Category Archives: Gender Stereotyping

Fox News: No.

I had no idea that Fox News had decided to not only tackle the issue of feminism, but that in doing so, they would categorize it as a “Health” topic. (This is the same site that recently posted an article by a psychiatrist saying our biggest concern were Newt Gingrich to become President would be another country “falling in love with him” and begging him to come lead them instead of the United States. So, you know, keep that in mind.) I personally think the adoption of a feminist mindset can improve one’s mental health, but unsurprisingly, this was not Fox News’ intent in presenting the article I’m about to address (again, brought to my attention by Stephanie). The article was posted two years ago and they seem to have cross-posted this from AskMen.com, a site whose history of misogyny and degradation has been documented by a fellow About-Face contributor.

5 Feminist Demands She Wants You to Ignore hits the viewer with a most beguiling shot of a woman with obviously…supplemented breasts, ostensibly begging you to ignore any “demands” she makes for equality and respect. The first “demand” to ignore, while not articulated, given the intense cosmetic restructuring of her chest, may be “confirm the beauty of my natural self and do not reward silicone implantation.” (I will soon in the future write a post about how the claim “they’re for me” in regards to a woman getting breast implants is not a sustainable argument since one does not gaze for hours in distaste at their own breasts and determine they fall short of beauty unless they have been conditioned to think that their breasts, for whatever reason, do not fall within the confines of socially determined acceptability and attractiveness.)

Moving on. When you’re a man out on the prowl, you’re going to encounter some “independent ladies,” the article warns. (Independent ladies is put in quotes to make sure you understand, as the male reader, that independence is tenuous at best, for show, a joke, an adjective easily swept aside by a proper man.) Sexy feminists aren’t “entirely false” (thank you, Fox, and AskMen, for validating our sexuality), but you still must tread carefully – because as women, we never “ask for what we really want.” An entire gender rooted in the goal of misguided and cloaked communication. What to do?

Number one demand feminist want you to ignore: “I can carry my own bag.” Little to be said here because I have never heard a woman actually say this, but also because being polite and helping someone if they’re carrying quite a burden is not actually an issue that needs to gendered. Feminists never did gender this, the claim of “I can carry my own bag” was picked up as a mocking of women who wanted recognition of the fact that they weren’t helpless.

Number two: “Don’t objectify me!” This goes hand in hand with my opener. Of course, this has been misappropriated over and over again by anti-feminists, or those who want to warp the message. Paying someone a compliment is not objectification, which is how this ‘article’ is defining it – objectification is equating the person’s worth with what you see. If the compliment of her looking great in her dress means that looking great in a dress is all she does/is, then that’s a problem. Also, straight up calling women liars if they aren’t impressed by compliments about their appearance is a great way to puff up one’s ego, but trust me – there are plenty of women who really don’t care what your thoughts are about their looks.

Number three: “I’ll pay my share.” Misses the point entirely – first, a woman’s vested interest in keeping a relationship financially balanced is different than treating your girlfriend to an expensive dinner sometimes. Especially because they insist that if she doesn’t return the favor by treating you sometimes (ahem…sort of like splitting the cost? In essence…paying her share?), then you should withhold such a generous gift (and I guess have her pay her share?). Playa’.

Number four: “I can think for myself.” This one is great. Even “high-powered women want men to take the reins sometimes,” which to the authors means…thinking ahead about dinner plans? I love that taking the reins means making sure you know what you want to have for dinner. Not even making dinner. Just…knowing what you want to eat. If this is what it means to wrest control from women who are thinking for themselves, I encourage women everywhere to resist.

Number five: “I won’t be shackled into a marriage.” The authors admit that there are apparently “exceptions” to the steadfast rule that women want to be married and instead of acknowledging that both men and women may have changing and evolving priorities, they encourage readers to merely brush off a woman’s thoughts on this matter if they initially refute the general equation of ring/house/baby that will ultimately overcome these ladies.

It goes without saying that this is a heteronormative perspective, not only strictly defining what is ‘female’ and what is ‘male,’ but also emphasizing that women are feminine and men are masculine, and, you know, case closed. Interestingly, they claim at the end that “gender roles evolve everyday.” Which would make one think that the entire preceding article was, indeed, unnecessary at best. Of course, they then close with: “women are a complete contradiction in terms and that’s one thing they’re likely to never evolve out of – like men and leaving the toilet seat up. We all have our crosses to bear.” There you have it! Women can’t make up their mind and never know what they mean, and men are just disgusting. Why resist nature? Thanks for clearing this all up, Fox News. I can always count on you.

