The paper will aim to address the issue of the ever-increasing sexualisation and objectification of women in modern media and the idea that a woman’s worth is measured by her appearance and sexual appeal. It will also investigate the prevalence of various cultures that have emerged and explore the themes of power, gender and sexuality and the role that these play in the portrayal of women in modern media. This paper will address the suggestion that our society is one that encourages male sexual violence towards women through a ‘rape culture’ (Buchwald and Fletcher, 1993, p.vii). Certainly, it is both women and men who can be objectified and sexualised and yes, it is definitely true that both sexes can be victims of an erogenous media campaign. I suggest that it is women who suffer more so than men at the hands of the media: A media world whose influence in our lives is an ever-increasing one. I will look to address the connections between the notion of a modern woman through the eyes and ideals of the media, and the role that media plays in the image a woman has of herself. It would be possible to assert that the sexualisation of women in the media could be in part responsible for a modern notion of rape culture, where an objectified woman is seen as nothing more than fodder for the desires of consumers, particularly male consumers. As demonstrated in a publication by the Government of Western Australia [GoWA], when a woman is constantly portrayed in a sexualised way it makes it more likely that she will be seen solely as a sexual object (GoWA., 2012).
The paper is premised on the idea that the portrayal of women is hyper-sexualised, more so than the portrayal of men. If hyper sexualised is understood to mean a manic expression of sexual desire or explicit sexual themes, then through in-depth research of modern societal trends, popular media outlets and publications, it would appear that the prevalence of sexualised images of women is increasing. Journalists (BBC, 2007) and scholars alike assert that modern society has indeed been sexualised and that it is harmful to young children, particularly young and impressionable girls who seek older female role models to base their action or inaction upon. They put forward that society has been thrust into a culture of “raunch” (Levy, 2005) and indeed a “rape culture” (Farley, 2009). Through an understanding of female culture, this paper will argue that there is an unspoken vision of an ideal woman. She is unattainable, and yet a large percentage of media outlets would look to perpetuate this ideal. She is forced upon us through magazines, television advertising and music videos. This paper does not look to deny the existence of male sexualisation in modern media, nor does it look to lessen the effect that this has on men in turn. There is, of course, if one were to subscribe to modern media campaigns, also a concept of what it is to be masculine.
Though there are certainly many sexualised articles to pick from to underpin my research, there is not conclusive evidence that would suggest a total sexualisation of women in modern media. Unless it is known whether the sexualisation of women has increased over time, it would be an untruth to suggest that it is a solely modern phenomenon. I would look to determine whether this is indeed the case, that in these modern times of increased media outlets and avenues, the objectification of the female body has become more widespread. I will investigate other secondary themes, such as gender binaries and the role that these play in our idea of what it is to be a woman and to be feminine in the 21st century.
The media an undeniably powerful tool, one that can entertain us, shock us, and influence us. As Kilbourne points out, advertising is a 100 billion dollar a year industry and we are possibly exposed to at least 2000 adverts a day (Kilbourne, 2002). It has the ability to change the way we interact, they way we see ourselves and what we see ourselves as being able to achieve. This paper hopes to provide a view on women being shown to be dependent and weak (GoWA, 2012) and how this is perhaps becoming a societal norm.
Firstly, one must observe current studies that have shown to prove the existence of a culture of sexualisation and objectification of women, which is no doubt damaging to the societal role of women. Objectification Theory asserts that in media advertising women’s body parts and sexual functions are routinely separated out from her person, therefore reducing her to a mere object or instrument that exists solely to provide pleasure to others (Fredrickson and Roberts, 1997). Further exploration has shown an extensive, baffling array of highly sexualised advertising. When faced with a barrage of scantily clad women it is hard to deny the pervasiveness of the way in which women are portrayed in modern media.
Clearly, the young woman shown in this American Apparel advertisement (Fig. 1) is greatly sexualised. Her positioning is sexual: she is lying on what would appear to be a bed, her sultry gaze is directly toward the camera and beside her are the words ‘Now Open’. The woman is being viewed primarily as an object of male sexual desire, which Bartky would assert is when sexual objectification occurs (1990). Her body positioning serves no relevance to the text whatsoever and is a crude play on words to advertise the opening of American Apparel’s new store in Amsterdam. American Apparel’s use of female nudity has become a part of its brand. When American Apparel sell something as simple and benign as cotton briefs, it manages to become a pornographic display that seldom focuses on the underwear that they aim to sell (Fig. 2).
Increasingly in modern media, a woman’s worth can be measured by her perceived usefulness in a society where sex sells. New technologies dramatically increased our ability as human beings to communicate with one another, also increasing our abilities to share sexually explicit images and videos with one another, somewhat normalising our view on what is offensive and what is normal. A widespread access to media within our society is leading to skewed views on the representation of gender (GoWA, 2012).
