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At some point we have to decide if part of “gender equality” means sexualizing everyone or no one

Recently, I’ve been catching up on NBC’s comedy “Powerless”. In episode 8, titled “Green Furious”, the show takes on the idea of a female superhero being exploited by stereotypical male executives and media. However, the way they chose to deal with it made me wonder if they weren’t sending the wrong message.

Given that Powerless has been prematurely pulled from NBC’s rotation (essentially, cancelling the show), it’s likely than many won’t be familiar with what was going on in this episode. So, let me provide some context. This particular episode starts off with the show’s lead, Emily Locke (Vanessa Hudgens), defending Green Fury (Natalie Morales) from reporter’s sexist line of questioning before also saving her from a ball of fire. As a result, Emily is able to get Green Fury to agree to be a part of an add campaign for her company. You’ll have to keep in mind that this is a show satirizing the day-to-day life of regular people who live in a world with DC Superheroes. Anyway, when the day comes to shoot the commercial, the company execs have changed a tasteful, family friendly add to one where Green Fury gets her clothes blown off and is basically naked. Green Fury and Emily put their heads together and come up with the solution to have a male superhero, the Olympian (Joel Michael Kramer), do the exploitative shots instead. The logic is that he’ll do “anything to be famous” so, it’s okay for him to do the shots. The executives seem to be okay with the idea as long as they get a mostly naked superhero out of the deal.

Now, this isn’t a scenario that’s unique to this show. It’s happened before and it will happen again. However, here’s my big problem with presenting this “solution”:

This show chooses to have two women answer men’s attempts to exploit them by choosing to exploit a man instead.

This is a common “turnabout is fair play” scenario. My problem with this is that it’s a case of “two wrongs making a right”. In the short term, it just comes off as being humorous because it’s reversing the positions of the parties being exploited. However, in the long term I think it sends the wrong message. In an episode of a show where the two women are arguing that people should be treated fairly and equally, their answer to a situation shouldn’t be to exploit anyone.

Within the show, they give themselves an out by more or less saying that the Olympian character is willing to exploit himself to be famous. However, that doesn’t excuse the writers of the show from their choices. They are purposely choosing to write an exploitative scene into a show and using it to represent a “win” for women standing up for gender equality. In my mind, it paints a picture of equality that is a zero sum game. There is no way for both sides to win, one must be exploited. So, if women want to not be exploited then that means men must be. I’m not saying that it’s what these kinds of stories are trying to say, but I do think it’s what they communicate.

The real solution is to stop exploiting people

This is the idea that rarely seems to come across. The question that should be getting asked here is, “is it okay to sell things things way”, instead of worrying about who is being asked to do the selling. If you’re not willing to deal with that issue then you are always going to have the problem of people being exploited. Of course, the out to that is what the episode tried to do: find people who “want” to be exploited. I would prefer to get the idea into audiences’ heads that it’s not okay to exploit anybody, no matter what their gender or your motivation.

However, that does overlook the generally accepted idea that “sex sells”. There’s a reason that that saying has garnered so much traction: because it’s been proven to be true. By and far, people like seeing sexy representations of attractive people. So, how can you decry the idea that men want to see a woman with her clothes blown off in the same episode that you show women openly salivating over the image featured on this article. Again, you unintentionally send a mixed message: it’s okay for women to drool over men but not the other way around? The point should be that it’s either equally acceptable or unacceptable for both genders to ogle whomever they want. You can’t just make it seem uncouth when it’s coming from one direction and funny/natural when it’s coming from the other.

This is a common trend that I see, especially in comedy that wants to make you think that it’s promoting equality when all it’s really doing is slowly pivoting bias from one gender to another.