Sexism in the Media
What comprises sexism and feminism? Do sexist images in the media have an impact on women and girls? And, what are the broader political issues here? I am hoping that we can reframe the debate around sexism and nudity in the media in a way that makes sense for socialists. We’re all probably aware of sexist representations in the media from newspapers and magazines to the movies, TV and radio. For example, Rolling Stone magazine didn’t used to be a soft porn magazine, but it is so common now for female musicians to be in soft-porn poses on its cover.
Howard Stern, the radio DJ, is always asking his female guests and callers what they are wearing. Stern focuses heavily on women’s physical attributes for the titillation of his male listeners. We also see many movies each year where the female characters are there solely to support and gratify the male characters. Magazines often show only pieces of a woman, such as her legs, or torso so that women are seen as pieces of a human being, reduced to only body parts, which are usually hyper sexualized for male stimulation.
The currently popular TV show Desperate Housewives has a predominantly female audience, but tends to appeal to male viewers with story lines involving the women in their underwear or locked out of their houses nude. Soft-core pornography is the staple of many mainstream men’s magazines such as Maxim. In the past decade the decline of the mass movement, and the capitalist’s promotion of escapism, has been at the cost of increased degradation of women in the media. Women’s Movement
Webster’s Dictionary defines sexism as “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles” or “discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex. ” According to Webster’s, this word came into usage in the period of 1965-1970 and was modeled after the word racism, which itself came into use in the 1865-1870 period, during the revolutionary days of Reconstruction in the South. The timeline of the creation of the word sexism gives us an idea of the dramatic change in the consciousness of women in the 1960s and 70’s, which was directly influenced by the civil rights movement.
However for a word with such a short history, a mere 40 years later, capitalism is trying to make women believe that sexism no longer exists. In my research for this introduction, I came across discussion of something termed “post-feminism” which argues that the old ideas about what is sexism and who is a feminist no longer apply. That it is not sexist, but merely ironic, that naked women are used in advertising such as the TV ad where Nicolette Sheridan from Desperate Housewives dropped her towel in front of a football player to get more men to watch the NFL.
The idea is that women are now in control of their bodies and that to object to the use of a nude woman in an advertisement is actually an attempt to repress that individual woman’s sexuality, or an expression of prudishness, and not a comment on the exploitation of women for financial gain. The Repackaging of Sexism & Feminism Feminism is being repackaged and portrayed as a repressive police force telling women what not to wear, how to have sex and not allowing women “to live their personal lives without the constraints of a rigid ideology,” as one post-feminist writer put it.
On the positive side women, and especially young women, are more confident about their sexuality, but for some women this liberation is expressed through the assumption of some of the roles, attitudes and sexual behavior previously more common among men. This is what one so-called feminist writer described as a shift from the old ‘victim feminism’ to the new ‘power feminism. ’ In fact the shift is away from challenging the old male-dominated status quo and toward finding a place within it.
Christine Thomas in her article The New Sexism writes about this shift in feminist thinking. She writes about the recent trend of the increased acceptance of strip clubs and lap dancing club; “Lap dancing, it is argued, is empowering not exploitative because, when ‘dancers’ can earn as much as $800 a night, they’re often earn better money than the men they’re stripping for. As one student told the BBC’s Inside Out program: “I work when I want to. I make the amount of money I want to, and if I don’t feel like it I can quit.
No-one is pushing me to do it. ” “But contrast this with the comment of a regular frequenter of lap dancing clubs: “It makes me feel like a king to be sitting there with all these women surrounding me, giving me loads of attention. Nothing beats the thrill of calling a woman over, sitting her down and talking to her, knowing that if you give her money she is going to take all her clothes off. It’s great to have that kind of control, that power, and it’s an ego boost to have all girls competing with each other to dance for you. “However empowered individual dancers might feel (and of course not all dancers are well paid) lap dancing itself promotes the idea that women are not thinking ‘whole’ beings but body parts – objects available for men to control and enjoy. ” 1 This new ‘feminism’ also represents a shift from a collective to an individualistic approach to women’s equality. If a given woman feels oppressed, feels exploited, or feels demeaned, it is because something is wrong with her. Perhaps she is not aggressive enough or not motivated enough.
