Pop Culture And Sexuality

By Gareth Trew

Gaga. Madonna. Bowie.

In late 2007, at Carnegie Hall, New York, J.K. Rowling announced to over 1500 youngsters – and subsequently the world – that Albus Dumbledore was gay. Her audience’s reaction was a prolonged explosion of applause, so forceful it elicited her famous response, “If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago”.

Whilst there followed, naturally, a storm of controversy and debate – fuelled largely by conservatives of Bill O’Reilly’s ilk – much of the response throughout the Western world was resoundingly positive: at last, a brilliant, well-loved major character who just happened to be gay, and in mainstream children’s literature! This is a good indicator of how considerably perceptions – not just of what it means to be gay, but of sexuality as a whole – have changed. Acceptance of female sexuality, for example, has reached the point that women are, in principle, as free to claim and express their sexual side as men. A large part of the credit for this shift must go to pop culture and its influence.

Pop culture has been so effective in generating change, because of its role in bringing sexuality out of the obscurity of taboo, into the mainstream. The more heavily pop culture incorporates sexuality the less sensitive society becomes, which is a significant step towards realising equality. Remove fear, and understanding begins to be possible.

Secondly, many leading pop culture contributors – David Bowie, Elton John, Madonna, to name a few – have campaigned for it, and the platform created by wealth and fame is such that a prominent pop icon can be confident that their message will be well heard. Furthermore, these people are usually looked upon as role models particularly by the youth, who tend to drive social and political reform.

Lady Gaga – possibly the most influential contributor to pop culture at present – has long been an outspoken advocate of sexual liberation, particularly championing the rights of gays. Recently, she campaigned against America’s absurd Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy (which prohibits gays from serving openly in the military*), and she has also joined fellow pop culture icons Cynthia Nixon and Ellen DeGeneres in fighting not only for the legalisation of same sex marriage in America, but for greater support for LGBT youth. The efforts of all three women have garnered notable media attention, helping to bring the issue well into the mainstream.

Combining these elements creates quite a position of power for the person with a mind to wield it, even more so today, given the universal popularity of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Lady Gaga, for instance, is followed on Twitter by over 7,000,000 people around the world. She has an enormous, constant audience – and she is one of many to boast such a following. Public opinion throughout the Western world is shifting accordingly: in Australia, for example, recent polls suggest that more than 60% of the populace supports same sex marriage. Obviously, I’m not proposing that the former is solely or even predominantly responsible for the latter – the battle for LGBT equality has been a long one, fought by many people from all walks of life. However, the fact remains that the influence of pop culture on public perception is considerable and ongoing.

At the same time, pop culture’s increasing overuse of sexuality as a marketing tool also makes this very influence an area of great concern. Since pop culture is, to a growing degree, chiefly marketed at teens and pre-teens, children are constantly exposed to extreme sexuality. It is everywhere – in song lyrics and music videos; in television and film; in magazines; rampant throughout advertising. This chronic overexposure results in various pressures – to become sexually active earlier, to be worried about body image well before the body has finished developing, to value sexuality before other aspects of life. It also debases sexuality, making it something to judge and be judged by, instead of another rich and important aspect of our nature. Isn’t it ironic and rather sad that pop culture, having played such a part in achieving our current state of sexual freedom, is also guilty of this debasement?

A further effect is the pressure placed on prospective pop artists, who are likely to incorporate a substantial amount of sexuality into their work and/or public persona out of the fear that otherwise they’ll be less likely to succeed. As a fierce believer in artistic integrity, I find this abhorrent. Sex is important, yes, but so are countless other facets of our nature – art should be as diverse as life. Undermining this by exploiting sexuality for profit is as disgraceful as it is counterproductive.

Finally, pop culture is also largely responsible for the ridiculous Western obsession with youth and beauty, which not only promotes lack of diversity, but pressurizes aging and unconventional looking pop culture contributors to resort to plastic surgery, botox and the like. This pressure to be impossibly physically perfect – a recognised foundation for mental illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia – is then passed on to consumers.

From the more outlandish antics of Bowie and Madonna, to the quieter brilliance of J.K. Rowling, pop culture has been, and continues to be, an important means of helping to achieve sexual liberation. Equally, however, it is guilty of grossly overusing sexuality in a way that debases it. There are so many potential positives that pop culture could accomplish, and it would be a great shame to see these as well as the substantial amount it has already achieved, overshadowed by the consequences of irresponsible commercialism.

* Though the law has just been repealed, it will remain in effect until the military’s readiness for its  implementation has been certified – a process anticipated to take at least a number of months.



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