Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.Magic Mike is “wildly overperforming” at the box office because women and gay men are going to see it in droves.  Thank you Hollywood executives for finally noticing that there’s plenty of money to be made off of heterosexual female and gay male sexuality.  Magic Mike purports to be a movie that caters to het women, and while it does provide a highly unusual public space for women to objectify men, the movie in fact prioritizes male sexual pleasure in tired, sexist ways.

Watching Magic Mike was an experience.  Many of the female theater-goers around me were hollering demands (e.g., “take it all off, baby!”) and grunting approvingly during dance scenes.  The camera unabashedly focused tight on the dancer’s abs and buttocks, requiring viewers to objectify the male actors.  I’ve written elsewhere that living in a culture that objectifies girls/women is highly damaging, and emerging male objectification is a corporate wet dream to sell products by creating new body dissatisfactions/markets.

Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more.  It baffles me that the filmmakers were so effective in conveying these themes in a movie about male strippers that a mostly female audience is eating up.  Have we learned to devalue our own sexual pleasure so thoroughly that the scraps of het female sexual pleasure provided by Magic Mike feel like a full meal?

Aside from the questionably-empowering viewer interaction with the film, the content of Magic Mike is old-school sexism wrapped in a new package.  It reinforces prevailing notions of masculinity where white men are in control, both economically and sexually, and women are secondary characters to be exploited for money and passed around for male sexual pleasure.

Most of the women in the film are audience members portrayed as easily manipulated cash cows to be exploited for money.  In one scene, the club boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) gets his dancers pumped up before a show by asking them, “Who’s got the cock?  You do.  They don’t.”  Dallas has a running commentary that forcefully rejects the idea that female audience members are sexual subjects in the exchange.

Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers.  Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc.  As a culture, we have deprioritized female sexual pleasure to such a great extent that these acts seem normal in a setting where they don’t make sense.While the men in Magic Mike strut their sexual stuff with a plot line that constantly reaffirms their sexual subjectivity, the few supporting female roles show women in surprisingly pornified, objectifying ways.  Magic Mike is pretty tame when it comes to male bodies.  Lots of floor and face humping, but no penis or even close-up penis tease shots through banana hammocks.  In fact, viewers aren’t exposed to any male body part that they wouldn’t see at Venice Beach.  The same cannot be said for women.

The movie features gratuitous breast scenes galore (yes, the breasts are the scene) and full body (side and back) female nudity. One of the male stripper’s wives is reduced to a pair of breasts that are passed around when her husband encourages another male stripper to fondle them because “she loves it.”  The few recurring female roles in the cast are flat with no character development, including the romantic interest, while the white men in the film enjoy extensive character development.

Other disturbing moments are peppered throughout the movie.  Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) makes a thinly veiled rape innuendo when he’s “teaching” a younger guy how to approach a woman at a club: “Look what she’s wearing. She’s asking to be bothered.”  The movie also asks viewers to laugh at a larger woman who hurts a dancer’s back when he picks her up (see photo and trailer below).  And one of the main characters has a homophobic reaction when he’s grossed out that his sister thinks he’s gay.  Also, this is a story about white men where both women and men of color exist at the margins.  The Latino DJ is a drug dealer (how original), and the two Latino dancers barely talk.I was heartened and humored by grandmas and teenage girls asserting their sexual subjectivity in the theater by yelling at the screen.  It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires.  We want to feel powerful when it comes to our sexuality because we’re constantly robbed of sexual subjectivity through popular culture, pornography, the male gaze, and in the bedroom.  One Sexual Revolution later, men are still twice as likely to achieve orgasm than women during sex.

If Magic Mike is our sexual outlet, we deserve something better.  When women turn around and engage in the same objectification that harms us, is that empowering?  When the men we’re objectifying on the screen are degrading women and prioritizing their own sexual pleasure, and we eroticize this behavior, is that empowering?  And when women eroticize sexual acts that don’t involve the clitoris/orgasm, is that empowering?  I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that Magic Mike would have been a radically different film had it truly been about female sexual pleasure.  It’s high time more women were calling the shots in Hollywood and making mainstream movies that feature female sexual pleasure.

