Tag Archives: objectification

Objectification: it’s no small thing

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I am frustrated. I’ve had yet another conversation with men full of rape apologism and no remorse. It all started, as it always does, with objectification.

Candidate number one is a repeat offender on this front – you could set a timer from the point he walks into a room and when the talk about women’s body parts. I’d estimate it’s about two minutes (max.) before something is said, and then he goes for it, full steam ahead. Today it was because of the Olympics, which is ironic, because I had just managed to sort of, maybe, get over the commercial capitalist machinery of it all and had been enjoying seeing women given an equal platform to men in something. (Ok, it’s been riddled with sexism – with women flying economy and men first class, and commentators getting carried away talking about women’s hair or over-masculine appearances – but I was trying to see some positives.) I will admit that this is the first time I have experienced a competition where the general public seem to be equally encouraging towards the women as they are to men, so that’s pleasing. And then the talk started about how you can Google Jessica Ennis’ bum, how she’s ‘really fit’ (British slang for attractive) except her shoulders are ‘just a bit too broad’ and her husband just isn’t ‘fit enough’ for her. People are ridiculous. This escalated to evaluating every athlete in the line-up on the basis of her appearance (‘oh yeh, she’d get it’). When I pulled him up on it, he said he probably spent 96% of his time talking about his perceptions of women’s sexual attractiveness. What a sad life. (Knowing him, this probably isn’t far off, either.) Funnily enough, I’m not interested in the minutiae of who he finds attractive (the list is endless, it seems) and why (this never involves evaluating their faces). Now, I could just write him off as an arsehole. But that isn’t helpful for anyone.

Because his opinions don’t exist in a vacuum, he isn’t a one-off and his attitudes have wider repercussions – especially when we live in a culture that fosters rape and does not punish it when it occurs. (You all know the pitiful conviction rates and stories about juries being biased by the fact the woman was wearing a skirt, and therefore ‘invited it’ – or whichever particular rape myth they rolled out on that particular day. For the Truth About Rape, see here.) I tried to explain how viewing women as objects, and therefore dehumanised, is one of the major reasons why perpetrators of sexual violence are able to commit their crimes. Because if you saw that woman as a well-rounded human, equal to you, considered them as someone you had respect for, you wouldn’t be abusing her or touching her without consent. I tried to explain about the normalising of sexualised attitudes to women in society (at least partially) accounting for the prevalence in rape. Objectification is by no means a small thing, happening in the private sphere without wider implications. Your attitude is heard and absorbed by the next person, and if it’s horrifically damaging, you might want to think about that. He wasn’t bothered, as long as he was unaffected (this is a similar argument that men who buy sex tend to make), and claimed not ‘to understand me correctly’. Basically, me telling him he held similar atttidues to a rapist slid off him like melted butter. So I’m afraid I have to come to the conclusion, sir, that you are not overly intelligent. It’s a no-brainer that women presented as sex objects, existing for the male gaze and not for themselves – with a life beyond men, relationships and sex – and the acceptance of this sexualisation as normal, is not going to result in a healthy societal attitude towards women. Because we are bombarded with thousands and thousands of adverts using this tactic daily – the estimated number we see in a day is astounding. We are also very susceptible to implicit cultural rules and norms, as Cordelia Fine explores in her book Delusions of Gender – even people who report progressive opinions, when their implicit attitudes are tested, are very affected by basic black and white stereotypes such as women = weak, men = powerful, women = empathisers, men = strategisers. We carry gender stereotypes around with us in our subconscious, even if we don’t consciously subscribe to these beliefs. What a silly world.

