Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Modesty in Space

My Dear Reader,

Growing up in a very religious family, I was taught the importance of modesty at almost every turn. And I always thought that it was a great idea.

I'm weird, I know.

I have this theory. You know how most people have a favorite vice? I think everyone also has a favorite virtue. Modesty is mine. So when people start talking about modesty and how the very idea is shaming and degrading to young girls, well, that wasn't my experience. But, like I said, I'm weird.

A lot of my weirdness, I think, comes from the fact that along with God, Star Trek also had a big place in my life growing up. On Sundays, my family went to church together. On Mondays, we watched Star Trek together. And something the both church and Star Trek has in common? Both are very heavy on ideas. Ideas like universal equality and unconditional compassion. Concepts like agency, kindness, and honor. I got one kind of lesson from the pulpit, and another from the TV, but to me, it all seemed to be two different perspectives into one great, eternal truth. And both church and Star Trek encouraged me to find truth.

So, that was quite an education.

Of course, there was occasionally a disconnect in the message. And as much as I learned the importance of modesty on Sunday, Monday's lesson went somewhat in reverse. Star Trek is almost infamous for its basement-dwelling teenage fanbase, and though it's not very accurate, you wouldn't know it by the way the characters were dressed. Star Trek is as show about people in uniforms, and yet in almost every incarnation of the franchise, they manage to have at least one woman wearing a skin-tight body suit. Sometimes for no real reason. It's just for those basement-dwellers who supposedly will never have a relationship with a real girl, so this fictional one has been provided. Fantasize away, pimply fanboys!*

One of these catsuit-wearing female characters was Seven of Nine, a character from Star Trek: Voyager who was portrayed by Jeri Ryan, who described being "poured" into that suit, it was that tight. Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway (my personal hero) on the same show, said:
I found that that was hard, Jeri notwithstanding. Certainly, I could see with my own eyes that she was a va-va-va-voom and beautiful-beautiful bombshell of a girl. Sexuality was brought into Voyager, and that’s what I resented. I chose not to use sexuality. I thought that if Paramount and UPN and Rick (Berman) were being exceptionally prescient and brave, they would give a woman a shot at commanding without sex. “Can we do this without sex?” There are always other ways. So I resented that and I was hurt by the immediate, extraordinary attention given to this character. The numbers went up. And I thought, “Ah, you can’t argue with a business decision and you can’t argue with sex.” That’s just part of life, but all of that is very difficult for a woman, particularly an actress like me. But it had nothing to do with Jeri.
And yeah, it was pretty obvious that that's what they were going for. I mean, that costume was ridiculous. But it worked, because ratings went up 60%. And when this was on the air in 1997, I was a very, very annoyed teenage girl. I had always looked to Star Trek for powerful female role models, which were in short supply back then (some would argue they still are). At church, I was taught that women are divine beings, equal in the eyes of God and important instruments in His plan. Star Trek was one of the few places where I could actually see that in action. Well, kind of. Until they needed a boost in viewership. Then, they would take a woman and use her as eye candy. Then, her value didn't come from her choices or actions, but from what fans could fantasize doing with her. I guess women in the future are only equal when the ratings are good.

And though I still loved the show, I always rolled my eyes when Seven of Nine came on screen. I saw her as a pointless character. I knew she was being used and I felt used just watching her.

But a funny thing happened when a rewatched the series a few years later. I was in college then, and had a few more years of experience under my belt. I had taken courses on literature and had learned how to look at stories critically. And when I watched Voyager again, I saw Seven of Nine with brand new eyes. I saw past her apparel and into her storyline. I discovered, to my own amazement, that I had found one of the best characters I had ever seen in any show, book, or movie. Her story is one of healing from abuse and betrayal, of repentance, redemption, and love.

But no one ever talks about that.

No one ever talks about Seven of Nine, who was abducted as a child and indoctrinated into an oppressive culture where she was no longer an individual, but a cog in a great and terrible machine of destruction. No one talks about how she is rescued from this machine and offered a chance to reclaim her humanity. No one talks about the people who show her a love and devotion she has not deserved, patiently teaching her how to regain her agency even as she promises to betray them. And no one talks about Seven's eventual success, and how she casts off the shackles of oppression and pain and becomes her own person.

Well, I mean the show talks about it. A lot. It's just that people are too distracted by the catsuit to notice.

And that, I think, is what is missing from the argument for modesty. So many who oppose modesty say that a woman has a right to express herself, and that is true. They say that it is not a woman's burden to control the thoughts of others, and that is true. But what Seven of Nine taught me is that dressing in a way meant to display your sexuality does not express who you are.

It hides you.

It camouflages you.

It allows you to masquerade as an object instead of a person.

And while it doesn't change your worth, and it doesn't make it okay for people to mistreat you, it changes how people see you.

And maybe it changes how you see yourself.

Dressing without to respect for yourself is like strapping raw beef to your thighs and jumping into piranha-infested waters. I guess it's your choice, but it's not a smart choice. Human nature is human nature, choices have consequences, and you have to be careful. You have to protect yourself.

And there's another lesson I learned here: I was wrong. I was wrong to judge someone's value by what they wore. I was immature and shallow. Church and Star Trek taught me to respect people, to see beyond the surface and try to find a friend. I was taught not to look on the outward appearance, but to look on the heart. But I guess I didn't learn those lessons well enough. I guess that in a better world, it wouldn't matter what we wear, because it wouldn't distract people from who we are.

And maybe we need to start making that better world right now. Maybe the destructive parts of human nature need to be cast aside and forgotten.

Maybe we can teach children (not just girls) about modesty in a way that makes them feel empowered instead of ashamed. It is empowering to have the ability to choose how people see you. It is empowering to be able to see people as valuable, despite their appearance. We have to learn to use these powers wisely. We have to understand that people make bad choices sometimes, and you have to account for that. But we also have to be better in order to make the world better.

Because despite Jeri Ryan's success, despite her beautiful portrayal of a complicated character and the many roles she has taken since then, despite the fact that she is a genuine, caring person*, people still ask her about that darn catsuit. More than ten years later, people are still treating her like a cog in the machine of corporate sexuality. There is more than one thing wrong with that.

In the end, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to learn truth from more than one source. I'm grateful that I was given the chance to find my own lessons. Most of all, I treasure the ability I have to think for myself. To act for myself. Because that's the real goal of modesty, right? To be free from objectification? To be free to be your true self?

I think so.

Best wishes, regards, and kindness,

-Cecily Jane

P.S. This is really just one facet of modesty. Here's another post with a different perspective that I also agree with. It's pretty genius, actually.

P. P.S. I couldn't make this argument in the post because it's long enough as it is, but I tried to hint at it: this thinking is not only degrading to women. It's also degrading to the male viewer, because it not only is the female character being sold as an object, but the male viewer is being enticed to buy an object. Both parties are being manipulated and degraded. Both parties deserve better.

*I base this on her Twitter profile. She is awesome.


Anonymous said...

Love this Cecily. Very well written.

just a little bit mo said...

Yes! Breath of fresh air. I really love that article about the pope you linked to. I read it a few months back and it helped me deal with the ongoing Facebook modesty debates. Love your post. As always, you are able to articulate things that I find myself struggling to say.