Magic Mike trailer.  To see the sexual double standard, note how the trailer frames male stripping as a “fantasy” life, and imagine this term being applied to female strippers in a Hollywood trailer.


Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

This is the first part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. Cross-posted at Ms.,  BroadBlogs, and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Around since the 1970s and associated with curmudgeonly second-wave feminists, the phrase “sexual objectification” can inspire eye-rolling. The phenomenon, however, is more rampant than ever in popular culture.  Today women’s sexual objectification is celebrated as a form of female empowerment.  This has enabled a new era of sexual objectification, characterized by greater exposure to advertising in general, and increased sexual explicitness in advertisingmagazinestelevision showsmoviesvideo gamesmusic videostelevision news, and “reality” television.

What is sexual objectification?  If objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like an object (a non-thinking thing that can be used however one likes), then sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure.

How do we know sexual objectification when we see it?  Building on the work of Nussbaum and Langton, I’ve devised the Sex Object Test (SOT) to measure the presence of sexual objectification in images.  I proprose that sexual objectification is present if the answer to any of the following seven questions is “yes.”

1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?
Headless women, for example, make it easy to see her as only a body by erasing the individuality communicated through faces, eyes, and eye contact:
We get the same effect when we show women from behind, with an added layer of sexual violability. American Apparel seems to be a particular fan of this approach:

2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?

The breasts of the woman in this beer ad, for example, are conflated with the cans:

Likewise, the woman in this fashion spread in Details in which a woman becomes a table upon which things are perched. She is reduced to an inanimate object, a useful tool for the assumed heterosexual male viewer:
Or sometimes objects themselves are made to look like women, like this series of sinks and urinals shaped like women’s bodies and mouths and these everyday items, like pencil sharpeners.

3) Does the image show a sexualized person as interchangeable? 
Interchangeability is a common advertising theme that reinforces the idea that women, like objects, are fungible. And like objects, “more is better,” a market sentiment that erases the worth of individual women. The image below advertising Mercedes-Benz presents just part of a woman’s body (breasts) as interchangeable and additive:

This image of a set of Victoria’s Secret models, borrowed from a previous SocImages post, has a similar effect. Their hair and skin color varies slightly, but they are also presented as all of a kind:

4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person that can’t consent?

This ad, for example, shows an incapacitated woman in a sexualized positionwith a male protagonist holding her on a leash. It glamorizes the possibility that he has attacked and subdued her:

5) Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person? 

This ad, with the copy “now open,” sends the message that this woman is for sex.  If she is open for business, then she presumably can be had by anyone.

6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity (something that can be bought and sold)?

By definition, objects can be bought and sold, but some images portray women as everyday commodities.  Conflating women with food is a common sub-category.  As an example, Meredith Bean, Ph.D., sent in this photo of a Massive Melons “energy” drink sold in New Zealand:
In the ad below for Red Tape shoes, women are literally for sale:

7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

In the two images below, women’s bodies are presented as a particular type of object: a canvas that is marked up or drawn upon.


The damage caused by widespread female objectification in popular culture is not just theoretical.  We now have over ten years of research showing that living in an objectifying society is highly toxic for girls and women, as is described in Part 2 of this series.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Ms. and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

The Hunger Games should serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood that women action-hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject — instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT).

In its first weekend, The Hunger Games grossed $155 million, making it the third highest opener of all time (behind the last Harry Potter film and The Dark Knight), despite a marketing budget half the size of a typical big-studio, big-budget film. It seized the records for top opener released outside of July, top non-sequel opener and top opener with a woman protagonist. By the second weekend, The Hunger Games had made $251 million in the U.S. — the fastest non-sequel to break the quarter-billion-dollar mark.

While the movie arguably plays up the romance angle more than the books, The Hunger Games is still squarely an action thriller, set in a dystopic future world where teens fight to the death in a reality show.