3 Comments

Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Media, Mental Health, Sexism

I’m Rarely Speechless.

But I was reminded of an instance this past fall when I was. You know what’s one of my least favorite things to witness? People in positions of power, authority or supposed trust mocking those who come to them for help, advice, guidance, or wisdom. Last year, there was a pretty striking example of this in Spain, which got a fair amount of attention abroad but received minimal coverage here in the States. It was brought to my attention by Stephanie, and I’d shelved it for a few months since I had a lineup of things to chat about, but it most definitely deserves attention. I will say that this is old news, and I usually try to only post about current events – but it’s only old news in the world of Internet, as it happened a few months ago (September-October 2011). I think the issues it brings up are obviously still relevant and the fact remains that it never should have occurred to begin with.

The Spanish Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a comic strip in their newsletter depicting images of physicians mocking patients – the physicians are always male gynecologists, and the patients are always female, and always drawn as unattractive with exaggerated features and shown with enlargement of their reproductive organs and functions. The comics mock women for uterine prolapses, for being informed about the birth process, for wanting to following non-interventionist labor procedures, imply that sexual interest is behind a doctor pap-smearing a patient every three months, mock elderly women and portray women with questions as insufferable. The link to the images is here (you will have to select that you want to see the pdf in the upper right corner of the page) – but I want to give warning that the images are graphic and can be extremely insulting. The words are in Spanish, but even if you don’t have elementary skills in the language the images do a pretty sufficient job of getting the message across.

There was obvious outcry, and petitions passed by many, to denounce the comics and ask them to be removed. But I remain absolutely flabbergasted that these were ever drawn at all, much less published by an organization that ostensibly commits itself to women’s and maternal health. Communicating with one’s physician is difficult enough for many people (men and women alike), and by publishing this, the SSOG has confirmed what are the worst fears of many – that their doctor doesn’t respect them, thinks they are foolish, thinks that their reproductive health needs are disgusting or gross, assumes sexual activity equals promiscuity, dismisses them if they have questions or are informed, that their doctor finds alternative therapies laughable and unsound, and that they as patients do not deserve to be treated with dignity – not to mention reinforcing the age-old stereotype of male gynecologists being driven by sexual interest instead of scientific, medicinal inquiry (and in this instance, the woman on the receiving end of a doctor’s inappropriate pursuits lauds HPV as a virus community comprised of an elite ‘club’ of women who are sexually active). It is particularly trying that the implications of the  gender binary here was so clear – the males were the physicians, in charge, in the know, firmly in the power position, and the females were weak, uninformed, unaware, and their reproductive health was repellent and the stuff of slapstick humor. It’s just an egregious example of an abusive power dyad.

This kind of impression can completely shut down any channels of communication, limiting the physician-patient relationship in its ability to be a health education opportunity, an encouraging behavior change environment, and most importantly, a place of trust and confidence. I wanted to highlight this issue mainly because of these points – that the physician-patient relationship has always had real promise, but that it cannot be effective if it isn’t mutually respectful and the patients aren’t seen as worthy of having dignity. That this was published in 2011 is to me a devastating indication of how in some areas, this seems very far off.

6 Comments

Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, International, Public Health, Sexism

Ready for 2012?

I certainly am! In case you’re interested, here are some interesting stats for INTY for 2011:

Top Five Posts of the Year:

Good Riddance, Paterno

Duke Nukem – Seriously?

Beyonce – A Word

Yes, Summer’s Eve Has Bad Marketing. Oh, and the Product is Not Good for You

I Still Don’t Think Yoplait Gets It

An interesting mix, indeed! Check them out if you missed them. And for kicks, my favorite Google searches that brought people to my blog:

* “does summer’s eve cause yeast infections”

* “disney feather duster” (which brought them to the Billy Bush post)

* “self-image”

* “i think i’m a feminist” (yay!)

* “consent”

* “abortion”

* “feminism does not necessarily mean hating men”

* “equinox advertisements jealous” (which brought them here)

* “eating disorders”

* “miss usa”

* “eroticization of girls”

* “sexualization of girls”

* “sexualized advertising”

* “advertising desensitization”

* “advertising and behavior”

* “real housewives ignorant” (the RHOBH post did get a lot of comments)

* “gay stereotypes in reality television” (Zel’s guest post)

* “gender identity”

* “adolescent/human development”

* “mitch albom accept who you are and revel in it” (which took them here…showing Albom not reveling in it)

And some creepy and disturbing searches that hopefully led searchers to this blog and perhaps taught them something:

* “how to get any woman to drop her panties”

* “how do young girls get hotter”

* “funny rape jokes”

* “sexy women lying on train tracks”

* “in duke do you need to use the vibrator on the woman”

* “how to take a feminist down a peg”

* “how to take a woman down a peg”

Well, that about sums it up! Looking forward to many more conversations in the upcoming year!

