“Enlightened Sexism” and The Media: The Cultural Attack on Feminism by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Freyhauf, Feminism, Religion, Durham, Old Testament, Blogger, Bible, Gender, Violence, Ursuline, John CarrollWhat 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.

Original photo is found at http://www.eonline.com/news/452313/miley-cyrus-vma-performance-see-taylor-swift-rihanna-one-direction-and-more-stars-reactionsschool.

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
  • Clueless
  • Mean Girls
  • Toddlers and Tiaras
  • Keeping up with the Kardashians
  • Real Housewives of Atlanta
  • 90210
  • 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.”

I disagree.

With the themes that are recurrent in these shows, a movement is influencing our teens and young adults, while at the same

Photo from Amazon.com

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.

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Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

10 thoughts on ““Enlightened Sexism” and The Media: The Cultural Attack on Feminism by Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

  1. Thanks for this powerful piece.

    I only saw the headlines about Miley Cyrus. I did not understand that she was not only objectifying herself, but also contributing to the rape culture by participating with a man who whose song blurred the boundaries about consent to sex. I suppose Steinem was reacting to the scapegoating of Miley rather than the music industry. Still, Cyrus is 21 (I looked it up) and old enough to know that her actions are harming women and girls. She too should be called out for this.

    On Tuesday night on Chris Hayes there was a discussion of rape culture. I guess we are getting somewhere if Chris Hayes can use the term without even batting an eye. A brilliant young woman who is starring in an off-Broadway play about “party rape” was on the program. Brava to her and other brave young women who dare to challenge the rape culture.

    When we do we risk being called “prudes” which is one of the ways they shut us up. Maybe we need to have Prude Walks as well as Slut Walks. Or both together.

    I am not ready to cover myself up, but still no woman is “free” to choose how she wants her body to be understood when the deck is already stacked against her by a culture that objectifies women’s bodies.


  2. I think this “attack on feminism” is fueled by the gains that women have made in a technological culture that favors brains over brute force. Women now have the ability to out-compete or “emasculate” men on political, economic, scientific, and artistic levels. If the current culture does not launch an attack, then men will lose their privileged status. The desperation of the culture war is a marker of the fear of losing power. For a more obvious example, look at the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousefzai because of her demands for a “Western” education. Want power/education that threatens men? We’ll shoot you in the head.


  3. @ nmr—while I think your point on the desperation generated by fear of losing privilege may have a point, I disagree about equating Yousufzai’s advocacy for education in terms of Western or Eastern or other geographic-specific. A quote from Malala — “My father says that education is neither Eastern or Western. Education is education: it’s the right of everyone.”

    Objectifying and disrespecting women also objectifies and disrespects men because if one sells it, the other consumes it. Therefore, there must be a twofold approach—both in the sales and in the consumption. In other words—this should not just focus on the betterment of women but on the betterment of both men and women. In other words this sentence should read as—-It is time to change the rules, teach our young girls and young boys how to talk back to the media, boycott products that are advertised by exploiting or sexualizing girls and women,…etc

    Feminism—I could be wrong—as I am not a Westerner–but didn’t the beginnings of western feminism include bra burning and sexual liberation…etc…? So, perhaps some feminists think todays “freedoms” (freedom from sexual boundaries) is what feminism was advocating all along……

    For Muslims—boundaries can be established using the concept of public and private spaces. The public sphere upholds the dignity of both men and women, while the private sphere allows for the enjoyment of intimacy. In the Muslim context, this can provide for more nuanced discourse on rights and responsibilities because the discourse can be balanced into 2 areas—gender justice in the leadership roles in communities/nations, the areas of academic, business, and financial opportunities…etc…(public) —and gender justice in the area of care of children, elderly and sick family members, the area of relationships and sexual intimacy…etc. (private). Issues, problems and roles/needs in these two areas may be different and understanding them as somewhat overlapping spheres may create more nuanced and perhaps balanced discussions…..?…..

    According to Peggy Drexler, “feminism is ultimately about the freedom to chose and compete and be who you are…”
    As a Muslim—I understand gender justice as a discourse on the rights and responsibilities of men and women in their society. (both as individuals and as part of a community/culture)


    1. I put Western in quotes because the Taliban has said they don’t oppose women getting educated, but they want them to have an “Islamic” education. However, I don’t know (and if anyone out there has a link, please share) how they are defining “Islamic” education for women. My gut instinct is that it is something along the lines of 2nd grade reading, writing, and math skills plus some home economics (budgeting, hygiene, basic first aid), child development, and history according to their religious prism. Just a guess.

