Giant boobs leaning down at us off billboards, phallic innuendos in ads for everything from Burger King to Tom Ford perfume, teenage boys hooked on lads mags and online porn, girls taught by everything from Disney to Reality TV that their sole worth is through their looks and value as a sex object, that life is a competition to be ‘the fairest of them all’, Paris Hilton and co. plastered all over magazines and portrayed on television as actual news, photoshopped models striking provocative poses in every second shop window, or every few pages of any magazine.
Are we living in a culture of sexual liberation for women as some might argue, or are girls being treated and learning to treat themselves as sexual objects, and what effects could this be happening on their development and life satisfaction?
Carole Heldman On Sexual Objectification:
Carole Heldman PHD, a prominent feminist blogger on sexual objectification in society has a pretty powerful answer to this question. On her blog she writes:
“Women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression, “habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, access to leadership, and political efficacy. Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.
Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women. Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths… Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual. If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon. Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.
Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others. At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up. Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.” (http://carolineheldman.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/sexual-objectification-part-2-the-harm/)
There have been a number of studies showing that on the one hand sexual objectification of women is on the increase, and secondly that seeing their gender be sexually objectified is harmful for women’s cognitive development amongst many other things.
A study titled ‘Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone’ found that hyper-sexualisation of women has dramatically increased while for men it hadn’t.
“A study by University at Buffalo sociologists has found that the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades has become increasingly sexualized, even “pornified.” The same is not true of the portrayal of men.
These findings may be cause for concern, the researchers say, because previous research has found sexualized images of women to have far-reaching negative consequences for both men and women.” (http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2011/08/12769.html)
Interview With Irish Feminist’s Network (IFN):
I interviewed a representative of the IFN named Collete, and here’s what she had to say:
Asked how big of a problem she thought sexual objectification is in our culture answered
“Sexual objectification is a huge problem in our culture, for both men and women.”
The next question was ‘What are the roles of media in proliferating sexual objectification in society? What impact do TV, Magazines, Porn etc. have on a culture of sexual objectification?’
She answered -
“We’re surrounded by media images for such a large portion of our daily lives, it’s almost impossible to escape from it. We get the majority of our information today through media, be it music, tv, the internet, advertising or magazines, so it really is incredibly important for us as a society to think about the messages we receive from the media critically. On a personal level, I find the phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ to ring true for so many girls and women today. If you repeatedly see women presented as sexual objects and not as leaders in a variety of roles and careers, it can be difficult to aspire to leadership positions as a woman. Only around 15% of our Dail representatives are women.
The 2010 Hunky Dorys ad campaign that featured women in revealing clothing, posing as rugby players is a good example of sexual objectification being used in advertising. When you look at how well the Irish Women’s rugby team is doing now, and how little media coverage and funding they get compared to the men’s team, it’s hard not to see a link between the two. Sexual objectification plays into seeing women as sexual objects, and not as individuals with their own experiences, talents and personalities.
We really need to see more women in positions of influence within the media sector in Ireland. This will lead to more accurate and diverse portrayals of women in our media.”
She added -
“A simple way to tackle inappropriate and irresponsible media in advertising is to make a complaint to the advertising standards authority at http://www.asai.ie.
The Irish Feminist Network have shown the film ‘Miss Representation’ in many places around Ireland. It deals with how mainstream media portrayals of women contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions.
Sexual objectification of women also contributes to rape culture, it encourages people to see women as sexually available inactive objects, and not as individuals with their own feelings and thoughts.”
Do you think that this culture has its roots in financially powerful media owners pursuit of money?
“I would agree to the extent that these issues can occur when profit is privileged over creating responsible content. However, there are plenty of examples of companies who can turn a good profit without resorting to creating damaging images and messages.
This is a point I have often heard made in criticisms of the beauty and fashion industries/magazines – i.e. that they deliberately encourage low self-esteem and anxiety in women in order to get them to buy products.”
In an interview with ‘Hollaback Dublin’ Co-Founder Vanessa Baker she spoke about rape culture in Ireland and Hollaback’s attempts to confront the problem.
“We’re trying to spread awareness that this is a problem. A lot of people we talk to either don’t think it’s a problem and say we’re overreacting or haven’t really heard of it and don’t realize how big of an issue it actually is.”
“We live in a culture that deems this kind of behavior ok, and its new that people are speaking out against it saying that it’s not just a simple ‘boys will be boys’ problem, or refuting people who insist that it’s a compliment to be catcalled, which obviously it’s not.
Society is set up in such a way that men are supposed to pursue women , and a lot of the time street harassment is less of a sexual desire thing than an issue of power and a group of boys trying to show off and assert their dominance.”
In Ireland Ryanair have received criticism for their advertising methods – In 2011 a member of their on board staff rallied together over 7000 people in an online petition to ask for the online advert, which portrays a member of the Ryanair cabin crew posing in a bikini, to be banned for sexism.
Ryanair also release an annual ‘the girls of Ryanair charity calendar’ displaying thirteen members of staff again posing in bikinis.
The letter read that “’Ryanair must stop using this demeaning advert or any other which objectifies their staff in such an offensive way.
‘You should be selling your service, not the attractiveness of your female staff. Were you actually hiring your female staff based on their looks, it would be illegal.’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2073488/7-000-ban-sexist-Ryanair-advert-shows-scantily-clad-crew.html)
But these are only one and two examples among thousands.
Sexual objectification is a disease that has spread throughout Western culture including Ireland, it has a wide range of damaging effects on a wide range of people and unlike some illnesses, there is no cure to be discovered except for people to cop on and stop disrespecting our sisters, our mothers, our friends and ourselves.
This blog might argue against the flaws in our education systems but there is one area where our bottom line obsessed society educates our children very effectively. In the same way as a perverse linguistic experiment might teach a child that the word for ‘love’ was ‘hate’ or that the word ‘pig’ represented people, and let the child off to see how it got on, our media (magazines, movies, billboards, books, mainstream porn etc.) teaches young people that images such as the one at the top of this article are sexy – That a young woman with no life in her eyes about to be fed with a phallic object too big for her mouth, is ‘sexy’. We are constantly assaulted with images conflating big boobs, generic faces, sexual promiscuity etc. with sexual attractiveness when true sexual attractiveness is not a characteristic of an individual but a dynamic between people combining looks, smell, humour, proximity, ideas, ideal, experience and so much more. And if you spend every day since you are a small child around this lie, you will learn to believe it, and think it’s the natural order, just as we learn to think our education system – a mongrel between a prison and a factory is natural and good, just as we took everything the priesthood did as the natural order, just as we failed to question the financial conmen who have us kissing the troika’s bottom.
A lot of people will read this and think ‘whiney moany feminism’, well I’m a boy, I’ve personally been around boys and men all my life. I know how many of them speak in private, away from women, and how many of them speak even when they are there. It is not natural that so many of us know multiple people who have suffered sexual abuse, it is not natural that girls can expect to be catcalled in the streets, it is not natural that women should be so obsessed with, and insecure about their image, or that boys and girls both see women as a sexual object to be possessed and acted upon. It’s not natural that boys grow up with a constant narrative of saving the world and getting the girl while girls grow up with the narrative of be ‘pretty’ and get saved by a handsome prince or be ‘ugly’ and well, it doesn’t bare thinking about. None of this is natural or right – it’s an imposed social order.
There’s definitely room for a couple of posts exploring in more detail the ways our children are brought up by media to think this way, and also the historical context for this happening, which as far as I know has a lot to do with the invention of agriculture and capitalism and their creating a hierarchical and materially unequal society in which men needed to consolidate their lineage and legacy, as well as women’s dependency on them. All for another day!
For more information misrepresentation.org is a fantastic site with a great documentary available on the stuff (I eventually found it online on documentarylovers.net, otherwise you have to order it or arrange a viewing which is a bit stingy on first glance, but otherwise maybe they couldn’t have afforded to make it, I don’t know). They also have an interesting campaign on Twitter called #NotBuyingIt where they call out sexually biased merchandise and get companies to change through the power of the people! They’ve had a few successes too.
So check it out, and if you liked this article please share it or leave a comment.
Mucho amore, Bernardo.