Anyway, candidate number two chipped in with his tuppence about how girls must like it when men comment on their appearance and how they can’t hear us anyway – they’re on tv. Hate to break it to you, but being constantly evaluated on the basis of your appearance is a poor existence. It’s pressure many constantly fight against, for fear of being found lacking when held up to society’s unforgiving standards of what is ‘beautiful’. Being scrutinised on the basis of appearance is a fundamental cause of many women’s insecurities with their body, resulting in multifarious psychological problems including eating disorders, self-harm, body shame and depression – it has all sorts of adverse effects. Women are trained to see beauty as success, but with beauty being so elusive and ever-changing according to fashion, we can never win this war. So we are constantly assessing ourselves as not good enough. This can also lead to us undernourishing our other areas for potential: by spending all that time, effort and money on the upkeep of our exterior, rather than our interior. In addition, I, and women in general, do not exist for the purpose of your visual titillation. So to answer that astute rebuttal to my points about rape culture, no – I don’t want your opinion on my appearance, I’m not flattered, and well, give me some credit, for Christ’s sake! It is conceivable that I don’t care what you think. To be fair, this is the man who told me that he went into a department store for the sole purpose of perving on the women behind the make-up counters, adding that he knew that’s why they’re at the store front, and felt it was the store’s fault for using that tactic to draw him in. (Funny, I’d just go with you needing to change your attitude to women, rather than it being their fault; although aggressive marketing using women is two a penny.) To add insult to the injury of him telling me this perverse story as if it were appealing conversation, he added that he had gone on the escalators for the sole purpose of getting an aerial view of said women on the make-up counters. He also mentioned their awareness of him looking. And he’d ended up buying two shirts because the escalators had landed him in menswear – this also the store’s fault. Now, the storeplanners are good, they may use the women to draw you in, potentially, but they’re not THAT good – they didn’t know about your debased aerial view technique. So again, I’d come back to you having the problem.

Can you imagine me, alone, in a room with these guys? This is how I find myself, no friendly boyfriend anywhere in sight to defend my side. I ended up, frankly, very angry and frustrated. Because I feel like I read so much sensible literature, I meet all these sensible feminists who know how badly sexual violence is dealt with in the legal system and by the police in this country (broadly), how we’re failing survivors of rape, sexual abuse, prostitution and so on. They know the stats, they know the facts, they know the reality – and often,  sadly, have the lived experience to boot. And then in an instant, a couple of flagrant misogynists can come along and make me feel impotent in the face of such huge societal attitudes and the mechanisms of capitalism clicking away and profiting off the mantra ‘sex sells’.

This is why it’s so important for us to all work together to say we’re not having it. I called these guys out, and I hope, despite their resistance, that something I said got through. We need to continue to do this in our personal lives, and we need to continue all the wonderful campaigning. Don’t let the objectifying bastards get you down! Objectification is a giant, massive, gargantuan issue feeding into so many others, it’s no small fry.

Gender norms are nonsense. Oh, and then there’s that hypersexualisation of women thing too.

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I’ve said this before but I often get to thinking about society and what we perceive as ‘normal’ in the here and now. I always find it all a little bewildering. Take this, from Armpits4August re: female body hair, for instance.

This recent trend (insofar as it’s become normalised for the vast majority of women living in the west during the c20th) has become so quickly entrenched that it’s easy to find someone who will argue that it’s more ‘natural’ for women not to have body hair. Armpits4August isn’t trying to argue for the superiority of whatever being ‘natural’ actually means but, de facto, it cannot be more ‘natural’ to remove naturally occurring body hair. Yet, for many, it appears so.

We do this all the time in society – do something really illogical, tout it as ‘normal’ and then condemn those that don’t fit in with it. Now, I’ve never been much of a conformist, but I would find it hard to dangle a dyed, hairy armpit out and about in my everyday life without feeling self-conscious. (This is what Armpits4August plan to do for charity, if you haven’t heard. Check it out here.) But at least I can see the banality of what I am doing in order to be ‘normal’ – and in this case, hairless.

My point is that ‘normal’ is just nonsense. Be whoever you are and all that good stuff. As long as it doesn’t harm others. And this is where it all gets a bit crappy. Because ‘normal’ is often really horribly harmful to certain sections of society. I bet gay people get sick of all the heteronormative nonsense all around them. And transgender people? The sheer amount of abuse they get from all angles – largely unaccepted by either sexes – is unacceptable and based purely on these randomly ascribed gender norms. And yet, in terms of women’s rights in the UK (note: in the UK), we’re at this point where people think we’ve achieved it all, they think feminism is null and void. We’ve fought the battles, now we can reap the benefits. As I generally explore, this is not so at all – there’s a lot more to be done. But it makes me wonder how we will look back at this time, right here, right now, in decades to come. Where will we position ourselves in this great stretch of history in regards to feminism? Will this have been a time of great change, or one of those stagnant periods where feminism was ‘uncool’ and ‘abnormal’?

Because what I see being accepted as ‘normal’ and / or ‘harmless’ in the supposedly ‘progressive’ here and now is, frankly, horrific.

