Category Archives: Defining Gender

The Changing Face of Development in the Fight for Gender Justice

As International Women’s Day approached, I was thrilled to attend a panel at the United Nations, “Youth Approaches to Funding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights,” with the Executive Director of an organization I am very excited to be a part of, Spark, as one of the speakers. Shannon Farley was joined by Mia Herndon from the Third Wave Foundation and Amina Doherty from the Young Feminist Fund. These dynamic leaders provided what turned out to be unique though complementary perspectives on engaging youth in development strategies, and I came away feeling revitalized and encouraged that Spark’s work is at the forefront of essential evolution in philanthropy and development.

While powerhouse young women lead each of these organizations, their differences should be noted. Spark, at 7 years old, is the middle child of the organizations, and the only one that operates within a member-driven framework, allowing those active members to vote on grantees and possible themes. Granting more than $1 million since its inception, a great feat since most gifts are seed money of the couple thousand dollar range, Spark’s offering of extensive pro-bono services to granting organizations also sets us apart – that and statistic of having nearly 50% male members. FRIDA is the new baby in the gender equality, women’s rights development world, and they interestingly refer to themselves as a “learning fund,” as each organization that applies for funding does some fairly in-depth research on other groups with whom they are competing for funds. Of the more than 1,000 applications from over 120 countries this year, FRIDA selected 125 ‘short-listed’ groups who then voted for a group in their region other than themselves who they felt deserved the grant based on their work and application. Lastly, the Third Wave Foundation, which has been around for 15 years, funds work that benefits 15 – 30 year-old women and transgender youth. They emphasize leadership development and advocacy, and given their size, are also able to offer multi-year ‘arc’ grants, supporting groups as they get off the ground, giving them a big financial push during subsequent cycles, and tapering off as the group begins to grow.

Despite these differences in age, funding history, and model of grant making, one can see the overlaps. My favorite element of the panel was discovering throughout the presentation how similar the roots of the missions of these groups are – interactivity, democratic funding policies, involvement of the grantees and groups for whom they are advocating, and leadership that represents the interests of the grantees. Each of these groups – and this is what I think draws many to Spark in the first place – emphasizes the input of passionate members or supporters who are emotionally and mentally invested in working for justice, and who may have previously been rebuffed in other volunteer development efforts. Equally important, they value the participation of those on the ground seeking to be funded. Panelists actually articulated how important the flow of communication was in the funding process, not only to ensure that the funding organizations were really sound in their understanding of the grantees, but also so the beneficiaries feel as though they are being heard and understood throughout the process. This is actually fairly empowering. This kind of communication between funding agencies and grantees used to be unheard of – grant applications would be filled out on one side, and grant-making decisions would be made on the other side, often with grantees not feeling as though they were making meaningful connections with funding organizations that would enable them to better articulate their needs.

These newer models can bring up questions of validity for some, and this query was posed by an audience member who asked the panel about issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and how that was considered within these newer frameworks. This garnered perhaps my favorite answer, which was that one of the ways M&E can be handled is by changing the definition of what a successful program or initiative looks like. One of the ways these newer development organizations does this is by defining at the outset what success looks like to the grantees and how that will be measured, and emphasizing those goals in the evaluation process as opposed to adhering to strict, traditional methods that may not be appropriate measures for many of the newer, innovative groups that are seeking funding.

Piggybacking on this part of the conversation, panelists were asked about what they saw as the primary benefits and drawbacks of not working within the more traditional development models. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, these leaders focused mainly on the positive. Working within newer models allows them to take risks; to explore relationships with new groups and leaders that older, more established organizations may not have the time or framework to take on; and to nurture long term relationships with groups that can use the leadership guidance and seed money granted by organizations like Spark to get off the ground and be ready to present themselves to progressively larger funds. Essentially, these groups – Spark, the Third Wave, and FRIDA – are building a foundation to get a foot into the door of the local and global conversations about eradicating injustice for groups that may have been historically overlooked.

As the landscape for women’s rights and gender disparities shifts, this kind of risk-taking is essential in assisting burgeoning efforts of organizations that may have been traditionally ignored.

While each of these organizations emphasized the need for young women’s leadership and articulated how their models centered on the unique and essential perspectives of young leaders, the speakers also championed the importance of inter-generational work. When concern was raised by an audience member over being dismissive of the work of older activists and development organizations, panelists were adamant about the fact that their communities were grateful for the work that had come before them, and the wisdom that is often culled from creating partnerships with leaders who have been involved in gender equality development work for years.  The experience of these more senior leaders is not only valuable in gaining insight into what isn’t working and why within traditional giving pathways, but collaborating with them often leads to grant-making opportunities for these newer funding organizations. Shannon’s remarks specifically about how larger, older funds had passed on applications to Spark that are more suitable for our funding model than theirs was met with nods of appreciation from many in the audience – an audience that was in and of itself diverse in age and funding experience. And of course, having big voices in the field champion the work of newer organizations for their innovation certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to increase our donor circles.

