Sexual Branding in the Works of Beyonce, Marie Calloway and Sasha Grey

by Amy K. Bell

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It’s probably safe to say that young women are now demonstrably aware of the exploitation of pornography and commercial media. They might even be called playgrounds for certain women savvy enough to navigate them. Personal branding and social media entrepreneurship give women uncensored voices in what is essentially a market for their young naked bodies. And it’s sort of okay. There is a pretty valid argument that these women are making their own careers – so is it still exploitative?

For many, the addition of the star’s voice and platform enhances the hotness. My little sister, who is in her twenties, loves porn star Kaylani Lei’s Instagram feed; she thinks it’s funny and it is. Picture a smokin hot Polynesian-looking woman in daisy dukes, doing that sexy knock-kneed pouty dance. The camera starts with her face, then moves down her twisting body, and she’s wearing huge clown-sized Converse shoes. Her KSEX radio show is called Me So Horny With Kaylani Lei.

Think Marie Calloway, and countless pop singers making music videos for mass consumption.

Porn star turned indie actress Sasha Grey is another example of a young woman who used her body entrepreneurially. Her stated mission: “Most of the XXX I see is boring, and does not arouse me physically or visually. I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone’s fantasies.” She retired from porn at age 23 with 271 films under her well-worn belt. She has called the author of Fifty Shades of Grey “bush league.” Her own erotic novel, The Juliette Society, seems like it might be a good read, and she’s passionate about gun control. New York Times film critic A.O Scott says her career is “distinguished both by the extremity of what she is willing to do and an unusual degree of intellectual seriousness doing it.” Currently, Sasha Grey is an indie actress who reads books to schoolchildren.

She’s not Aphrodite, she’s a smart-ass woman navigating an industry from the butt up.  She has things to say, and now she has a platform from which to do it.

The self-objectifying woman creates her scene for the public to ogle, then breaks it down for analysis by another part of her person, that of the artist intellectual. She can serve herself up, then talk about what it was like.  Alt-lit author Marie Calloway’s writing works this way. She writes these heartwrenching postmodern-mucky sex tales which are imbued with sharply detailed interiority, nuanced disaffection and thoughtful, theoretical dialogue with her sex partners. In interviews, Marie’s partners are fair game for the discussion. Also always part of that recent discussion is her very young age (b. 1990, micro-famous at 22).

Then there’s Queen Bey’s latest album, a “postfeminist” wonderment of explicitness and feminist messaging. In the track “Flawless,” Beyonce borrows from a TEDx talk given in April 2013 by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who recently wrote the critically acclaimed novel Americanah. Adichie is talking about how girls are raised to see themselves as smaller, less ambitious, less sexual than men. Girls are taught to seek the attention of men and pursue marriage as the highest of goals.

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What doesn’t make it onto Beyonce’s track is a line I really like, which is: “And [girls] grow up – and this is the worst thing we do to girls – they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”

She also says: “Some people will say, oh but women have the real power, bottom power. And for non-Nigerians, bottom power is an expression which means something like a woman who uses her sexuality to get favors from men. But bottom power is not power at all. Bottom power means that a woman simply has a good root to tap into, from time to time, somebody else’s power. And then of course we have to wonder what happens when that somebody else is in a bad mood, or sick, or impotent.”

There is a something of a sea between the global female experience Adichie is talking about and that of the media markets Marie Calloway and Sasha Grey operate within. But where do they fit, then, in the forward march towards equality of the sexes? Sluts? Famewhores? Provocateurs? Slaves to patriarchy?

My two cents – women who use their bodies for personal gain and power are not sociopaths and it’s too bad the conversation doesn’t go much farther than that for most people. Players get played, vulnerable young women get fierce. People are capable of multiple selves. A woman’s vulnerability and her power co-exist as a quality of persona not usually prescribed to men. There is a lot of honesty in these artist’s treatment of sex in society. “my life is my art, my art is my life” says Cosey Fanni Tutti, the performance artist whose name comes from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (‘they –women- all do the same’). If it happens this way, let it be known to be this way.

My concern is not to judge. My concern is to ask: as a subversion to male power (“male power” being somewhat rotten rhetoric for “runaway capitalist commercial pigeonholing” and which includes women, children and men as its fodder), can these artists’ approaches be considered effective? Can women employ their objectified selves in service of equality and radically progressive values? Should we be feeding the market that feeds on us, working it from the inside, like in a good heist?

In one sense, sure. The unseating of authorship of the sexual experience, the inclusion of woman’s particular desire and her nuanced accounting of sexual charge from very start to very finish is good work. Makes us uncomfortable, upsets expectations, maybe. Thoughtful surprises make it sexier, or ultimately more interesting. For those who like pornography, the post-coital osmosis of the woman’s valued platform as artist or analyzer creates a subversion to the status quo. The fineness of the line between sex work and life-as-art seems only to increase this unseating. These women might be called groundbreakers. Additionally, men and women resistant to questioning pornography (defenders of the cultural pigeonholing I mentioned earlier) are drawn in and forced to reckon with the thing. So the subjectivity of the porn star and her audience is opened wide.

All for the good.

Then in another sense, no, it is not effective as a subversion. Speaking through the media of oppression, however slyly, is not the same as speaking from a place of self-possession, freedom, and power. While I applaud these artists and continue to seek their work for a better understanding of this subject, I also have reservations if all the sexy stuff is not accompanied by a free voice. A self-objectifying artist who makes no attempt to supply her consumers with a free, mask-off voice risks repeated objectifications and misunderstandings by uneducated consumers of her brand, thus feeding the machine and doing no good.

Failing to distinguish her own voice from the voice of her brand renders the sex-artist powerless as an intellectual. The feminism becomes merely a subtext, a thin sauce on her sexiness.

What is the problem with being provocative? Nothing at all. There should be no special expectation placed on a woman to explain herself.

But if the idea is to get society to recognize everyone’s equality and humanity, this requires special communication. If she’s a person who believes even in the remotest way in changing unequal surroundings, or put more narcissistically, in causing people to understand her experience as a woman and a full human, there is a kind of artistic cowardice in being only controversial and not definitive. In living the art of the female body and not finding the words to define what it is, even if that definition contradicts itself at every turn. Even the most progressive of media outlets is drawn to a woman’s Sex; it’s the woman artist’s job to develop a voice that resists and transcends that pressure.

Amy K. Bell writes fiction and poetry. Her long poem, Book of Sibyl, was published as a chapbook in 2013 by The Gorilla Press. She is currently at work on a short novel, Bald Mountain, which won the 2013 Clark Gross Novel award.

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