Photo by Rob Corder via Flickr (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
"I think we're about to have the biggest show of the summer" writer-director Sam Levinson laughed at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. The show in question is HBO's The Idol which, unlike its Sunday night slot predecessor Succession, has so far failed to deliver an enjoyable nor suspenseful 2 episode stint. The shortfalls of this new star-studded show are easily identifiable in the first 20 minutes of episode 1, in which a chaotic sequence shows the management team of Lily Rose Depp's popstar character 'Jocelyn' frantically attempting to minimise the damage of a leaked pornographic image. This concept isn't so bad, in fact, it does not stray away from the reality female celebrities face in our digital era, but Levinson doesn’t leave us unlucky viewers with just the implication of this invasive picture; after a long back-and-forth between the ensemble of textbook media/PR characters, the photo is revealed to us, in all of its male gaze glory. It's no doubt that the 900,000 viewers of this series premiere were left questioning many things like, “Did we really need to see this?” or “How are they marketing this under an empowering lens?”, however, I think the most paramount question we need to be asking is, “What narrative is this feeding into?”.
The narrative, of course, is the unyielding grip men seem to have on the female body, which roots itself within our literature, our politics, our paintings, our TV and our films. What's especially poignant is the way in which men love to exercise this power, and the often counter-intuitive dynamic of perpetuating a culture you are trying to critique. 'The Idol' displaying a vulgar image of a young woman on our screen with the intention of crafting empowerment has, in turn, given a host of young, porn addicted men on the internet ammunition for their inhumane view of women, and the option for endless screenshotting and sharing. This blind ammunition isn't just found in this new HBO show; I am reminded of Andrew Tate who was supposedly infuriated at the idea of a woman flying his plane, and (amongst a myriad of other disgustingly misogynistic stances), claimed that women were simply a "status symbol" for men due to their sexuality. And yes, we can ban Tate from TikTok and Instagram, but his words are permanent, and they have and will continue to embed themselves in the minds of impressionable young men. One reddit user claimed their male students were sent into a “blind rage” when met with any negative comment about Tate, emblemising the infectious impact his vitriol has had in spaces of education, which will no doubt be filled with young girls, who are being subjected to the notion that they have no voice in society, and will only ever be allocated a sexual, agentic body. So, in real world dynamics it is increasingly obvious that women are not only treated as commodities, as nice little accessories for men to flaunt, but also as people who have to suffer constant abuse by violent and manipulative men.
Perhaps it is worth asking how this is affecting the way women operate in a more liberal society; of course, sexism has always existed, but now women write and create freely, and can have their own jobs and passions, so it can be worrying to think of how the immoveable gaze of the man has internalised itself within women. Recently, I completed Ottessa Moshfegh’s last novel Lapvona, and whilst the visceral passages were revolting and frankly, unenjoyable to read, it did embody a recent trend within film and literature, which is the act of Torture Porn; essentially deriving enjoyment from witnessing bad things happening to characters in books or films - or in scarier cases, in real life. The Idol and Lapvona share the abundance of these torturous sequences, with the latter depicting not one, but two, passages about a young woman’s rape and later impregnation. In a sense, this raises an insight into the minds of the real women involved with the projects, can we really blame author Moshfegh and actress Depp for believing this ilk of drama is ‘empowering’ and making a social commentary, when the world we live in is rife with objectification and the desire to regulate women’s bodily autonomy?
Up and coming platforms like OnlyFans operate in a similar way to this; it creates a blurred morality of pornography in general, and leaves women questioning whether they should support it or be against it - after all, shouldn’t we champion female autonomy?
Semantic differences become increasingly paramount when we begin to discuss the topic of sex work: being ‘Anti-Pornography’ is not equal to being ‘Anti-Empowerment’, and this is a careful distinction that does need to be illuminated. In our growing age of female sexual liberation we do not shy away from supporting one another in feeling assured and confident in sexuality, and there has certainly been a shift in rhetoric towards embracing sex as a non-taboo act, and instead as a natural part of our lives. But this sexual liberation cannot be aligned with the further expansion of the pornographic world. It is a paradoxical notion in itself to promote the female body as a commodity whilst championing the rights of sexual autonomy - where is the autonomy in being constrained in a centuries long patriarchal construction about female sexual identity, and within a recurring idea of sexual gratification being a woman’s sole purpose?
Empowerment lies in spheres far away from ‘Pornhub’ and ‘OnlyFans’, it cannot be bred in an environment that permits unyielding violence and power imbalance, but it could be discovered when a relationship, for example, is not tainted with that constant lingering question of “Does my partner think pornstars are more attractive than me?”.
If we want to actually make productive steps in crafting a somewhat equitable society, the false face of empowerment (which is really just pornography) needs to be deconstructed, and whilst it is not an easy task, shows like The Idol must be halted, which will in turn stop perpetuating the contempt of real life misogynists like Andrew Tate and his army of temperamental boys. Although, this is arguably a small step in reducing the modern day sexism which leaves women embracing the world of sex work or on the other hand, subconsciously omitting pornography within their creative works. Ultimately, a patriarchal trap has been moulded, a construct which is ready to be destroyed; women can no longer take the place of a mirror in which men can project their desires; desires of sex, empowerment or ‘being one of the good ones’.
Edited by Natalie Cheung, Essays Editor