What is a feminist mother of four daughters to do these days? Look at our media and how girls and women are portrayed to our daughters, teens, and young adults. Then take a look at how media portrays the face of feminism, promoting every negative stereotype out there. As I scroll through the magazines, listen to songs on the radio, and watch the programming targeted at girls in junior high and up, I cannot help but ask the question – Is the media trying to destroy feminism?
While this introduction might sound drastic, much truth lies behind the questions. One merely needs to look around and watch former Disney Star, Miley Cyrus, twerk and make lewd gestures with a foam finger while grinding against a man, almost twice her age, as he sings about the blurred lines of sexual consent. When I saw the news stories and yes, watched the video, I was utterly mortified and stunned. Gloria Steinem, in a statement that seems to condone this behavior stated that Cyrus’ performance (actions) is not a new phenomenon, but a product of American culture. Instead of looking at it through the lens of degradation and influence, she defended the young star by saying:
“I wish we didn’t have to be nude to get noticed. But given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest… the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, then we would be saying ‘this is why China wins.’ You know? But that’s the way culture is. I think that we need to change culture, not blame the people that are playing the game that exists.”
When Cyrus’ actions are boiled down to being “nude to get noticed,” and we accept this behavior by merely chalking her performance up to culture – isn’t it time to change culture?
The dance (or twerking) that Cyrus engaged in is very much a part of culture. This is the way our children dance at their high school dances – and it is accepted by the chaperones of the dance.
To those of us detached from high school dances and clubbing, I suspect that her dance (and gestures) were shocking (and revolting). My girls were disgusted, not by the dance itself, but how another young star has crashed and burned.
However the focus should not only be on Cyrus. What about the song and the male singer? Cyrus was “twerking,” sticking out her tongue (symbolizing oral sex), and rubbing herself with a foam finger while grinding against an older man, Robin Thicke (almost twice her age and married) while he sings a song called “Blurred Lines.” A song about the “blurred lines” of sex – “no” means “yes” with the repetition of the phrase “I know you want it” throughout the song. A song banned in parts of the U.K. for being “rapey.” A song that illustrates the rape culture that we live in.
Let’s look at culture. According to Salon.com, Cyrus is now part of the “boys’ club.” Why? Every action she did, even the way she dressed (not to mention the life-sized teddy bears), played to the stereotype of “what men want” – a stereotype that is constantly being played on television, shown in movies, appearing in clothing catalogues, and in magazines (1001 ways to make your man happy, 500 ways to lose weight and be beautiful, etc.).
This behavior seems to infest every aspect of the media that our daughters are exposed to on a daily basis. Annie Lennox was on point when she wrote on her Facebook page:
“…I believe in freedom of speech and expression, but the market forces don’t give a toss about the notion of boundaries. As long as there’s booty to make money out of, it will be bought and sold. It’s depressing to see how these performers are so eager to push this new level of low. Their assumption seems to be that misogyny- utilised and displayed through oneself is totally fine, as long as you are the one creating it. As if it’s all justified by how many millions of dollars and U tube hits you get from behaving like pimp and prostitute at the same time. It’s a glorified and monetized form of self harm.”
Lennox implies that female performers engage in misogynistic demeaning displays all of the time, and that someone (whether society or “advisors”) told them that displaying yourself or behaving in this way is acceptable. One merely needs to look at Madonna, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, etc. – all known for their shock value, whether it is a lack of clothes or pushing sexual boundaries. This is part of our culture.
So what does the world look like for our teens and young adults – what is culturally acceptable? How are girls/women portrayed on TV? Here is a list of some popular televisions shows (feel free to google them if you are not familiar with the shows):
- The Bachelor
- Bride Wars
- Pretty Little Liars
- The Lying Game
- Make it or Break it
- Gossip Girl
- Sex in the City
- The Carrie Diaries
- The Real World
- Mean Girls
- Toddlers and Tiaras
- Keeping up with the Kardashians
- Real Housewives of Atlanta
- The Secret Life of an American Teenager
- The O.C.
- One Tree Hill
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. In each of these shows there is a reoccurring theme of objectification of women. After all, this is acceptable in our culture because, as Cameron Diaz tells us:
“… every woman does want to be objectified. There’s a little part of you at all times that hopes to be somewhat objectified, and I think it’s healthy.”
With the themes that are recurrent in these shows, a movement is influencing our teens and young adults, while at the same
time undermining, even attacking feminism. Media, whether it is songs, names of bands, magazine articles, movies, or television shows, seems to be sending a message that girls/women are shallow sexual objects and/or insecure manipulative man-seeking primadonnas, and villianizes the face of feminism. Susan J. Douglas in The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, calls this phenomenon (as her title suggests) “enlightened sexism:”
“Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of a new gender regime”….it “is a manufacturing process that is produced, week in and week out, by the media”….and is dedicated to the undoing of feminism” (9-10).
Douglas further states that enlightened sexism “includes in-your-face sexisim, in which the attitudes about women that infuriated feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s are pushed to new, even more degrading levels, except that it’s all done with a wink” or in Cyrus’ case with a tongue and a twerk (13).
According to Christian Piatt, Cyrus’ performance contributes to North America’s feminist movement:
“Although in some respects, women and girls have made strides toward gender parity in our culture, there is still a persistent, if sometimes subtle, subtext narrated to our girls, which is that sex is the most efficient and potent means of access to power they have.”
Seriously? Is this really a feminist movement?
Piatt concludes his article, much the same way Steinhem did:
“After all, the culture set up the rules of the game long ago and, in spite of our assertions to the contrary, the economies of power, money and fame depend heavily on appealing to our basic instincts.”
If these are the rules that our daughters, even society is expected to operate within, I think it is time to change the rules. It is time for feminism to be reclaimed in the media, dispel the negative stereotypes of feminism the media portrays, and applaud them when they get it right.
According to Peggy Drexler, “feminism is ultimately about the freedom to chose and compete and be who you are…”
It is time to change the rules, teach our young girls how to talk back to the media, boycott products that are advertised by exploiting or sexualizing girls and women, stop watching television shows that embrace “enlightened sexism,” learn about political organizing, donate to organizations that are dedicated to helping or improving the life of women and children. For the very motivated–encourage them to run for office–like our own Carol Christ has done.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religion and a member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, is a Member of Sigma Nu, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies Department at John Carroll University. Her bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://durham.academia.edu/MSFreyhauf and she can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.