Sex is for women too, and contemporary media isn’t telling us that.
Salt-n-Pepa sang about it, and today we’re going to talk about it. Sex.
Sex is for everyone, and everyone wants to have an enjoyable and safe time engaging in it, so why isn’t contemporary media telling us that? Why is it that the only sexual representation of women we see is one designed to please the male gaze? Does hyper-sexualisation in modern media hurt or help the cause of positive sexual reinforcement? Fear not, my lovely readers, for I plan to discuss all of those questions.
Now, one faces a challenge when they approach a topic as broad as this. Where do we start? I thought we could take a lovely little magazine called Cosmopolitan and use that as our jumping off point. Cosmopolitan, also known as Cosmo, is a monthly magazine aimed at women, with more than 50 international editions. They self describe as, “the biggest young women’s media brand in the world”. To add to the authenticity of their claims of influence on society, they even have an article listing occasions on which their magazine was sighted or mentioned in pop culture. So, a company this clearly entrenched in the minds of modern society as a good example and resource for young women, I’m safe to talk about them in this article, right? Good, we’re in agreement.
I don’t like Cosmo.
There, I said it. I don’t!
Why? They set an absolutely awful example for all the young girls who read and buy their magazines. They commodify the ideals of feminism and push hyper-sexualisation onto young women under the guise of ‘girl power!’, selling them morally abhorrent messages in brightly coloured, bubbly font. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first discuss what hyper-sexualisation is, then we can address why it’s a problem and how Cosmopolitan is contributing to that.
What is hyper-sexualisation?
‘Hyper-sexualization’ of women and girls generally refers to them being depicted and treated as sexual objects. It’s usually imposed through media, marketing and products aimed at their specific demographic and often promotes adult sexual behaviour (CWHN, 2012). In a study of print media, researchers found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8% of advertisements featuring women portrayed them as sex objects. When women appeared in men’s magazines, they were objectified 76% of the time (Stankiewicz & Rosselli, 2008). Additionally, Stephanie Ng contributed to a report for the American Psychological Association (APA) that found girls are depicted in a sexual manner more often than boys; dressed in revealing clothing, and with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness (Ng, 2016). There is a continued pressure applied to women of all ages through ads, television, film and new media to be sexually attractive and sexually active. While this is nothing new, research has found that women’s representation in popular media has steadily become more and more sexualised over the last forty years (Hatton & Trautner, 2011).
Now that we know what hyper-sexualisation in media is, let’s see an example of how it looks.
Do these look covers look like those of a magazine aimed at women? If your answer is yes, I understand- the colours, recognisable female celebrities and font choices are misleading. However, I’m going to have to disagree with you. Let’s look past the overt feminine elements of the cover and analyse some of the op-ed advertisements that are visible. Keep in mind that these are designed to draw in Cosmo’s young audience and highlight to them what this magazine will teach them about being a woman.
Hm… these articles seem to focus on one very specific activity. The middle cover pictured above even features an underage Dakota Fanning, though that didn’t seem to exclude her cover from the sex themed op-eds. Wondering if these three covers were just flukes, I decided to look through this article of old Cosmo covers in an effort to see just how many of them featured the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’.
Out of 167 covers spanning the years 1999–2013, 155 of them had at least one instance on the cover where an op-ed used ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ in its headline. For a magazine aimed at young women, that’s a LOT of pushing of an adult topic.
Is this really a problem, and why should we care?
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released a report that specifically explored how female characters in ‘leadership positions’ were portrayed. Their results showed that women and girls were four times more likely than men to be shown wearing revealing clothing and sexualised. 30% of the time for female characters, compared to 7% for their male equivalents (Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2019).
A study published by the APA found that social media and resources such as Cosmo “amplified age-old pressures for teenage girls to conform to certain sexualised narratives.” Further, it discussed the psychological effects of hyper-sexualisation on women and girls, concluding that it can lead to cognitive difficulties, negative emotions, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, poor sexual health, negative sense of one’s sexuality, and the internalisation of misogynistic attitudes (Zurbriggen, et al., 2007).
To summarise, young girls are seeing hyper-sexualised characters on their TVs, coupled with overtly sexual media content such as that displayed in Cosmopolitan, and all of this makes them think they need to be more sexual.
Not only does this constant hyper-sexualisation in media warp their sense of how they should present themselves to the outside world, but it can have dangerous consequences including increased risk of unsafe sex, increased risk of underage pregnancies and the enforcement of rape culture throughout our society.
Where did we go wrong?
