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Rant #484
(published April 29, 2010)
Gender Bending Commercial Memes
by Cecil Lue Disharoon
Driver Danica Patrick's ubiquitous commercials for GoDaddy.com bolster her celebrity profile, and they also spark a conversation about gender, sexuality, and a gradual progression in social mores that could augur a revolution in romance in Western storytelling. As romance is integral to the storytelling engines of popular culture, we're talking significant opportunities for very controversial social change.

As Patrick ran her first Daytona 500 stock car event this week, she's arguably as visible as any female sports figure in America. Few sports intersect so thoroughly with socially conservative culture as auto racing. Her playful commercial always depicts a set piece lending a tongue-in-cheek conclusion of either her female conversation partner or herself beginning to shed clothing. Simple enough?

Well, let's take a look at Patrick herself: a woman, famous for competing in a male-dominated sport. Her counterparts in these commercials are depicted as police, attorneys, and business people: women, in professions traditionally dominated by men. The comedic, if objectifying, purpose of the strip tease commercial suggests a sexual aggression that is also traditionally , though again, not exclusively, associated with men.

So: at once, the women choose to become sexualized, fetish objects, but also in a context where they initially play roles depicted by men a generation ago, and also, with a suggestion of a taboo-breaking inter-relation. The sex-positive culture's existence outside of religious-based taboo is covered in depth by my fellow blog-roller, Dialogic. What is the significance of gender-bending memes, reaching the mainstream?

Claremont historian Jason Powell, on the Remarkable blog, addresses the characterization of the female superheroes popularized in the Uncanny X-Men of the 1980s as "men with breasts", where women take on aggressive, occasionally violent traits in a manner traditionally portrayed through male superheroes. The issue he pushes back against is this notion that it's somehow a "cheat" to make female characters more powerful. Conversely, he points out, isn't it more sexist to imply the females cannot be portrayed as physically potent, of greater prowess? Are we to pretend women haven't always had an innate confidence, however much a male-dominated society protests?

Particularly in commercials, depictions of women as fantasy stand-ins or actors for male desires are often derided as disguising, dismissing, or confusing sexual roles as they occur in real life—though that definition wouldn't encompass some same-sex desires, which I've found in life sometimes don't differ so much in matters of taste. However, let's confront this material for exactly what it suggests: an innocuously-implied same-sex intrigue (which, when depicting men, is almost certainly played for laughs without titillation). Why is it a woman, showing "I have what it takes!" to a fellow woman? Does that make the commercial, perhaps, less sexist? Why do they play coyly with the square mention of censorship (of which they obviously have no fear) in their content?

As such ideas move beyond meaningless late-night commercial debauchery, the door begins to open for a modernization, if not a desertion, of taboos. Alternative views of relationships and bisexuality have spent the decade progressing past "I Kissed A Girl" flirtations. While same-sex equality continues its civil-rights controversy, narratives of same-sex relationships have gradually arrived on cable television, even daytime soaps, where they can reach mainstream audiences.

Life needs less TV-cardboard reality; people benefit from a genuine commitment to uncovering a true sense of identity. Recognizing who you are, how you should relate to a specific person, and which capacity will benefit each of you, requires an adaptable approach. Any group of people can complement one another's strengths, with attention, acceptance, and honesty. If that involves acknowledging a woman's overt sexual expression or confidence, as opposed to the manipulative or even deceptive expression so often taken for granted in the hand-me-down mars/venus dichotomy—so be it. Pop culture can open new conversations that relate a more profound experience. Those narratives shape their audience; a collaboration takes place, between narrative and viewer, that empowers both.

The discord behind the picket fences that leads to a near fifty-percent divorce rate lends to adherence to more traditional religious values, but also to experimentation and examination of the human personality.

Commercials, honestly, take as few risks as necessary in alienating their target demographics; they are a barometer of conservatism, not ground-breaking social statements. The exploration of gender roles and personal identity will shape our expectations of celebrities or role models, and in the long-run, what is socially acceptable.

Cecil Lue Disharoon's writing is available online at his blog and Integr8d Fictions. He notes that "Angela Dawn Disharoon was the real brains behind the cogent observations here."

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