Two ways a woman can get hurt

Today we had our last lecture in one of the first phd courses, and I held my last presentation, this time about my field of research: sexist advertising. I presented a chapter: Two ways a woman can get hurt: Advertising and Violence,  from Kilbourne’s book Deadly persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising (1999). Here, Kilbourne speaks about sex in advertising and how this is similar to pornography since it is more about dehumanizing, objectifying and disconnecting than it is about reality. Violence is encouraged in many ads, men are shown to be in power, dominant, to take control, heck, take whatever they want, while women are portrayed as never saying no, or at least, not meaning no when they say it. Women are encouraged by ads to be attracted to the hostile and indifferent men, often the ones that in real life would be absolutely dangerous. Violence is also trivialized, and rape is glorified. Kilbourne argues about the objectification being different for women and men: when women are objectified they are so in a cultural context where this objectification is constant, and where there are serious consequences, from economic discrimination to violence. For men, the consequences are not the same since their bodies are generally not routinely judged and invaded, they are not as likely to get harassed, raped or beaten by women, as women are by men. This is eloquently described and summed up:

“When power is unequal, when one group is oppressed and discriminated against as a group, when there is a context of systemic and historical oppression, stereotypes and prejudice have different weight and meaning.”

Now, that is not to say that the objectification of men is any better, all objectification is bad of course. It is always bad to objectify a person. However, it is important to understand that the objectification looks very different when it comes to women and men. After all, we are not equal in the eyes of the ads.

After my presentation we had a very long discussion that was both interesting, fruitful and extremely frustrating and upsetting. At one point, I was boiling, it came after one of my male colleagues said that it is in the nature of women to want to be looked at by men, and it is in the men’s nature to want to look at women. Nature. Nature? Needless to say, this really heated up the debate with him on one side and practically the rest of us on the other with arguments about the social construction of reality. About the fact that women are not born with an innate desire to be ogled by men, that it is not something in our blood, but rather in the way we are brought up, taught by society to want to look pretty, to want to be wanted. It is something that we daily must think about, decide about. It is about the constant male gaze that is surrounding us all. Quietly, subtly.

It is not in our nature. It is in our heads.

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About not being equal and speaking up

By this point in time one would hope that it was pretty obvious that equality between the sexes is still just a mere dream, however, not all seem to see this crookedness and think that we all have the same opportunities and live according to the same standards and in the “same” society. However, the society we do live in does look fairly different for men and women, and therefore I must give praise to Jared Mauldin, a senior engineer who took a stand and spoke (well, wrote) about the inequality that surrounds his field. Thank you for your letter, for you seeing the vast differences regarding men and women in this field, for speaking up about it and foremost, for admitting that you and your gender are in fact the privileged ones when it comes to engineering (which basically includes all fields that have anything to do with technology).

Here is Jared’s letter:

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While feeling inspired and hopeful reading this, it also gives me a pang of cynicism and bitterness for the simple fact that this is the reality in which we live. Because even today women are not as encouraged as men to pursue technological activities and education, and when they do, they still face ridiculous challenges that have nothing to do with their capabilities or ambition, but everything to do with their gender. I have been in the IT-business for some time now and I have heard time and time again by my male peers who work as developers that “there just aren’t any great women who code”, in fact it is very rare to even find female developers at all. It does not surprise me that this is the mentality, and as much as I hate saying it, I can see what they mean. However, the reason for there not being enough developers who are women surely has more to do with the society we live in, than the fact that they are unable to code as well as men. Surely, this is in fact where the real problem lies. And this is a big problem.

Unless the challenges facing women in technological fields change, unless we (i.e. the society as a whole, the social structures we live by) change our mentality when it comes to women and technology, the crookedness will remain the same. And that is why Jared’s letter is so important, because it takes a stand in the right direction, towards equality.

Let’s just hope we get there some day.

Victoria’s real secret

A recent photo from the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret has received some negative attention due to it’s tasteless and poor photoshopping. Finally. How nice to see all those comments highlighting one of the problems with such ads: too damn much photoshopping. My heart literally swelled while reading many of the comments cause it tells me that there is still hope. One day we might even be rid of all these flawless, objectifying and unreal portrayals of women altogether. How lovely that would be..

But as of now, we are not quite there, and just for the heck of it I’ll jump in the discussion and review the ad in question:

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Wanna know Victoria’s real secret? Well here it is: Photoshop! The model used in this image was no question already skinny on the verge of anorectic, otherwise they would most likely not even had used her. But still, skinny is not skinny enough. Beautiful is not beautiful enough. Nice skin is not nice enough, not until it looks absolutely flawless and “perfect”, not until all the hairs, cracks, pores, wrinkles and everything else that makes skin, well, skin, is retouched into looking like plastic. As some of the negative comments already suggested, her exposed arm has lost some meat/muscle, and her poor butt cheek has been photoshopped into oblivion. I can’t imagine how a woman that actually had that body (ps. there is no such woman so don’t even try looking for her) would manage to sit down properly, but maybe she doesn’t sit. Maybe she just always stands against a dark mysterious wall with her hands up and her legs spread.
How awful for her.

The problem with this image is not just that it is exaggeratedly photoshopped, it is also the way they portray her: Passive, anonymous, just waiting for someone to grab her from behind. She is sexualized in a very disturbing and suggestively violent way. I would even go so far as to saying that she kind of looks like a soon-to-be-rape-victim. And all this just to sell panties. Really?

It’s time to grow up and smell the cracks, pores, wrinkles and natural “flaws” that all people have Victoria’s secret, time to take some damned responsibility and stop objectifying and distorting women just to sell underwear (!). Trust me that can be done without putting down women and contributing to the sexist male gaze and the objectification of women. If you want women to like your underwear and buy them, how about not first making them feel like shit cause they cannot possibly ever achieve the same kind of unnatural and photoshopped “flawlessness” that you are cramming down their throats? How about not trying to fool them into thinking that your panties are magic and can make them look like this, cause seriously, come on. It’s panties. Just panties. It won’t change you, it won’t make you feel better about who you really are, it won’t erase your “flaws”, or even your butt cheeks. It’s just plain old panties. And photoshop.

So now that your secret is out “Victoria”, how about instead making women feel beautiful for who they are, flaws and all?