Leading sociologists concerned with the portrayal of women in modern media (Hatton and Trautner, 2011) have found that the same stereotyped images of women are appearing in magazine advertisements, and that nude or partially nude images of women increased nearly 30% from 1979 to 1991 (Kang, 1997 cited in Hatton and Trautner, 2011). This dramatic increase in the commonplace nudity of women shows a common disregard for the sanctity of privacy, decency and morality.
Studies have shown (Papadopoulos, n. d.) that those who view sexually objectifying images of women in mainstream media are more likely to be accepting of violence towards women. This normalised view on female nudity, sex and objectification is clearly affecting the common psyche with regard to the treatment of women and a degree of sexual expectation placed upon them. The self-image of a modern woman has perhaps changed to a feeling of disappointment and self-loathing at the realisation that she will never be the ideal woman. Indeed, this ideal woman is tall, slim, has large breasts, and is free of wrinkles and of blemishes. Of course, she is also free of pores. (Fig. 3). Women are being constantly critiqued and notified of their somehow unacceptable appearance, be it their pores, wrinkles, grey hair or stretch marks.
If the women in modern media are shown as dependent or sexualised, it can seem unusual for them to be active, independent or powerful in society. This, according to GoWA, will affect both men and women’s ideas about which careers a woman might be good at, how important it is for women to be sexually attractive, and whether or not women should be in positions of authority (2012). According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it will take 70 long years before we have an equal number of women MPs and directors in the FTSE 100 (EHRC, 2011).
The sexualised portrayal of women in modern media often shows women as submissive and weak. This portrayal of women can often show them as lesser beings or as having less worth than their male counterparts. This advertisement (Fig. 4) is for a shoe, and was banned in Spain and Italy for showing violence towards women. Others complained that it glamorized gang rape, and is certainly demonstrative of Farley’s notion of a ‘rape culture’.
According to RAINN, America’s largest anti-sexual violence organisation, an American is assaulted every two minutes. Each year in American there are roughly 237,868 victims of sexual assault (RAINN, 2012), and advertisements similar to the Dolce and Gabbana one shown above (Fig. 4) would appear to glamourize or trivialise sexual abuse or a sexual attack. Similarly in the United Kingdom, an average of two women a week are killed at the hands of their partner or ex-partner (Department of Health, 2005). In a culture where the objectification of women is prevalent, surely it is our most popular brands and organisations that would look to affirm women’s position in society as an equal one? Seemingly, this is not the case. Returning to Objectification Theory, which posits women as mere objects with a total disregard to any personality or dignity they may have, the images shown serve to validate the idea that it is in fact true of most advertising that women are reduced to nothing more than objects of sexual desire, their purpose being one of sexual gratification for men. The effect that this advertising has on women in general is both conscious and subconscious. Consciously wherein we choose to purchase makeup, hair dye, or whichever other lotion promises to rejuvenate our old and unappealing skin, whereas unconsciously we are programming ourselves and our daughters to look at themselves through the eyes of a judgemental third party.
An American Psychological Association (Wilcox, B. L. et al, 2007) report demonstrates how sexualisation has affected young girls in an emotional way, and in turn impacts on their cognitive abilities to develop a healthy self-image. Children are faced with a bombardment of images daily. The charity Safer Media state that a third of children have been exposed to explicit pornography on the internet by the age of ten and that “the portrayal of explicit violence, sex and bad language are becoming normalised as mainstream fare, but research suggests they are partly to blame for violent crime and anti-social behaviour, family breakdown, pornography addiction and sex crime.” (Safer Media, 2014).
It is further suggested that this sexualised perspective of women in the media is becoming an internalised view. Young girls will increasingly view themselves or their bodies from an outsider’s perspective: ‘How do others see me?’, rather than ‘How do I feel?’ (Fredrickson and Roberts 1997). A woman’s relationship with the media starts at an increasingly young age. It would appear that there is a lack of accurate gender representation within modern media, which clearly has the potential to skew a child’s notion of what it is to be either masculine or feminine. As parents, we have reinforced for decades the gender bias that serves to perpetuate the idea that the sexualisation and objectification of women is the norm. We put our children in gender-suitable clothing, whether it is a dress or a football kit. Crespi puts forth the idea that gender stereotypes are indeed a predetermined mind-set, which starts as soon as the question is posed whether the pregnant mother is expecting a boy or a girl (Crespi, n. d.), and continues that “…traditional gender roles help to sustain gender stereotypes, such as that males are supposed to be adventurous, assertive, aggressive, independent… whereas females are seen as more sensitive, gentle, dependent [emphasis own], emotional and people oriented.” Young girls are encouraged to play at the miniature toy kitchen set, whereas young boys are encouraged to open the Lego and build something spectacular. If we continue to conform to these gender stereotypes by reinforcing them to future generations, then we will always be in abundance of sexualised, objectified images of women, which glorify sexual violence and passivity towards sexual abuse.
