Friday, August 26, 2011

Female Sexual Autonomy Under Siege (Part 2)

Hypersexualization in the 21st century

American feminist Jean Kilbourne has created a series of films called Killing Us Softly, which documents and examines the images of women that appear in advertising. There have been four installments of the film, the first released in 1979 and the latest released in 2010, and in each version Kilbourne delivers the same speech about the objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies in advertising, but accompanied by a set of current images. At the beginning of Killing Us Softly 4 (2010) Kilbourne says:

Sometimes people say to me, ‘You’ve been talking about this for 40 years. Have things gotten any better?’ And actually I have to say, really they’ve gotten worse.

Indeed, things have gotten worse. Since 1979 we have witnessed the rise of neoliberal globalization marked by a series of transformations in the direction of smaller governments, social program cutbacks, increasing poverty and inequality, and the religious fervor of ‘free-market’ ideology. Emerging from this period of transition was a backlash against feminism, the mainstreaming of pornography (Dines 2010) and the emergence of post-feminism. A product of this post-feminist and consumeristic environment was Girl Power, which began as a culture of young female empowerment but quickly became a vehicle for the depoliticization of gender issues, the commodification and co-optation of feminism, and the hypersexualization of women and girls (Gonick 2006).      

Since the 1990s there has arguably been an increase in the pervasiveness and intensity of cultural representations that have hypersexualizing effects on women and girls. The term ‘hypersexualization’ refers to the process through which images and messages that sexually objectify women and girls are circulated, experienced and internalized by members of society. In today’s hypersexualized culture, women and girls are pressured to conform to these images and invest an incredible amount of time, energy and money into our appearances. These images objectify and dehumanize women and girls, represent us as consumable bodies rather than as whole human beings, and normalize and eroticize male violence against women. They are often racist, heterosexist, and based on an unattainable standard of beauty. Corporations use these images not only to sell products, but as Kilbourne (2010) explains, to sell values, attitudes and ideas of what is ‘normal’.

(The hypersexualization of women and girls in the media often has a racist dimension. In Killing Us Softly (2010), Jean Kilbourne explains how Black women are frequently depicted in ads as animals, which serves to dehumanize them. We also see images that portray Aboriginal women as sexual objects and cultural ‘others’.)

Yeah, but we’re too smart for that, right? Hypersexualization as a cultural process with real effects on women and girls

It’s tempting to think that these images don’t affect us, or that their influence is merely superficial. Studies have shown, however, that hypersexualization has a very real impact on women and girls – and it’s not good. The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls released a report (2007) that explains the psychological impact of hypersexualization on women and girls including cognitive difficulties, negative emotions, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression, poor sexual health, negative sense of one's sexuality, and the internalization of misogynistic (woman-hating) attitudes. The report also identifies a number of societal effects of hypersexualization including sexism, the limiting of opportunities for girls and young women, increasing sexual harassment, sexual violence, and the prevalence of child pornography.

How does this all happen? According to Jill Filipovic (2008), we live in a “rape culture” that normalizes violence against women through a patriarchal ideology that teaches men they are entitled to women’s bodies, and seeks to deny women the right to bodily autonomy and economic and social equality. This ideology, which is circulated by social conservatives including the religious right, helps maintain the patriarchal status quo which is threatened by anti-rape laws and the idea that men are responsible for preventing rape. Also threatening is the possibility of women claiming the freedom to make decisions about their bodies, families, work, finances and education – in other words, women enjoying the same human rights as men. Therefore, patriarchal society uses rape (or fear of rape) as a means of controlling women’s lives and maintaining male power and privilege.

Hypersexualization is part of this rape culture, and while cultural images and messages do not directly cause violence against women and girls, they certainly encourage and enable it through the dehumanization of women and objectification of our bodies (Kilbourne 2010). By making women feel perpetually inadequate about our appearance and sexual attractiveness, corporations profit from women and girls’ insecurity and contribute to a vicious cycle of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm. Moreover, the internalization of misogyny carries through into our careers and all other aspects of lives, making all women (in some way) survivors of hypersexualization. Kilbourne (2010) rightly names this issue as a “public health problem”.

