A cultural litmus test

By Jan Creaser

The onslaught of award ceremonies in the past few weeks nauseated me. It seems everyone in the movie/music world has received a shiny trinket for their "brilliant" performance in the newest pop culture flick/video. Yet, ironically, it’s not who received the Academy Award for Best Actress or who snagged a Grammy for Best New Artist, but Jennifer Lopez’s dress that everyone remembers so well.

I, and others, have only one question: why that dress?

We tried to find the answer in my Women’s Studies class, and our hypothesized reasons were numerous. Perhaps Lopez enjoys her sexy new look and wants to flaunt it. Perhaps the audience expects this look. Perhaps female idols want to tackle the burning issue of what constitutes women’s sexuality in the new millennium. Perhaps it made her feel powerful. Or, maybe, just maybe, she did it because she can.

Social reaction to Lopez’s dress (as told by the media) range from prudishly disgusted to overwhelmingly accepted. But what is the "real" reason for her choice of such a revealing garment?

Does the dress empower Lopez, or reflect the insidious power of what French feminist writer Monique Wittig calls "the heterosexual social contract?" To Wittig, heterosexuality is an ideology that has crept into all mental categories. She is not speaking about the specific act of sex between a man and woman, but about the economic, political and ideological constructs in which woman is defined as subservient to man. The category of "woman," she argues, does not exist without the category of "man." To her, what women do is directly linked to the heterosexual relationship–a relationship men dominate.

You only need to look as far as the Academy Awards to find one example of this. When asked, Hollywood’s top paid male actors wax philosophical about their nominations and their great contributions to the art of movie making. In comparison, Hollywood’s actresses toddle up the red carpet in 4" heels, answering "Versace" or "Valentino" when asked about what they’re wearing. The tuxedo seems much simpler for the male stars to navigate than the cumbersome, galling dresses female stars squeeze themselves into. No wonder the men have time to ponder their contribution to the art–it obviously goes beyond the labels on their shirts and how they look in a size zero Chanel.

This is not an attempt to blame men, individually or collectively, for Jennifer Lopez’s choice of provocative dress. It’s not about man-bashing, or wielding a female-as-victim banner in protest over the crazy fashion sense of Hollywood starlets. It’s about uncovering the social constructs of a world where even a woman with access to incredible economic and educational opportunities (if she wanted them) still parades herself only as the sum of her visible physical parts.

We cannot tell Lopez what to wear. She made her own decision–but with the weight of an incredible historical and social ideology balanced unknowingly on her shoulders. This is where we need to ask a few fundamental questions in the spirit of Wittig’s heterosexual contract: what is woman; who defined her; and under what circumstances is she allowed to parade around almost naked? Have, as Wittig suggests, women "been convinced that they want what they are forced to do and that they are part of the contract of society that excludes them?"

I say, next year at the Academy Awards, everyone goes naked. Then nobody can ask the question: "What are you wearing?" And I, and my WMST companions, will shake our heads and try to wrap our minds around what this particular naked statement really means.

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