Sex, Pornography and the Objectification of Women in the Digital Age: Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story”

“Over the last decade the Internet has grown as a source of sexual socialisation in the US” (Subrahmanyam and Smahel 2011), with “young people in the US using social media to express their own sexuality among peers” (Manago and et a l 2008). This sexual socialisation of young people due to technological developments is undoubtedly reflected in Gary Shteyngart’s vision of a near-future America in his Super Sad True Love Story.

In Shteyngart’s imagined world, hyper sexuality is intrinsically linked to society; with pornography being considered a mainstream source of entertainment for all ages, “Remember those porns we used to watch when we were in kinder garden? With the old man who molests teens on the beach. What was it called? Old Man Spunkers or something?” (224).

The effects of this exposure to sexual images in childhood is elucidated by Eunice and her friend’s discussion of their peers’ sexual activities,

“Guess where she ended up by the end of the party? In the bathtub getting ass-reamed and face-pissed by Pat Alvarez and three of his friends who taped everything and then put it on GlobalTeens the next day. GUESS how high her ratings went up? Personality 764 and Fuckability 800+” (27).

Whilst the degrading acts referred to, ‘ass-reamed’ and ‘face-pissed’, are (thankfully!) alien concepts to us, it is not outside the realms of possibility in today’s society, with Wright commenting “because the majority of today’s most popular pornography includes verbal and physical aggression, the targets of this behaviour is bound to be learned is bound to be learned and acted out in sexual relationships” (23).

Another example of the saturation of sexuality in Shteyngart’s society is through the female characters’ fashion choices, with the clothing store “JuicyPussy” featuring “nippleless bras”, ‘TotalSurrender panties’ which ‘snap right off when you press a button on the crotch’ (109) and “Onionskin jeans” which cling “transparently to [the women’s] legs and plump, pink bottoms” revealing their “shaven secret” (86). Interestingly, there is no male equivalent to these pornographic garments in the novel, which leads one to consider the relationship between the objectification of women in both Shteynart’s and today’s digital world.

Impress your tiger-rug wife with Mr. Leggs- from Adweek

Through the online interaction between Eunice and her friend who referred to only as “GRILLBITCH”, the internalisation of this objectification is fully realised; with Eunice’s friend seeking comfort in the fact that her boyfriend told her she “looked slutty” and that her “fuckability was 800+” (42). The two young women refer to each other as “cum-slut” and “cum-monkey” (114), which are seen to be terms of endearment. GRILLBITCH’s relationship advice to Eunice is equally as overtly sexual; “Treat him like shit during the first day, let him fuck you HARD the first night… He’ll fall for you pronto, especially after you let him plunder your MAGIC PUSSY!!!” (26). In another correspondence between the women, GRILLBITCH describes her response to her boyfriend cheating on her;

“So I went on this site called ‘D-Base’ where they can digitize you like covered in shit or getting fucked by four guys at once…Anyway he came over to my parents house and fucked me in the ass, which is a good sign because we haven’t done that in a while, and its been three hours since hes responded to that bitch on Teens” (120).

Through these utterances, we understand that the females place their value in terms of their sexual function to their male counterparts, due to the saturation of sexual images in their digital world.

A major aspect of Shteyngart’s world which sexualises women is the practice of “FACING”, described by Lenny’s friend Vishnu as a “way to judge people and let them judge you. You look at a girl, the EmotePad picks up any change in your blood pressure. That tells her how much you want to do her” (86).  Becoming a futuristic male gaze of sorts, FACING reveals to the man the woman’s “fuckability”, “personality” and “anal/oral/vaginal preference” (86). Even more sinisterly, the practice also reveals any sexual trauma the women have experienced, “Walking past Annie, I clicked on her Child Abuse Multimedia, letting the sound of her screaming vibrate my eardrums as a pixelated disemobided hand hovered above an Image of her naked body and the screaming segued into what sounded like a hundred monks chanting the mantra ‘he touched me here, he touched me here” (90). Again, one wonders if this imagined technological advancement is totally inconceivable in our current society, with the rise of appearance-based dating apps such as Tinder being already a reality.

