The Politics of “Hot”
By A.D. Freudenheim

5 April 2003

As a straight male, I will happily admit that there is a certain pleasure in looking at – in watching – a good looking woman in a bathing suit; it is a primal response, and I suppose it speaks to a desire that helps to keep the human race replenished. This basic male response also seems to feed into the psychology that makes the crappy products of our lovely media conglomerates so deadly addictive. These companies feed scantily-clad-women programming on a nearly-endless basis, just gobs and gobs of it, via television, movies, or those glossies the British call “laddie magazines.” Recently, for instance, on a JetBlue flight to California, the young college-age male sitting next to me zoned out to a seemingly-endless series of Travel Channel specials on the world’s hottest beaches – featuring, largely, women in bikinis (or fuzzed out images of women in less); when he wasn’t watching his screen, he perused a magazine featuring similar beautiful, not-quite-naked women. Predictable male fare, for better or worse, and mostly for worse.

That said, I do not want to come down on the side of prudery by suggesting that sex and sexuality are bad; if anything, I think that greater sexual openness in American culture would be a good thing. This may be one of the most important and liberating elements of the internet, since its development and explosive growth in the last ten years have made it possible for everyone with a specific fetish or desire to find an outlet for it – to join communities of people who share the same appetites and impulses. Fat, thin, bondage, latex, whatever; it’s out there, and those are surely the most benign of the available categories. But their fundamental availability to almost anyone with access to the internet should mean fewer sexually-frustrated humans and greater liberation for men and women alike.

However, my sense is that we are actually slipping in the other direction, backwards into an objectified sexuality instead of forward into a more liberated one. Anyone who has watched ABC’s abysmal series “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People” might know what I am talking about; for anyone who hasn’t seen it, tonight, Saturday, 5 April 2003, will be the 2-hour series finale. I hate to include such a blatant plug for a show I will definitely not be watching – but watching it is perhaps the only way to understand how deeply screwed-up we are, when this show passes for acceptable, pleasurable entertainment in America.

Early in the series, I tuned in – and was mortified on behalf of the female contestants who had to suffer through a panel of three judges (two men, one woman) quite demonstrably objectifying them in front of a live audience of hundreds, not to mention millions of television viewers. “Turn around, let me see your ass” was the general level off request; “yes, nice package,” or “you know, maybe you should spend more time in the gym” were the general tone of the judges comments. The judges were even equipped with laser pointers, so that they could identify good or bad physical details – the cellulite on a thigh, the acceptable rise of a breast – all without leaving the judges’ table.[1] And all I could think was: why would any woman, winner or loser, want to have themselves valued this way, and in such a pathetic version of sexual objectification, to boot?

So why do the women do it? (For the money, and the free trip to Tahiti, one is tempted to scream.) The show represents the worst kind of sexual devaluation, coming nowhere close to the pornographic value of actual “dirty” pictures. Nor is the series an improvement over such flesh-filled fare as “Baywatch”; that it is even possible to compare one show to the other already suggests how wrong-headed is the American, consumerist view of women. Moreover, the whole premise of “Are You Hot?” is fatally flawed, since it not only presupposes a particular definition for a “hot” person, but assumes that our nation’s sexiest person can be identified and judged in such a facile manner.

It seems to me that with “Are You Hot?” ABC missed a great opportunity: the show should have been constructed to allow the judges to take the contestants backstage for a little pre-judging shtup, to make sure that when they sit there and vote on someone’s overall sex appeal they really know what they’re talking about. The backstage tapes could no doubt have been sold at a reasonable price, probably bringing in more money than all of the advertising ABC landed for the series, or streamed online, through an adults-only section of the ABC web site charging a reasonable access fee. Instead, the network opted to leave off with the bland approach of a Miss America pageant, and so contestants are deemed “hot” on the basis of minimal investigation – only reaffirming our cultural preference for superficiality. In pornography, personality usually takes a back seat to blatant sexual titillation. In this ABC series, to the extent that personality even matters it seems relevant only in so far as someone must be able to accept and revel in this shallow level of self-appreciation. And perhaps that’s the answer: if participating women (and men) are stupid enough to find the series entertaining rather than demeaning, then maybe they deserve exactly the humiliation they receive.

The other, equally compelling question is not “Why do the women do it?” but “Why do women audiences watch this crap?” This I cannot figure out. Women make up 51% of the American population. Do women enjoy watching programs about the world’s hottest beaches, and manage to ignore the obvious veneer that what is really being sold are the world’s hottest tits-and-asses? Do women actually enjoy looking at and objectifying other women (the way, alas, that men do)? Certainly their goal is not to watch scantily-clad men, since they may be present, but hardly in significant numbers Or do women watch the series seeking the gratification of schadenfreude, getting a perverse joy at the humiliation being inflicted on the female contestants? What’s the psychology at play here?

Yet watch they must, because if 51% of the available television audiences truly did not tune in to this show, or others like it – the various bachelor/bachelorette/married by America/marry a millionaire style shows that reduce men’s and women’s interests to a series of shallow goals – the advertisers would flee. If the advertisers fled, the networks would stop airing this crap. The economic dynamic here seems fairly straightforward.

This column takes it for granted that men do not care about the pervasive level of objectification, either towards themselves or about women, and this may be debatable. (I don’t think so, but that is one man’s opinion.) I am assuming that women either do or should find their objectification by men to be problematic and unacceptable, and therefore that they should stand up to this situation, mobilize, and try to change the perversity inherent in how the mass media treats them. Clearly, I am placing a large and unfair burden on women of an equally uncomfortable sort. But the question is asked in earnest, and asked because it seems self-evident that the only people who can stop the objectification of women are women. This is not about cracking down on sex, or stopping sex from serving as entertainment by, for, and among consenting adults; it is not about preventing women from wearing bikinis, or even from being celebrated for their good looks in a bikini. Rather, this is about being aware of the consequences of one’s actions and of one’s role and value in society; this is about the fundamental damage caused by objectifying women, and treating them as objects of male pleasure, instead of equal partners in the human experience.

The last thing American society needs is more encouragement to look for the easy answers and the simplest solutions. Likewise, I know that any answers to the question of why women (and men) participate in or watch these television shows is not easy to find. Unfortunately, superficiality seems to be America’s most prolific and consistent product. So it’s back to the television, and the movies and magazines, too; if nothing else, right now sex may be a good distraction from those other, currently-dominant media themes: war and death. If only I thought we were being distracted for our own good, I might think to celebrate our fixation on sex instead of condemning it.

[1] The men had an easier time, since the judges'
comments seemed focused on the strength of their
jawline, the quality of their hairline, or evident amount
of time they have spent in the gym working on their abs.
Alas, there was no Speedo contest, looking for the male
contestant with the biggest “package.”
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