Instances of sexualisation and objectification affecting younger children are becoming commonplace. Children are witness to obscene music videos containing uncensored swearing and partial nudity, over-sexed dolls in fishnet tights and full-face makeup, and a wide array of prepubescent lingerie to choose from.
Objectification of female body parts has become a mainstay of modern media campaigns, as shown in this Nikon advertisement for their latest model of Coolpix camera (Fig. 5). The woman on the left is shown as less worthy or useful through her appearance. She has small breasts, is glaring downwards and would appear unhappy with her more humble chest in comparison to the breasts of the woman shown on the right. The woman on the right is stood upright, proud and pushing her chest out in a display of somewhat misplaced dominance. Whereas the old model has a mere 2 million megapixels, the newer model has a far more impressive 3 million. A woman’s self-worth is here reflected in the size of her breasts. In this advertisement, small breasts equates unsatisfactory, and bigger would certainly be better. A study by Evans and Chin (2003) found that it is indeed women who feel dissatisfied with their appearance, and are constantly comparing themselves to females who epitomise the ‘thin-ideal’ standard of beauty. There is too the notion of a real woman [emphasis own] as a woman with an abundance of curves. Tall, thin women may then feel excluded, that their genetics have not come together in such a way to provide them with this ‘real’ body as opposed to an invisible one of course.
Media sexualisation has also been linked to an increase in eating disorders amongst young women due to an inability to identify with the array of images they are presented with, and in a vain effort to achieve the appearance of an ideal woman, many resort to starvation. Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) posit that sexual objectification in the media can increase women’s anxiety about their physical appearance and in turn being evaluated on that appearance, which can oftentimes lead to a feeling of depression culminating in disordered eating. The Tom Ford cologne campaign shown in Fig. 6., is precisely one of those images. Firstly, there is little to no connection between her naked body and the perfume that she is displaying. The image is suggestive and provocative, and her purpose within the image is as merely a vessel upon which to display a bottle of men’s cologne. This again would show further evidence to support Fredrickson and Roberts’ Objectification Theory (1997), whereby her body is faceless therefore retaining a sense of ambiguity and lack of sense of self, and a blatant disregard for anything other than her body parts. In addition, despite the overt sexualisation and objectification of the woman in the image, a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring that no sexual organs are shown. This could possibly reflect a desire to truly show her as an object. Her sexual organs are not shown therefore she has no purpose other than as an object upon which perfume is displayed. The photographs, shot by infamous photographer Terry Richardson who more recently photographed a topless Miley Cyrus, were subsequently banned in several countries for being too pornographic (Hughes-Chamberlain, 2013).
In summation, I would certainly suggest that the modern media portrayal of women is a harmful one. Not only does it serve to alter our own self-image, it changes the value that society places on us women a whole. Through thorough research and understanding, this paper has gone some of the way in proving that the sexualisation and objectification of woman is certainly dangerous. If women continue to be portrayed as mere objects to fulfil a purpose, then we will continue to be faced with socioeconomic restrictions, particularly when reaching for the upper echelons of the business world and the political sphere. If the media sees women as nothing more than homemakers and child-bearers, we will continue to live in a world where female self-image and worth is dictated to by unattainable ideals, perpetuated by a male dominated industry.
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List of Illustrations Used
Fig. 1. Photographer unknown, 2006. American Apparel advertisement. [Poster advertisement] Available at http://fashionista.com/2011/01/american-apparels-most-provocative-ads-from-1995-to-the-present-an-evolution#awesm=~oEhOIc6xisFjsD. [Accessed on 13/05/2014].
Fig. 2. Photographer unknown, 2003. American Apparel advertisement. [Poster advertisement] Available at http://fashionista.com/2011/01/american-apparels-most-provocative-ads-from-1995-to-the-present-an-evolution#awesm=~oEhOIc6xisFjsD. [Accessed on 13/05/2014].
Fig. 3. Photographer unknown, 2013. Revlon advertisement. [Advertisement] Available at http://www.examiner.com/article/get-the-perfect-fresh-face-with-revlon-colorstay-foundation [Accessed on 13/05/2014].
Fig. 4. Photographer unknown, 2007. Dolce and Gabbana advertisement. [Advertisement] Available at http://thegirlrevolution.com/sex-violence-in-advertising/ [Accessed on 13/05/2014].
Fig. 5. Photography unknown, unknown date. Nikon camera advertisement. [Advertisement] Available at http://imaginetoday.net/2009/05/23/marketing-to-women-101/ [Accessed on 13/05/2014].
Fig. 6. Terry Richardson, 2007. Tom Ford for Men campaign. [Advertisement] Available at http://sharpformen.com/wp-content/gallery/controversial-ads/tfformen.jpg [Accessed on 14/05/2014].