Why Is a Beautiful Woman Like a Nuclear Power Plant? FAU Feminist Prof Explains
Dr. Caputi received FAU's Distinguished Teacher award in 2001, among many other honors. She's also walked the walk, facing down FAU's administrators when they threatened to take the axe four years ago to the school's Women's Studies Center.
We tried to arrange an interview with Dr. Caputi to talk about her work and her thoughts on South Florida. Unsurprisingly, her schedule wouldn't allow time for a face-to-face meeting, so we corresponded by email. Here's our edited version of what she had to say:
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New Times: How does "the pornography of everyday life" play out in South Florida?
Caputi: South Florida is a vacation area often represented as a welcoming, sexy, young woman. Reflecting racist convention, she is white to signify "normalcy" and darker-skinned to signify "exoticism." These types of displays continue a long visual tradition that equates women with nature, and in sexist traditions, a way that shows nature (when rendered benevolent) as being like women, something that men can possess, enjoy, penetrate, and unveil. The image of the "beautiful" woman that predominates in South Florida-young, slim, hairless on her body except for her head, perfectly made-up or surgically perfected -- can be understood as a metaphor for men's control over nature, evidenced here in those perfectly manicured properties, pesticides applied to everything, and so on.
New Times: You've taught college students since 1982. How has their understanding of gender and sexuality changed in that time?
Caputi: Students' understandings have changed in much the ways that our culture's understandings in general have changed since the women's, gender and sexuality liberation movements emerged in the 1960s...There is more awareness and hence less overt expressions of hate or fear, for example around sexuality and gender expression. Of course, there still is that pernicious strain of everyday misogyny, a tendency to blame victims of rape, a double standard for male and female sexuality, with men being granted dispensation for any kind of heterosexual activity but women being considered as "all used up" if they behave in a similar way. There still is a great deal of harassment--physical, verbal and visual--of women and all those outside of the straight and gendered norm. But violence and harassment and injustice are regularly also recognized, called out, and countered. So the shift to a ground of greater justice continues.
New Times: You wrote about gender and sexuality in the imagery of the 2004 and 2008 presidential election campaigns. What did you see in 2012?
Caputi: There were still widespread and flagrant episodes of racism directed against President Obama, from the top down. Newt Gingrich was casting a deliberately racist aspersion when he labeled President Obama the "Food Stamp President." There were the usual hate-filled bumper stickers and emails going around targeting President Obama as not really an "American" and all that...With the presidency filled by a Black man, someone who traditionally has been classified as un-ideal, as "other," this displaces some of those people who are used to being seen as the ideal. It seems to have induced a kind of panic, taking form in overtly racist attacks and distortions, for example, by labeling President Obama a "socialist," even though his policies have been beneficial to business, including medical insurance companies. Also in 2008, the misogynist attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2008 were monumental, from both the left and right. I suppose if she and other women seek the presidency or vice-presidency in 2016, we will again see an outpouring of the worst kinds of sexism.
New Times: One of your essays is titled Nuclear Technology and the Sacred: Or, Why A Beautiful Woman is Like a Nuclear Power Plant. Why is a beautiful woman like a nuclear power plant?
Caputi: That is actually the tag line for an ad put out by a nuclear power company in the mid-1970s. The beautiful kept woman in the ad is presented as a source of sexual and reproductive power, which is likened to cosmic power, that men can control and put to work for them. Patriarchal culture's efforts to dominate and control nature, is profoundly connected in its origins to its efforts to possess and control women's sexual and reproductive sovereignty, something we still see going on in the denial of reproductive justice to women.
New Times: Are we headed towards a post-gender world where, we can "change our sex like we change our shirt"? Is Madonna an avatar of that? Lady Gaga? Was Michael Jackson?
Caputi: Certainly, we can claim and change our gender, shaking up that patriarchal belief that humans only come as males and females, males being "naturally" masculine and women "naturally" feminine. Some of us are intersexual, some of us don't evince the gender that we were assigned, and some of us evince or evolve another kind of gender that has not yet been previously imagined. We have to remember that male and female don't seem to be all there is--there is a range or continuum of human be-ing. And maybe in another, non-sexist world, the sex we are will not be seen as the most significant thing about us, as it is now. That is something to aspire to.
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