Images of Rihanna nestled close to fiancé Chris Brown at the Grammys last week were disturbing, considering he had previously punched her in the face, bitten and beaten her, even tattooing what appeared to be an image of the same on his neck. Beyoncé’s recent half-time show at the Super Bowl was called “sexy” by pundits, but could just as easily be called hyper-sexualized.
No matter how empowered she seems, she opened her act by stripping half her costume down to a bustier and Victoria’s Secret lacy type eyelet panties and did dance numbers to match. Her amazing voice got half lost in the process. The most “empowered” part of her act was that she was backed up by an all-girl band.Both Rihanna and Beyoncé are beautiful and very talented women – but society seems to want to focus on the sex and beauty part more than their abilities. At the same time, our celebrity driven culture tends to make heroes of, or at the very least, excuse famous men with unsavory, even violent, behavior.
The most recent episode of CSI featured in its opening scene a female singer performing in a sexy dance number onstage. Her scenes were cross-cut with scenes of a woman tied to a chair being beaten and killed backstage, while the music played.
Effective filmmaking? Absolutely. Terrifying? You bet. Titillating to some? Without a doubt. The constant juxtapositions we see of women, sex and violence in our culture are horrid.
Two recent studies reveal that overtly sexual images of women influence not only the way men see women but worse still, the way women value – or devalue — themselves, as if their worth is connected only to their physical appearance and the pleasure they can offer. Is it any wonder that when Chris Brown got public grief for his treatment of Rihanna, girls were actually blogging about how “he could beat them up anytime.” That Rihanna, or any woman, would return for the possibility of more of the same treatment is something passing understanding.
Eric Dolan of Raw Story reported that Rachel M. Calogero of the U.K.’s University of Kent just published a study in Psychological Science showing that “self-objectification is a self-perspective that many women adopt as a primary consequence of regular encounters of sexual objectification.” She asks:
“… Why do we seem to compulsively objectify girls and women, at seemingly younger and younger ages, in this culture?” I think there are multiple and converging forces at play with respect to objectification. What we do know is that the evidence for the objectification of women across a variety of media and interpersonal sources is overwhelming and that it brings harm to both women and men. Keep in mind that sexual objectification includes a range of encounters from less to more extreme. It is not just checking out women or sexualized media portrayals of women, but sexual harassment and violence as well.”
Violent words lead to violent actions, or at least make them seem more acceptable. A study released in Psychological Science in May, 2012 revealed that both men and women see images of sexy women’s bodies as objects, while they see sexy-looking men as people. *(Hat Tip to blogger TerryS for sharing this study.)
Calogero also studied “the relationship between self-objectification and social activism.” She found “that women who were primed to evaluate themselves based on their appearance and sexual desirability had a decreased motivation to challenge gender-based inequalities and injustices.”
“Self-objectification has been causally linked to a number of negative physical, mental, and behavioral health outcomes in girls and women, and even some men,” demonstrating that “self-objectification is connected to women’s motivation to challenge the status quo.”
She found they were less likely to speak out about gender inequality, sign a petition supporting women’s rights or to support female candidates for political office. Women politicians, by the way, are all too familiar with ridiculous double standards that judge appearance and demeanor.
“In short, primarily valuing and investing in appearance domains and viewing oneself in terms of a sexual object is related to women devaluing and investing less in social action …this pattern seems to emerge because the more women self-objectify, the less likely they are to report perceiving anything wrong with the gender status quo, so what is there to change?”
Her study also shared they were “less likely to participate in social activism in the future.”
The objectification is constant and growing…
Patricia Donovan reported on a 2011 study authored by University of Buffalo sociologists Erin Hatton, PhD, and Mary Nell Trautner, PhD, entitled, “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone.”
Using Rolling Stone Magazine as a bellwether of pop culture, they examined covers from the 60s through 2009. They found that the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades had become increasingly sexualized, even “pornified” while the same was not true of the portrayal of men.
Trautner and Hatton analyzed more than 1,000 images on Rolling Stone covers over a 43 year period:
In the 1960s they found that 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers of Rolling Stone were sexualized. “In the 2000s,” Hatton said, “there were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women.”
“What we conclude from this is that popular media outlets such as Rolling Stone are not depicting women as sexy musicians or actors; they are depicting women musicians and actors as ready and available for sex. This is problematic,” Hatton says, “because it indicates a decisive narrowing of media representations of women.
This is deliberate. Not only does it sell. It encourages us to sell women short. Hatton stated:
“We don’t necessarily think it’s problematic for women to be portrayed as ‘sexy.’ But we do think it is problematic when nearly all images of women depict them not simply as ‘sexy women’ but as passive objects for someone else’s sexual pleasure.”
Hatton further stated:
“Sexualized portrayals of women have been found to legitimize or exacerbate violence against women and girls, as well as sexual harassment and anti-women attitudes among men and boys. Such images also have been shown to increase rates of body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders among men, women and girls; and they have even been shown to decrease sexual satisfaction among both men and women.”
We seem so conditioned to this, it is not surprising that violence against women in television, film (and even in music) is more graphic and grotesque, and, as in life, women on television are victims of violence far more than men.
Beyoncé Knowles’ new HBO documentary, “Life Is but a Dream,” speaks to her sense of empowerment and while one can argue that her dance numbers are indicative of a woman expressing the life force through her sexuality, what I saw at the Super Bowl and in some of the dance performances shared in her film, was closer to pole dancing: “popping the coochie,” kittenish vamping and hair tossing for the camera that sometimes undermined her amazing vocal talent – rock spectacle notwithstanding. Her documentary is lovely and in many ways, vulnerable, honest and raw. Yet the overemphasis on the sexual in choice of costume and dance seems to distract from her overall artistry. Ironically, when the film shared her most powerful vocal performance, she was entirely covered in a sequined jacket and slacks. Her talent was front and center. Her beauty and sensuality spoke for itself and were, appropriately, rendered to an afterthought.
Whether intentionally or not, Ms. Knowles’ documentary “Life Is but a Dream” asks an interesting question – can a woman who is a powerful performer and producer be in charge of the message and her own sexuality, without the sex being valued over her artistry?
And can we as a society continue with beer billboards, hyper-sexualized images of women, sexist, disrespectful descriptions of women, and obsession over the physical form while imagining it does not take a toll on the way women see and present themselves? It’s not as if one can simply turn off the TV and not be bombarded by these images. They are everywhere.
As long as women sign on to be victims or allow themselves to be influenced by these negative pictorial and societal images without fighting back, we will get more of the same.
Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon — 3 months at #1 in Women in Politics Books.
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