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Joanna Weiss

Shame, fame, and the body politic

Angelina Jolie’s leg, and arms, were on full display at the Oscars. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

I DON’T REMEMBER who won the best screenplay awards at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. All I recall is Angelina Jolie’s leg. Jutting out from a massive slit in Jolie’s dress, as she presented the awards in a dominatrix pose, the leg stole the show. It practically ate the Oscars. By Monday afternoon, the Twitter feed @AngiesRightLeg had more than 15,000 followers.

Body parts were all the rage at the Oscars, actually; a crop of mostly forgettable films upstaged by Jolie’s leg (not to mention her disturbingly thin arms), Esperanza Spalding’s fabulous hair, and Jennifer Lopez’s breasts, which spawned a new debate about potential wardrobe malfunctions. (There is also now a Twitter feed for @JLosNipple.) Our culture loves the physical particulars of women; at this point, the Oscars are less about movies than about the opportunity to gawk at actresses and their clothes.

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Yet as eager as we are to dish about a celebrity’s bare leg, we are strikingly prudish in discussing issues involving the bodies of real women. That dynamic was evident in Virginia last week, when a drama played out over a bill that would have required women who wanted abortions to get ultrasounds first. This is the new front in the abortion war: If you can’t change the law, try legislating shame.

Or, in Virginia’s case, more. Because most abortions take place in the first trimester, and because the ultrasound was meant to determine the fetus’s age, the bill would have required most women to submit, against their will, to what is known as a “transvaginal probe.’’ As in, a long wand inserted inside them.

The bill passed - and was almost signed into law - because people were afraid to say the word “vagina.’’

Seriously. It turns out that, as the bill wound through the Capitol, many legislators didn’t realize how invasive the procedure would be. The few who did were reluctant to get explicit. One Democratic state senator told the Washington Post that he didn’t want to utter the term “vaginal penetration’’ on the Senate floor, for fear of upsetting the teenage pages in the back of the chamber.

Really? They were worried for the children? Kids grow up surrounded by sex. By the time they’re 6, Mattel is pitching them on “Monster High,’’ a line of dolls dressed basically like prostitutes. The New York Times has declared this “the season of the vagina’’ on network TV, because the word comes up so often in sitcoms aired before 9 p.m. If conservative lawmakers don’t want to teach sex ed in schools, they can at least rest assured that most 11-year-olds know the names of all the sex parts.

They just might not know precisely what to do with them. In Savannah, Ga., earlier this month, a woman was barred from her church because she breastfed a child during services. The pastor compared her to a stripper.

In Virginia, it took the unholy medium of late night TV to help bring lawmakers to their senses. (Amy Poehler, on “Saturday Night Live:’’ “I love ‘Transvaginal.’ It’s my favorite airline!’’) As the bill started getting roundly mocked, more lawmakers overcame their squeamishness. Protesters emerged. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, once a champion of the bill, declared that he wouldn’t sign it after all.

Being forthright about anatomy was the key to victory. It goes to show the power of a body part. Even the ones on display at the Oscars have the potential to be useful. Jolie’s arms are a window into a discussion of healthy eating and body-image pressure. Spalding’s hair is a statement on race and assimilation. For all we know, J.Lo was trying to call attention to a worldwide fabric shortage.

Yet Hollywood remains ground zero for our weird national contradiction: Sex is fine for entertainment, but it’s strangely controversial when it comes to matters of health. We celebrate breasts when they’re tipping out of ball gowns, but not when they’re being used to feed a child. We glorify celebrity motherhood, but require stars to dress like sexpots within weeks of giving birth. Of course, Jolie was the centerpiece of the Oscars. She’s American culture personified: a pious mother with a stripper’s leg.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joanna Weiss.
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