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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Representation, objectification, and the necessary restatement of the obvious

Still thinking about women, the way that we are represented, and the ways that we (re)present ourselves. This time, it starts with an article on the portrayal of women in the media.

HuffPo Women reported yesterday on a study conducted by USC Annenberg and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which analyzed female characters on prime time and children's TV shows, as well as in films rated G, PG, and PG-13. This study showed that female characters were, across the board, less likely to speak than their male counterparts, less likely to be gainfully employed, and more likely to be shown weary sexy or revealing clothing

In a summary of the study's findings, the researchers reported that they found a lack of aspirational female role models in all three media categories, and cited five main observations: female characters are sidelined, women are stereotyped and sexualized, a clear employment imbalance exists, women on TV come up against a glass ceiling, and there are not enough female characters working in STEM fields.

I'm obviously behind attempts to call attention to the problem, and I think it's great to be able to point to data collected through culturally validated channels in discussing what the problem is, and why it's a problem. But, I also think the problem is really obvious. I really believe that, if you've ever watched a TV show, or gone to a movie, you know this, even if you are unable, or more likely unwilling, to consider what it means. Without lessening the importance of the conversation, I sometimes feel the need, once in a while, to point out that this would all be much easier if people would remove head from ass and pay attention.

Deep breath.

So, when I saw this article last night, and I shared a link to it on FB, the commentary I added was a moment of feeling overwhelmed by the feeling that people are missing (or ignoring) something really, really obvious, and really obviously a problem.  The responses I got reminded me, quite rightfully, that we're not all "feminist media literacy advocates" (I love that phrase, and intend to steal it from you, J.), and that we sometimes need to "prime the arena for intervention" (truth, M., and well put). Another friend spoke to a different aspect of the issue, which is the frustration of seeing women perpetuate their own objectification. This is the thing that got me thinking this morning, because I share that frustration -- put some damn clothes on, half-naked woman on the bus, and stop dressing your prepubescent daughter like a miniature version of a woman I'd want to wrap in a blanket and send home to try again! But also worry about how we respond to that behavior.

My problem is that, while I think the most visceral response is often, "ugh, stop making things worse," I also think that there are reasons that people perpetuate systems that do not benefit them, and that those behaviors are hard to change in ways that makes simple censure feel inadequate. Cultural hegemony -- whether the cultures in question are racial, gender-based, national, etc -- is real and powerful. And, it is persistent. Part of what fuels its persistence is that it is self-replicating: the dominant group does not simply impose its values, it naturalizes those values, so that those on whom they're being imposed come to embrace them, to see them as real. Those who are not of the dominant group are marinated in the values of the dominant group, and eventually internalize them as their own. Society's beauty standards are, I think, an accessible example by now -- things like people of color having internalized pale skin and straight, preferably blond hair as THE way to be beautiful, as opposed to one of many.

Similarly, women in the United States (I speak specifically because it's what I know best) have been steeped in the set of ideas about beauty and sexiness. So, while women may dress or act in a way that furthers their objectification, they don't do so in a vacuum. That is to say that they do not usually start from a neutral point of full understanding of objectification, its causes, and its effects and think, "Yeah -- that sounds great!" The nature of cultural hegemony is that it warps reality, so that we think we're seeing clearly when we're not. We look at ourselves in funhouse mirrors, but think that we're seeing the truth. And change is not, in this case (in any case?), like flipping on a switch, so even if the warp in reality becomes visible to some, that doesn't mean that we will all just stop believing and living that false worldview overnight. You've got to get people to realize they've internalized as natural or ideal something that is not, in fact, natural, probably isn't ideal for all, and may not be ideal for any. You've got to get them to internalize something new, which is difficult. And the new thing you've got to get them to internalize might not be clear yet, and is certainly not as well established as the old ways.

All of which is to say that the idea of objectifying yourself, or otherwise playing into a worldview that lessens you, is a tricky one, which makes the sense of censure that usually attaches to it tricky, as well. Yes, I want women to dress like they respect themselves, and to project what I consider to be a positive image. But, that involves moving beyond giving them the side-eye, and really thinking about how to change what someone has internalized as positive, negative, or neutral. This requires changing how people perceive reality, and what they therefore think is worth projecting. (It also involves shaking up how we all interpret what we see, and convincing more people that they're always interpreting and being interpreted, but those are at least a couple of different blogs.)

So, how do we give more people the tools that would enable them to perpetuate a new and better set of images and behaviors? Well, I suppose that we give people the side-eye and shake our heads, but also try to explain why we're doing so. And, we continue to point out, in various ways, where reality has been warped, hoping to help others see it. We participate in conversations about how to straighten things out, and we take the lead in shaping the reflections and representations younger generations are shaped by.

And, sometimes, we point out how obvious the problems are, and extol the virtues of mass craniorectal extraction.

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