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Health Education, Media, Politics, Pop Culture, Public Health, Rape and Sexual Assault, Sexism, Violence, Violence Against Women

Happy Thanksgiving!

This holiday card is courtesy of my friend Zel McCarthy. I’ll let it marinate for a bit.

This most obvious example of equating women to objects of consumption tries to downplay the offense by making the image as absurd as possible, and by utilizing the tag lines popular culture women’s magazines to give the viewer a chuckle. By sexualizing the meat, and by sexualizing it in a distinctly feminine way, both women and animals get to be conquered and devoured! Women are downgraded to turkeys, and turkeys are eaten. What I think is particularly interesting about the decision to put the feminized turkey on the cover of the magazine is how the image then also gets to denigrate the element of women that our culture has deemed most important – trying to stay “hot and moist” [shudder], the best ways to look “delicious” [you want to look so attractive that others just can't resist gnawing on you], the “must have” items of the moment [because consumerism is such a female issue?] and of course, most vitally, the breasts – the most important part of a woman AND a turkey.

Of course, the emphasis on looks is something that I often disparage about “women’s” magazines, and obviously consider to be dangerous and harmful. However. This turkey ad is mocking these headlines not because they are offensive or denigrating to women, which they are – they are mocking them simply because they are female, because they have taken the spotlight as the primary female concerns of our culture, and the ad gets to make it look like women are both ridiculous for buying into these themes, while also promoting them by creating an object of appeal based on these themes. It’s as though they’re saying “women are so silly for promoting themselves sexually, for focusing on hotness and perkiness and the need to appear deliciously irresistible” while also saying “look at how hot and sexy and perky this lady turkey is – so hot and sexy and perky that she’s simply irresistible.”

Generally, we separate the meat we’re eating from its former ‘self’, the animal, otherwise there would be more difficulty in consuming meat with such regularity and frequency. Interestingly, when the meat anthropomorphized into the form of a woman, it remains marketable – women are routinely objectified, and also are separated from their self and human identity in doing so. Combining two beings, a turkey and a woman, that are both customarily presented as being without a meaningful character and for the viewer or eater’s pleasure, makes this card seem totally acceptable for raking in some holiday profits (apparently).

If you’re interested in reading more about the connection between the treatment of animals and feminism, and the real foundation for the point I just made, I recommend the work of Carol Adams. Her books, The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat are great works, and even if you aren’t interested in animal rights or vegetarianism and how one might relate them to feminism, the books do a great job of dissecting the overlap of social and political issues around the processing of meat for consumption, the treatment of women, and the advertising of both.

For real: Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you all have a great holiday!

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Sexism

99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

Leave a comment

Filed under Defining Gender, Gender Stereotyping, Homophobia, Pop Culture

Candace Bushnell: A Word.

A few months ago, I was hitting stride on a treadmill when I heard those pumped up intro beats, knowing what came next was “Camera One…Stand by Billy, Camera Two…Stand by, Kit.” Access Hollywood, providing me with a constant stream of fodder, was starting. Kit would be interviewing Candace Bushnell, well known as, obviously, the writer of Sex and the City. I had forgotten about this interview, which took place in April, until I heard a phrase yesterday that mimicked something Bushnell said on the show. In this interview, while describing her beloved characters, she said that Miranda “was, you know, this feminist, and had decided that she hated men…”

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Ok. Hold the phone. This woman created a global business empire based on the story of four women who, despite ostensibly having careers that allowed them to maintain very comfortable lives in the most expensive city in the U.S., seemed to spend precious little time doing things other than obsessing over the men, or potential men, in their lives. Should we give her props for her business acumen? I’m not sure, because I’m less certain it has to do with her business savvy as much as it has to do with capitalizing on women’s socialized insecurities by creating characters who are constantly in the pursuit of the elusive perfect partner, and riddled with anxiety about whether or not they’ll find him.

But this post isn’t about Sex and the City – it’s about what feminism actually means. Perhaps Bushnell misspoke; regardless, the idea that feminism means hating the XYs is still out there.

