The return of sexism in the twenty-first century

November 2, 2013 6:38 pm

Walter approaches the subject of female sexualisation and social conditioning

There is growing unease in contemporary society over the revival of sexism, female objectification and gender divides. Writers such as Natasha Walter and Dr. M. Gigi Durham, as well as contributors to blogs and websites including Pink Stinks, OBJECT and the F-Word, have taken up the task of vocalising dissatisfaction with our increasingly sexualised and stereotyped culture, with youngsters adding to the rumblings of discontent. But how much are culture and media to blame for affecting our ideas, attitudes and behaviours surrounding sexism? And are we really as free to choose what to think and how to behave as it seems? Have sexual freedom to date any gender and using things like lustplugs, and all the gender equality moved forwards in the past forty years or have we, in fact, regressed?

Walter’s 2010 treatise ‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ is littered with young women’s concerns over the social conditioning they see as warping the minds of their peers, and the difficulties individuals face by refusing to conform to the sex-role portrayal they see all around them.

In February 2010 David Cameron called for an end to the ‘inappropriate sexualisation’ of children, and revealed that he wouldn’t let his then six year old daughter listen to certain pop songs, as he deemed the lyrics inapt. He has recently supported the setting up of, a website allowing complaints over child sexualisation – as well as other inappropriate material in the media – to be reported more easily. Elsewhere Tesco, Asda and Primark have all had to withdraw stock after facing criticism from the public regarding unsuitable items marketed at children, including padded bras and pole dancing kits (complete with paper money).

BBC Radio 4’s broadcast in September 2008 – The Sexualisation of Young Girls – featured a group of adolescents discussing the issues surrounding media representation of young girls and women. When questioned about the age at which they ‘should’ start to care about their looks the teenage girls responded with ‘are we thinking realistically, or how the world should be?’ The answer to the former was 13, although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that body image becomes a factor in female’s lives well before the teens commence.

As I write this, an advert flashes up on TV. A group of lithe, tanned, toned, bleached and made up women are gyrating onscreen, advertising the latest exercise DVD – ‘The Only Way is Essex’s Essexercise workout’. The accompanying voiceover commands us to ‘get the body, get the look.’ Granted it’s past the watershed, but it’s not only children who fall victim to false illusions. Many adults continue to believe that ‘if only I looked like them my life would be perfect’. It won’t be. There’s more to life than a perfect body, and there’s more to a person that curves and pecs.

You give what you get

Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (1969) dictates that we learn how to ‘be’ by observing and imitating the actions and behaviours of those around us, i.e. ‘a person ‘patterns his thoughts, feeling, or actions after another person who serves as a model’. Social learning can be a useful tool for teaching purposes, but such observational education takes on a more sinister form when it comes to the media or marketers.

Every day we are bombarded with images from television, billboards, magazines and websites that dictate how we should act, behave or appear, usually in order to become ‘successful’ or accepted. As people become infected and start to adapt according to the marketer’s objectives a whole new community of role models emerges from within the general public. Consequently this further promotes behaviours and actions that become adopted by the next wave of impressionable people, first through identification and then by imitation. And so on and so forth. A vicious cycle develops and perpetuates as society becomes entrenched in social conditioning and brainwashing, which targets and can affect all ages and genders, and values become skewed as lifestyles and attitudes become moulded to fit into what we see around us; namely whatever latest fad popular culture has deemed ‘normal’, acceptable and appropriate.

Celebrities such as Britney, who gyrate and writhe on stage in skimpy clothes, unfortunately make up the Role Models of today

This could be a good thing, if we were being presented with positive role models who we could realistically emulate across subjective realms of success. But our world appears to be increasingly valuing overnight celebrity culture, apparently tied up with glamour modelling, pelvic thrusts in hotpants and sexual trysts with footballers (not to mention x-rated gyration, skimpy attire and sexual poses, combinations of which all too often, frankly, resemble soft-porn). As a society we are continually upholding behaviours that are seductive to the impressionable young, who quickly learn to act according to what they see. And this learning only gets reinforced as such sexualised conduct continues to be promoted by the media; it is getting hard for young women, in particular, to see members of their own sex being celebrated in any other way. In the words of Walters (2010), such sexualisation of women in the public eye ‘encourages many women to model themselves on a sexy doll rather than seeking other kinds of success.’

But that’s just the way it is!

The most worrying element of a sexualised culture relates to children and young people, as the most impressionable and vulnerable members of society. According to the principles of social and observational learning youngsters will pick up on the images and subtypes being presented to them and subsequently aspire to become those people. Within our culture sex is everywhere, and we’re getting used to it.

Pop acts targeting young girls for sales promote sexiness through their dress sense and their onstage routines – Britney, Cheryl, Christina and Rhianna are just a few who spring to mind, with performances by the latter two on last year’s X Factor final resulting in over 4000 complaints to Ofcom over concerns of soft-porn. Many images shown on TV during family hours would previously have been banned before the watershed, and age-ratings on films are more tolerable now than twenty years ago. Even Disney’s become sexier – compare the original Snow White to the more recent Princess Jasmine or Pocahontas. Universities are also following the craze as they see a surge in beauty contests and events such as ‘vicars and tarts’ or ‘pimps and hoes’ parties, all of which carry not so covert implications around female sexuality.

