Feb 07 2012

PBS: Profiles in sexiness

Longtime readers are aware that hot flashes at 2 AM often oblige spinster aunts to engage in feverish channel-flipping. Last night, in the grip this plague, I encountered on PBS a riveting episode of “American Experience,” which series documentarizes and dramatizes the lives of iconic figures in American history. The subject of last night’s re-run was that Gay Nineties sweetheart of the Wild West, sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

The talking heads interviewed for “American Experience” were unanimous: Annie Oakley was awesome because even though she performed — shooting cigars out of people’s mouths and splitting playing cards in half at 30 paces — covered head to toe in buckskin, she was still one sexay laday!

Annie Oakley managed to combine both demureness and voluptuousness in her costume… She never showed any skin. Her ankles were never bare. But her costumes were form-fitting. She wore leggings under short skirts, so people could see the shape of her legs as she ran out into the arena… She was, in that sense, appealing to the best instincts in the men in her audience, men who were attracted to her sexuality while still not having to feel guilty about being attracted, because at the same time she was ladylike and she was demure… ” –[Paul Fees, American Experience website (originally misattributed to Joy Kasson, oops)]

It’s a good thing “American Experience” is on the case, guarding against the chance that sweaty midnight spinster aunts might accidentally think of Annie Oakley in terms other than that of dudely boners.


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  1. susanw

    Word. Lillian Smith, was perceived as the other half of the obligatory Madonna/Whore binary: brassy, loud, unrefined and perhaps promiscuous. If a woman dares to display extraordinary talent, she is under even more obligation to be non-threatening to men one way or the other; she’s either “just a little lady” or “just a slut”, but she has to be just something that takes the shine off her competence.

  2. minervaK

    I watched it, too, and had the exact same reaction. Nobody seemed to catch the irony, not even the women historians. IBTP.

  3. Discombobulated

    That quote is genuinely disappointing. I didn’t think I could be disappointed by idiot experts or commentators any more. I was wrong.

  4. lesbonaut

    That’s such a shame. Because, well.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/ 24884955/Why-Annie-Got-Her-Gun

    Also, “Without Shooting Herself, by Annie Oakley” has got to be one of the raddest how-to titles in history.

  5. someonered

    Just another reminder to any women in the audience of their status in society. By that I refer of course to our status as the sex class. No matter who we are, or what we do with our time, our looks and sexuality and youth is the most important thing about us, by gum. No matter if we’re an adolescent schoolgirl, a powerful politician, or a well-loved historical figure. The P absolutely must rate us according to our fuckability, lest we forget what we’re here for.

    My favorite is when people say stuff like ‘Own it, honey! Work it, girl! Use your power!’ Yes, because being treated like a thing (and not a person) is the very definition of power. It stuns me that people actually think that being the sex class is somehow a net positive for women, but obviously many people believe just that. IBTP.

  6. susanw

    Sex is always the weapon of choice when there is the slightest chance that a lowly women might be superior in some way to any man. Male dominance is enforced with Woman as Sex. Since Oakley and Smith could out-shoot most men, their function as fuck dollies gets top billing, even today. The sweet young thing is vulnerable because she’s unworldly, innocent and susceptible to trickery; the slut is fair game because sluts are common property. Either way the message is clear. “Don’t you get too high and mighty, my girl. I may not be a crack shot, but I’m a man, and I can fuck you.” I don’t only blame it, IHTP.

  7. Fictional Queen

    Hopefully a day will come when those icky gross penises cannot be weapons, let alone effective ones.

  8. josquin

    I just felt sad when I saw that that paragraph was written by a woman. The approving analysis of how Annie Oakley walked a perfect tightrope of the exactly correct convoluted complicated formula for being attractive to men in just the right way. How on earth is this appealing to the best instincts of men in the audience? It’s simply exhausting.

  9. Kea

    It was a bit easier to be sexaay in the old days. The generation before ours remembered rationing during WWII. No butter or nylons. So even when the P created the honky housewife ideal in the 50s, one could almost meet the standards with a nice dress, a little makeup, a permanent smile and an appropriate pout, at least where I’m from. Anorexic was not trendy. There was no question about how much time you spent in the kitchen, because what else would you spend most of your time doing, with your silly lady brain (everybody remembered the wars but somehow nobody remembered what the women were doing during those years).

  10. IBlameRonPaul

    She wore leggings under short skirts, so people could see the shape of her legs as she ran out into the arena

    Well, at least we know where grunge fashion came from now.

  11. TansyJ

    “She wore leggings under short skirts, so people could see the shape of her legs as she ran out into the arena”

    Here’s another fucking theory: she wore leggings so people wouldn’t see her legs while she ran around! In a skirt that was above her ankles!

    Not that it would be more difficult to run about and preform in a floor-length skirt, no, she must have been sluting it up for male approval! /sarcasm

    But seriously, that’s why I buy my neice as many pairs of leggings as I do skirts (she hates the feel of pants in general). So she can run and play and not have to worry about flashing her underwear.
    And because I don’t want to have to train her to sit still and never do anything that would cause her skirt to flip more than an inch over her knees (see: most of what we humans call “playing like a kid”)

    Side note: have you ever tried to explain to a 5-year-old why the whole world faints over the impropriety of seeing someone else’s underwear? It’s a difficult concept to get across, I mean, if you aren’t going to bring the rape-culture into it.