Its success is largely based on the wide appeal of its teenage hero, Katniss Everdeen, who makes it through the movie without being sexually objectified once — a rarity in action films. Katniss is a believable, reluctant hero.

Katniss succeeds with audiences where other women heroes have failed because she isn’t an FFT. Fighting fuck toys are hyper-sexualized women protagonists who are able to “kick ass” (and kill) with the best of them — and look good doing it. The FFT appears empowered, but her very existence serves the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. In short, the FFT takes female agency and appropriates it for the male gaze.

From an ethical standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the damage girls and women sustain growing up in a society with ubiquitous images of sex objects. But it appears they are not. From a business standpoint, then, they should be concerned about the money they could be making with better women action heroes. But so far, they seem pretty clueless.

Hollywood rolls out FFTs every few years that generally don’t perform well at the box office (think ElektraCatwomanSucker Punch), leading executives to wrongly conclude that women action leads aren’t bankable. In fact, the problem isn’t their sex; the problem is their portrayal as sex objects. Objects aren’t convincing protagonists. Subjects act while objects are acted upon, so reducing a woman action hero to an object, even sporadically, diminishes her ability to believably carry a storyline. The FFT might have an enviable swagger and do cool stunts, but she’s ultimately a bit of a joke.

For a breakdown of why FFTS lack believability and appeal, check out the Escher Girls tumbler, a site that critiques the ridiculous physical contortions of FFTs that allow them to be both sex objects and action heroines.  Contortions like this:

As Mark Hughes from points out, movie studios artificially limit their profits when they target only male audiences (by, for instance, by portraying women only as FFTs). With the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games, Hollywood can no longer deny the bankability of believable women action leads. Forty percent of the audience for The Hunger Games is male, proving that a kick-ass woman lead who isn’t reduced to a sex object can appeal to all genders. That should put dollar signs in executives’ eyes.

Hollywood is now on a quest to find the next Katniss Everdeen. Whoever she is, the question will be: Do executives know better than to turn her into a fighting fuck toy?

This is the official SocImages Election 2012 Sexism Watch.  We add content, as it arises, in reverse chronological order.


#9 Bachmann Pours Away Presidential Bid

How did we miss this one? Representative Michele Bachmann performed the comically gendered role of pouring water for all of the (male) Republican candidates and the (male) host at the start of the Republican Family Forum debate in Iowa this past November.

Some of the candidates seemed uncomfortable at this puzzling behavior, and the host joked, “I want to begin by thanking Representative Bachmann for taking care of the water for today’s event.” It’s possible that Bachmann only intended to pour water for the person sitting next to her, but was put on the spot when the host assumed she would pour water for everyone.

This event was hosted by CitizenLink, the political action arm of the uber-conservative Christian organization, Focus on the Family. CitizenLink describes itself as a “family advocacy organization that inspires men and women to live out biblical citizenship that transforms culture.” They promote traditional families as the “building block of society,” so it’s possible that Bachmann was strategically catering to an audience that is less supportive of women in “unconventional” roles.

Whether intentional or unintentional, Bachmann’s actions highlight the contradiction between traditional gender roles and conceptions of leadership.  And the lack of media focus on this incident illustrates how unremarkable it is for a woman to be in a service role in the company of men.  If Governor Rick Perry had gone around the table and dutifully poured water for all of the Republican primary contenders, it would have made the front page.

More Election 2012 Sexism Watch after the jump!


#8 Bachmann Enters Stage to “Lyin’ Ass Bitch”

November 25th, 2011
Caroline Heldman, Contributor

Earlier this week, Michele Bachmann entered the set of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon accompanied by the musical musings of The Roots covering the Fishbone song, “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.”

Glenn Beck responded by calling Fallon a “despicable human being.” The Women’s Media Center noted that this gender slur was both “sexist and unfunny.” Fallon has since apologized.