So, I feel an obligation here to clear some things up. Feminism does not mean hating men. Feminism advocates the equal opportunity, accessibility, treatment of and rights of men and women. Equal access to quality education. Equal pay for the same jobs, equal access to mentors of both sexes. The same consideration for jobs without being discounted out of fear that they may be too ‘emotional’ or because they may one day have children. Health care and insurance that doesn’t consider being a woman in and of itself to be a pre-existing condition. The respect and assurance that women who decide they cannot carry a baby to term have legitimate reasons for making this decision and did not come to the conclusion lightly. It’s about being judged for your competency and skill set and not for the size of your breasts or the size of your waist or the symmetry of your face. It’s about understanding the importance of positively brilliant, incisive female leaders to inspire young girls the same way brilliant, incisive male leaders inspire young boys – and how each gender can inspire and educate children of opposite genders, and that it is important to do so.

Most importantly, feminism is about eliminating gender stereotypes for both men and women – ensuring that both sexes are not limited by archaic expectations to which their biology previously would have held them predisposed, and encouraging the individuality that flourished regardless of their reproductive organs. It was about not assigning specific behaviors to people based on these organs, and instead proclaiming that while differences in that regard allow us to procreate, they are not responsible for determining or limiting our capabilities. That’s what feminism has always been, first, second, or third wave; despite many attempts that have been made to brand it otherwise. Not all feminists are women – plenty of men are, too. Breaking down the gender stereotypes that have penned in both sexes for decades is important for everyone. The historical patriarchy created a supposed male ideal that was painfully constricting and costly for men as well, forcing them into binding roles of hyper-masculinity that emphasized sexual, financial, political, and social power positions – roles that shouldn’t be monopolized by a gender for moral and practical reasons. I can be a feminist and have what are deemed “feminine” characteristics. But as a feminist, I also think that a man can have “feminine” characteristics. I can also be a feminist and have “masculine” characteristics. What’s important is that characteristics don’t need to be coded as exclusively feminine or exclusively masculine, that they don’t need to dictate people to act accordingly, and that the characteristics or behaviors don’t exist for the purpose of ostensibly “improving” one’s natural self. It’s about not defining oneself in relation to another, but in relation to oneself. Not about figuring out how you should present yourself to a potential partner based on their ideals, but about teaching everyone the importance  of breaking down ideals that were constructed based on assumptions of what each sex should represent. The point of feminism was to point out that objectification negated the true personhood of women, reduced them to commodities of pleasure while not acknowledging and celebrating their self, identity, what made them an individual, what made them unique, what them capable and brilliant. And that equality didn’t mean reducing men to that objectification as well or instead, but rather meant raising the bar of expectation and respect for women. Not hating men. Feminism is for everyone!

1 Comment

Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

Your Underwear = Free Drink. Fair Trade?

This story hasn’t seemed to catch on in the States yet, but a bar in Dublin is offering girls free drinks in return for their underwear.

I’ll let that new currency sit with you for a minute, and add to this that the bar in question is the very same site in which a 15 year-old reported being sexually assaulted earlier this summer.

I’m going to tackle this in two ways – both in regards to the sexual assault and in regards to the pitch that women lose their undergarments in a bar. That they aren’t asking for a jacket, or a shoe, or a sock, or a headband, or, frankly, not asking women to give up anything at all for drinks other than their cash money, is not lost on me.

The idea behind this kind of promotional event is simple. By encouraging women to drop trou under the auspices of saving them some dough and by presenting it as something of a game – if you do this, you win this – they’re trying to mask the creepiness factor with a jolly sentimentality and, it seems, a savvy sense of the economical. This not only is an attempt to cover up their hopeful possibility of granting some men a free show, but the effort to make it lighthearted is done to silence critics as prudish wet blankets. However, selling this as a game – the exchange of alcohol for valuable organ protecting clothing – sets the precedent that one’s sexuality and access to it is in fact up for sale, and also strengthens the harmful thinking that by buying a woman a drink she automatically becomes sexually accessible. The existence of this promotion, regardless of whether or not women participate in it, actually reinforces this thinking. And given the jokey presentation, those who do not participate in it are liable to be seen as ruining everyone else’s fun. Any woman who has been pressured to take a drink from a man in a bar can assure one of that. Bars have been mating and meeting grounds for years – why not just continue to let men and women buy their drinks, meet, have a chat, see where it goes – without the unnecessary orchestration of a woman removing her underwear before even being introduced?