After the 1970s, a wave of ‘post-feminism’ hit the world and a large byproduct of this post-feminist and consumeristic environment was the ideal of ‘Girl Power’ (MacDonald, 2011). This concept originated as a strong culture of female empowerment, but soon became a vessel for the commodification and commercialisation of feminism, along with the depoliticisation of gender issues and excessive hyper-sexualisation of young women and girls on a level not previously noted (Gonick, 2016). Companies like Cosmopolitan capitalise on this phenomenon to produce content that is surface-level female empowerment, but really exists to serve the male gaze and help deepen the entrenched hold sexism continues to have over our young women and girls.
Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby, authors of Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism, interviewed 57 high school girls and were surprised to hear that they faced sexist comments from their peers daily. The majority of the girls they surveyed said they were reluctant to call out peers over sexist behaviour. They stated not wanting to appear, “bitchy or outspoken or unsexy,” as their reasoning and argued it would make them look like a feminist. They said that feminism was a potentially damaging label (Pomerantz, et al., 2018).
If teenage girls are scared to speak out against a sexist comment, how can we expect them to act when faced with sexual assault and rape? We are teaching our impressionable young women that they are to be meek and mild, only overtly sexual when it’s for the pleasure of a man- what’s worse is that we’re doing it under the guise of ‘girl power’.
How can we fix this?
In her TEDTalk on young women and what they believe about their own sexual pleasure, Peggy Orenstein stated that, “the only way that shift in thinking [the normalisation of women enjoying sex] can happen though is if we talk to young people more about sex — if we normalise those discussions, integrating them into everyday life, talking about those intimate acts in a different way” (Orenstein, 2016).
In 2010, a survey of 300 randomly chosen girls from both a Dutch and an American university was undertaken. It aimed to speak to these women about their early experiences of sex. When surveyed, the Dutch girls embodied the sex positive, well-informed women we claim we want our girls to be. They spoke of fewer negative consequences; disease, pregnancy, regret; and of more positive outcomes like being able to communicate with their partner, preparing for the experience responsibly and enjoying themselves. So what sets them apart? The Dutch girls told the surveyors that their doctors, teachers and parents talked to them candidly, from an early age, about sex, pleasure and the importance of mutual trust. They added that Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy (Brugman, et al., 2010).
I propose that contemporary media plays a large role in the development of cultural ideals, and so the onus is on the media industry (along with our education systems) to help spread the right messages. But it is not simply content creators that must step up and grow some inclusivity. Media representations of women as sex objects, devoted homemakers, and mothers buttress the very roles in which the majority of consuming takes place. To live up to these images, women have to buy cosmetics and other personal care products, diet aids, food, household cleaners, utensils and appliances, clothes and toys for children, and so on. In short, it is in advertisers interests to support programming and copy that feature women in traditional roles (Wood, 1994). Advertisers will play a large part in the subversion of these stereotypes and promotion of ideals, and they must play that part regardless of whether it hurts their bottom line.
A 2008 study of female leads in G-rated films found that nearly all were valued primarily for their appearance and that their individual plot-lines primarily focussed on winning the love of a male character or protagonist (Smith & Cook, 2008). In a study of Cosmopolitan and Playboy magazines, it was found that both men and women’s magazines contain a single vision of female sexuality — that “women should primarily concern themselves with attracting and sexually satisfying men” (Krassas, et al., 2001).
Julia Wood wrote in her paper Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender, that women are portrayed disproportionately in contemporary media. She argues that if we were to assume that what we see in mass media is fact then, “White males make up two-thirds of the population. The women are less in number, perhaps because fewer than 10% live beyond 35. Those who do… are nearly all white and heterosexual. In addition to being young, the majority of women are beautiful, very thin, passive, and primarily concerned with relationships and getting rings out of collars and commodes. There are a few bad, bitchy women, and they are not so pretty, not so subordinate, and not so caring as the good women. Most of the bad ones work outside of the home, which is probably why they are hardened and undesirable” (Wood, 1994).
It is vital that we shift these narratives to ones that portray women as more than just pretty plot devices with crushes on the male protagonist. Films such as The Little Death (2014), present sexuality as a conundrum faced equally by both sexes, and promotes the ideals of healthy communication and sexual equality within a relationship.
The best way to counteract the effects of sexism, hyper-sexualisation and the male gaze in contemporary media is to equip young women with the right skills to approach the world. The goal should be generations of truly empowered girls — young women who can identify that their worth comes from themselves, and not what they can give the men around them. Young women who understand that sex isn’t something to be afraid of, but rather something they should enjoy. Furthermore, we must seek to make ours a society that encourages safe sex between consenting adults, eradicates rape culture and lets our young girls be just that — young girls.
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