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December 26, 2012

Best of the Bag 2012: Visual Skirmishes in the War on Women

As the battle over reproductive rights played out in state houses across the country, in 2012 BagNews  saw women portrayed through the lens of familiar memes: the seductress, the sex object, the subjective submissive, the second fiddle (we’ll get to the supportive spouse and the supermom later). As usual, we explored these alliterative portrayals whenever they caught our eye.

Most of this analysis was provided by Karrin Anderson, Bag’s resident expert on gender codes. Karrin called out the “sex sells” mentality of Super Bowl advertising and the sexually exploitive nature of presenting even feminist issues in American media because, as we all know, you can’t make a point about realistic female bodies in this day and age without pressing two naked women together in a suggestive manner:

It’s notable that when media outlets like ABC News, Fox News, and Salon ran “serious” stories about the shrinking BMIs of fashion models, many chose to feature cropped versions of the racier photos featuring the two women in intimate poses. The edited photos retained their salacious sexiness but excised the bothersome statistics. Contemporary standards of beauty certainly leave many women hungry . . . too bad society hasn’t lost its appetite for this particular brand of titillation.

Of course, women sexualized in advertising or in articles about women’s bodies is nothing new. American celebrity is often based in targeted, sexualized appeal, though usually not as embarrassingly as evident in the Vanity Fair spread on Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. Karrin wrote:

Not a stripper, you say? Well, what else do we call women who dance on tables for men’s spectatorial enjoyment? Although the brief article that accompanies this picture emphasizes both Scarborough’s and Brzezinski’s various flirtations (with each other, Roger Ailes, and—in Scarborough’s case—the American electorate), the image tells the familiar story of a man who commands the attention of others and a woman who seeks only the attention of that man.

You don’t have to travel far to get from Mika-on-a-table to Newsweek’s Surrender cover where the dominant (pun intended) theme is the necessary self-subjugation of the ambitious career woman.  After all, career success, if not tempered by “Mommy Guilt”, must be tempered, no?  We found it interesting that Newsweek choose to meet this sub-ideal with an idealized image of glamour and vulnerability:

…Stereotypes about women (as citizens, voters, and workers) are often enforced visually, which is why the S&M aesthetic is used to sell everything from shoes to suits to booze; it’s even a go-to meme in politics, deployed to try to convince people to vote, go vegan, and stop patronizing circuses. Roiphe and Newsweek would have us believe that this “trend” represents a complicated and conflicted new feminism, but really it’s just the same old patriarchy at work.

There were attempts to exploit the exploitative display of women’s bodies in 2012, but it’s notable that few of these attempts happened in the United States.  The Pussy Riot trial in Russia and FEMEN’s protests come to mind. The latter was analyzed by Bag contributor Madeleine Corcoran who singled out Guillaume Herbaut’s award winning photo of FEMEN’s nearly full frontal protest against human trafficking noting,

What this portrait also tells us is that, exposed or hidden, women’s bodies are a hot topic. (I mean, see all the worry over the fact that the woman in the World Press winning photo is wearing a burkha). Veiled or on display, the female body is defined by sexuality in a way that male bodies are not.  . .  With this simultaneously innocent and knowing revelation of the female torso, I think Shevchenko is also asking us to realize how “exposed” or “hidden” are false distinction — that it is the human form and, as such, represents identity, physicality and power.

Maybe it’s only a matter of time before such protests arrive in the United States. We’ve covered a similar demonstration recently. But in a culture dominated by advertising-backed media, we don’t anticipate that women’s issues will get the FEMEN treatment any time soon.

(Photo 1: screen clip, 2012 Go Daddy Super Bowl ad, Photo 2: Victoria Janashvili, Plus Model Magazine, Photo 3: Mark Seliger, Vanity Fair, Photo 4: Newsweek, April 23, 2012 issue, Photo 5: Guillaume Herbaut.)

  • Susan Donovan

    It is interesting that all of the photos of women you have discussed are white. An equal issue are the women we do not see. Women who, when we do see them, will *not* be portrayed with even the pithy dignity of “sexiness” –It isn’t really possible to talk about feminism without also talking about racism. They are linked especially in the US.

    It isn’t fair to call this an article about “women in media” — when really it is only about *white* women in media.

    Otherwise, I think there are good points here. But they are made in a way that can alienate and exclude the experiences of many women.

    • Karen H

      Look again at the Pussycat Dolls in the first photo. They are from different racial backgrounds.

  • Minor Heretic

    What’s interesting to me is what we don’t see: An unexceptional looking woman in business/professional clothing, with peers. We see unexceptional looking men in business clothing among their peers in the media all the time.

    I remember someone writing about equal access to academic positions. I can’t quote it, but it was something about equality not meaning that a female or non-white genius gets a post, but that an ordinarily talented woman or minority gets an equal chance.

    Ordinary looking men in ordinary looking duds doing nothing special make the front page all the time. It’s not absolute, but aside from Hillary Clinton (or her equivalent) women have to be ideally beautiful, naked, or outrageous to get some decent camera time.

    • Susan Donovan

      Very good points. worth remembering at any point that someone tries to say we are living in a “post-feminist” era.

  • Susan Donovan

    The fact that I have to “look again” to tell that they are not white only underscores the point here.

  • Susan Donovan

    Is it really diversity if the very features (dark skin, different hair textures etc.) that we most closely associate with race are literally whitewashed out of existence?

    To what extent is the use of such images a form of dismissing the real issue without dealing with it? The producers of the band can say “look we have diversity” — but, they do not need to change the kind of ideals of physical beauty that they elevate.

    It is still light skin, tall thin bodies, relatively straight hair (but not so straight as to be Asian in most cases.)

    But, if anyone complains they can say “look hard and you’ll see the diversity”

    At the same time that they degrade these images are repeating certain ideas about what is (and what isn’t by exclusion) desirable.

  • Karen H

    We read the pictures carefully here! This is a good time to point out how amazing the BagNews archive is. We’ve dealt with a wide range of racial issues on the site and I encourage readers to use our tag cloud or search under a particular term to call up our coverage on the issue of your choice.

  • Susan Donovan

    When you say this, is your point that I should not point out these things anymore? That is almost how this comment feels to me.

    The use of images in media is a very important topic, and yes this blog has done good work on both race and gender but I think we could all benefit from some more talk of intersectionality. And it’s not a comment I’d make just about this blog or just about this blog post.

    The same holds for LBGT issues, there is a tendency to look at these things in isolation rather than seeing how they are linked. It’s all really one issue. (but, this particular post did do a great job looking at LGBT intersectionality)

    In most images that emphasize female sexuality blackness and brownness are absent or white-washed. Gayness is absent or played for titillation.

    I was out running last year and I got excited since I saw an ad on a bus stop with a pretty black lady with natural hair and I thought “oh I wonder what cosmetic company is using her for a model? That’s so cool…” but as I got closer I realized that it was an ad about getting AIDS treatment.

    Which is fine. Great stuff, too I guess.

    But it’s not the first time that has happened to me. I’ve learned that if there is a black woman in an ad (who isn’t either famous, or ‘exotic’) it’s probably a PSA about either: AIDS or from those people who don’t want you to get an abortion who pose as a prenatal clinics. Even in Harlem, where there are plenty of black women who have interests that extend beyond those two things.

    Maybe I should write something a bit more formal about this before the next semester begins.

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