21 Sep Nearly Naked Women & Chinese Electronics

I’ve been online a lot recently, looking for hardware and equipment to outfit the Houselove van — the van I’m converting into a camper for my book tour next summer, to promote From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story. Converting the van is a big project because it’s got to have everything in it—from kitchen sink to toilet, solar panels to fog lights.

So, in looking for equipment — specifically, an inverter (changes DC to AC power) — I came across this curious collection of photographs depicting attractive Chinese women regarding hardware in a provocative way. What makes these images notable is that the women are staring at inverters. Not drills. Not big machinery. Not your typical cheesecake fare. The effect is kind of bizarre.

On the one hand, it seems an indicator of where China is in the capitalistic mix: they’re still learning. They get the gist of the advertising ploy but not the heart and soul of it. It’s kind of cute, really. Yeah, I know, it’s easy to be condescneding to the new kid who doesn’t know the local slang.

On the other hand, it’s no joke. China has followed the West — with a large stride — into big-time prosperity and it’s trying on everything we Westernes tried on, including our sexist attitudes about what makes women look best: strip ’em down, place a big car next to them — or a little electronic gadget — and you’ve got gold!

The objectification of women isn’t China’s doing. These Chinese manufacturers are carrying on a practice that goes back a long way. Sure, we can point to the Greeks. Or pick on the Rennaisance Italians and their depictions of the Madonna — depictions that got quite sensual as time went on. But here’s my question: when did Western culture decide that women and tools go well together? Probably the early 20th century when heavy industry was in full swing and men had enough leisure and money to indulge in this fantasy. Most likely, it was a fantasy that caught fire during World War II, when the American military painted pin-ups on the sides of bombers. The combination of nearly naked women blazoned on weapons of mass destruction was, apparently, irresistible.

The legacy of that practice is widespread and incredibly hard to discourage. What’s with the silhouettes of naked women on truck mudflaps, for example? I never understood it. Do the drivers of these vehicles think that, by advertising their lust in this way, they can somehow attract a woman to satisfy their announced desire? It’s bizarre, when you think about. The only conclusion I can draw is that the silhouette of a naked women is talismanic — a primitive form of magic that certain men cherish in the wild hope that it will bring good luck (i.e., naked women) their way. It seems to come down to this: the naked, or nearly naked, woman as decoration — whether on a mudflap or beside a voltage inverter — is never just about the naked or nearly naked woman. It’s about certain kinds of aspirations that run deep, deep in the male psyche. It’s about acquisition and dreams of success and the fervent hope for miracles.

Never mind that no man would want his sister or mother or wife to be depicted on a mudflap. That’s the disconnect — because it doesn’t have to do with people, it has to do with something wholly unreal and unattainable. So that’s why, when I go online looking for tools and electronic equipment, I find . . . nearly naked women. Some part of me is amused and vaguely distracted and then disturbed by this, and I have to reminded myself that this magical, overly wrought, highly fraught image is more about the psychological history of men than about who they think women really are.