From ‘sex kitten’ to educating the sexes

In 2009, a choreographer from the television programme So you think you can dance said his routine involved ‘a bit of a peep show’ explaining, ‘They’re such hot looking girls, why wouldn’t I portray them as sex kittens?’ I then pulled the face that causes my teenaged daughter to exclaim, ‘I hate watching television with you!’ And because she was not interested to hear my speech on a soapbox, and because despite a ‘long history of advocating for social change, equality and the disadvantaged’, Bronwyn Pike (Minister for Education in Victoria) has not significantly mentioned the gender issue as part of her platform for Victorian education reform, I bring my concerns here to you.

Did the public express outrage at this blatant sexism? The show’s online opinion forum suggests, no, it did not. Would there have been a response had he said, ‘They’re so African-looking, why wouldn’t I portray them as American slaves?’

Surely we can’t compare the political and social awakening achieved by the civil rights movement in the United States with the ongoing struggle of women’s liberation and make it a concern of the Victorian Education Department? Can we?

I am here to tell you: yes we can.

The world has seen great leaders, public speakers and speechmakers whose words and deeds reformed government, business and the social life and led to the emancipation of millions. Every high school student will know the names of these brave human beings, these pioneers of liberation, these makers of world-changing speeches: Mary Lee; Vida Goldstein; Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

These names ring from our history books like those of other great pioneers of liberty: Abraham Lincoln; Nelson Mandela; Martin Luther-King. Don’t they?

Author Evelyn Johnson’s research into gender and education made the claim that non-patriarchal teaching methodology was ‘not yet available’ in 1995, despite twenty years of policy reform and though it no longer seems to be on the agenda, I don’t think it’s available yet.

Our education system is founded on openly chauvinistic principles and – despite the best efforts of many great educators, male and female – continues to operate under a thick layer of male subjectivism that has passed itself off as objectivity. Because of this, the narrative of women in history remains untold and the source of their invisibility largely unexamined – a symptom of a situation that continues to suffocate the globe and oppress human beings everywhere.

‘Sex kitten’ is on its own, a playful image. But connected to the invisible, untaught history of the subjugation of women by sexual oppression, it is not innocent at all.

Ancient Greeks and Romans enslaved women after conquering a city. Rape was a weapon of terror as German soldiers marched through Belgium in 1914; of revenge when the Russian army marched to Berlin in World War II; used by the Japanese in the notorious ‘comfort camps’: again when the Pakistani army battled Bangladesh; and used as a ‘standard operating procedure aimed at terrorising the population into submission’ by American GIs in Vietnam.

Accepting the 2004 Anti-Slavery Award, Ilguilas Weila said, ‘slavery is the most violent…inhuman and degrading alienation of the freedom of a human being.’ He also explained that most slaves are women.

In 2006 the then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced that the government was committed to combating the crime of trafficking for sexual slavery in Australia. In 2009, economic journalist Kai Ryssdal reported:

By some estimates, slavery as a [global] industry is worth about $91 billion a year. Sex slaves represent about 4 percent of all slaves around the world. But they account for about 40 percent of the profits. As the global economy worsens so could the lives of those women and children.

These atrocities trace their very possibility to sexual objectivism: the tragic answer to the question, ‘why wouldn’t I portray them as sex kittens?’

I can’t express in any more powerful words how far indeed we are from a true women’s liberation than by these, spoken by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1868 to the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington.

Though disenfranchised, we have few women in the best sense; we have simply so many reflections, varieties and dilutions of the masculine gender…To keep a foothold in society, woman must be as near like man as possible, reflect his ideas, opinions, virtues, motives, prejudices, and vices…She must look at everything from its dollar-and-cent point of view, or she is a mere romancer…And now man himself stands appalled at the results of his own excesses, and mourns in bitterness that falsehood, selfishness, and violence are the law of life.

Dale Spender asserts that if we take the sexism out of education there will be no curriculum left at all, which puts me in mind of Rudolf Steiner’s assertion that if we only spoke about what we really knew, a great silence would descend upon humanity.

What can be done? In the 2010 VCE curriculum, time and space has been found for the study of the American Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, and most young people are well versed in the developments of the Technological Revolution. I assert that while the words ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ and ‘emancipation’ do appear in the History component of the VCE Study Design, and teachers can choose to make women’s issues a focus, the Women’s Revolution is not taught rigorously enough and must take its place as a true revolution – and one which impacts on the whole human race. A revolution that falls under the definition put forward in the VCE History Study Design – encompassing ‘destruction and construction, dispossession and liberation…polaris[ing] society and unleashing civil war and counter-revolution’.

We must see it not as inconvenient and ‘precious’ to give our young men and women a rigorous historical context for the feminist perspective, but rather as an unquestionable necessity to redress the imbalance in our collected body of historical knowledge. A body of knowledge one presumes educators are passionate about.

