Navel bans, women, culture, and power

Egypt has enacted another navel ban on its version of MTV.

Egyptian TV viewers are questioning the appropriateness of suggestive music videos in a traditional, Islamic culture, saying they fear for “their daughter’s morals”. Last year, the exuberantly nubile Lebanese singer Nancy Agram excited the wrath of the People’s Assembly, who called for a ban and fines to channels airing her video, though their threats were widely ignored. Recently, however, an Egyptian girl named Rubi upset members of parliament and the TV authority enough to institute a ban (affecting state-owned TV) on music videos where women’s navels appear. In a characteristic mix of probity, lust and national pride, a Music Syndicate official described Rubi as a ‘sex-bomb’ whereas Nancy is merely a ‘sex-pot’.

Maria Golia presents some Meditations on this navel ban over at nthposition.

As for my thoughts; well, yes, I know that America had such a ban in the past, as well. And America got rid of it, thereby freeing women to dress as they please.

Sort of.

I mean, well… During my recent trip to North America, I noticed a lot of navels. A lot. It seemed like nearly everyone felt she needed to let her navel show. Sometimes, that was just… more than necessary, but I suppose I’d never be one to enact a rule declaring which women could “dress slutty” and which women couldn’t.

Woah, woah. That phrase, “dress slutty”, isn’t mine. At one of the hostels where I stayed, I happened to comment that these belly-T’s had really gotten popular since I’d left Canada, and a Brit woman giggled and said, “Yeah. Seems like it’s a requirement that every girl dress slutty now. Well, not slutty, but… you know.”

What’s contained in a sentence like that is a very complicated thing. Why the navel should be so sexualized is beyond me, but it seems that in many, many places (including traditional/conservative North American culture), it is. That fashion in the west has turned to exposing this quasi-erotic site in young women almost systematically is interesting, because it raises the question of what this fashion signifies.

And just what does it signify? (If, of course, we take it as given that fashion can signify anything.) Some possibilities include:

  • Women are taking charge of how they represent themselves and no longer simply the repressive culture of conservative men anymore. Huh, interesting, since all the men I know seem to enjoy seeing girls in belly-Ts.
  • Women are becoming more comfortable with their bodies “again”, and not worrying about what men think about their appearance; thus they can reveal their bellies without shame or worry. Yeah, right. I suspect the belly-T fashion not only raises the stakes of how slim you are, but probably even boosts the profitability of the diet-book/fitness club trade. I would wager that these industries have in fact only grown ever so slightly more lucrative as expectations of revelation in the female wardrobe continue to grow.
  • Women are confronting men with their sexuality and refusing to be timid “objects” of male desire and male “narrative-hegemony”. Their fashion follows their personal thought-revolution, raised consciousness, and newfound empowerment. Huh? From what I’ve read, older feminists consider the younger generation to be more neo-conservative than they ever imagined young women could turn out being. And anyway, this fashion is so widespread that I am seriously in doubt as to the possibility that all those fifteen-and-up girls are actually intellectualising about their sexuality and their relationships with male power-dynamics.
  • It’s just another fashion (derived from a long-ago collision between Europrean and Near Eastern cultures, probably during the Crusades) that has once again surfaced in the polyglot, cultural mishmash that is The West. That’s possible, but I am usually skeptical with any sentence that begins, “It’s just…” This kind of fashion has been popularized in pop media, and the pop media in North America is a weirdly political construct.

Which brings me to my thoughts.

The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Madonna, and other figures (whose wardrobes I suspect influence the fashion industry and the selections made by young women in North America today) may look like they’re just prancing on stage singing mindless ditties, but the more we’re exposed to them, the more they imprint on us some sense of what “woman” is. Media’s powerful in that way, which is why there’s an advertising industry at all. Bombarding people with images that in some way affect their thinking about sex, gender roles, and sexuality is something that, while broadcasters may not admit it, has to be inherently a political act of some kind. How one might characterize that act is another question, of course.

But I do know this: if you put Madonna, Britney, or one of the Spice Girls on CNN news in their stage-performance getup, and got them to anchor the news, it’d look incongruous, wouldn’t it? If you had one of them appointed a court judge and they heard cases dresses in no more than stage-show lingerie, it’d be ridiculous, wouldn’t? I question the way we associate the uniforms of judges, doctors, and professionals with how seriously we take them (The Bush Administration does, after all, show that any pack of monkeys can buy and put on suits), but nevertheless that association exists in our culture. Somehow the way that Spears, Madonna, J-Lo, and others project themselves seems to suggest to me a ghetto for women, a suggestion that women need to use their sex to advance in society because that’s all they’ve got. (It reminds me of the old notion that black people need to rely on being an entertainer or an athlete in order to succeed in America.) Which is perhaps in some situations an understandable attitude, but it’s also disheartening, considering what women a generation before fought through for these women.