  12. Twisty

    What kills me is that what Oakley is wearing in all the photos aren’t “leggings” really, they’re half-chaps. Half-chaps are leather tall boots without the shoe part. You wear them over short paddock boots for riding, they provide grip and keep the stirrup leathers from pinching your legs. I wear’em all the time even when I’m not riding, they keep horse shit out of your shoes and deflect snake bites and pointy plants.

    Annie Oakley’s uniform is killer diller. Always a star on the brim of her cowboy hat.

  13. magriff

    PBS. Barf central.

  14. gingerest

    Hey! Waitaminnit! I just looked at the PBS website, and it’s not Joy Kasson who said that crap – it was Paul Fees, DOOD!
    What Joy Kasson said, which reads to me like a riposte to Fees :
    “She made her own costumes. That was very important to her. Was part of her desire to control her self-presentation. And if you look at those pictures carefully, you see the skirts are shorter than grownup women would have worn on the street… But that’s because she was an athlete. She was active. She had the short skirt, the bodice, the loose bodice. She had fringes. She had clothing that suggested the West. It was often made of something practical, like cotton. But she sewed them herself. She could move easily in them, and yet she looked respectable. She looked childlike. She looked very attractive. She wore her hair down. That plus her small stature — she was only about five feet tall — made her look like a child. And I think that part of her self-presentation as this skilled woman marksman was that she was at the same time sweet and non-threatening. She had the little pout and the little kick that she gave as part of her act. And her clothing was the marker that she was both an athlete but also a charming little girl.”

    Not a referendum on her sexiness, but an explanation of how a chick made a show centred on her skill with the profound power of firearms palatable to an audience that was all about keeping the ladeez down.

  15. K.A.

    I no longer dream of the day women are seen as real people. I only dream of the day when the whole world is at least feminist-fluent enough that we can all just say, “I hate when men always misogyngumblize women,” and everyone in the world knows that means we’re talking about harassment and BDSM and uterus ownership and condescension and rape and prostitution, and we wouldn’t have a million feminist blogs bubbling over in a digital underworld detailing the billions of fucking ways one misogyny plays out in the real world every fucking second of the day.

    ‘Til then? Good job, Twisty.

  16. Julezyme

    Blamers, have you seen this gem?

  17. qvaken

    Ugh. It’s inescapable.

    Even in this article, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2011/07/20/is-it-cold-in-here/ , about the uncomfortable atmosphere that women face everywhere just for being women. It goes so well in explaining how pervasive in our culture is the behaviour that silences and belittles women without even realising that anybody is doing it, and then it concludes with this: “Guys, why wouldn’t you do this for people you claim to value and respect? These women are smart, sassy, strong, and yes, sexy.”

  18. Sylvie

    Channel Four, UK, currently advertising a programme entitled “Mothertruckers” (hilarious, no?) about women who drive, what in the UK are called lorries, for a living. Cue pictures of poledancing and ballet shoes. The same Channel Four which in the late 80s gave us “After Dark” a late night open ended discussion programme featuring in one session Kate Millet discussing men and violence. How times have changed.

  19. speedbudget

    Have you seen this video?


    “When you compare women to men, there’s just not many sports where a woman can compete equally with a man.” I call bullshit. Maybe if sports weren’t so centered around men’s bodies and capabilities, that wouldn’t be true.

    “If he won, he’s supposed to. If I win, you know, I’m a girl.” Sigh.

  20. speedbudget

    I can’t even go on with the shitty comments in this video. If she was a guy, there wouldn’t be any discussion of “feeling bad” that she beats them.

  21. Twisty

    “Hey! Waitaminnit! I just looked at the PBS website, and it’s not Joy Kasson who said that crap – it was Paul Fees, DOOD!”

    By gum, you’re right. I have corrected the error. You can always tell when Phil’s on vacation.

  22. Rae

    “the best instincts in the men in her audience”

    “the best instincts in the men in her audience”


    I haven’t gotten any further in the article, but geez, if salivating over the buckskin-covered bum of a skilled woman in a challenging field is men’s *best* instinct, I’d really hate to hear about their worst instincts.

    Oh wait, I’m a radfem, I have.

    IBTP. Now to find a barf bag and finish reading that quote.

  23. tinfoil hattie

    @Julezyme: Now, if only the cartoonist had represented the majority of the world (i.e.,other than white people) in her cartoon, I’d be nodding in agreement. Instead, I’m rolling my eyes and sighing.

  24. Twisty

    tinfoil, the author, Tatsuya Ishida, appears to be a dude of Asian extraction. Asians are the majority, no? Also, the dejected bathroom door symbols are definitely not white. I think you can enjoy this one guilt-free.

  25. Kea

    qvaken, that woman is a funfem superstar, married to a hotshot physics dude and conviently ignorant about science.