I would love to conclude by quoting from the women who spoke at that great freedom march of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 – Daisy Bates or Pauli Murray or Dorothy Height or Diane Nash, but unfortunately those informed, educated activists, crucial to the movement and passionate to speak were not given permission by the leaders to do so.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

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  1. Great article. I enjoyed it.

    I think many people forget that objectivity is not really possible, and in this culture it often means not from a feminist/homosexual/non-white point of view, but from a balanced, unbiased standpoint. Enter the discourse of “common-sense” – what the white middle-class male thinks. I agree that the schooling system needs to spend as much time on the feminist movement as it does on others, including the racism and classism embedded in it due to its initial (and largely ongoing) focus on white women.

    There’s such a focus on women being ‘sex kittens’ that when the choreographer of So You Think You Can Dance? said ‘They’re such hot looking girls, why wouldn’t I portray them as sex kittens?’ he really highlighted the inability for society to imagine them as anything other.

    1. cheers Ashley. Truly disturbing was my (then) 16 year old daughter’s reaction, or non-reaction. I do, however, have trust in her figuring stuff out for herself.

  2. Hear, hear! is my overall response to this – Thank you, Clare – but I have a couple of comments, too.

    Perhaps it is just me, but I find the “girl” part of that quote more directly offensive than the “sex-kitten” part. I don’t watch that show, but I’m assuming the participants aren’t adolescents.

    You said “sex-kitten” when “connected to the invisible, untaught history of the subjugation of women by sexual oppression… is not innocent at all,” and I agree. But I also see it as a concern because of the way in which it connects to the idea of female power and I wonder if that connection isn’t the more pressing problem right now.

    I can’t help thinking how much images of female sexuality are like Koraly’s “wog”. Although I don’t like where it comes from, and I think the efficacy of “taking ownership” is, on a large scale, highly dubious, I can still see why it becomes important to individuals and their identities. (And speaking historically, there is millennia of historical precedence for women who freed themselves from the limitations placed on their sex by selling their sex.)

    Regardless, all the points you’ve made here stand. I’m just not so sure that history will be enough to conquer the desire for some “power” right now.

    1. I agree Lani. Female power often equals “sexual liberation” (willingness to exhibit sexuality, usually to the most popular cultural (male) fantasy) for many people (the result of third-wave feminism?). The idea of women as powerful in other ways is rarely valued unless in conjunction with their sex appeal. And then, usually, they do have to be “girls” (which, it seems, ranges from the teenage years into mid-twenties, as you rightly point out).

      1. I agree – and if a woman’s ‘power’ is in conjunction with ‘sex appeal’ – then look out: there’s something predatory going on. Jenna – reading your comment to Lani I thought ‘I wonder what would come up if I googled ‘sexual liberation?’ The first link with those words lands on a misogynist anti-femminist(oops – tautology)site by someone called ‘angry harry’ (no link: rather not spread the disease).

    2. Thank you Lani.

      Women’s power! Gee – don’t get me started: I’m 45 and the whole mainstream ‘cougar’ thing is really in my face: what an affront on SO many levels! How terrifying a woman is when she’s not a ‘girl’ but still ‘hot’ ha!

      I say ‘women’s power’ rather than ‘female’s power’ because I just copped a fantastic rant from a woman friend about the use of ‘female’ on internet dating sites. She said she isn’t a female (presumably of the species), she’s a woman!

      ‘the limitations placed on their sex’ – good words for the Women’s Revolution unit in VCE ☺

  3. According to you, the guy said “they’re such hot-looking girls…” I’d suggest the important characteristic here was their being young and “hot”, rather than their being women. It’s not like the male contestants of that show aren’t also sexualised to the point of parody.

      1. Please don’t put words in my mouth. I made no objection to your remarks about gender or education, because the quotation from SYTYCD seemed to imply nothing about either topic.

        1. Hmmm. We do live in an age where the bodies of both sexes are sexualised. There is an incredibly overwhelming focus on appearance in our society. However, I don’t think the degree to which men are sexualised is in any way comparable to the systematic sexualisation of women. In this show there is a higher focus on the bodies of men than there is in real life due to the nature of the sport; the body is the spectacle. But suggesting that men are subjected to objectification on a similar level to women is much like saying white people experience racism too.

          1. I didn’t say that “men are subjected to objectification on a similar level to women.” They obviously are not. But you’ll have a hard time making the case for unequal treatment when it comes specifically to SYTYCD.

            As for your last sentence: who are “white people”?

        2. My question was not intended to be an attempt to speak on your behalf. The SYTYCD comment sparked my train of though; I tried to make the connections to gender and education clear and logical , but ah well, perhaps not.

