The female breast as cultural icon

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Have you watched any “critically acclaimed” television lately? Whether we‘re talking Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, or even Australia’s very own Underbelly, chances are that your serious drama would have been served up with a handsome dollop of bare flesh. Increasingly, in the U.S. liberal dominated entertainment industry, this is apparently what “cutting-edge” has come to mean; shocking conservative audiences, challenging taboos and going to all the young audience-garnering places where “adult” television programs dare go – always, of course, in humble [cough] service [cough] to the plot. A flash of boobs or a sex sequence has seemingly become the television writer or director’s “filler du jour”, should the creative team’s reservoir of intelligent dialogue and plot be running a little dry. If this modern trend develops toward its logical conclusion, it can’t be too long before the likes of Julianna Marguilies and Sandra Oh are forced to formally compete directly with Christina Hendricks’ or Paz de la Huerta’s breasts for the Outstanding Supporting Actress nomination at the Emmys.

As a society, we are indisputably obsessed with breasts. Men are obsessed with them for well, visceral reasons, aided and abetted by their rampant sexualisation by the mass media. Women, in turn, have been driven to obsess about their own; whether they are too big, too small, whether or not this top flatters them, whether or not they can fit comfortably into that swimsuit. Bigger, women are meant to believe, is always better, regardless of any sense of anatomical proportion or optimal biomechanics. As Florence Williams notes in The Guardian, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first silicone implant surgery in Houston, Texas with breast enhancement surgery emerging in the last couple of decades as a multi-billion dollar industry. This is no fetish kicking about the margins of society: this is front-and-centre stuff from which a few people are getting absurdly rich and many women are being made to feel utterly miserable.

Cultural reference points abound. Since November 1970, popular UK tabloid newspaper The Sun has published a photo of a topless model on Page 3, and continues to dismiss its critics as wowsers, puritanical killjoys, or slaves to political correctness. Strangely, it continues to count many women amongst its loyal readers, no doubt for its peerless commitment to cerebral investigative journalism [cough]. The primacy of the music video in modern pop music has proved telling; for women, it is probably more important today to have good hair, a chunky rear and a bounteous and oft-exposed chest than one or two catchy saccharine tunes in your locker. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 might well represent the most iconic cultural moment of the 2000’s, in direct contrast to its actual significance. Madonna revealing a nipple during a recent concert in Istanbul passes for front-page news for some publications and websites. Genres whose traditional target market is the teenage male are particularly afflicted; as Charlie Brooker acerbically observes, basically every female video game character in the history of video games has been a scantily-clad 16DD. Damien Walter’s recent Guardian column dwells in part on the fantasy genre and the popularity of the previously mentioned Game of Thrones, but also on the absurd depictions of women that we have come to expect from comic-books – check out these two brilliant links for some examples.

I am not sure how the needs of young and/or hormonal men came to be the primary force shaping the public conceptualisation of “the woman” in the 21st century (though the answer for some will be “the patriarchy!”). I also don’t know how “the woman” can be re-made to reject superficiality and to reflect the legion of distinctive characteristics and qualities that women so often seem to offer and men so often seem to lack. The plump, jutting breast has been so thoroughly sexualised by the mass media and men that it has been transformed from a humble gland into an aspirational ideal for girls and women of all ages. That’s really very sad for everyone – besides, of course, those teenage boys.