She has not figured out how to advance within the current system. When women buy into the basic concepts of capitalist culture, the new “feminists” imply, as many doors will open for women as for men and they will no longer be victims. The new ‘post-feminism’ also argues that the male dominated empire is crumbling and that more women than ever are now in positions of power. However, we know who these powerful women are: Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton, and Condoleeza Rice. They actually represent a step backwards for women’s equality.
Condoleeza’s promotion to Secretary of State reinforces the illusion that racial and gender discrimination no longer exists and that failure to succeed is only the failure of individuals to take advantage of their opportunities. Her work for the Bush administration is helping to increase the attacks on all workers, women and men, which in turn especially increases the burden economically on women. Her promotion represents no change whatsoever for the status quo and for the reality of working class women across the United States. How Equal are We? Women today still consistently make less than men for fulltime work in the same jobs.
In statistics from 2002, nationally women average 78% of men’s pay for all jobs. Among the highest paid professionals (doctors and lawyers) women only make from 58-76% of men’s average pay and they make up about a third of the workers in these jobs. On the other hand, those jobs that are predominantly occupied by women such as cashiers or child care workers; women make about 95% of men’s wages. But the average weekly wage for men and women is very low at $250-$300 per week. Also, traditionally unionized jobs like nursing and construction have higher average weekly wages and women make about 91% of men’s pay. 2
However, the startling fact is that in the Bureau of Labor Statistics information from 2002, out of hundreds of job categories, there is not a single job where women make more money than men do. There are also a radically higher proportion of women than men living in poverty in the U. S. For many American women, violence is also a nasty reminder of the inequality in this society. Estimates of non-fatal domestic violence against women range from 1 million to 4 million a year with nearly 1 in 3 women experiencing a physical assault from a partner in adulthood. Women have a 10 times greater likelihood of being victimized by an intimate than men.
Also, 33% of all women murdered are murdered by an intimate partner. In fact the leading cause of death among pregnant women is not complications from pregnancy, but murder. 4 The sexist representations of women in the media are a direct reflection of this economic and social inequality. But these images also serve to reinforce the lower status of women not only through showing us as a commodity to be packaged for men’s enjoyment, something to be controlled, but also by directly undermining women’s self-esteem and emphasizing the unattainable ideal of a ‘perfect’ woman. Up to 80% of American women are issatisfied with their appearance. Much of the marketing of the ideal woman is targeted at women directly. Women’s magazines, both in articles and advertisements (and it is often difficult to distinguish the two) carry a lot of ideas about the ideal woman. In addition 1 out of every 3. 8 television commercials carries some sort of “attractiveness message. ”5 Media Images and Girls The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reports that 82% of all cosmetic surgical procedures are performed on women. The most common procedures are liposuction, breast augmentation, nose reshaping and eyelid surgery.
In the years from 1992 to 2003 total cosmetic surgical procedures increased by 192% with breast augmentation increasing by 657% and liposuction by 412%. 6 Not only are women reshaping their bodies in record numbers to try and fit some type of female ideal, but girls are influenced by this pressure as well. Some 81% of ten year-old girls are afraid of being fat and 51% of 9 and 10 year-olds feel better about themselves if they are on a diet. Of normal dieters, about 5-6% will progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders. 7
Eating disorders often start for women in their teen and pre-teen years, and represent an extreme attempt to control one’s body. It may not seem such a distorted priority to young girls to achieve the perfect body through self-punishing starvation or vomiting when record numbers of adult women are voluntarily subjecting themselves to invasive surgeries. Now this process is being accelerated and normalized through TV shows such as Extreme Makeovers and The Swan. Here, mostly women are shown going through a series of major cosmetic surgeries.
In The Swan a prize goes to the best makeover. Capitalism sends mixed messages to women that only create anxiety. Their perfect woman is young, thin, and never has acne. However, the unhealthy food big business pushes at us makes this perfect woman even more unattainable. Not only do they profit from selling us this bad food, but the food itself almost guarantees that we will need to spend more money on cosmetics, dieting, surgery, or antidepressants if we buy into this ideal woman concept. We can’t talk about sexism’s effect on women without also iscussing its effect on men who are also damaged by it. From boyhood, men are sent the message that women are here for their pleasure and that they are primarily commodities for their consumption. If this idea is completely internalized, it makes men unable to connect with women in any but the most superficial way, and cuts them off from a deeper understanding of both themselves and women. Just as the oppression of women has forced women in general to develop a more skillful understanding of human relations, so too male privilege tends to stunt men’s relationship skills.