  26. Plague #11

    On the topic of Sinfest…

    Yes, Tat is a Japanese dude.

    On the strip that was posted, at least in my view, the girl in panel eight, and the dude in panel 13 are probably black. The girl mostly because her skin is darker than the dude’s beside her. The other guy because the only tall males in the comic that aren’t established characters are black, with maybe one or two exceptions.

    Also, for anyone interested, the start of the patriarchy arc is here.

    This is the start of the Pebbles arc, and why ‘Nique’s shirt is torn at the start of the Patriarchy arc.

    And the start of the arc of the pink devil girl, Fuchsia.

    Warning: anything too much before the start of the patriarchy arc has general fetishisation of lesbianism, ‘hot girls’, et cetra. The earlier you stray, the worse it gets. Almost everything after the start of the patriarchy arc is cool, though.

  27. Comrade PhysioProf

    What is the opposite of “sassy”?

  28. speedbudget

    “pissed the fuck off”

  29. Kea

    Nah, speedbudget. Some of us used to be told that we were sexaay when angry. How about *in your face noncompliant*.

  30. Twisty

    How about *in your face noncompliant*.


  31. tinfoil hattie

    Maybe I really don’t have a sense of humor. Everyone in the comic looked white, to me. And I don’t feel guilty about white dominance, I feel pissed off about it.

  32. qvaken

    Kea: Is it weird that I found the fact that she’s married to be the grossest part of what you just taught me about that woman?

    Did she.. Did she take his name?? No, don’t tell me, it’s too much for one day.

  33. Kea

    qvaken, at least as a writer she still uses her own name. Notice how in that article she is all offended on behalf of other female non-scientists, who are of course suitably compliant, and not at all about the female scientists.

  34. Saurs

    Wasn’t there some amount of interpretation kerfluffle over whether said comic was endorsing feminism-lite or making mockery of it? I seem to remember a couple strips wherein the Feminist Lawrence Fisburne was bullying and fashion-policing other female characters, not being “sex positive” enough, and we were supposed to find her tedious and confrontational. Yes/no/maybe so? I’ll wade through my bookmarks to find the relevant discussion.

  35. Saurs

    I seem to remember a couple strips wherein the Feminist Lawrence Fisburne was bullying and fashion-policing other female characters,

    Like the first link provided by Plague #11, which I’d’ve known if I’d clicked it, damnit.

  36. Katherine

    Tinfoil Hattie, I recall a piece from somewhere (alas, I really don’t remember where) about how, in Japanese/Manga cartoons at least, the people we, Westerners, look at and think “but they are white” are how Japanese artists draw themselves. Depictions of Europeans are differently styled altogether. I wish I could find it, because it really was eye opening for me.

  37. tinfoil hattie

    What is the opposite of “sassy”?


  38. IBlameRonPaul

    Last time I seriously watched PBS was in the early 80s, as a kid who aspired to become the next Bob Ross. No joke.

    (Ok, I liked The Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, and all those other late 70s/early 80s kids shows, too.)

  39. speedbudget

    Oh, Bob Ross. How I miss him.

  40. procrastinatrix

    Oh, lovely, I’ve got the theme from 3-2-1 Contact going in my head. I needed that this morning. Thanks, IBRP! *Contact, is the reason, is the moment, when everything happens…*

    I’m sure I’ve not quite got the lyrics right–but that was a long time ago!

    Thirding the love for Bob Ross too. I also love Nancy who had (has?) a sewing show on PBS. Sigh.

  41. IBlameRonPaul

    I’m going to watch some kids shows now on YouTube. I’m too rageful to stop commenting on here, I said some dumb crap in one thread, and I used an ellipses. Yikes.

    Bob Ross, The Electric Company, and 3-2-1- Contact it is. Maybe I’ll do a little late 70s Sesame Street too, for memories of a simpler time, before I was aware of patriarchy, gender roles, and my inevitable growing up into a footstool and sex toilet.

  42. Frumious B.


    “Dad . . . Incubator . . . Minions”

    Ah ha ha ha ha ha !!!! *wipes eyes*

  43. Frumious B.

    @tinfoil hattie:

    Now, take this gently, but when you think manga characters look Caucasian, it is because you are looking at them through your Western viewpoint, and not through the Asian viewpoint in which they exist. Here is an excellent discussion:


  44. Frumious B.

    “qvaken, that woman is a funfem superstar, married to a hotshot physics dude and conviently ignorant about science.”

    That is an ad hominim attack, and I am not sure what it is supposed to accomplish. Is there something in the article that is wrong or poorly supported? I don’t think there is.

  45. Frumious B.

    How this could have been a better profile:

    Annie Oakley managed to navigate the fine line between madonna and whore. She never showed any whorish skin. Her ankles were never whorishly bare. But her costumes were patriarchy-compliant-ly form-fitting. She wore leggings under short skirts, so people could see the shape of her legs as she ran out into the arena… She was, in that sense, appealing to the basest instincts in the men in her audience, men who required her to be sexually attractive to them while still virginal, because at the same time she was ladylike and she was demure.

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