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Image depicting the dating app ‘Tinder’, from The Esquire

Eunice’s poor self-image “I know a part of him must be disgusted by my fat, fat body” (72), is at odds with the other characters’ sexual attraction to her, “a small Korean…who vaguely resembled a very young Asian Audrey Hepburn” (14), revealing how the increasing sexualisation of women, due to practices such as FACING, distorts their vision of their own bodies. Once again, this can be related in our own society with Manago viewing social networking sites to act as a “socialisation medium for three main features of objectified body consciousness: internalisation of culturally dominant ideals of attractiveness, body surveillance and valuations of the self based on appearance” (2).

From The Week UK

Shteyngart depicts a world in which sex, and the sexualisation of women, is deeply rooted in society through his depiction of clothing and technological devices which objectify his female characters. At times amusing, and at all times unnerving, these practices are not so far removed from our current society that we may consider the novel to be not so much a dystopian imagining, but a well needed warning.

 

Works cited

Huxley, A (‎1932) Brave New World, London: Chatto & Windus .

Manago, M. A, Ward, M, Lemm, K, Reed, L and Seabrook, R (2014) Facebook Involvement, Objectified Body Consciousness, Body Shame, and Sexual Assertiveness in College Women and Men. [Online]. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273307201_Facebook_Involvement_Objectified_Body_Consciousness_Body_Shame_and_Sexual_Assertiveness_in_College_Women_and_Men(Accessed: 26th November 2017).

Paul G Nixon, Isabel K. Düsterhöf (2017) Sex in the Digital Age, Abingdon: Routledge.

Ropelato, J (2018) Internet Pornography Statistics, Available at: https://www.toptenreviews.com/software/security/best-internet-filter-software/internet-pornography-statistics/ (Accessed: 24th November 2018).

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. London: Granta Publications, 2010. Print.

Subrahmanyam, K., & Smahel, D. (2011). Digital youth: The role of media in development. New York: Springer.

Wright, Michelle F. (2016 ) Identity, Sexuality, and Relationships among Emerging Adults in the Digital Age, : IGI Global.

7 thoughts on “Sex, Pornography and the Objectification of Women in the Digital Age: Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story”

  1. Carys,

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. In particular, I am interested in how the book deals with the link between sex and violence, as you touched on here. I was surprised that the novel failed to deal with the problem of rape or sexual harassment, especially as the society depicted is so focused on sex. It reminded me of the recent case in Cork, where a 17 year old woman’s choice of underwear was used as a closing argument in a trial about her rape – https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/this-is-not-consent-campaign-627476.

    Do you think that Shteyngart failed to delve deep enough into the reality of society to make a real comment here, instead showing the clothes and underwear as something harmless? Although choice of clothes clearly is not an implication of consent, it is an issue which has resurfaced multiple times, and one which Shteyngart failed to engage with. A review from ‘The Independent’ commented that, ‘these äppäräts, if pointed at women, reveal a “fuckability” rating which, coupled with a digital lack of privacy and transparent clothing, presents a satire of willing sexual commodification whose naked misogyny is both caricatured and disturbing’. This highlights the objectification of the women, as their sexuality has become a ‘thing’ to be sold or stolen, rather than something personal. This then strips sexual privacy of its legitimacy, as the culture is built around the concept that a woman’s body is something to be judged, and perhaps touched, publicly.

    Interested in hearing what you think
    Sophie

  2. Hi Carys,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, and I especially found your point on the sexualisation of children interesting. I think this hyper-sexuality surrounding children is extremely disturbing, particularly when considering the reality of it in the real world.
    The sexualisation of children and teens is all too true in the digital environment of today with social media outlets like Snapchat and Instagram, as well as the sexualisation of young teens and children in the celebrity world. When reading your post I remembered the controversy Vogue faced from the public when releasing this picture of one of their young models:

    http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/05/vogues-10-year-old-model-and-the-pressure-to-be-hot-from-cradle-to-grave/

    The familiarity of the sexualising young people is frightening, especially considering the implication of consent and protection for children. I agree with Sophie’s comment that Shteyngart failed to deal with the problem of consent, however do believe that this was purposeful of Shteyngart? In a current situation where rape and sexual assault cases are often dismissed and victims are portrayed as deceitful liars, do you think Shteyngart was merely showing readers a more intense and extreme version of the ongoing problem with consent and sexual violence in our current cultural and legal system?

