One of the questions I’ve researched over the years, both via the available data and through discussion with the women I interact with, is how sexualized imagery in the media affects us. In my experience, even the women who claim to be unruffled by these images of impossible physical perfection, many of which border on pornographic, are not so composed once you scratch the surface. Yet few people, male or female, have learned to think outside the box. And we are in a box; a tightly defined square – except the boundaries don’t really exist. We just think they do, and I believe we’re meant to think they do. What would happen, I wonder, if we bothered to question the prevailing attitudes?
Many in the western world believe we’re not affected by the not-so-subtle messages that surround us. We think we’re free and whole and feeling good about ourselves. But are we really? The effect of media images on our day-to-day attitudes and emotions has been analyzed, in depth, by Naomi Wolf in her controversial book, ‘The Beauty Myth’. She goes to some lengths to outline how these acquired beliefs infiltrate our legal systems and bureaucratic structures, and the devastating outcomes experienced by the women who appeal to these very institutions for justice and, as we Australians say, a fair go. The author was, of course, slammed for her perspectives. (The poisonous criticism that followed in the wake of ‘The Beauty Myth’ didn’t stop Ms Wolf from writing ‘The Porn Myth’, which delves more deeply into how this deluge of imagery affects not just women, but also men, in a negative way.)
Part of the great lie is that men actually benefit from this sexualized imagery, which is found in virtually every form of media; magazines, newspapers, billboards, television shows, movies and of course, advertising. Sadly, I even see it creeping softly, softly into animated childrens’ movies. What is happening to us is that we’re being conditioned, in ever more lurid increments, to accept sexualized imagery as normal, or worse, for the greater good of humankind. By the time our kids have hit their teens, they’re not even aware that the disrespect naturally associated with the objectification of women, has become entwined with their own cognitive processes and therefore, their emotional responses. And what you disrespect, you do not treat well. You neglect and perhaps, even abuse. No great deductive powers are needed to discern that it’s a very small step from thoughts and feelings, to action. And by action, I mean aggressive action – sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault, including full-blown rape. I also mean the subtler forms of aggression that are a frequent experience for women of all ages; the put-downs, the snide comments, the unwanted leers that demean us.
It should be clear where this is leading. I promised in a previous post to make a case for the culpability of western culture with regard to setting the scene for the random and widespread violation of women. Whether it’s a lack of equality in day to day interactions or any of the forms of aggression already outlined, it is all a violation. In the absence of overt violent action, women and girls intuitively feel this violation in an unwelcome gaze, in the defection of a lover’s attention at the mere passing of a ‘pretty’ young thing, in the smutty jokes that dog their steps, in the lack of ‘interest’ shown to them when they reach ‘a certain age’. The list goes on. We feel it because it is real.
The fact that there’s always something just around the corner – literally – to provide sexual titillation, albeit manufactured, is toted as an advantage for males. But this smokescreen, one that a majority of people fail to notice, is something that I don’t buy. It begs the question: Does anyone, other than big business, really benefit from this daily assault on our senses, or does it simply perpetuate the illusory great divide between the sexes, a division that needs to be named for what it is – created by popular culture, fed by ignorance and kept in place by fear. Perhaps all men don’t buy the lie, but it has to be said that the imagery is there for a reason. There’s a reward in it for someone, somewhere. And the reward is surely not for the average woman on the street. She feels the pain. She bears the degradation.
I’ve been asked on occasion why the women who make these images participate in something that’s clearly detrimental to their own sex? I don’t believe we need to look too deeply into the collective psyche to formulate a plausible theory. It seems to me that it’s back to basics – the survival of the fittest in a ‘civilized’ jungle. Society, or certain powerful groups within society, determines which ‘look’ currently deserves the highest esteem, and those who possess it scrabble to the top of the heap and fight to stay there. They gain money and status. If we recognize the ugly foundations of the land of ‘look at me’, what might have been considered pretty becomes much less appealing. It is no more than bitter competition in a world of dog eat dog; one sister trampling another, crushing fragile self-worth in a bid to boost egos and bank accounts.
Are we able to challenge the status quo or must we accept it and learn to cope with it? To the more aware amongst us, it will be obvious that this ‘coping’ comes with a heavy weight of lifelong side-effects, many of which land people, particularly women, in long-term therapy. Self-esteem is deliberately eroded by an agenda that is largely economic. Relationships based on unequal power breed fear, insecurity and frustration for both sexes, and can therefore never reach their full potential. Such fear-based politics have been used before to devastating effect. Adolf Hitler convinced an entire nation that not only were his ideologies, based on the supremacy of an Aryan ideal, correct, but that by participating in the destruction of inferior bloodlines, the German people were contributing to the greater good. It seems we have failed to learn the lessons of history; that we are not sheep; we are not powerless; we are able to think and to act. We are able to effect change. First awareness, then action.
The lie needs to be recognized for what it is, an economic manoeuvre designed to keep the masses dissatisfied. A blinded and dissatisfied public craves to be ‘filled’, and big business is ever ready to fill the gap with new and improved commodities offered with promises of pleasure, status and contentment that never come to fruition. The wheel keeps turning.