Dr. M. Gigi Durham’s book ‘The Lolita Effect’ focuses on the sexualisation of young girls though the ‘5 myths’ she sees as being aimed at young women by the media: girls don’t choose boys but boys choose girls, thus girls continuously have to present themselves in a way that will help them get ‘picked’, boys only want sexy girls and there’s only one kind of sexy – the Barbie doll type, which girls achieve by dressing as revealingly as possible. There is the sinister idea that the younger a girl is the sexier she is, and finally the notion that sexual violence can be attractive. If girls grow up falling victim to these myths what kind of a culture are we promoting?  That which we would really expect, or want, to see in the twenty first century?

But these images and beliefs are now to be expected. It is not unusual to be wandering through a shopping centre on Saturday afternoon to be confronted by oversized images of semi-naked women or provocative suggestions of foreplay. Magazines at eye level display women’s breasts and seductive poses whilst sex and body image is used to sell, amongst others, chocolate, perfume and shampoo. And is it any coincidence that these products are primarily aimed at women?

Hearing young women themselves talk about these issues takes us to the heart of the matter. The teenagers on Radio 4 comfortably reveal that they believe girls dress in a certain way for attention, that they feel under pressure to attire themselves as revealingly as possible and expected to indulge in one night stands at parties. This sits uncomfortably with Naomi Wolf’s view (1991) that girls develop a desire to be desired by the opposite sex, over and above their own actual needs and wants. Young girls interviewed by Walters even talk of having their lives made miserable by refusing to conform to the culture of sexualisation around them: sexual

From a young age children are conditioned to believe that girls and boys act in certain, differing ways

bullying starts early, and it doesn’t end as adulthood commences.

Pink for a girl…

In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’. To take her word as golden would see a sudden halt to the nature versus nurture argument, but debate and contrary opinions still reign. Will we ever get to the bottom of the conflict and reach an objective conclusion as to whether we are born a certain way, or constructed to be something through our upbringing and environment?

At the moment the fashion is for biology; we are ‘wired’ according to our sex and there is a certain element of fatalism and inevitability around how we develop into men and women, regardless of external circumstances. But a few decades ago it was all about stereotyping, and there was a stronger consensus that we became who we were due to moulding and formation by society and those around us.

In the early 1980s Marianne Grabrucker documented the first three years of her daughter’s life, monitoring and attempting to deflect the endemic social conditioning that encourages gender divides and sex-role specificity. The element of the book that really strikes is the prevalence of those subtle messages that ‘girls wear pink and play with dolls’ whilst ‘boys get messy and fix things’ which dominate shop floors, television and advertising, co-existing with thoughtless comments and unconsidered treatment of young children according to their gender. Such notions infiltrate into the mind where they become absorbed, integrated and eventually can be taken as gospel.

But it’s not just youngsters who are at risk from stereotyping and falling in with pre-conceived ideas, and it‘s not just women. In the same way as those flippant comments and subtle messages that dictate what it is to be a little girl or boy are simulated into the personality, messages around how be a woman or a man are taken on from what we see and hear around us. Think of the prevalence of bumbling, semi-capable men on screen or in adverts, compared to the all-achieving, holding-it-together figure of perfection that is all too frequently held up as the ultimate figurehead of women. Research highlights the extent to which people can fall in with stereotypical behaviour; it is important not to underestimate the forces of any expectations laid down for us.

Welcome to the ‘free world’

A common argument against the notion of our society and culture as being over-sexualised and reduced to stereotyping is that we are all free agents, who have the option to behave any way we like and make our own choices. If we want to subscribe to cultural norms then fine, equally if we want to break away from societal expectations then go ahead – the choice is ours. But how much choice do we really have, and how much of this is purely an illusion? How far have we constructed a culture of compliance where we do as we are told and expected, rather than fight to break out of a mould?

Freedom of choice is limited for females; from inequalities in pay to the dangers of walking alone at night

Society rests on a misapprehension of equality, which can make it difficult to voice opposition and for any such dissent to be heard. But closer examination of the world around us demonstrates that equality between the sexes is still elusive: women are underrepresented in parliament, pay gaps between men and women are widening and women all too often do not feel comfortable walking alone at night. Young women interviewed by Walters feel shoe-horned into certain behaviours and not free enough to really make decisions about who they are and what they want. Alongside these factors, as mentioned earlier, prevalent stereotypes can become integrated into the personality and reinforced by a person’s behaviour, which in turn influences others. People will always be affected by their environment and the cycle of reciprocity between a person’s behaviours and their surroundings can be difficult to break.

But on the brighter side there are many people out there who are breaking away from the crowd and following their own paths, despite the culture of claustrophobia – in Walter’s terms – that remains all too prevalent as female potential continues to be frustrated and shaped according to expectation. Sexual liberation can be seen as freeing to women who have faced a history of repression, but there is a line between female sexualisation as empowerment and part of the whole woman’s development, and objectified sexualisation and ‘hotness’ as a goal in itself.

It is up to us to get out there and tackle this culture of sexism. By which I don’t mean to suggest that we regress to the nineteenth century stiff upper lip culture – we should celebrate the increasing liberalisation of women as society continues to embrace, amongst other aspects, female sexuality and freedom. But we must remember that there is more to a woman than just her sexuality, and we need to recognise the variability and subjectivity of each and every one. Sexual freedom can be liberating and empowering for women, but can become oppressive if seen as the be all and end all of femininity. By keeping in mind a picture of the whole person in their own right we can embrace the sexual element of femininity and men, without reducing sexuality to objectification and individuals purely to sexual beings.

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