Every once in awhile I write something that hits a nerve and brings about a caustic response. One of the images I used to illustrate sexual objectification in breast cancer awareness campaigns in 2012 elicited, just recently, an angry message from the creator.
Here is the message I received, with identifying information removed.
Hi, I am the founder and creator of the [X] project… You listed my project in a rather bad light and used my images without permission. I’m curious why you made no attempt to contact me or get any of the real info about the project or even talk to some of our participating survivors or fans who have been touched or helped through the selflessness of our survivors sharing their stories. Often life is about perspective and I think if you made an effort you would see this project does NOT objectify these survivors or women at all. All have instead experienced a feeling of empowerment. You should make an effort to dig a bit deeper. We even have a magazine… now as well. I was very disappointed to see you disparaging the project and these survivors and making assessments and judgements based on zero background…I think you owe them an apology…They are much more then “eyecandy” and have proven to be a wonderful form of…therapy for both the participants and the viewers.
When I first received this message I was taken aback. It’s never easy to be yelled at, misunderstood, diminished. My breath got reedy as my heart folded into my chest. Where’s that thick skin I was supposed to develop to handle slings and arrows? My skin is just as thin as anybody’s. So every time I do that feminist/public sociology thing, I make myself more vulnerable. It would be easier and less risky to keep quiet.
But social thinkers taught me that understanding complexity and sharing it with others can inspire change. And provocative feminists showed me that “our silence will not protect us” anyway. Still, when speaking out makes me a target, I reflect. Is the response justified even if the delivery was not as skillful or generous as it could have been?
I thought about this person’s criticism for a few days. When he accidentally Googled my article, I think he might have felt the same way I did when I received his message — yelled at, misunderstood, diminished. This was not my intention, so I wrote him back.
Thank you for your inquiry. Clearly you are quite upset, and I’m sorry you feel this way. I actually do know about your project. In fact, I’m in occasional contact with one of the participants, who also found the project to be personally meaningful.
That said, my research as a social scientist requires me, often, to put intentions and motivations aside in order to look at trends and representations from a more detached perspective. This isn’t easy, especially for someone who is deeply committed to a topic and has been personally affected by it. I’ve lost many people to breast cancer over the years, and I do not take it lightly. That is why I study this illness and look at elements of the culture and the industry that frequently fall beneath the radar.
I’ve been studying breast cancer for almost 15 years and have, in that time, observed a number of trends. Commercialization of the disease took hold by about 1996, and by the 2000’s commoditization shot well past advocacy in terms of time, attention, and resources. Medicalization has been on the rise, and controversies about what is the “right” amount of medicine continue today often in a contentious way. Pink ribbon visibility started to replace deeper understanding of the complexities of the disease or the diversity of women’s (and men’s) experiences of it. The sexualization of women in cultural representations, both the diagnosed and non-diagnosed, increased dramatically especially in the last ten years. Breast cancer has gone from a hyper-feminine moral cause to a sexy cause. You don’t see the same kinds of representations for brain cancer or pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, or any other disease for that matter.
As with all of my research, I try to identify trends and figure out how they work. My research question for the article you found (which is a series of two that builds from concepts discussed in my book on breast cancer culture) was:
How do breast cancer campaigns utilize sexual objectification techniques?
In accord with social science methods, I collected and analyzed cultural artifacts (image, music, text). Images from large awareness campaigns to posters and billboards to products to Facebook and magazine ads are included in this collection. It was straightforward to classify them into categories.
- Use women’s bodies as literal objects.
- Hone in on the breasts.
- Use objects in place of breasts.
- Objectify breasts with language.
- Depict breasts as things to be touched or groped.
- Show women to be objects of the male gaze.
Your project was classified under technique 1 (bodies as objects). If a person’s body is transformed into a canvass, which is an object, it fits the definition. If sexualized body parts are part of that canvass, it becomes a sexualized object.
Of the thousands of images in my collection, I chose images in my reporting that would clearly illustrate the trends. I share them in accord with the terms of Fair Use, which allows for the use of other people’s work for analytical and educational purposes.
The negative implications of sexual objectification are well known, and I include pertinent research in my reports. The question you raise, I think, is can objectification also lead to positive outcomes? You have personally witnessed an empowerment potential with [your project]. But to find out, as a social researcher, I would have to ask this question in an empirical way, and study a range projects with the same kind of detachment I used in this one. I don’t know what I would find. The trends I write about, and there are many, are an attempt to flesh out the picture of breast cancer advocacy and industry more fully to deepen understanding and give people a chance to think about aspects that may otherwise be ignored.
I’m not sure where this leaves us, [NAME], if anywhere. It would be highly unethical of me, and fraudulent, to remove a data point simply because its creator did not like the findings. I hope that is not what you are asking me to do. I don’t think it is. I think you want clarification and want me to know that you and others have witnessed positive outcomes to this project. I also believe that you have very good intentions with the project, as do the participants. If I have misinterpreted this, or you would like to discuss further, please get back in touch.
I have not (yet) heard back from my non-fan. But explaining my intents and methods clarified for me that they were ethical, sound, legal, and grounded in a desire to elucidate rather than to quell. They too reminded me that intentions matter, and don’t matter.
After I sent my reply, I learned that the project creator had also posted his grievance on his project’s Facebook page:
Wow – that’s not very nice and it is a ton of assumptions about our project. Plus she made no effort to ever contact us for background info – survivor quotes or interviews or even to ask permission to use our images… I’m certain many of our fans and survivors would readily dispute that this project is objectifying in any manner… very sad
His posting engendered negative comments from his fans.
– This author has made a name for herself by creating an angry, negative anti-pink culture. Not a fan.
– good to know – too bad she seems to be such an authority… curious as I’m not sure if she is even a survivor??
– Not sure; she is a feminist and has a PhD behind her name. I think she gives feminists a bad name. While I agree with some of her theories, I think she goes over the top with some of her observations, such as the one on your organization.
– As my husband states, if you don’t like it, don’t look.
The project creator also lodged his complaint on the Breast Cancer Consortium Facebook page and, there, asked me to delete the images.
Mr. X’s attempt to thwart critique of his project is not surprising. If people consider its objectifying aspects they may no longer wish to support it. However, the Fair Use doctrine limits the copyright protection of cultural producers like Mr. X for purposes of criticism and comment, education, reporting, parody, benefit to the public, and a range of other uses.
The project remains in my analysis as a concrete example of sexual objectification, however I did honor Mr. X’s request to delete the images from my public writings. I instead included an additional notation to the analysis, stating that the images were deleted at the request of the project creator. I’m not so sure this was the right thing to do. When should one cultural producer’s protected expression override another one’s?
For more information on sexual objectification in breast cancer awareness campaigns, see the following articles on Psychology Today: