By Sandra Kobrin
Sunday 29 October 2006
Many female teens in a study last month said hyper-sexualized media depictions of women are "normal." Author Ariel Levy and media scholar Constance Penley offer different responses to what that means for the young women.
Los Angeles - On her wildly popular 2005 music video, "These Boots Are Made for Walking," teen idol Jessica Simpson sings, dances and washes her car as her breasts pour out of a skimpy top, her shorts creeping ever higher on her toned behind. When Nancy Sinatra first recorded the song in 1966, it entered popular culture as a feminist anthem. The album cover featured Sinatra in a long-sleeved sweater, tights and knee-high boots, posed with a come-hither look.
Dressed in stripper-influenced attire for their 2005 megahit "Don't Cha" video, the Pussycat Dolls sing "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" On their way to stardom, the all-female dance band was featured in Playboy magazine in June 1999.
The debutante pop star Paris Hilton, meanwhile, shows up in a slew of magazines and newspapers, photographed wearing as little as possible as often as possible. Internet videos of Hilton performing oral sex on a man have only enhanced her image as a sex idol.
Concerned about how the outbreak of such highly sexualized images might be influencing young women, the San Francisco-based Women's Foundation of California last month held nine focus groups with female teens, about 30 young women in Los Angeles and 60 in Fresno and Oakland. They also conducted an online survey of 700 women and 300 men aged 13 to 18. Women's eNews was permitted to observe several of the focus groups through a two-way mirror with the requirement to respect the anonymity of the participants.
The young women were selected by age, economic status, race and family status. The various groups included respondents who were white, Latina, Asian and African American, as well as female teens in households headed by single mothers, those who attend church, youth leaders and those from extremely low-income families.
The foundation plans to use the data for a 2007 report. While the findings have not been analyzed, the teens' responses during the focus groups provide a tentative picture of these young women's reactions to media.
Respondents Review Videos
Los Angeles respondents gathered in three meetings at the offices of Lake Research in Sherman Oaks, Calif. They looked at images and videos of Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Pussycat Dolls and others.
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.
"I know in my head the images are excessive, but to me they feel normal," said a 17-year-old Southern California student class council representative, part of the group of students aged 16 to 18 assembled for the panel, all of whom held some type of leadership roles - political, scholastic, athletic or extracurricular - at their high schools.
"Sex is what sells, even to me," another 18-year-old said. "If you buy a magazine and it says sex or has a sexy cover, it intrigues you and you buy it and whatever makes them sell more they'll use," she said, in an apparent reference to advertisers. "The sexy images do have an effect on me even though I know it shouldn't because it is based on materialism and shallowness."
Images Geared to Men
Most of the young women noted that the images are geared toward men and may be harmful to women because they contribute to men's perceptions of women as sexualized objects.
Constance Penley, a professor of women's studies and film studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-creator of the film and media journal Camera Obscura, however, says there is no research to suggest that young women are "used to" or "desensitized" by the flood of the highly sexual media images.
"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."
Ariel Levy, author of the 2005 book "Feminist Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," takes a darker view.
"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."
Many young women in the study seemed to share Levy's dismay.
"Women that sell their sexuality on TV influences the way we want to be," said a 16-year-old student council representative. "For girls that already have low self-esteem it makes them feel even lower."
"The way women are portrayed in the media causes domestic violence," a 15-year-old said.
Levy says "raunch culture" has taken words such as "empowerment" from the women's rights vocabulary and applied it to sexual exhibitionism. "As if stripping was empowering and sexually liberated; all the emphasis is on performed sexiness," she said. "It's not empowering. It is trying to teach women that strong and hot are the same thing. It is not. Raunchy does not mean empowered."
At least one teen in the poll seemed to agree that the trend toward hyper-sexualized female pop stars did not serve their sense of empowerment.
"My parents' generation had the '60s and '70s, women's rights and the Beatles," she said. "What do we have? Paris Hilton."
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles-based journalist who specializes in criminal justice and women's issues.