It seems pretty callous for this bar to promote this kind of “deal” after a young girl rounded up the courage to report that she’d been raped in this club’s bathroom. Even if we were to assume that their misguided vision – one of supposed sexual prowess – was what led them to create this promotion, did no one suggest that given the recent bathroom forced sex encounter perhaps they shouldn’t encourage women to drop their underpants in an alcohol-fueled environment that is essentially paying them to strip? The bar asked for underwear because removing underwear promotes the assumption that the sex region is open for business, and willingly so. They asked for underwear because they think it’s titillating, because sex sells, because they figured a lot of men would likely show up that evening under the impression that some half-naked drunk women would be hanging out by the taps. And what comes next in this line of logic I’m sure you know. They think they might get lucky. Alcohol has long been a factor in discussions around consent and what it means. If a girl is too drunk to coherently consent to sex – something one could see happening when they are given free alcohol for an entire evening – then the sexual encounter is non-consenual. By objectifying the sexuality of these women as something that can be bargained for, I worry that certain people may consider their consent negotiable as well. Is a drunk woman up sexually up for grabs? Absolutely not. Is it a drunk woman’s fault if she is sexually assaulted? Double-no. Is presenting the exchange of goods for the stripping of clothing minimizing a woman’s sexual agency and glorifying the idea that women can be bought? Yes. Can a woman participate in this promotion and still make a decision to engage or not in consensual sex? Sure. But this is about the fact that a bar took on the role of mediator in sexuality, and the reason I can’t think of any women or girls I know taking on this bar’s “challenge” isn’t because they are prudish, and it isn’t because they don’t like to drink – many do. It’s because the foundation of this promotion reinforces the dominant gaze of men who watch while women barter their bodies for money or substances.

Leave a comment

Filed under Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Rape and Sexual Assault, Sexism

How Images and Ads Impact Self-Image and Human Development

I got a lot of traffic and messages about my recent post regarding Duke Nukem. People in the gaming community condemned it for its lack of originality, how it strayed from the original premise of apparently ostensibly mocking the ’80s action-hero genre, and how it overall disappointed those who are used to more complex and engaging videos. Some replies also included people needing to “get over it” when discussing images of coerced sexual activity or the game’s encouragement of merging violent and sexually explicit content together (I don’t post comments that are condescending or don’t encourage dialogue), something I found…disturbing. My initial argument, however, did not change – that is, that the imagery and the actions the gamer supposes in this video are tragically abusive and in fact detrimental to both men and women.

Many gamers also respond that they know when they are playing a game, and that their non-virtual socializing is not impacted by the game’s content. This, along with the recent news that the American Medical Association finally condemned the use of photoshopping in advertising campaigns and photo shoots, got me thinking about what repeated exposure to images and actions actually does to our brain and with who and what we identify.

A well-known study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that repeated exposure to images and advertisements ultimately were processed in people the same way actual experiences were processed. That is, if you see or watch something enough times – in a video game, in a fashion magazine in which models are photoshopped to near obscurity, in a parent abusing your sibling – you begin to process it as though it was you yourself experiencing the act and identify with the “player” (model, game character) you are watching. You see enough pictures of a model like this:

Courtesy fashion-o-lic.com

And you begin to think you are supposed to align yourself with her, that this image is what is normal (the image on the right was criticized heavily in 2009 for being so drastically photoshopped). After so many exposures, you begin to mold yourself after her, to think that since this is how we project women for adoration in our culture, that you should begin appropriating yourself to match her image. Just like a gamer, after so many exposures, can begin to mold themselves after the image of the character they are impersonating in a game. And while they may not go out on a shooting spree, they are desensitized to the effects of that reality, just as they are desensitized to the effects of coerced sex in a game, which can lead to difficulty distinguishing that from a healthy sexual relationship.

As I have also discussed in previous posts, a foundational theory in behavioral science and education is the Social-Cognitive Theory, which has informed educators and psychologists for years in explaining that people learn by watching, and that even one observation of a behavior can influence perspective. It also importantly points out that while full on adoption of behaviors witnessed may not occur, the more we see, the more our attitudes and beliefs about them change. This can be good and bad. It can make us more accepting of others’ opinions and outlooks, and it can also desensitize and normalize the opinions and behaviors that are harmful.