I encourage my readers to check out Spark, and consider becoming a member. It’s an incredible organization that offers great opportunities for young leaders to get involved. In light of International Women’s Day, I’d also encourage you to check out these other fantastic on-the-ground groups doing fantastic work for gender equality and justice (some of them Spark grantees!):

The Komera Project: Education for girls in Rwanda, financial and mentoring assistance, started by Margaret Butler.

CAMFED: Investing in girls’ education in Africa

She’s the First: Education investment in the developing world

Plan International: Children’s rights and development around the globe

No coincidence that these organizations tend to focus on education access! Have organizations that you’re passionate about and want me to include in this list? Send ’em my way!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, International, Politics

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?

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

JC Penney Doesn’t Think You’ll be Very Smart. But you ARE Pretty!

I’m sure some of you have come across a picture of the t-shirt that JC Penney recently pulled from their website and for which they received a healthy dose of criticism and bewilderment. In case you missed it, take a gander below:

A picture of the unraveling of years of work, courtesy of JC Penney

On sale for girls between the ages of 7 and 16, we have a (100% cotton!) long-sleeve that says “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”

While I generally believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, I find the trail of despair leading up to this travesty of childhood romping wear to be filled with too many witnesses to feel that this was done in error. Which, in turn, means that a lot of people at JC Penney thought this was funny.

This offense hits a lot of home runs – making ‘pretty’ and ‘intelligent’ mutually exclusive descriptions; saying that apparently being pretty is so exhausting and life-encompassing that homework just can’t be attended to (this particularly just doesn’t seem like a smart pic for a 6 year-old – if pretty is this exhausting, she’ll be burned out by 10); not-so-subtly prioritizing those batted eyes over brain activity; and, for the grand finale, adding that since being pretty is a lady’s job, the man has to pick up the slack in the smarts department. That’s a lot of manipulation for one t-shirt. You can be pretty but not also smart, being pretty takes a lot of work (doesn’t come naturally), pretty is prioritized and therefore takes precedence over being smart anyway, the boys can be the brains.

Taking a cursory glance over JC Penney’s other shirts, while the one above remains in a league of its own there are others that transgress the principles of healthy development. T-shirts that say “I’m a nerd” or “I love nerds” are the only ones in which the models are wearing  square-framed glasses; shirts that insert unnecessary interjections that should probably not be emphasized in written form, that say “Love is, like, forever”; and a shirt that shows a heart with a jagged line through it saying “if you break it, you buy it.” I didn’t know that a 10 year-old’s affection was for sale, much less that there was an insistence of ownership by the 10 year-old herself after she’d been emotionally trampled on.

Major retailers’ primary goal is profit – which means that while I’m not surprised that they aren’t particularly concerned with the social impact of their clothing, I do find it interesting that JCP thought these kind of dated gender messages would bring in the cash.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Education, Feminism, Pop Culture, Sexism

Sexist and Sexualized Advertising: On the Rise

A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.

This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.

That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.

In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.

In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls;  secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”

My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.

Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.

In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?

Wanna answer that question on Twitter? Follow me here!

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Defining Gender, Feminism, Media, Pop Culture, Sexism

A Bunny’s Return

“The Playboy Club,” a show debuting on NBC’s fall lineup has had its fair share of publicity. A Salt Lake City NBC affiliate is refusing to air the show for moral reasons, Troy Patterson’s thinly veiled assault on Maureen Dowd’s coverage of the show, in which he quotes Amber Heard – the show’s leading Bunny – as saying “what’s wrong with being sexy? Why is that subservient?” Even NPR covered the show’s bizarre claim that it was empowering for women because, as Hefner says, “a bunny could be anything they wanted;” an odd claim since the identity of a bunny was scripted with a hard line and came with a hefty set of rules and guidelines.

One of those rules that Gloria Steinem revealed in her great expose “A Bunny’s Tale” about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, was STI examinations and a physical. This logically leads one to the assumption that the bunnies were expected, encouraged, or even forced to engage in sexual relationships with the clients under the identity of Bunny – why else require a waitress to get an STI test? This is where my first retort to Ms. Heard’s bafflingly short-sighted comment comes into play. The Bunnies have to get tested so they don’t infect the men – what about the men infecting the Bunnies? Were they swabbed upon entrance to the club to ensure that they weren’t putting the waitresses at risk? It seems they were excused because they were funneling money into the pockets of Hefner, and this is a perfect example of why Ms. Heard is serving above all else. Catering to the whims of the customers with the most money without protection or regard for the workers doesn’t make it seem like those workers are so empowered after all. Seems more like they’re at risk.

