weren’t…wearing a pair of £100 pasties” and “But women didn’t care. They were buying it.” Sex has been comodified as a status symbol, it’s not really about sexuality and what people actually get up to it’s all keeping up with the Joneses.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 27 August 2010 at 6:13 pm

Nothing in The Sunday Times’ article was ‘new’ or even transgressive. Instead it was more of the same old male-centric notions of how women are supposed to enact their heterosexuality, which is of course always for male sexual satisfaction.

In fact Levy is incorrect when she wrote ‘it seems western society’s interest is in the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure.’ What Levy really means it is male supremacist society which is solely concerned with the maintenance of male-centric heterosex and women are the ones who are expected and/or told they must always present themselves as “sexualised commodities” for male consumption.

Second Wave Feminism was about dismantling the rigid male-centric definitions of what supposedly passed for female heterosex and unfortunately male supremacy fought back with the result women are now expected to be men’s sexualised commodities not human beings.

Sheila Jeffreys’ book Anti Climax very succinctly details just how the male sexologists worked assiduously to maintain phallocentric sexuality as the supposed only ‘real sex.’

Agent Provocateur is a company which has very successfully promoted the notion that women can only achieve the de rigeur ‘sexual hotness to men’ if they wear uncomfortable basques and thongs. In other words it is another example of how pornography has become mainstream, with of course women constantly told/sold by retail companies, that unless a woman dresses in clothing which cater to male-centric pornified fantasies, a woman is supposedly frigid or prudish!

Or to put it another way, women must dress to please men and if a woman refuses, she is perceived as ‘frigid/prudish.’

Women have not remotely achieved sexual autonomy – instead we are constantly bombarded with phallocentric notions of what supposedly passes for female sexuality. Men however, continue to retain their sexual autonomy and ownership of their bodies, because porn tells men it is their right to use women as disposable dehumanised sexualised commodities.

coldharbour // Posted 28 August 2010 at 12:45 pm

I thought the open promotion of rampant transphobic bigots like Shelia Jeffreys would be absent from this site by now but considering Jennifer Drew uses every article to promote the transphobic philosophy of binary bio-gender identity it’s not really surprising. Apart from the fact that the F Word now has an official policy of anti-transphobia it’s at a time when (as Helen G’s last article pointed out) violence and discrimination against the trans community is endemic. It’s time we started to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to challenging transphobia rather than making gestures. If you want to know what Shelia Jeffreys thinks read on:

polly // Posted 28 August 2010 at 1:08 pm

What always intrigues me about this kind of stuff is the way that female anger is presented as the ultimate transgression. What is so frightening about it exactly? The fact that men won’t like it perhaps?

And as for the idea that anyone can be ’empowered’ by paying £100 or more for a piece of underwear, yeah right. I always feel empowered when I’ve been completely ripped off. And the only person I’ve ever heard of shopping at Agent Provocateur in Manchester is David Beckham who’s probably one of the few who can afford it. There certainly aren’t hordes of women beating the doors down whenver I walk past. Maybe they’re all at home reading the (Manchester) Guardian.

marika // Posted 29 August 2010 at 12:50 pm

I am tired of these discussions. I see it all being provoked by men and women falling for … again. Where are some sober brains, please???!

Jane // Posted 29 August 2010 at 2:45 pm

Crotchless frilly knickers at £120 a pop? The cheapest pair of pants at AP are dental floss thongs at £85. Female empowerment? Yeah – I’ve got plenty of time to waste handwashing smalls after coughing up hundreds of pounds for flimsy pants that barely cover my arse.

The majority of customers I see in Agent Provocateur are man.

Tugela Barnes // Posted 30 August 2010 at 1:05 pm

Hi there,

Thanks to all for your comments. It’s great to hear from some like-minded people!

Some interesting points here about the commodification of sex, which is highly applicable to AP. Sex has been divorced from it’s reality – physical, emotional sensations are unimportant. Instead, it’s all about the show, the look, the formula. In other words, objects, fashion, things that can sell. Because we can’t really buy those feelings of intimacy. And thus (especially with a high price-tag) it becomes a commodity, a contest, and a symbol of success and cool.

Articles such as this go some way to devaluing what feminism is truly about. By linking empowerment to knickers and hotness, I feel it belittles the true issues that women face every day – unequal pay, childcare issues and so on. I mean, really, what are we supposed to be saying? ‘Look! We can buy split-crotch knickers! Feminism = done!’

Also, yes, polly, I totally agree, why does the word ‘anger’ have such negative connotations when applied to a woman? I suppose it’s traditionally male trait? Men can be angry, women just hysterical?

Thanks for reading and keep your ideas coming!

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