  4. Thanks all. The issues are manifold and complex. Baby girl, little girl, young girl, girl, old girl … it’s hard to know when a ‘girl’ gets to be a woman: but the contestants were 18 (Talia) and 25 (Amy) – both incredibly talented and hard-working dancers who did a magnificent job of the choreography of Matt Lee and all-together put their heart and soul into what they were doing: commendable young women. Yes, the young men were equally as talented and dedicated – they, however, were dressed in jeans and shirts (albeit unbuttoned) while the ‘girls’ were wearing skimpy black leather. I’m not one for censorship of performance art, mind you: I would just love to have seen some awakened consciousness where the influence on young women and men is so strong, from a program that clearly loves and promotes dance. But the show wasn’t the point – I really believe that if the Women’s revolution was seen as such, as an actual political, social and historical event as substantial and far-reaching as, say, the Russian Revolution, or WWII; as important – there would be a raising of consciousness: an education. But maybe an education is too much to ask from an education system more concerned with corporate jargon than the development of free, compassionate thought and action in balanced human beings.

  5. Great article Clare and I agree the educations system is sexist and patriarchial. I teach history to Snr school students and always try and find info on important and influential women in what ever era I’m studying and it’s not always easy to find such info. There’s not much on women in the goldrush era-the play Black Mary about an indigenous woman bush ranger was the best I could find. I’m currently doing a study of the history of Timor-Leste and there’s hardly anything on women in that struggle even though I know there were heaps of women doing amazing things. My school often brings out ‘important people’ to speak to the students, usually sportsmen, rugby and AFL mainly. Not much in the way of rolemodels to aspire to for young women or non sporty young men

  6. Cheers Rohan, how frustrating. And the imbalance is right across the board: politics, history, literature, art, religion, science, sport, entertainment (not an exhaustive list and all intertwined, of course). Not the only injustice: there are so many silenced voices.

    I would have thought that the Rugby and AFL might have lost a bit of their ‘rolemodel shine’ with the ongoing revelations of both codes’ deplorable cultural poverty and moral despair. Or perhaps none of it ‘matters’ as long as you ‘train hard and win’?

  7. Not suggesting there aren’t wonderful and inspiring individuals (men and women, no doubt) associated with both Rugby and AFL, or that the players are not experts in their fields.

  8. Hey Clare, some great points in this post. From where I sit feminism is pretty much off the public agenda. Instead we talk of gender. And when we talk about gender we talk about men and women. Gender however assumes an equality that does not exist. Women’s studies have been replaced by gender studies at tertiary level or have been expunged from the curriculum altogether. Sexism/patriarchy exists in education because it exists in every nook and cranny of our society. Women still do not have equal pay and do not have the same power and privilege accorded to men, and almost every week somewhere in Australia another woman is killed by her partner. Sexual assault goes on unabated including in marriage and yet for most women there is still not justice: think of the judge’s comments in the Dianne Brimble case. But until we face up to the fact that we are a deeply misogynist society we will still hear sex kitten comments and still think that raunch culture and cougars equal equality.

    1. Feminism gone, now we have gender – without (often) acknowledging the complexities of gender identity. Refugees gone, now we have asylum seekers … language is so powerful and sneaky. Interesting that ‘chauvinism’ has gone out of fashion, too, with its direct connection to nationalism.

      Reading through the research report and catching up on the appalling lack of justice around the Dianne Brimble’s tragedy is deeply disturbing and saddening.

      How will it change if we don’t change our education system – and not just the patriarchy, but the infestation of economic rationalist/capitalist hijacking of human striving?

  9. I really like this post Clare and the discussion it’s raised. I especially like your point about the enshrining in history – or not – of the Women’s Revolution. That if it was seen as ‘an actual political, social and historical event as substantial and far-reaching as, say the Russian Revolution, or WWII; as important – there would be a raising of consciousness: an education.’ and that it ‘must take its place as a true revolution – and one which impacts on the whole human race.’

    I’ve never thought of it in these terms. I think it’s a very powerful thought.

    But what made me comment was your last comment: ‘How will it change if we don’t change our education system – and not just the patriarchy, but the infestation of economic rationalist/capitalist hijacking of human striving?’ I couldn’t agree more. My finger’s pointed at the evil of economic rationalism. How did that end up ruling the world?

  10. Thanks Jane. When I read your last question regarding economic rationalism – ‘How did that end up ruling the world?’ an image of the Middle Ages rose up before me with the words ‘It took right over from the vengeful God’. Hmm, and the institutions that made the ‘most’ of that vengeful God are among the ‘fathers’ of the sexist dialogue!

  11. It isn’t really much consolation Clare but as a student teacher I have been asked to critique websites like the following as part of a sexuality education debate in my Health and Physical Education Unit:

    I appreciate your voice advocating for an honest and balanced curriculum. Please do not pipe down!

    1. Jane how fantastic – I must have slipped into your twilight zone! Here’s to an Age when chauvinism of all kinds gets less credit than the once all-powerful flat-earth worldview does now.

      I always thought it would be fantastic (and shocking) to create a mystery cycle on a wagon or two – with the famous Hell Mouth, of course. (Though these days insurance would make using authentic special effects hell indeed!)

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