Mary Pipher explores the effect of this problem on adolescent girls in her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994). She argues that children are socialized into a “girl-poisoning culture” that makes it nearly impossible for girls to develop good self-esteem, positive body image and healthy sexuality. The book states that girls “are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture” and need to be equipped with better tools for navigating this culture (Pipher 1994: 12). While Reviving Ophelia made a significant contribution to understanding the dangers of growing up female in an increasingly misogynistic world, it has been criticized for portraying girls as passive victims and failing to situate their experiences within broader social, economic and political contexts (Gonick 2006).  

A different approach to understanding girls’ experiences is found in Deborah L. Tolman’s Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality (2002). Tolman’s research involved asking adolescent girls to speak about their desire, a question that girls are not usually asked since we live in a society that fears, seeks to control and therefore renders taboo female sexuality. She framed her study with the understanding that:     

Girls live and grow up in bodies that are capable of strong sexual feelings, bodies that are connected to minds and hearts that hold meanings through which they make sense of and perceive their bodies. I consider the possibility that teenage girls’ sexual desire is important and life sustaining; that girls’ desire provides crucial information about the relational world in which they live; that the societal obstacles to girls’ and women’s ability to feel and act on their own desire should come under scrutiny rather than simply be feared; that girls and women are entitled to have sexual subjectivity, rather than simply to be sexual objects. (Tolman 2002: 19)

The stories of the adolescent girls Tolman interviewed revealed that girls do indeed experience desire, but in order to express this desire they must navigate a complicated world in which their pleasure and safety do not always coincide. While Tolman identifies many of the same risk factors (such as violence and sexual coercion) that Pipher does, she also emphasizes the positive experiences girls have with desire and pleasure, all within an analysis that considers the socially constructed nature of gender relations. Perhaps most significantly, Tolman’s book involves adolescent girls telling their own stories in their own voices, generating knowledge that gives readers a deeper understanding of their multifaceted experiences.

While adolescence is a particularly challenging time for girls and their struggle with hypersexualization, the messages and images that shape our sexuality and sense of self are introduced at a very early age. (Case in point: the Tinker Bell lunch bag.) We observe hypersexualization in way the girls are taught to enjoy dolls and dressing up while boys are sent outside to play. While boys learn that it’s important to be strong and active, girls learn to be passive and that their looks are what matters the most (Kilbourne 2010). Indeed, young girls are groomed for a future of sexual servitude through a “princess culture” (Orenstein 2010) that is as consumeristic as it is misogynistic, and is a precondition for the rape culture in which adolescent girls and women struggle to survive. The basis of princess culture is a simple narrative with which most of us are quite familiar: strive to be nice and pretty, and someday you will find a strong handsome man who will sweep you off your feet and you will live happily ever after.
For girls growing up today, however, the narrative is not so simple. In the past two decades, the messages that influence gender socialization have become increasingly sexualized and pornographized. The film Sexy Inc.: Our Children Under Influence (Bissonnette 2007) shows how corporations are invading the space of childhood by encouraging young girls and boys to consume images that sexually objectify women and promote dominant male behavior. Girls learn to value their appearance over other qualities, and they are compelled to mimic the latest adult fashion trends that include tight, revealing clothing, heavy makeup and sexy lingerie. This phenomenon, which would have been met with public outrage only a few years ago, is normalized through advertisements that both infantilize adult women and portray children in adult and even pornographic situations. As one speaker in the film summarizes this disturbing reality, “we are stealing childhood away from children” (Bissonnette 2007).     

(An image from Bratz, a company that markets dolls, fashions, toys and games to young girls.)


APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls: Executive summary. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved 03/30, 2011, from

Bissonnette, S. (Director), Sexy Inc.: Our children under influence. (2007). [Video/DVD]

Dines, G. (2010). Pornland: How porn has hijacked our sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press.

Filipovic, J. (2008). Offensive feminism: The conservative gender norms that perpetuate rape culture, and how feminists can fight back. In J. Friedman, & J. Valenti (Eds.), Yes Means Yes: Visions of female sexual power and a world without rape (pp. 13-27). Berkeley, California: Seal Press.

Gonick, M. (2006). Between "Girl Power" and "Reviving Ophelia": Constituting the neoliberal girl subject. NWSA Journal, 18(2)

Kilbourne, J. (Director), Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising's image of women. (2010). [Video/DVD]

Orenstein, P. (2010). Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture. New York: HarperCollins.

Pipher, M. (1994 and 1992). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. USA: Ballantine Books, Mass Market Edition.

Tolman, D. L. (2002). Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. USA: First Harvard University Press.

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