Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Price of Secularism

Last month, two events happened to occur a week apart that could not be further apart in cultural sensibility. The first was the Miss Muslimah World beauty contest, held in Jakarta, Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country. The other was the MTV Video Music Awards. Both shows, televised to viewers around the world, demonstrated, quite intentionally, the contrasting ideals of feminine comportment in a conservative religious culture and a secular culture. The Miss Muslimah contest was held in Jakarta in protest of the Miss World contest that was held a few weeks later in Bali.

As the predominantly Muslim Asian nations of Malaysia and Indonesia became popular with tourists in the 1990s, tourist resorts began to proliferate, and developers were faced with a unique dilemma. The many thousands of tropical islands in the region were rimmed with pristine beaches that were in high demand by tourists from Asia, Europe, and North America. This resulted in native Muslims who worked for the resorts as well as others either operating as food or souvenir vendors having to look at foreign tourists, particularly foreign women, cavorting or lying on the sand almost naked.(1) Some beaches popular with Europeans saw topless and even fully nude bathers. For the conservative communities adjacent to these resorts, the behavior of the tourists, commonplace in their home countries, caused a rather serious clash of cultures. Even in less conservative Muslim countries, the amount of flesh that non-Muslims felt free to expose at the beach was alarming.

Many popular singers from the West, on tour in Asia, have found that they have to tone down the degree of suggestive dance moves and the cut of their costumes to appease Muslim audiences in Malaysia and Indonesia. Lady Gaga, who refused to compromise to promoters' demands, cancelled her concerts in those countries. Other performers, like Jennifer Lopez, made the necessary concessions for the sake of her fans - not to mention the revenue.

Meanwhile, viewers of MTV's Video Music Awards were subjected (the best word for it) to a performance by Miley Cyrus in which the 20 year old pop star, trying to break out of her teen image, tore off her teddy bear costume and proceeded to "twerk" for a mostly bewildered audience. The online Urban Dictionary defines "twerking" as follows: "The rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones intended audience." Cyrus's performance was far too bizarre to elicit sexual arousal, so I suppose she was doing it for laughs?

Not to be outdone, the Miss Muslimah contest showed the world, to their apparent amusement, how Muslim women should comport themselves in such a setting. The only parts of the participants that were uncovered were their faces, framed by the traditional "hijab", and hands. The presenters of the contest, in which Miss Nigeria won, were straining to make the point that a woman's beauty can be judged without her having to bare her body in costumes or in bikinis that leave so little to the imagination (mine, anyway) that it's soon obvious that the bikinis are mere pretexts.

As an imitation of Western beauty pageants, the Miss Muslimah contest was as far as its conservative presenters could go. So why was it dismissed and ridiculed in the Western press? Westerners living in secular societies, particularly those in Western Europe, are routinely exposed to TV programs that contain nudity (I won't mention, for now, the far more disturbing depictions of violence). It's practically a requirement that cable TV shows produced by HBO or Showtime should be replete with scenes of plenty of sex. It's almost their only excuse for existence.

We seem to be cocksure about the subjection of women in conservative Muslim states, that they are regarded as chattel, unlike the free and equal human beings that populate the West. But what on earth have freedom and equality to do with a near-naked Lady Gaga at the VMAs? As smart as she seems to be (her music is better than it sounds), does she really think that she is being ironic by wearing next to nothing while performing her painfully belated Punk songs?

Why does no one bother to question the fact that, aside from knowing what a wonderful actress she is, we must also know that Kate Winslet has (or, rather, had) a Rubenesque physique? Or that, quite secondary (I'd like to think) to her acting talents, Jessica Chastain has unexpectedly shapely breasts? Are such revelations to be accepted as perks? Why doesn't someone at least question why it is apparently only women who are obliged to undress for our delectation?

This, we are forced to conclude, is the price of secularism. Isn't it a little tawdry that even the biggest of our movie stars - the women, of course - should be obliged to take off their clothes at some point in their careers? Or that pop stars as successful as Beyoncé and Rihanna should have to dress and dance provocatively, in often grotesquely suggestive dance numbers? (2)

Last August, Vogue published glamorous phots of Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO. Some complained that the photos were in questionable taste, since they reduced a very successful and powerful woman to the status of a pinup model. But what the tame and innocuous enough photos said most explicitly was that Mayer, extravagantly wealthy and powerful though she is, was also a woman with whom someone might wish to have sex. While our society now encourages women to "be all they can be," to "realize their full potential" as human beings, it also seems to require that they be sexually attractive and available.

After nearly everyone had their say about Miley Cyrus's appalling performance, one of the only comments that came close to making sense to me was from Gloria Steinem. "I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists."(3)

(1) I am employing Kenneth Clark's distinction between the naked and the nude. A person is naked when they are momentarily unclothed. A nude person is habitually naked - like a mythical goddess or nymph.
(2) In contrast, Frank Sinatra often left his largely female audiences in such a state, merely from his mellifluous singing, that the auditorium seats had to be steam-cleaned after his concerts.
(3) Ms Steinem's comments can be found in full here.

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