    – Pelin

  3. Hi Carys,

    Your blog post was an interesting read, and I enjoyed the way you tackled issues of hyper-sexualisation, objectification, and internalised misogyny. As you have done in your blog post, it is important to be reminded that Shteyngart’s world is not unlike our own. I, also, agree with Sophie. When reading the quote you shared from page 27, red flags were raised, as I immediately considered the scene to be one of rape.

    That being said, I am confused by your comment regarding the quote from page 27,

    ‘Whilst the degrading acts referred to, ‘ass-reamed’ and ‘face-pissed’, are (thankfully!) alien concepts to us’,

    What do you mean by this? Sexual acts that are deemed ‘peculiar’ can be seen in the art work of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and most notably, Japanese Shunga prints. I believe we should not treat sexuality as taboo. Discovering our sexual preferences is a significant coming-of-age rites-of-passage, and access to pornography has made this all the easier. Even if what we are presented is not always a true reflection of reality, I’m of the opinion that we learn what we like by viewing, and not that by viewing we learn to like.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts,
    Kayleigh

    1. Hi Kayleigh,

      Thanks for your comments!

      I agree with you that there are sexual acts that are deemed peculiar to us today from other contexts, such as Japanese Shunga prints as you point out. However, what I meant by references in the text to ‘ass-reamed’, ‘face-pissed’ being peculiar, is that they aren’t accepted in our current Western society as common practices, as they are in Shteyngart’s imagining. I believe, as his world is a near future US society, this reveals his warning of how technological advances may act to sexually degrade and objectify women in particular.

  4. Hi Carys,

    I really enjoyed reading your post because I too wrote a blog on this novel and we have chosen to discuss completely different aspects of it, which is great!

    You speak of the sexual socialisation which is prevalent within both the novel and real life and I wonder whether you think this is a reflection on Shteyngart or is this a way of emphasising grotesque and vulgar elements to make a point? In my blog (or more specifically, the comments) I discussed how Shteyngart uses exaggeration to further his didactic point. Do you think that this is what this is? Or do you think that the objectification and sexualisation of women is a reflection of the author as a product of contemporary society?

    I also found it interesting, and something which I never considered, that men were less sexualised than women, specifically with regards to clothing. You have referred to this as distorting the vision of one’s own body. In my post, I discussed something similar and what occurred to me is that the presentation of one’s self on social media is not always the person that you meet on the street. In light of this, I wondered do you think that this is another fear that Shteyngart had about how social media changes a person? That effectively we will nearly become two different people, thus rendering the human as precarious?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    Stephanie

  5. Hi Carys,

    An interesting read. I was interested in your thoughts on the hypersexualisation and objectification of women. Something becoming increasingly prevalent due to the degrading nature of most pornography against women, as well as mainstream advertisements and movie posters which reduce women to body parts and objects for men.
    In our own society there are movements to become increasingly sex positive. However, some thinkers have considered that telling women to embrace their sexuality creates the expectation to be sexual. Making it increasingly necessary for women to feel like they must be willing to try whatever sex acts are expected of them. Therefore, instead of being a freeing movement about positivity, self love and self acceptance it becomes a new kind of cage for women – a new kind of sexism. Which is a line of thinking I believe we could approach this text with. How our ways of thinking about the sexuality of women, and the expectations we are creating for them to be sexually open could lead us down a dangerous path.

  6. Hi Carys,
    This a very compelling post. Your focus on the concept of sexual socialization places many of the novel’s most troubling aspects into new focus. The overt hyper-sexualization of women is immediately apparent in the novel, and your comparison of it to Brave New World and our real world is especially interesting. The early integration of sexual interactions, the degrading role they impose upon women, and the exposure and manipulation of trauma work to further objectify and subjugate the female characters.

    If this, as you suggest, is indeed a warning to our similarly (but thankfully less severe) hyper-sexualized society, do you think the novel is revealing dehumanization as a side effect to this relationship to sex, or is this hyper-sexualization a side effect of dehumanization?

    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Kendra

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