October 27, 2011
It’s Halloween, which means it’s time for scary things like ghouls, groups of barely supervised children with sugar highs, and offensive costumes. The standard for women’s costumes has become predictably monotonous: think of a costume, remove most of the fabric, add a pair of thigh highs and heels, stick the word “sexy” in front of the title, and ta da! The only options left for women have become so predictable, I was surprised that some of the ideas still surprised me this year. Somehow, “Sexy Nemo” and “Sexy Watermelon” still caught me off guard.
But this isn’t another piece bemoaning the lack of creativity or highlighting the absurd perversion that was once a child’s holiday. We are supportive of those taking one step back from the madness of Halloween costumes to point out the problematic trend. True to the mission of this blog, we want to move two steps out and examine why this trend is so harmful. Yes, the new narrative for Halloween costumes is absurd and offensive, but why does that matter?
As Ohio University’s Students Teaching Against Racism in Society (STARS) highlight in their “We’re a Culture, not a Costume” campaign, it is not OK to represent an entire group of people by “borrowing” a few aspects commonly used to portray a negative stereotype of that group. Appropriating, or temporarily taking on, elements of an oppressed culture by someone outside of that group is frequently a racist action. This is why an “Indian Costume” is not a positive portrayal of a culture, but an offensive stereotype.
The sexy costume norm shares some similarities with the racist costume theme about which STARS is educating people. Beyond offensive outfits, both are about reducing a group of people to a single option. By offering all women only one role to fill, that of sex object, we are limiting their potential and reinforcing the stereotype that women are only good for one thing. This type of thinking leads to a systematic acceptance of male superiority, gender stereotyping, and a devaluation of women, all of which are societal risk factors for sexual violence.
When we see someone from a certain group as only one thing, we do not value them as human beings, and it is easier to perpetrate violence against them.
March 21, 2011
Everyone knows that sex sells. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have near-naked bodies promoting perfume, suggestive placement of hard alcohol bottles, and scandalous camera angles selling us fast food. The examples are endless, as are the instances of backlash against over-sexed ads.
While many of us may have signed email petitions demanding that ad execs pull commercials that use shameless nudity to sell their product, do we stop to think about what, exactly, we’re protesting?
There are oh-so-many very good reasons that feminists, health advocates, mental health counselors, anti-violence groups, oppression awareness organizations and youth workers (to name a few) get upset when, for example, the newest sneaker commercial deserves an NC-17 rating. Repeated messages that beauty is narrowly defined leaves young people who don’t fit that limited description thinking there must be something wrong with their own bodies. Airbrushing that glorifies unattainable body types can give young people self-esteem problems and lead to eating disorders. Seeing women in only one role (sex object) can limit the aspirations of young girls looking for role models and can also narrow the expectations of everyone around them.
Objectification. Using sex to sell products objectifies women. When a half-naked lady dances across a screen selling us soft drinks, we aren’t supposed to see the woman. All we’re supposed to see is some thing that’s nice to look at (usually from the point of view of a straight, white, rich man). We aren’t supposed to think about the person, or how hard she practiced to learn the dance, and certainly not about why a naked dancing lady has any place in a soda ad. Take away the thinking, breathing, feeling, real person behind a titillating image, and all that’s left is an attractive sex prop.
Objectifying women gives people permission to disregard all their human characteristics. Do we say “excuse me” when we bump into our kitchen table? Do we apologize to a book when we throw it on the ground? Of course not, because these are just things. And once a person is reduced to an object, it’s much easier to treat it with disrespect, to stop caring about what happens to it.
Objectification makes way for sexual assault. Maybe it seems like this argument is waaaaayyyy over the top—until you read the horribly offensive e-mail from a fraternity at the University of Southern California. (Major trigger warning for sexual content, graphic language, extreme misogyny, violence against women, and more.) It’s not necessary to read the whole letter, and really it’s sickening, so maybe you shouldn’t. In a perfect example of objectification, this letter from one student to the rest of his frat brothers says, “I will refer to females as ‘targets’. They aren’t actual people like us men. Consequently, giving them a certain name or distinction is pointless.” Describing one type of woman, the letter reads, “Loop n’ Doop: A target that is very easy to take down. All she takes is a good amount of liquor (loop) and she will be good to go for you to f*** her (doop). Be careful with loop n’ doops, because too much loop and they will get sick and be useless entities.” Since an intoxicated person cannot consent to sex and is often unable to stop unwanted advances, the behavior encouraged by the letter’s author has a legal name: rape.
So, we may think it sounds extreme that using a naked woman to sell a sports car can lead to sexual assault, but examples like this repulsive letter demonstrate that the connection between objectifying women and rape is all too real. This is why it’s so important that we teach our youth about media literacy and encourage a shift in our norms and cultural values. By changing ideas about what is acceptable media content, we’re working to end violence against women.
Our colleagues at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault also blogged on this topic, and linked to this post by SAFER, which line by line highlights all the horrible things and why they’re horrible in the USC email.
Reebok owes millions because their ad wasn’t just morally wrong, it was flat out wrong