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I really hope we can look back at this as a time where we made great strides against porn culture, rape culture, hypersexualisation, objectification – however you want to term it. That stuff, up there. Because it’s not doing anyone any good, whatever sex, whatever gender.

PS I really recommend reading Ms. Magazine’s 4 part series on sexual objectification  – what it is and how to respond to it.

Miss Representation – holding media accountable for objectification and misrepresentation

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California Gurls - Katy Perry

An atypical (and genuine) music video still. California Gurls by Katy Perry.

I went to see Miss Representation at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre last night. (Trailer here.) The message of the film is intensely powerful. To sum up, it traces how the media both reflects and shapes our society in a hugely powerful way. It shows just how much media we are exposed to daily and explores the representations of women in those media. The dominant representations of women as alternately bitchy, ditzy or a collection of body parts leads to highly problematic relationships for everyone. Between women and other women, between women and men, parent and child – who isn’t affected?

(Reading that back, I realised I had written ‘women and men’ rather than the conventional order, ‘men and women’. And it jarred as unusual language. Interesting.)

Given that TV channels, newspapers, magazines, publishers, radio stations – all media – are largely run by men at the highest echelons, it is men that are having the first and final say in what the media put out. And they are largely bound by the demands of their advertisers, who provide their sponsorship in exchange for their product getting airtime. In the case of magazines, the falling price of UK magazines has been reflected in the sheer volume of advertising inside. Editorial copy is now increasingly predetermined by advertisers who want to send out a certain message of ‘buy, buy, buy’ – or more importantly, not send out a certain message – of working on your ambitions outside of your appearance or your relationship to men. (Which they tie neatly back in to working on your appearance.) Here’s a typical spread from a magazine’s content:

 Marie Claire: Make the Most of Your Shape with Best Haircut for Your Figure – 7 Silly Sex Tricks That Really Work – Would You Marry for Money? – Four Designer Looks for Christina Aguilera – Get Beautiful Skin – Instantly – How Much Time Do You Really Spend Thinking About Your Body?

Advertisers have an interest in perpetuating unhealthy body images to women, because they are aspirational and largely unattainable. Without demand, products flounder. And the way to create demand? By tapping into women’s insecurities about their appearance – because they will never be sated. Unnecessary beauty products claiming to make you look younger, decrease wrinkles or otherwise impossibly transform your face and body can always be sold to those attempting to conform to The Beauty Myth. The film contained many shocking statistics about just how much insecurity there is amongst women – for example, 65% of women have an eating disorder. As a woman, where are we supposed to find material to read that informs us about what is actually going on with women today? Or even just material that interests us? I read The Guardian, but what about when I want something a bit lighter? I wouldn’t be seen dead reading any woman’s magazine.

Only 20% of newspaper articles concern women and girls. Mainstream newspapers are failing to contextualise stories about female survivors of violent and sexual crime as an endemic problem of society. A recent PhD study found that the vast majority of newspapers (tabloid and broadsheets, with tabloids faring slightly worse) report rape after page 10 of the newspaper UNLESS there is a sensational aspect to focus on that detracts from the actual events, such as ‘Husband kills wife after she changes her Facebook status’ (link takes you to Leveson Enquiry submission on this very story). Instead of focusing on the facts of the case, this prioritises social media’s role. The articles fail to mention that a woman is killed every two minutes by a partner or ex-partner. They often sympathise with the perpetrator. Essentially, the use every tool they can to downplay the gravity of violence against women on a personal and political level by misrepresentation. In my experience, men don’t want to face up to the problem of sexual violence because they feel somehow implicated. They feel tarred with the same brush as rapists when they see how terrible the statistics are. The problem is, they are implicated. Any good person keeping silent is a huge problem. Keeping silent about sexual violence adds to an atmosphere where rape myths perpetuate and misogynistic attitudes go unchallenged. And funnily enough, rapists and wife murderers tend to hold attitudes of women as inferior to them and as having a set gender role which they must stick to. So allowing such views to go unchallenged does implicate you. That goes for both men and women. (See this fascinating blog post for more.)