Also, for men that have themselves experienced abusive upbringings, it makes them more likely to be trapped into attempting to control women through physical or emotional abuse. Sexism and Capitalism’s new Moral Divide In the 1984 movie, This is Spinal Tap – the fake documentary about an English heavy metal band, a female record company executive lets the band members know that they have concerns with the band’s album cover. They feel that the image of a naked woman wearing a leash and dog’s collar is sexist. “Sexy,” one of the band members says, “what’s wrong with being sexy? ”
There is enormous confusion today surrounding this difference between what is deemed sexy and what it sexist in the media. The recent media hype around the Janet Jackson breast exposure incident and the uproar over the NFL commercial I previously cited are examples of how this discussion is being spun in the media: as the relentless sex-oriented focus of popular culture verses the purity of family values. In an era where some women are losing access to services that help them control their bodies reproductively, we are now seeing the control of images of women’s bodies as an issue in the media.
The new ‘feminists’ would have us believe that the ultimate control of an individual woman’s body belongs to the woman herself and so the images are not discussed in the context of sexism. The liberals argue that a woman’s naked body is no big deal and can’t we be mature and realize that it’s just a woman’s body; failing, like the guy from Spinal Tap, to distinguish between sexy and sexism. The family values coalition argues that it is damaging to children to be exposed to nudity and the subject of sex; making it appear that any outrage is due to prudishness.
The argument goes that these are the opposing interests in the discussion – leaving little voice for most people. Is it possible that this divisive construct is promoted by the media itself to obscure the real issue? The real issue is the exploitation of a woman’s body and sexuality for the purpose of selling products: magazines, TV shows, movies, football games. If we understand it this way, then we have a way to object to the objectification of women without falling into the trap of prudishness.
We can condemn CBS and the NFL not for showing us Janet Jackson’s breast, but for exploiting her desire to further her career and the captive audience of viewers to boost ratings, which in the end makes more advertisement money for them. Capitalism typically creates and exploits divisions for the purpose of undermining working class solidarity. Sexism undermines the solidarity between men and women. By failing to point out capitalism’s role in this issue, we can allow a new threat to class solidarity to take root. This non-class based division, created by the media, the so-called “moral divide. A New Mass Movement The current trends in the media represent a step backwards for women in the struggle against sexism and exploitation. This is another facet of the global phenomenon, regardless of gender, of working class people being attacked more fiercely by the capitalist class. The current onslaught of sexism, besides undermining class solidarity, also serves capitalism by expanding markets for diet and beauty products and for surgery. It also represents a huge drain on the resources of an individual woman.
With her self-image and self worth constantly under attack, it is no surprise that some women have fallen into an individualistic, superficial, self-absorption, spending less time fighting to change the workplace and the community. Especially with the failure of working class and women’s organizations to fight on concrete issues that are important to women. However, just as in the 1960s, a mass movement gave birth to the women’s movement and sexism even started to be talked about, so too a new mass movement of workers that confronts capitalism will also confront sexism. Working class women will be at the fore of such a movement.
In fact, women play a key role in many community struggles. LMV has been involved in the Campaign for Renters Rights a direct action group in which women took the leading role in fighting off Section 8 housing cuts. 8 In the 70’s we saw how differently women could be treated in the media with real stories about real women. There was a trend toward increased realism in TV and film including the portrayal of women. In the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore a working class woman who is a single parent stands up against everyday sexism. The central character is a woman who is strong, funny and insightful.
The scarcity of movies like this since the 70’s with strong female characters confirms the degeneracy of not only the popular media but of capitalism itself. Socialism, on the contrary, will not only achieve material equality between men and women, but also allow both men and women to better explore their own individuality, and break free of the base superficiality that market capitalism promotes. January 2005
References 1 Christine Thomas , The New Sexism, Socialism Today Issue 77 Sept 2003 2 The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex, 2002 annual averages. Domestic Violence Statistics, District of Columbia Coalition Against Domestic Violence at www. dccadv. org More stats from National Domestic Violence Hotline at www. ndvh. org. 4 Kim Curtis, Murder: The leading cause of death for pregnant women. Associated Press April 23, 2003 5 National Eating Disorders Association at www. nationaleatingdisorders. org 6 American Society of Plastic Surgeons at www. plasticsurgery . org 7 National Eating Disorders Association 8 For more on this struggle see www. laborsmilitantvoice. com