#7 Manicure Alert

November 5th, 2011
Caroline Heldman, Contributor

Michele Bachmann’s French manicure has created quite the chatter amongst bloggers and “news” organizations (see herehereherehere,here, and here) who are debating whether the polish style is classy, tacky, or even worth discussing.  Hint: It’s not worth discussing any more than it’s worth discussing the accumulation of dirt under Bachman’s male competitors’ nails.

The ever-important manicure topic previously drew attention during the 2004 presidential race when a Fox News reporter used homophobic slurs in an attempt to diminish John Kerry’s candidacy.

But maybe I’m overlooking the electoral influence of manicures.  BloggerDarren Garnick writes that “Perhaps one of the most overlooked moments of the 2008 presidential race was the endorsement of Barack Obama by Empress Stephanie, one of the nation’s most influential nail polish bloggers.”


#6 “Thank God” (She Kept Her Clothes On)

October 8th, 2011
Caroline Heldman, Contributor

The senate race between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren has taken a sexist turn.  During last Tuesday’s debate, a college studentposed this question to Warren:

To help pay for his law school education, Scott Brown posed for Cosmo. How did you pay for your college education?

Warren responded, “I kept my clothes on…I borrowed money.”

The topic surfaced again a few days later when Brown was asked to respond to Warren’s comment on local radio station WZLX. His response? “Thank God” (she kept her clothes on), eliciting raucous laughter from the male disc jockeys in the studio.

This planned comment was certainly vetted by Brown’s campaign and had the double impact of belittling her physical appearance and reminding voters that women are first and foremost judged by their appearance, despite other accomplishments.

In this same interview, Brown went on to defend his decision to pose nude by painting Warren as an elitist. “Bottom line is, you know, I didn’t go to Harvard, you know, I went to the school of hard knocks, and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school,’’ he said.

But here’s the thing.  Elizabeth Warren did not attend Harvard. She’s the daughter of a janitor who started waiting tables when she was barely a teenager, and later worked and borrowed to pay her way through the University of Houston and Rutgers School of Law. Warren worked her way up to becoming a professor at Harvard Law School.

In addition to attending the school of “hard knocks,” Brown also attended Tufts University and Boston College School of Law.


#5 Bachmann Denies Sexism

September 27th, 2011
Caroline Heldman, Contributor

From The Factor, September 26, 2011:

O’Reilly: “Do you think you’re being treated differently because you’re the only woman in the race?  Here you’ve got eight sweaty guys – they’re all sweaty – and then you’re there.  Are you being treated differently because you’re the only woman in the race, do you think?”

Bachmann: “You know I don’t think so. I’ve never felt that way. I grew up with three brother and no sisters.”

O’Reilly: “So there’s no gender bias, anything like that?”

Bachmann: “No, I grew up with three brothers and no sisters. That’s the best preparation for politics that any girl can have.  I don’t feel in any way that I’m discriminated against. I’m just grateful to be able to be in the race. I think it’s wonderful…”

O’Reilly: That’s refreshing to hear.  Remember Hillary Clinton when she ran last time [scoffs], ‘you know, I’m getting hammered because I’m a woman….’ You don’t see it that way.”

Bachmann: “I don’t think so. All of us have to go through this.”

Where to begin with this video. O’Reilly reduces men to “natural” brutes with his two kidding-on-the-square comments that the male primary contenders are “eight sweaty guys.” Bachmann then affirms this idea with her contention that growing up with three brothers prepared her for politics, insinuating that she is well versed in responding to (naturally brutish) male behavior. Can I get a “boys will be boys” here?

Then, after Bachmann draws a clear distinction in the way boys/men and girls/women behave, she claims that she is not being treated differently because she is the only woman in the race. “All of us have to go through this.”

There’s pressure for Bachmann to not complain about the (obvious) sexism she faces for fear of being labeled a “victim”/weak, even though it has likely already cost her the candidacy. O’Reilly’s effusive praise of Bachmann’s denial of sexism — “refreshing” — is evidence of this pressure.