Ms. Steinem had a great response to the show, in which she said: “It normalizes a passive dominant idea of gender. So it normalizes prostitution and male dominance.” She has hopes that it will be boycotted, and I fully share in Ms. Steinem’s vision of what the show projects. Normalization of unhealthy behaviors and images is a primary topic of my blog. Despite it taking place 50 years ago, witnessing the power dynamic between the bunnies and the customers reinforces how damaging those scripted gender roles truly are – and for viewers who still think those gender roles should remain as scripted, this show and the participants’ comments that it’s all just fun and games helps to serve their ideal. Why would we want to bring back – even as a source of entertainment – the vision of a reality that restrained women from being seen in their workplace as anything more than a decoration? Beyond that, this show isn’t even an attempt at parody, it’s an attempt to glorify this world that Ms. Steinem points out resulted in “women…[telling] me horror stories of what they experienced at the Playboy Club and at the Playboy Mansion.”

There are also serious flaws with the idea that these roles were empowering for the women simply because the men were told “not to touch” the bunnies. This creates the false notion that the best way for a woman to maintain a position of power is to withhold sex. The bunnies could have had this “power” which was limited to withholding sexual pleasure while in a sexual pleasure palace taken away from them easily, through direct assault or coerced sexual relationships that they felt they needed to engage in given their role as servers. Withholding something is not in and of itself an act of positive power but one of passivity masquerading as control – which can easily yield to the money these customers had. An act of positive power would be intellect, a skill set, developed talent, cultivated life experiences leading to the fully fleshed out self not entirely composed of a sexuality and not reliant on the financing – whether in tips or in marriage – of men. True power exists when the reliance on others or threat of others ceases to exist. This isn’t to say that sexuality isn’t a part of an identity, I most certainly think it is. However, the bunnies – infantilized, presented as reward, reduced to the image of a cuddly baby rabbit – are not actually presented (in this show, and in Ms. Steinem’s brilliant ‘A Bunny’s Tale’) as women who have a deep understanding of their sexuality and identity. The power in sexuality lies in one’s ability to articulate what their sexual needs and wants are, to respect those of others, and to communicate with partners. That is what prevents one partner from feeling or being subservient to the other – something The Playboy Club doesn’t seem to promote.

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Yes, Summer’s Eve has Bad Marketing. And the Product is Terrible for You.

In light of all the on-point criticism of the ridiculous feminine hygiene ads and how they portray a woman’s relationship with her reproductive organs, I think we should point out a couple things.

First, douching is actually not good for you – it disrupts the balance of good versus not so good bacteria, which maintains a certain acidity level and in turn is key to a healthy vagina. Douching can destroy this careful equilibrium, causing an over-growth of the bad bacteria. This can lead to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis; both of which are uncomfortable and cause symptoms that are more disruptive than the non-existent issues one thought they were getting rid of in the first place. More dangerously, douching can actually force unhealthy bacteria up into the uterus and ovaries, which if untreated can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). This, more disturbingly, can cause infertility issues. While this may be rare, why risk the possibility by doing something that is unnecessary at best, but very damaging at worst?

The Summer’s Eve website has an “education” section, which does point out that some regular discharge is normal and offers some good snippets about the importance of wearing 100% cotton underwear. However, in their advice about yeast infections, they include “don’t sit around in a wet bathing suit,” “eat berries and yogurt often,” “don’t wear tight-fitting, non-breathable clothes,” and “eat less sugar,” concluding the list with “use pH-balanced washes formulated for the vaginal area.” Up to that last point, the list was fairly on target. In fact, the list I’ve gotten from my gyno every year has read very much the same with the exception of that last line. In fact, their advice has always been along the lines of: “do not use washes formulated for the vaginal area, even if they say they are pH-balanced, because your body balances that pH like a pro on its own.” Summer’s Eve says their products have been dermatologist and gynecologist tested – not only would I be interested in what that test entailed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the conclusion was along the lines of “this isn’t going to kill you, no, but…” Especially since the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as a body of physicians do not recommend douching. I am more inclined to trust them than a Summer’s Eve label.

Interestingly, the site does admit that the vagina is like a “self-cleaning oven.” So…why do I need this product again?

Women and their reproductive organs have thrived for thousands of years. Those reproductive organs have done a remarkably efficient job of cleaning themselves all those years without the “help” of douching projects. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that these people are trying to tell women that their vagina is supposed to smell like a Laura Ashley store. It’s not. It should look and smell the way it has for centuries. Vaginas have spawned babies for generations without the help of branding and perfume, and it seems the marketing efforts could be better spent educating men and women that the vagina isn’t supposed to be the fertile ground of daisy chain making and delicate blossoms.

Also, referring to your vagina as your “friend down under” seems a bit creepy. It’s not something that has its own personality, its own social life, its own favorite foods and activities. Better to think of it as a part of you, which it is, and the foundation of your holistic health as a woman.

Bottom line – if something seems off down there, swabbing it to make it smell like a field of marigolds is not the right course of action. Seeing your gynecologist is.

p.s. follow me on Twitter here!

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Filed under Defining Gender, Feminism, Health Education, Media, Public Health, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Women's Health

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.

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