TV, movies muddle exploitation and empowerment

Movies and television are not usually the best places to conduct a referendum on a particular group’s status — which doesn’t stop people from trying.

Lately, issues pertaining to feminism — on the order of “Is it exploitation, or female empowerment?” — keep recycling through pop culture in one form or another.

Frankly, one should be suspicious of attempts to filter such conversations through fantasy or science fiction. Superheroes, elves and Hobbits are not ideal for making real-world analogies, which explains a lot about what you see roaming the halls at Comic-Con.

Nevertheless, Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” — featuring lingerie-clad heroines in a fantasy setting — has triggered robust debate, not merely about the movie’s merits but whether this amounts to schoolgirl fetishism masquerading as entertainment.

Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips was among the most scathing, calling the film a “greasy collection of near-rape fantasies and violent revenge scenarios disguised as a female-empowerment fairy tale.” (It’s worth noting that Snyder also idealized the male form in “300,” or as I like to call it, “That movie that reminds me of what I see in the mirror every morning — not.”)

By happenstance, around the time “Sucker Punch” reviews began breaking, Warner Bros. distributed a first photo from the “Wonder Woman” pilot being produced for NBC, which initiated a bit of hand-wringing about the title character’s low-cut costume and whether a bustier-wearing superhero was an appropriate role model.

When posed by moral scolds, these concerns can sound as inane as they did in the 1950s, when anti-comicbooks crusader Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocent.” Among other things, Wertham maintained that Batman & Robin and Wonder Woman were leading impressionable young readers on destructive paths toward homosexuality and lesbianism, respectively.

Such questions can’t exist in a vacuum, though, given all the young women currently flaunting their assets in ostensible displays of feminist empowerment. Examples include Lady Gaga’s next iteration of Madonna’s shtick to Britney Spears’ latest CD, titled “Femme Fatale.”

Indeed, nowhere are attitudes toward women more perplexing than on reality TV, as practiced on channels like Bravo, E! and Oxygen. Without putting too fine a point on it, these female-oriented networks consistently showcase outlandish “characters” who attract a small but reliable audience, thus turning the participants into marketable commodities who can be recycled in future unscripted vehicles.

Bravo’s next series, “Pregnant in Heels,” illustrates a certain form of exaggerated reality, depicting women that much of the audience is pretty clearly going to despise: expectant mothers wealthy enough to retain a “maternity concierge.” One mom is a self-proclaimed “branding expert” who treats her yet-to-be-born kid like a new product, enlisting a focus group to help pick the perfect name.

There may be no more polarizing look at women on the horizon, however, than Showtime’s upcoming “Gigolos,” which also premieres next week.

While the focus is on male escorts, the show spends ample time interviewing the women who avail themselves (quite graphically) of the full-service menu, with one saying she’s simply indulging in a pastime traditionally associated with men.

While “Sucker Punch” is primarily aimed at young guys, moreover, most everything else referenced here — including, I’ll wager, “Gigolos” — is targeted toward women.

As for the little matter of role models, it’s hardly a stretch to say Wonder Woman (who is, after all, fictional) offers less potential inspiration than “Jersey’s” Snooki and JWoww — featured in what has become TV’s most-watched program among 12- to 34-year-olds — or the Kardashian sisters, who just paced E! to its most-watched quarter ever in women 18-34.

Is that just harmless fun, cause for mild concern or a sign of the cultural apocalypse? Does a TV show about women paying for sex provide a touch of balance to fare like HBO’s “Cathouse?” And isn’t it pointless, really, trying to shoehorn such viewing choices into a sociological context?

The answers aren’t simple, but it’s enough to make you wonder who’s really getting suckered.

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