Of rice and men

Of rice and men

Date: December 9, 2010
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Multi-millionaire, Kenny Kunene, celebrated his 40th birthday party in style when he hired five models to wear lingerie, cover themselves in body paint, and one model, to lay half-naked with sushi strategically placed over her markedly unpainted body.

What might have only been just another “gig” for these models marked a bourgeois show of wealth and abandon for Kunene. And the media have eaten it up.

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has criticised Kunene for “spitting in the face of the poor” by spending R700,000 on this lavish spread. But aside from “spitting in the face of the poor,” what about spitting in the face of women? Or, in this case, possibly drooling on their thighs and stomach?

Vavi stated: “It’s the sight of these parties where the elite display their wealth, often secured by questionable methods, that turns my stomach.” Vavi never once cited women’s rights or gender equality in this outpouring of disgust.

Kunene responded to Vavi, stating apartheid and race as arguments for his actions: “You say that my so-called R700,000 party is a “corruption of morality” and that I’m “spitting in the face of the poor”…You remind me of what it felt like to live under apartheid: you are telling me, a black man, what I can and cannot do with my life,” he said. “You are narrow-minded and still think that it’s a sin for black people to drive sports cars or be millionaires at a young age. You make my stomach turn.”

In all of this, it seems that socio-economic issues and the oppression of blacks is more important that the ever-consistent oppression of women. I would even argue that the “struggle” that Vavi nobly fights excludes women. While Kunene might feel he is staking a claim on his rights, these women are merely decorations and serving platters in the world he has created to prove his arrival to the international elite.

In the issues raised here, nowhere is there mention of gender. The correspondence between Vavi and Kunene could merely be seen as two boys fighting over the right to show off their trinkets – women being one of them.

What next? Women as furniture? Frankly, I would not be surprised. What might seem to be a “black comedy” (this is not a racial attack Mr. Kunene) has turned into reality. The farce of such a matter of events, merely a woman’s reality, and in many cases, all she can aspire to be.

And where is the responsibility of the media in all of this? Why has the media published this smut? Sure, it is sensational, and will undoubtedly generate revenue in a troubled economy, but in re-posting this photo over and over, it has only exacerbated the status of women as objets d’art. Further, with all of the problems facing South Africa, is there nothing more newsworthy to be reported?

While Kunene has aspired to shout his “accomplishments” from the rooftops, the media has taken this yawp and broadcast it through a megaphone for all to hear.

The media recorded that one of the models stated she was just “doing her job”. Echoing this sentiment, in a comment posted in The Times online, Abdul Milazi states: “I don’t see anything wrong with a woman getting paid for having sushi served on her naked body – it’s job creation and models have rent to pay, nails to pain(t) [sic.] and fake hair to buy.”

I personally vacillate on my ideas about feminism: on one hand I agree with many opinions advanced by pro-sex positive feminists, but on the other I also agree with some of the opinions of the anti-pornography movement. Women should be free to engage in, or promote, their sexual expressions (excluding rape or violence), without limitation or judgement, lest we fall into the age old Madonna/Whore dichotomy. Women are certainly entitled to pose nude, or to dress suggestively, as long as it comes from a place of personal empowerment. Such choices should not impose on a woman’s ability to be “moral”, “intelligent” or “good.” We should not have to dress like men, or be like men, to be respected, and we do not all have to wear skirts far below the knee.

Yet what happens when these expressions of freedom are taken away from women, and are twisted and viewed through another, objectifying lens? How do we know when a woman is expressing her freedom, or merely conforming to what fashion magazines dictate? How much choice is even in this so-called freedom when it exists in a primarily male, heterosexual paradigm?

The reality is, everywhere from advertisements to fashion magazines to the Google image search of “women”, we see the female body propped up and airbrushed for the male voyeur. This kind of conspicuous consumption of women goes so far back its roots are of mythical proportions. Women throughout antiquity have often been viewed as sex objects, pushed and pulled by the demands of the popular culture of the time. Women have had to cover up their bodies, expose their bodies, remove parts of their bodies (in the case of female genital cutting), and add to their bodies (such as through breast augmentation). Now, apparently, have sushi eaten off of their bodies.

Based on the attitudes expressed by both Kunene and Vavi, discourse such as the above is so far off their radar that a man can argue in favour of his wealth by mentioning champagne and fancy cars, while neglecting to see the women that were literally bought via the same funds. The rights of women amidst this cheesy ersatz opulence are so far gone, that there is no recognition by either men that the women, or their rights, even existed.

Jennifer Elle Lewis is the Gender and Media Diversity Centre Manager at Gender Links. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za


0 thoughts on “Of rice and men”

Maria Hayati says:

It seems that men are obsessed by the potlatch-custom, venturing in such lengths that they feel the need to objectify their female counterparts. The women say it is their work, which it is, since it caters to a certain need or niche.
Women should work to support themselves and their families, together with their male counterparts. This would be an ideal in an Utopian society. However we are living in a the real world with perhaps too much freedom.

I encourage women to participate in the engaging in a society having too much freedom. They should stand up and do things they like, without being discriminated or hated upon by members of their society. Personally I think the American porn industry has had a great influence in the way how people objectify women. The showing of potlatch in American rap videos isn’t helping the female gender gain the respect she deserves.

Jennifer says:

Good comment Maria. Yes. I also argue that the internet has aided in the consumption of women. I also feel it is a shame that women cannot be as “free” as they would like: be it posing nude, or wearing short skirts, without attracting the wrong kind of attention which then undermines their own expressions of joy.

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