Last week the Obama campaign released an ad by Lena Dunham. It was aimed at young female voters — in the clip, Dunham coquettishly compared voting for the first time to a woman losing her virginity. It was clever and winning. Conservatives immediately went on the attack, appropriating the language of liberals and slamming the Obama campaign for the ad’s purportedly “weirdly paternalistic” undertone.
I loved the ad yet I had to recognize that the right’s attacks on it weren’t completely off-base. Today, there’s a raft of ads, photographs, television shows, films, and T-shirts, which represent young women being defined, but always ironically — with a wink and a nod — by their sexuality and/or bodies. I think we should call this new strand of culture Hipster Sexism.
Hipster Sexism consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox: the stuff you learned about in literature class. As funny as Dunham’s Girls is, it can definitely border on Hipster Sexism. For example, take the episode when the male protagonist Adam says, “Yo skank, where you at? Getting that pussy pounded?” Hipster Sexism supposedly makes “pussy pounding” funny because it announces that the phrase is now ironic — as is, “skank” — rather than gross or offensive. We get to laugh at the idea of young women so obsessed with boys and sex that they mistake voting for sex and at the same time feel cool and outré for being in on Dunham’s double meaning.
The use of ironic sexism made Dunham’s ad excellent. (You want to do it with “a guy who cares if you get health insurance and specifically whether you get birth control,” according to Dunham's comic monologue.) But often Hipster Sexism is really annoying. Take Playboy’s October cover, which has a classic baby-blue image of a retro, coy-eyed model. She’s posed wearing panties and a football helmet, surrounded by hand-inked text. If you didn’t see the familiar, ancient Playboy logo, you’d think you were looking at a Gregory Crewdson–approved photo collage by a graduate of Yale’s art department. But it’s actually the same old Playboy, now feeling its age and trying to appropriate Vice's ethos (keeping the male gaze “relevant” with ironic sexism). Hipster Sexism also happens in real life, when men and women call each other “bitch” as a term of endearment or dance to the phrase “perfect bitch” — thanks, Kanye! It’s cool liberal husbands calling their wives their “ball and chain,” but in italics: all arch rather than all Archie Bunker.
Hipster Sexism afflicts Americans 30 and under and the people over 30 who make ads, T-shirts, movies, magazines, and television shows for them.
In contrast, Classic Sexism is Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin. It minimizes rape. It’s overt workplace discrimination and Mitt Romney at the Town Hall debate deflecting the gender wage gap with that vague word, “flexibility.” It’s something committed by them, the Red State dinos, not by the twentysomethings with neck beards in Bushwick or Portland.
Classic Sexism? Vintage Hustler: un-ironic, explicit, violent, banal. Or Alfred Hitchcock letting real birds peck at the face of actress Tippi Hedren because he hates women he desires but who won’t sleep with him that much. (You can watch it in the new biopic The Girl on HBO.)
On the other hand, Hipster Sexism flatters us by letting us feel like we are beyond low-level, obvious humiliation of women and now we can enjoy snickering at it. Beautiful young chicks in little bikinis, urinating on the street, are funny! Girls do it in the new Harmony Korine movie, Spring Breakers, with Disney-girls-gone-wild Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez.
My discovery of Hipster Sexism owes something to the term “hipster racism,” minted and mainstreamed by Gawker, Jezebel, and the Atlantic Wire last April. Hipster Racism also involved Lena Dunham, after all: Bloggers coined it after Lesley Arfin, a writer for HBO's Girls, handled criticism for the show lacking non-white characters by tweeting, "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME." As Gawker's Max Read wrote at the time: “Maybe we should call it ‘ironic racism.’ It's a distancing gesture, racism with the acknowledgment that I should know better and I don't care. Assiduously casual, meant to demonstrate a kind of worldliness or edginess, ‘hipster racism’ acts like a behavioral flannel jacket ...”*
Like Hipster Racism, Hipster Sexism is a distancing gesture, a belief that simply by applying quotations, uncool, questionable, and even offensive material about women can be alchemically transformed.
But have we really reached this stage of enlightened irony? We think we're over sexism yet our ironic expressions of it can only reinforce the basic problem, which is that women are paid less and (degradingly) sexualized against their will far more than men.
Nevertheless, Hipster Sexism marches on, encouraging us to giggle with Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film concept The Lesbian, based on the story of the Hong Kong billionaire who offered $65 million to a man who could find a way to marry his gay daughter. Hipster Sexism believes that we have reached a stage of equality and urbanity where pressuring a lesbian to sleep with a man is hilarious. It’s the Urban Outfitters’ “Eat Less” T-shirt from last year; it’s the “No Fat Chicks” T-shirt. It’s the basement lechery of Terry Richardson, famous for his nostalgically leering snaps of underdressed young women in mainstream publications: When we peruse “Uncle Terry’s” pictures, we may imagine that we are cool connoisseurs of fun, stagy perversity. But then we hear that “Uncle” allegedly sexually harassed some of the lubricious models on his photo shoots. (The photographer was briefly rumored to be creating an explicit photo book with Lindsay Lohan and James Franco — the great white whale of mock-sexism, profiting from the endless sexual pathos of Lohan yet allowing us to feel louche and cultured at the same time.)
Classic Sexists may tell you that pregnancies incurred by rape are acts of God. Hipster Sexists tell you that female self-contempt and fashion-sploitation is funny.
At its worst, Hipster Sexism has simply replaced Classic Sexism — I’d wager that Terry Richardson and his Dov Charney-ian ilk are just Classic Sexists in ironic clothing. (Leg warmers, primarily.) In those cases, Hipster Sexism is just too irritating and sometimes scary for me to find it amusing.
On occasion, however, Hipster Sexism can combat Classic Sexism. Like when Hipster Feminists skillfully parody Hipster Sexism, as with the recent Sorry Feminists hashtag. The best recent example, of course, is Dunham’s ad, where she deploys a stale girls-losin’-it trope in order to fight Classic Sexist Republicans. Part of what made the ad such a great, effective artifact was that the irony appeared to be entirely under Dunham’s control. She was a young woman who was mocking Classic Sexists’ idea of how young women think. While sometimes her show has traces of Uncle Terry, the ad skillfully avoided that pitfall.
Indeed, when watching the ad, I imagined a brighter future for ironic sexism. One day, perhaps, the worst kind of Classic Sexists will be replaced by the best kind of Hipster Sexists.
On that fine day, the men who say things like a rape that produces a child “is something that God intended to happen” will always be joking.
* Gawker's Max Read wrote the "distancing gesture" quote, not the Atlantic Wire's Elspeth Reeve.