Hyper-Sexualized Media Images: "No Big Deal"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 1, 2006

The San Francisco-based Women’s Foundation of California last month held nine focus groups with female teens to discuss the influence of highly sexualized images of women in the media. They also conducted an online survey of 700 women and 300 men aged 13 to 18. The data has not yet been fully analyzed, but Sandra Kobrin had access to several of the focus groups and summarized the responses for Women’s eNews.

The results are not very surprising, but they should spark an urgent desire to give young women the tools to see around and through these images to other possibilities. Kobrin writes:

Almost all of the teens polled said such highly sexualized images are “no big deal,” part of their daily life, what they expect to see on television and in magazines.

While many said they believe the images are often not beneficial to women, the responses suggest that many of the young women are resigned to this being the way society is right now and that women’s bodies are used to sell practically everything.

In one sense, the results should seem to put to rest any arguments that these exploitative images are simply expressions of freedom and empowerment. Constance Penley, whom Kobrin interviews, holds out hope, though, that the young audience for these images does not simply buy them unquestioningly:

“While there is a flood of mass media images, we believe people have very complex responses to the use of images in ways that are surprising,” she said.

Penley teaches a class that studies how female performers such as Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne and Whoopi Goldberg have managed to command public attention, even though none but Madonna conforms to traditional standards of beauty.

“We learned you needed to be perceived as bad girl, a rebel to get heard,” said Penley. “Women who appreciate feminism might be shocked by these young women’s admiration of Madonna. They use her ‘bad girlness’ to come up with an identity of their own. How they are receiving it and transforming it is complex, but they’re taking in those images and doing something with it for their own end.”

Kobrin also interviews Ariel Levy, author of “Feminist Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” who has a more negative take:

It gives them a message before they are even sexually active. They have already been taught through music videos, reality TV, My Space, etc., that part of the job of being a female is to put on shows of wantonness … even if it has nothing to do with what you want,” Levy said in an interview. “Young women are trying to look and behave like those images, as if they were porn stars. As if being able to incite lust is women’s work. That’s just your first job, inciting lust.

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