We’re humans. We learn by watching, by then mimicking and imitating what we observe. It doesn’t happen all at once, which is why fashion moguls or game designers claim they have no real impact. Are girls entering periods of self-mandated starving as soon as they open this month’s Vogue? Are adolescent boys heading to the hills for a sawed off shotgun fight after the first round of Duke or stealing cars after playing the new Grand Theft Auto? No, of course not. But can it impact their sense of compassion, affect their interpersonal relationships? Can it make violence seem less threatening, less damaging, and less impacting than it is? Yes. Can that change the way people behave, from nuance to imitation? Sure. Even researchers who admit that it won’t necessarily turn children violent admit that’s likely true (and, interestingly, still disallow their children to play). Human development takes time – language acquisition, understanding of and the processing of visual messages, being able to comprehend meaning from a block of text – these are all cognitive functions that take years to develop and perfect, and their influence lies in the words and actions of children’s families, friends, teachers. Unfortunately, messages of gender have been largely commandeered by the media. And the repeated exposure, over years, to these specifics of models’ physical appearance has resulted in the erosion of self-confidence that many girls and women – and boys and men – experience as young children becoming adolescents. And the repeated exposure, over years, to the specifics of war, sexual violence, and the presentation of hyper-masculinity, can also result in the erosion of what kind of impact violence truly has, as they become desensitized, and what a healthy understanding of and relationship with the opposite sex is (as opposed to its portrayal in my Duke Nukem piece). As the study articulated, it’s about changing people over time, it’s about how perceptions and perspectives change when a new definition of the norm that is not contested or dissected – a Ralph Lauren model, a Duke Nukem – enters the picture. Women who suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, while not blaming the fashion industry, have emphatically articulated that it certainly has had an impact as it normalized this destructive self-image and behavior.

I think it’s also relevant here to bring up the Supreme Court’s decision about a week ago to shoot down California’s attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to children. Timothy Egan, a Times columnist, had a great commentary on this, noting how ridiculous it seems for there to be a perpetual ban on nudity and sexually explicit images, but not on virtually dismembering a human or sexually assaulting a woman. It does seem…well, more than troubling, that a game in which a player can simulate murder and rape is protected by free speech but a bare breast is the height of vulgarity. (I found a great post from a female gamer about this kind of sexual violence in video games, and I agree with her assertion that sexual expression can in fact exist without it also involving violence and degradation.) I don’t think any of the representations of sexuality that I have seen in video games are appropriate for children because they overwhelmingly associate it with abuse and/or coercion (I’ve done a lot of viewing in the past couple days after my Duke Nukem post). To say that sexuality would have a more harmful impact than violence seems questionable, when representations of both are equally unhealthy.

It should also be said that I am far from someone who believes nudity and sexuality itself is vulgar. I celebrate and support healthy (and protected!) sexual expression in any way the individual consents and desires. I firmly believe that discussions of sex and sexuality should be brought up early on, so children can ask questions, be informed, protect themselves when they do engage in sex, and have an understanding of what a respectful, consensual sexual relationship is. I also believe that when these discussions in families don’t take place, and when sex is a taboo topic, that it is a disservice to these children, and that any confusion they have about sex or uncertainty about what a healthy sex life actually is will be magnified by the messages the media sends them.  I’m an advocate of early onset, comprehensive sexual health and reproductive health education. Sex shouldn’t be confusing, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized. Sexual violence, however, and a misappropriation of the presentation of sexual relationships that are abusive, coercive, and violent, should be condemned.

This is also why a diversity of exposures is important. It’s important to not be inundated with the same message over and over again. Advertisers know that repeated exposure is key to getting people to buy what they want to sell. If you see an image of a Coke bottle once, it won’t register with much impact. If you see it every time your favorite TV show breaks for commercial, when you’re leafing through the pages of a magazine, when you’re driving down a freeway and it’s up on a billboard, when you’re listening to the radio and it breaks for the Coke jingle – it adds up, as do afternoons in front of a game console, as do hours reading “women’s” magazines and fashion spreads, as do episodes of spousal or child abuse, (which we know increases the likelihood of the child being in an abusive relationship him/herself and hampers healthy development - the others are logical extensions, to a lesser degree). We have to have enough positive images, positive games, positive and healthy discourse about relationships to not just equal the stream of negative imagery and messaging, but to overtake it. Positive, healthy messages, not abusive, harmful, violent messages, have to be in the majority. The norm. It’s nice that the docs finally said so.

3 Comments

Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Gender Stereotyping, Media, Mental Health, Pop Culture, Public Health, Sexism, Violence