Essentially, it comes back to capitalism and consumerism. What sells, or what the advertisers want to sell. Celebrity stories are cheaper than weighty news stories so we see more and more of them packaged as ‘news’. Only 22.6% of national UK newspaper journalists are women, so the stories are likely to come from a male perspective. Capitalism is about making money, not about social responsibilty. In America, there are hundreds of TV channels competing for attention – so they go for the most outrageous content. News channel guests shout and bellow to get heard and confuse opinion with fact. Music channels bid to air new videos by popular artists first, regardless of their feelings about its sexual content. There is also no watershed in America, so all of these messages are seen and consumed by children of all ages. Miss Representation’s terrifying montage of images is depressing – woman after woman in a state of undress, on tv programmes, in music videos, in advertisements. It shows Hilary Clinton’s portrayal as a bitch and Sarah Palin’s portrayal as a ditz. Both were undermined by either being too masculine or too feminine in their approach. Both were taunted about their appearance – Clinton for being haggard and Palin for being attractive. How can they win when both ways are wrong? Both were made to comment on this alongside their policies, while men were left to talk about their actual jobs, without reference to their appearance. Clinton was followed by people holding signs and interrupting her speeches with the slogan ‘Iron my Shirt’. I mean, what kind of world is this really? The US is supposedly the most powerful country in the world and it does not take women politicians seriously. Only 17% of congress are women and 22% of UK parliament are women. The figure in Afghanistan, most dangerous country in the world for women? Twenty seven percent. 5% more than the UK and a full 10% more than the US. Does that not say something huge about the state of the world? Women are 51% of society, but the world is run by men largely ignoring their issues.

Back to the media. How about Hollywood? Hugely influential – obviously. Well, have you heard of the Bechdel test? See how many films you can name off the top of your head that pass the following test:

1. It has to have at least two named women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
It might be harder than you think. Only 16% of all films contain a female protagonist. And most of those show her attempting to find love, rather than any other type of fulfilment. Love is great, obviously. But women do other things than sit around trying to find a man. Not reflecting that in our films allows other media and general society to legitimately ignore women as well-rounded people or as more than [half-naked] window dressing for a man’s story. It relegates us to the Second Sex, with the men as the primary, ‘normal’ mode of being. (Sorry, Simone de Beauvoir moment there.)
So, how much role does the media play? Huge amounts. We need to see more women lauded for their achievements, to give young girls positive role models and give young men a rounded picture of different types of women. We need to represent society as it actually is onscreen. We need to get government to make media be socially responsible. Because it’s all just gone way, way too far. If you’re not convinced of how bad it can be check out this advert calling for organ donors:

Organ donation ad objectifying women to attract male donors

Enough said, really.

Find a screening of Miss Representation here. Follow them on Twitter here. Sign up to be notified when the DVD comes out here.

The Sun and the misrepresentation of women

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English: Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Murdoch at t...

Image via Wikipedia

Who knows what Rupert Murdoch, Dominic Mohan et al. are really up to behind closed doors at News International? However, one thing’s for sure – as more and more details about the hacking scandal come out, it’s not a pretty picture that’s emerging. As far as I’m concerned, The Sun is no more than a glossy magazine dressed up as a newspaper; the only difference being that sometimes the content is about current affairs rather than what so-and-so wore to the Oscars. I say ‘sometimes’ because on the day of writing, The Sun’s front page headline is ‘Girl Eats 4,000 Sponges’. I didn’t read the rest of the article, because needless to say, it looked like codswallop. Utter rubbish. However, despite my reservations about giving The Sun’s official website yet more traffic, in the name of research I thought I’d check out this story that was clearly so world-defining that it made the front page ahead of say, ooh I don’t know, genocide in Syria? (Out of interest, I googled what stories The Guardian was running on the same day and the second from top was James Murdoch being removed from News Corp’s board – oh, the delicious irony.) The offending article was actually rather long for a Sun article, and gave quite in-depth coverage of the girl in question’s addiction to eating objects that are not food (a condition called pica apparently). However, I really don’t think it was about raising awareness of how miserable pica can be. In all honesty, the article looks mostly like an excuse to profile a young girl that fits the mould of what Sun readers would probably deem attractive – and then feature multiple photos of her provocatively posing with sponges. Bizarre, yes; surprising, no. Any excuse to sexualise, however mildly, and The Sun are there, loud and proud.

