Monday, September 26, 2016

Sexism; A Thing of Subtlety?

It has only recently come to my attention that, while painfully present in today’s society, sexism has become a very subtle thing. I look at advertising and the media and lack outrage. It was only when watching excerpts from ‘MissRepresentation’ in class this week that I realised, while I am fully aware of the inappropriate way in which women are portrayed by the media, I have a tendency to ignore it. I have become so used to the hyper-sexualisation of females that I now barely recognise the underlying current behind it. I was brought up watching women be exposed this way to a point that I subconsciously accept it. 

In the aftermath of Thursday’s class, I spent a lot of time considering just how affected by the media we really are. Essentially, it is everywhere. The average adult spends 20 hours a week online. What is even worse than this statistic is that the impressionable teenagers of our generation, are spending an average of 27 hours online every week. During this time, they are being exposed to images that are unrealistic portrayals of the female body. Websites such as Facebook and Instagram are forums for people to display themselves, to show the world the best physical version of themselves. Many take these as opportunities to distort themselves and their natural appearance with the intention of gaining “likes” and “followers”. The concern for people using these sites is rarely the substance of their post and, often, the popularity it will help them achieve.

Moreover, the media is also feeding women and girls a false notion that their highest priority is to look like the best version of themselves. Amy Schumer recently highlighted this issue on her Instagram page. She posted a photo in which a magazine aimed at women was placed next to a magazine aimed toward men. The cover of the male-oriented magazine contained the headline “Explore Your Future” while the female cover stories were much more superficial, for example, “Your Dream Hair”. This shocked and outraged me. How is such blatant sexism on display? After further consideration, I realised that I witness such things on a very regular basis and never find myself noticing or caring about them. Sexism has become a thing so normal to me that I am basically unaware of its existence in the media until someone else draws my attention to it. 

The thing that struck me most by the documentary, however, was not just the way in which women are scrutinised but the extent to which it occurs. Watching and learning about the comparisons and contrasts made between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin made me very concerned about the criticism we, as women, are bound to face. Regardless of their appearance and whether or not it was considered attractive, they were being scrutinised based on how they looked. Clinton, a dignified woman with plenty of experience and qualification, was being regarded as old and haggard. While Palin, on the other hand, a young mother who was considered to be very beautiful looking had, due to her good-looks, difficulty being taken seriously. It seems to me that, by this standard, women can never win. Either you are criticised for not looking the right way or you are criticised for looking the right way but that, in turn, meaning you couldn’t possibly be regarded in a sincere way.

It scares me that these comments are made so frequently. Everyday new stories emerge in the media and new photos are posted online, all accentuating the “perfect” way to look. In the lead up to summer everyone is so worried about getting that “perfect bikini body” and all the tabloids are trying to guarantee women the quickest and easiest route to getting there. But men don’t wear bikinis. Where is the pressure for men to get the “perfect swimming-trunks body”? We see these messages and allow them to influence us without ever really noticing that they do. I see coverage of the presidential election and accept the media’s perception of Hillary Clinton because she is a woman, without ever paying homage to the fact that a man in the same position would never be regarded from such an angle.  I worry that somewhere down the line we grew so accustomed to sexism that it is now almost acceptable. 


Joan Maya said...

Julie, thank you for such a great post. While reading about how much women are scrutinized for their looks in media it made me think of being in high school, a time in which I think girls increasingly have pressure to look and dress a certain way. My high school years were different than most because I went to an all girls school. While I absolutely loathed my father when he said I would be spending four whole years without boys looking back I am so grateful I went. While the media was still present in everyone's life I feel like without boys in the class the pressure to look a certain way went steeply down and no one felt a qualm about showing off their intelligence in class. I wonder if this could be contributed to the fact that the media tells women and girls that boys only value them for their looks?

Flamingo said...

I have always found it highly interesting and funny to look at old advertising. Some of them would be banned today because they would be considered outrageous (especially the racist ones - see the recent buzz around the racist chinese detergent ad : Some others were clearly sexist and confined women in the kitchen for example.

Nowadays, as you pointed out, it feels more insidious. Women are oversexualized and often represented only by some body parts. I agree, we grew up being unaware of the constant misrepresentation and became accustomed to it. However, I feel that as soon as I became interested in feminism and did some research, I began to notice most of the subtle sexist messages. I now point them out to people around me when I can and try my best not to be influenced too much by them (at least on the conscious level).
For example, your post made me think about the recent assignment for which we had to find out about our university's policy on sexual harassment. Thanks to the assignment, I discovered that my university's webpage about sexual harassment included subtle sexist and racist messages, supposed to be humorous. I was obviously outraged and wrote to them - I got no real answer. I probably would not have noticed or not cared enough to do anything just a year ago. So I think we can become aware and are not doomed to be manipulated by such subtle messages. But it can be irritating to feel powerless against them.
Thank you for raising this issue Julie!

Louise Trainor said...

What a brilliant commentary Julie. I can really relate to this post, I myself have become oblivious to the sexist nature of magazines and social media.
When you talked about the pressure of young girls to look good and gain popularity on their social media accounts, it lead me to consider my own attitude towards platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in a time where i-Phones did not dominate the social scene and social media had not become such a strong force within society. I was a mid-teen before I properly started using Instagram and Facebook. While I was by no means a responsible adult, I had matured enough to know what was acceptable to post and to understand that pictures are simply for keeping memories, not for looking "slim" or "fit". What sickens me is that these days, girls as young as thirteen have i-Phones and are downloading photo-shopping apps to alter their photographs.
I do not have a younger sister myself, but I have heard concerns from my friends who fear that the emphasis their younger siblings place on social-media popularity is warping their perception of reality. Young girls are rated on the outfits they wear in their photographs and how many "likes" they attract. It makes me extremely sad to think that young girls are compelled to portray themselves in a certain "cool" light in order to feel worth.
While one could argue that law-makers and citizens who are of age to vote have progressed in their way of thinking regarding women's rights and abilities, there is another dimension to this feminist movement that must not be overlooked. The younger generation are growing up in a world where social media generates ludicrous hype around girls' appearances. We are not to know what effects this will have on their confidence and if it will harm the female-empowerment progression we have experienced in the past two centuries.

Earnest Femingway said...


The desensitizing phenomenon our media consumption creates is nearly as troubling as the sexist media. It stands in the way and disrupts our ability to fight back against sexist narratives, portrayals, and framing. I too realized after watching the film how much I had internalized; that night at Bar Review, music videos filled with objectification played on loop and it dawned on me how many years I had consumed this.

I agree with Flamingo's characterization that today's oversexualization is more insidious. Some aspects of our culture present sexuality as empowerment, and undoubtedly many women experience empowerment when expressing themselves. But we still have double standards for women's sexuality, creating the lose-lose situation you touched on regarding HRC and Palin. In the end, straight men can consume objectifying media and face no scrutiny of beauty standards or sexuality.