A Bad Feminist…
Sometimes, I wonder if I am a bad feminist… A couple of weeks ago I purchased a beautiful vintage mannequin head. She has a name—Jeanette. Jeanette is a redhead with pin curls skirting the back of her neck; elegantly made-up; flawlessly white. Really, she is an “ideal” beauty. I collect custom-made hats and bought Jeanette from the wonderfully creative women who makes my hats (Who has their own hat maker anyway? Artistic endeavor or elite consumerism?). I get pleasure from gazing at Jeanette—she’s perfection, she’s pretty.
I began teaching a new group of students in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class this week. I like to launch my class with the topic Women & the Media by showing the documentary film Killing Us Softly. This film is often a very powerful awakening for students who have never thought about the objectification and sexualization of women in the media, the constructed image of ideal beauty, and how these images so negatively impact how we all feel about ourselves. I believe that it is important to deconstruct and resist the ways that women are portrayed in the media—the blatant devaluing of women’s humanity that wallpapers our lives. Moreover, the shameless display of violence against women to sell products is unconscionable. I am committed to helping students see how these media depictions are connected to violence against women, as well as how such images construct and reinforce women’s lower status overall in society.
A recent article in Psychology of Women Quarterly (Loughnan et al., Dec. 2013), Sexual Objectification Increases Rape Victim Blame and Decreases Perceived Suffering, caused me to think deeper about the connections between how women are treated in the media and violence against women. This British study showed how sexual objectification resulted in “denied humanity and an internal mental life, as well as deemed unworthiness of moral concern” (455). The connection between sexual objectification and the perception and treatment of rape victims strikes me as expected, but at the same time somewhat shocking in its implications. To quote from the article:
“Besides altering how people think about and treat themselves, objectification has a detrimental effect on how people perceive and treat others. In addition to [dehumanizing the objectified], objectification alters mind attribution, meaning that objectified women are viewed as possessing less complex, rich mind compared to non-objectified women. . . Reduced attributions of mind and humanity may also influence perceptions of moral treatment—the extent to which someone is deemed worthy of fair treatment and should not be harmed . . . When we feel moral concern towards an entity (e.g., a child), we want to see that entity treated morally (i.e., not harmed; treated fairly). By contrast, when we do not feel moral concern toward an entity (e.g., a rock [or a woman]), we do not care how it is treated.”
Evidence from this study shows that objectification of women results in the harsh and immoral treatment of rape victims that we see in our culture—moral concern for women who are victims of assault has been diminished by sexual objectification. I have understood how objectification leads to dehumanizing women, and consequently, to violence; the new insight for me is the connection between objectification and the lack of moral concern for women who are victims of violence. I find this a sobering realization. The portrayal of women in the media is killing us (not-so-softly at all).
I teach my students to look at media images with a feminist lens, to understand the damaging impacts of ideal beauty and sexual objectification to women’s self-esteem and to gender equality. I also play with ideal beauty in my own life. I find pleasure in the ideal feminine image—the fantasy image that is Jeanette. She sits in my office atop my feminist book collection. Perhaps, Jeanette is ironic, there to remind me of my feminist values. Perhaps, I live in contradictory spaces and am
a bad feminist.