      I agree with you that men do lose out in the culturally defined gender consumption game, but, for men consumption also defines class lines. Beautiful, young women can,theoretically jump the class boundary lines, their male counterparts not so much.


      1. @ nmr
        Islamic education—I cannot speak for the Taliban but for many Muslims an “Islamic education” means the same thing as what “Christian education” might mean to Christians—that is, an education that emphasis ethics/morality. (For this reason Christian schools are popular among Muslims)

        men/boys—Perhaps I did not express myself well, I meant that sexifying/objectifying women/girls is morally degrading for both men/boys and women/girls. Movies and Music are one area but other areas are games, comics, anime…etc….
        To summraize–a culture that heavily stereotypes and objectifies one gender—also stereotypes and objectifies the other gender….and results in the exploitation of both genders.


  4. “Bra burning” was a patriarchal attack on feminism. This is a phrase of male denegration of feminism as it rose yet again in the west in 1968. Women who are a little too indoctrinated into internalized woman denegrating discourse use the phrase “bra burning” but it never happened.

    Gender justice–I hate the use of the word ‘gender’ because it makes invisible the word “women.” There is no such thing as gender justice. Justice on whose terms? Certainly not mine as a radical lesbian feminist who wants women’s liberation and an end to male colonization, male dominance and the reign of terror that is male supremacy worldwide. I’m a name the agent feminist, and I see men’s horror as central to the cause of women. I’m not an equality feminist, I’m not a women go to church feminist, I’m not interested in reform or liberalism at all. I am interested in women rising up globally and ending male supremacy, and male war…. and we need to be as radical as we can to say what is it we need to do to end war. I have ideas, suggestions, and I challenge hetero women to engage on this level. Otherwise it will be the gender blender obfuscation and women get a PhD program till the end of time. Meanwhile more men are killing and raping women and poisoning the ocean.


  5. This is the first time I’ve heard the term “enlightened sexism” and I really think this quote is on to something big: “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).

    I’m pleased that my own sons, ages 7 and 10, routinely identify sexism in the media–“hey, that’s sexist, right mom?!” Yes, honey, it is…


  6. We need not take Miley to task for this, but her promoters–who I would guess are men, or women who have drunk the ‘kool-aid’ of thinking that women are being ‘liberated’ by objectifying themselves. There is a conflation here of played-out sexuality and personal wholeness. Is she really ‘being’ her true self or a media puppet? We have to look deeper and find the hurts that are being caused on a deeper level. ‘Letting-it all hang out’ has new meaning today, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being our true, authentic selves. There is a double-effect here: The man’s inner desires are being fed by the gyrating, scantily-clad woman who is the nouveau evil-Eve, temptress attempting to get him to bite the apple, once again and he not having to apparently take any responsibility for his actions of either delighting in the view of a beautiful female body or his thoughts of his own hidden sexuality, i.e. his covered body would not reveal his erection from her gyrations, thus once again his apparent ‘innocence’ in the matter is solidified and, since we are unaware since the woman has taken center stage, then we blame her once again for her actions; when they are based on male desires, often secretive! So let’s put the blame where it really needs to go–on the patriarchal structures that produce these symbolically-charged metaphors of our society and culture that as Michele said need to be changed at the core. Hopefully, the next generation, f raised by good feminists, as we all are, we can make a change so that sexuality and sex are understood as love unity in its most beautiful terms for both women and men in whichever way best suits who they truly are as human beings without the genderization that we see here.


  7. It seems western “feminist” discourse is reduced to feminism=good/patriarchy=bad dichotomy. Perhaps this stifles critical and nuanced thinking? I think the problem here is simply greed. How to generate money?—well marketers know that if you push buttons that trigger desires—money will flow to them. So the change that needs to happen is that of ethical consumerism. Rather than be seduced by “desires” that only intend to exploit, consumers (both men and women) must think critically, smartly, and ethically about their buying choices. This means that we must empower our children and youth to understand that their choices have an impact.

    “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please”–Epictetus.


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