Am I castigating women for dressing how they want? Am I castigating men for enjoying it?

No, of course not. But I am kind of questioning how much of what we want is really what we want, and how much of what we want is what TV, movies, and big companies tell us we want. People tend to get offended about this kind of suggestion, they assume I am calling them mindless zombies and looking down on them. Yet I can speak from at least some experience; living without a TV for several years now, I can report that my tastes have actually swerved away from the mainstream, TV-promoted kinds of tastes that seem so terribly prevalent in North America. Hell, even being around a TV that’s turned on bothers me: it feels like a kind of bombardment. All those ads, all those things I don’t need being pushed at me. It’s an unpleasant experience.

How did I get onto TV? Oh yeah.

Anyway, you might think that I am all for the navel ban in Egypt, after reading all of that. I’m not. I’m ot even against pop media and TV. But I am for education, and for groups like Egypt’s “vagina warriors” (as mentioned in the linked article).

See, my position is this: I’m uncomfortable with anyone telling mass groups of people how they ought to dress, think, relate to one another, and live. I don’t like repressive government bans. I don’t like brainwashing mass media. I don’t like conservative groups of men (like the journalists mentioned in the linked article) who think women should be controlled by their husbands and brothers and fathers. Nobody seems willing to just give women the same dignity that men seem to take for granted, and let them do whatever the hell they please.

And that, my friends, is, after so many thousands of years, not just tragic: it’s downright embarrassing.

11 thoughts on “Navel bans, women, culture, and power

  1. I don’t know how relevant this is (as usual), but I’m tired of seeing music videos of women prancing about in lingerie. It seems to me that the music has gone towards mediocre and the focus is on the looks of the given artist (or people in his/her videos).

    I’m all for freedom of choise and people dressing in whatever they want to, and I don’t have much inclination towards feminism, old or new. All I’m saying is that the current pop-trend is bordering on ridiculous.

    Having said that; good post once again, Gord!

  2. Laura,

    Thanks. I have one correction to offer you: I think the current situation basically is ridiculous, but I almost don’t care anymore. People *can* turn their TVs off, if they truly want to. Nobody said the mass of humanity wasn’t lazy.

  3. Reminds me of a girl I knew in Montreal. She once told me that in Montreal, she could be honest about her previous love life, because it isn’t such a big deal, but outside of Quebec she would be branded a slut if she actually said the truth about the number of past partners she had. We’ve a long way to go until true equality, but I like to think that we Franco-North-Easterners have a head start.

  4. I don’t watch much TV anymore, so you’re definitely right in that respect.
    I thought about your post last night, and I figured the thing I hate most are the new low-cut trousers everyone seems to be wearing. I’m seeing more ‘cracks’ than ever before (quite against my will), so I guess women have actually gone more equal with men in that respect. They used to be called builders bums, though. Heh heh…

  5. Yo Jean-Louis: Maybe. I think she would have also been accepted by certain types in Toronto. Remember Jack? His crowd had a few girls like that among them, and those girls seemed to be both honest about their pasts, and well-liked (meaning unjudged) by their big circle of friends.

    Hey Kat:

    Nothing too slutty. See here:

    Shhh. The pics update isn’t quite finished and I’m not announcing anything till it is.

    Hey Laura:

    In the Canadian prairies I think we used to call it “Trucker-butt”. But maybe that was just my jazz-band friends; there was a song by They Might Be Giants, and the song was called “Truckerbutt”. You might be able to download it, even. Usually when I imagine the stereotypical unwanted visions of buttcracks, it’s truckers or repairmen.

    The lowcut pants aren’t so common here, not yet; you rarely see a navel in Korea at all, let alone an exposed buttcrack, still… but the navel thing is getting common in the media (especially clothing ads like this one), so it’s only a matter of time before it hits the mainstream wardrobes. I’m not particularly complaining, mind you.

  6. The expose your tummy/navel thingie has become too common in India. It is rather distracting at work – I keep on wondering if they’d catch a chill…

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