This week saw my students undergoing their assessed discussions in a module on cultural theory. Since a central theme of this module is to explore popular culture and to apply methods of textual analysis to it (see Peter Childs’ excellent 2006 book, Texts), this semester I took my students into the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford and invited them to explore that desperate hell-hole in the light of the theories and topics we had been exploring.
I have done this kind of thing before, and it generally produces really exciting responses - and this time was no different. We had discussions about how some shops market the idea of elite bourgeois values to the masses as a material commodity rather than as a hegemonic power structure. We had discussions about how banks advertise themselves. We had discussions about paradox, the media and political power in The Hunger Games.
The discussion which caused the biggest stir though, was the one which took for its topic a rather exclusive lingerie shop.
I must admit, I was nervous and uncertain when the idea was first proposed - and my reasons were partly selfish. Because frankly I am a bit of a prude, I did not relish the prospect of a largely female group of students revelling in how easy it is to make their tutor red-faced and embarrassed. I did have other concerns though. I was uncertain how such a topic could be effectively discussed without resorting to the kind of images and symbols employed by such a shop - and those images and symbols border perilously on the pornographic. Was this kind of thing acceptable? Even if it was borderline acceptable, how could I ensure that boundaries were not crossed which might upset other students (or me)?
I needed to do some reading. With great care I began to search for evidence of the academic studies of cultures of sexuality, and was immediately confronted with vast arrays of material. Clearly this is a field of study which is growing at a stupendous rate, and is equally clearly a point of increasing significance for academic study. This should not really have come as any surprise. It is difficult not to be made constantly aware of the extent to which sex and sexuality are at the heart of many contemporary concerns - commercial, cultural and political - and how they fundamentally shape social and political constructions of self in (especially) British societies through the media and through consumption. In spite of my prudery and ethical qualms, I certainly could not say that a cultural analysis of a lingerie shop was anything less than perfectly valid from an academic perspective - and extremely valid in terms of an analysis of consumer culture.
I noticed something else in my brief literature review though. The field of sociology appears to have embraced the study of sexualities with full-throated vigour, carving out a huge field dedicated exclusively to the study of pornography. The field of literary studies, likewise, has built up a healthy area of studies in sexuality and sexualities. However, in both instances references to the details and processes of the marketing of each is studiously avoided. Sociological studies seem to favour studies based on statistics about rates of consumption, frequency of sexualised imagery appearing in mainstream media, and highly theoretical studies on representations of sex in terms of deviation from a social norm. Of the countless Universities offering modules on sex in their English degrees, most restrict themselves to the relatively ‘safe’ territory of studying representations in various canonical texts - Cleland, Defoe, Lawrence, Nabobkov, etc.. - drawing on feminist and queer theories to explore representations of (again) deviation and difference.
In other words, even within such a vast field of study there appeared to be a rather scrupulous balancing act which meant that images or extremely explicit descriptions could be avoided.
No wonder. Neither would I have it any other way. It does strike me as a little strange though, that in a field of study which clearly relates to one of the most fundamentally significant and influential areas of social construction, academic study is obliged to engage with it in broad theoretical or indirect terms, and cannot (in the case of literary studies) apply the same methods of close reading and analysis to sexual ‘texts’ which would otherwise be considered a basic requirement for any other form of literature.
As it happens, the discussion never caused me any ethical concerns or embarrassment. It was, indeed, a fascinating discussion which explored the ways in which a lingerie shop presented sexuality as an embrace of moral contradictions (linking to Baudrillard): With mannequins sporting angelic ‘wings’ (albeit not much else), and photos of women presented as both pure and alluring. These images were compared (following the model of Williams' Ideal, Documentary and Social cultural formations) with images of nudes in classical art, and the point made that while one was ostensibly intended as a representation of beauty for its own sake, the other was a representation of beauty for the sake of creating a transferable fantasy (the fantasy that no matter who you are, you can look as sexy and beautiful as these models if you are willing to simply fork out the £120 it would cost for a little bit of lace). The images of semi-clad women were contrasted with the relative prudishness of having underwear discreetly hidden away in drawers, and this rather Edwardian sensibility was further related to the decor - which was described at one point as being a little like a French 19th Century Boudoir of the Moulin Rouge variety. Perfumes were on display, in exquisite packaging but with names that generated connotations of sexual attraction as lust or sin. The availability of sex toys in the inner recesses of the shop was again related to the sense that a respectable ‘surface’ hid a darker sexual desire - but that the situation of this shop re-located the notion of sexual desire from the dark and dirty realms of basement shops in Soho to the clean and respectable shininess of Westfield - bringing the acceptability of behaviour often perceived as deviant, closer towards a social norm.
All good stuff - interesting, theoretical, relevant and important.
Thank heavens it’s over.