Crossing a thin line

This is my column today, September 28, 2014.
Anyone who knows a little bit about me will never use the word “conservative” to describe me. I have, in fact, been accused many times of being overly liberal, or of harboring unconventional and even revolutionary ideas.
Be that as it may, I must admit that I, too, was a bit taken aback by the in-your-face sexualization in the recent Bench underwear show held last week at the Mall of Asia Arena. I was shocked to watch the way a woman was tied to a leash and made to behave like a dog that begged to be rewarded by her male master. I also found the antics of certain male celebrities during the show risque.
Of course I am aware that the biennial event has always been less of a fashion show and more of an adult peep show – it’s about underwear for crying out loud and it features the best looking people with the most toned bodies in this country who, incidentally, work even harder to whip themselves into better shape for the event. Anyone who insists that they go to the Bench Underwear shows to appreciate undergarments deserves a whack in the head. They have never been about underwears, per se.
They’ve always been about something else such as asserting freedom, or forcing us to re-examine certain paradigms and perhaps even prejudices, or redefining the limits and boundaries of our own comfort zones, and stretching our tolerance around issues of individuality and diversity.
Okay, I’ll stop trying to intellectualize the Bench shows and admit that they’ve also been largely about sexuality and sex, themes that are not necessarily taboo in my book. But because the Bench shows are public shows, and since they allow people to bring in cameras and video recording devices, they must make sure to keep things tasteful, and more importantly, non-offensive.
The previous stagings were controversial as well, but managed not to offend people other than the usual groups of clerics and moralists. They were provocative, but in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way that communicated a sense of humor. They dripped of lust and urges, but somehow managed to balance things by being campy and at times outrageously flamboyant. I wasn’t sure the one last week kept true to tradition. There were parts that reinforced certain negative gender roles and stereotypes. In the past, the models preened and strutted, and yes, teased. Most still did, but some seemed to have strayed beyond the borders of art. Some people thought this year’s Bench show was lascivious, bordered on pornographic, and yes, sexist.
I think putting an end to the biennial event is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think the Bench shows did push social tolerance around issues of sexuality a little further and more importantly, encouraged more empowering attitudes towards human bodies. But there’s a very thin line that people need to be cognizant about all the time. This time around, they crossed it. Ben Chan needs to make sure it doesn’t happen again.


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