Dominic Mohan recently told the Leveson Enquiry that the daily page three photograph of a nude woman was ‘meant to represent […] youth and freshness’ and ‘celebrate natural beauty’ and amounted to an ‘innocuous British institution’, despite four woman’s groups with expertise in rape and domestic abuse claiming they believe the pictures are damaging to the general perception of women in society, and therefore to their equality. During the Leveson enquiry submission by the aforementioned women’s groups, Anna Van Heeswijk of Object said of the disparity in reporting standards for women and men:

We have to think about what kind of story this tells when they see men in suits, in sports attire, men as active participants and subjects, and women as sexualised objects who are naked or nearly naked on every page in the case of the Sport.

It’s more harmful to have these images in mainstream newspapers because of the normalising effect it has.

This is the key here. The Sun is a huge newspaper. According to Wikipedia, ‘It has the tenth-largest circulation of any newspaper in the world and the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in the United Kingdom.’ It sold approximately 2.7million copies a day in 2011. It therefore has a responsibility to the public not to propagate unhelpful portrayals of women. Page three, and depictions of women throughout the The Sun, showcase us as primarily sex-objects, instead of celebrating our achievements as people. Perhaps The Sun ought to re-address their definition of the word ‘innocuous’. Pre-watershed boobs? This can only be described as pornography. (Definition: ‘writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement’.) Yes, these pictures are there to titillate the gentlemen reader. They serve to pander to his whim of wanting to legimitately see naked women without feeling ashamed of it. They serve to normalise looking at such images in public spaces, in front of strangers, in front of colleagues… What about the large demographic of female Sun readers? How do they feel about it? They probably don’t want to question it in case of being labelled a prude. Equally, they may not even question it at all, because we are so used to this ‘institution’. Boys will be boys and all that. Usually the word is institution is used for a long-standing tradition that serves some purpose. This particular ‘institution’ of nudity serves no other purpose than to show a one-sided view of women. And no, I don’t want any children of mine exposed to that by accident in a newsagents.

I don’t mean to diminish the condition the girl on the front page suffers from, but check out this quote concerning the eating of soap and sponges:

I’m so proud she has worked hard to fight this condition and is recovering through counselling. She is really brave to talk about it so openly.

These are the kinds of sympathetic quotes it would be great to see The Sun print about survivors of serious crimes, such as rape. Instead, The Sun is known for trivialising serious crime against women by choosing pictures of the women in question in scantily clad outfits to accompany the articles. In addition, when challenged, The Sun and all of its might launches full pelt into attack. When Clare Short questioned the place of page three in a newspaper available for purchase by children, they notoriously (albeit under previous a Editor) labelled her – on the front page no less – as ‘fat’ and ‘jealous’, claiming it would be ‘impossible’ to make her into a page three girl. The presumption here is that there is intrinsic value in being attractive rather than having a value system and something to stand up for as Clare Short did. Yes, it would be impossible for Clare Short to be a page three model. Because she has better things to do with her time! I’m afraid it is attitudes like this, that trump atttactiveness over any other characteristic for women, which make rape victims less likely to report their attack.

If a woman has been raped and looks around her for support, what will she see? Perhaps she will find a rape helpline, or the shoulder of a friend to lean on. Perhaps she will walk past a newspaper stand and perceive that the dominant voices of society, such as The Sun, are only proposing one view of women – as half-clothed and posing for men’s gaze. Perhaps she will then feel that it is inevitable that she is treated as a sex object and that she cannot fight the ‘powers that be’. In the vulnerable position of being a victim of crime, women need to feel they are valued as more than the sum of their body parts. Media portrayals of women that are significantly different to portrayals of men reflect inequality in our society. Why is there no page three man? Because it was trialled and failed. Why? Because men are widely accepted as being more than sex objects. Women are only sometimes accepted in this way. And this makes women feel less secure that they will be taken seriously in reporting crimes. Unfortunately, it is often the case that prejudice is present in our police system and reported rapes are not properly dealt with, but that is for another post. Either way, crimes should still be reported so that we have a more accurate idea of the scale of the problem. Currently, we can only guess at the number of rapes committed.

The Sun is certainly doing women no favours at being taken seriously for their merits in clothing. It’s certainly doing women’s self-esteem no favours by portraying only one type of ‘ideal’ body. It’s certainly doing nothing for survivors of serious crime that are unsure how they will be received. I, for one, would like to see that change. Are you with me?

You can support the Turn Your Back on Page 3 campaign here.