Rashida Jones bristles at the suggestion that she’s a prude.
“I love sex,” the 37-year-old actress and writer declared recently in Glamour magazine. “Hell, I’ve even posed in my underwear.” But Jones also bristles at an instinct so common among young female pop stars to showcase their private parts, à la Miley Cyrus gyrating on stage in latex scanties. Last October, Jones created a mini-furor when she tweeted, “This week’s celeb news takeaway: she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular #stopactinglikewhores.”
That seemingly innocuous dig at Cyrus, Rihanna, and other hypersexualized stars provoked a predictable firestorm on Twitter—accused most commonly of “slut-shaming” —which forced Jones into the pages of Glamour to mount a (more than 140 character) defense. The Parks and Recreation star declared an openness to sex but wariness of the “pornification of everything” and the “homogenous” and sexualized image that young women in the music industry are promoting.
“Every star interprets ‘sexy’ the same way: lots of skin, lots of licking of teeth, lots of bending over. I find this oddly… boring,” Jones wrote. “I understand that owning and expressing our sexuality is a huge step forward for women. But, in my opinion, we are at a point of oversaturation.”
It’s a topic Jones will expand upon during a panel at the Women in the World Summit on April 5, alongside Colorado psychologist Tomi-Ann Roberts and 16-year-old Winnifred BonJean-Alpart, who was featured in “Sexy Baby,” a documentary about how the digital age is changing our culture’s sexual landscape.
Jones, daughter of music mogul Quincy Jones, makes a decidedly feminist argument about today’s sex-obsessed starlets. “I’m just asking people to take a breath and talk about it,” she told The Guardian in February. “I also wanted to say there’s more than one way to be a woman and be sexy—like, you’re a really great dancer, or you’re really fucking smart.”
Heaving bosoms and ever-shrinking outfits have long been constants in the pop video world, but it was early last fall, after watching Cyrus masturbate on stage at MTV’s Music Video Awards with a giant styrofoam finger and Rihanna indulge in stripper fantasies in her “Pour It Up” video (watched 107 million times on YouTube) that Jones decided she’d “had enough.”
“This isn’t showing female sexuality; this is showing what it looks like when women sell sex,” she wrote. Indeed, there is nothing subtle about Rihanna simulating sex with the back of a golden throne, clapping her ass cheeks and “making it rain” money from her denim thong in “Pour It Up,” which was released just days after Miley Cyrus twerked half-naked, her flaccid tongue hanging out of her mouth.
Making that argument in 140 characters or less is impossible, of course, and Jones was “crushed” by the backlash, particularly the accusations that she was slut-shaming other women. Jones explained in Glamour that “there is a difference, a key one, between ‘shaming’ and ‘holding someone accountable.’”
She’s right, and her assertion underscores social media’s climate of outrage—particularly among feminists—in which terms like “slut-shaming” are used to squelch debate, so that the conversation becomes less about the subject at hand (in this case, that pop stars are objectifying themselves and not taking responsibility for being role models to young girls) than about the language deployed by the person addressing that subject. Whenever women voice opinions about other women’s sexual behavior, the hashtag fascists invariably accuse them of #slutshaming.
But the hashtag fascists are missing the point: Jones’s tweet was hyperbolic, but she was condensing a more serious concern. And she felt compelled to clarify it in a platform that justifies her feminist bona fides.
Indeed, her feature in Glamour reflects one side of a familiar debate: the older woman in the entertainment business warning the ingenues about an industry that will inevitably exploit them, and prevailing on them to keep their tongues in their mouths. The other side is that of Rihanna and Cyrus, who refuse to take responsibility for being role models to young girls because they quite simply don’t want to be role models. And can we blame Cyrus for wanting to shed her image as the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana—to rebel and gain power over her scantily clad peers?
Cyrus may feel a sense of empowerment in sexual expression—in straddling a wrecking ball or a white plaster horse; in putting on latex skivvies and grinding up against Robin Thicke—particularly when she knows that doing so will earn her attention and money, both powerful currencies for female pop stars. Sure, she’s condoning stereotypes perpetuated by patriarchy. But is it right to condemn her for using her sex appeal in an industry which often values sexiness above talent?
Jones’s Glamour feature raises more questions than it answers—and that’s a good thing. Much as she wishes empowerment and exploitation didn’t go hand in hand in our society, she supports all pop stars trying to navigate the increasingly elusive territory between the two.
“Let’s at least try to discuss the larger implications of female sexuality on pop culture without shaming each other,” Jones wrote. “There’s more than one way to be a good feminist. Personally, I loved the Lily Allen ‘Hard Out Here’ video—a controversial send-up of tits-and-ass culture. She helped start a conversation. Let’s continue it.”
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