O’Reilly then scoffs at Hillary Clinton’s claim that she faced sexism in the 2008 election, despite ample research finding that she did (hereherehere, and here), and egregious examples, including audience members yelling and holding up the sign “Iron My Shirt” at several campaign events.

Being the first candidate to have a nutcracker made in her likeness:

Rush Limbaugh asking about Clinton, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”

Author Marc Rudov speaking on Fox News: “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage’” (in a mocking high pitch).

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews describing Clinton’s senatorial victory speech:

It can grate on some men when they listen to it, fingernails on a blackboard… How does she do it without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?

Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach writing that Clinton “needs a radio-controlled shock collar so that aides can zap her when she starts to get screechy. She came perilously close to going on a tirade.”

MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson featuring Republican strategist Roger Stone, creator of the anti–Hillary Clinton 527 organization, “Citizens United, Not Timid”—or C.U.N.T.

“Progressive” Air American radio host Randi Rhodes declaring at a network event that Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro were “fucking whores.”

Some of the most egregious examples of altered, degrading images of Hillary Clinton that littered the Internet during the election can be found at Women-America (trigger warning: nudity, pornography) and in this video montage:

Perhaps O’Reilly was channeling Chris Matthews who asked, “Is Hillary out of line for painting herself as a victimized woman every time her male rivals criticize her? And do we want a president who plays the gender card every time her opponents attack her?”

Presidential candidates run with the knowledge that they will be attacked, but can O’Reilly honestly say that Clinton wasn’t getting hammered because she was a woman given this mountain of evidence? It’s great that O’Reilly is giving face time to a female presidential contender, but his mocking dismissal of sexism on the presidential campaign trail hurts Bachmann and future female contenders.


#4  And Then There Were Two?

September 12th, 2011
Caroline Heldman, Contributor

Major news outlets have deemed the competition for the Republican nomination contest a two-man race, including:

This early framing of the contest as a two-man race may effectively end Michele Bachmann’s candidacy, despite her winning the Ames Straw Poll (knocking Tim Pawlenty out of the race) and polls showing that she, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul have considerably more support than other candidates. Also, according to this Gallup poll, Bachmann and Perry generate more positive intensity than Romney.

CNN Reporter Roland Martin’s blood is boiling at journalists for prematurely framing the nomination as a two-man race: “Our actions are utterly shameful when we choose to negate every other candidate solely because we have determined that they can’t be elected… coverage is slanted toward those who we think stand the best chance at winning, thereby depriving any other candidate the opportunity to put their message forward.”

According to the Gallup poll below, Bachmann’s support increased slightly in July and August, while Romney support fell with Perry’s entrance into the race.

An August 24, 2011 PPP poll shows a closer race with Perry at 33%, Romney at 20%, and Bachmann at 16% support amongst Republicans. Aside from differences in polling methods and numbers, it is important to note that were are five months away from the first primary election, and these numbers will shift, perhaps dramatically. Perry is still enjoying a Honeymoon period, and the race will likely get tighter as voters find out more about him and his record. John McCain, the winner of the 2008 Republican nomination, trailed in national polls until the end of December in 2007, so discounting candidates this far in advance can artificially and anti-democratically limit choice.

The two-man race framing was evident during the third Republican debate last week at the Reagan Library where Perry and Romney were asked more questions than the other candidates and given more opportunities to respond to each another, especially at the start of the debate when they verbally sparred back and forth while the other candidates stood idly by.

I propose that the ease with which Bachmann’s candidacy has been discarded by the press has something to do with her being a woman. I witnessed something similar happen to Elizabeth Dole during the 2000 Republican nomination contest. Despite running a strong second in the polls, enjoying high favorability ratings (75% favorable impression compared to 69% for George W. Bush in March, 1999), and beating Al Gore in a hypothetical head-to-head contest, Dole was never considered a “real” candidate because she was a woman.  Relentlessly biased press coverage contributed greatly to her failed candidacy, as noted in this research and by her campaign manager (and later White House Press Secretary) Ari Fleisher. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 candidacy was also hindered by blatant and subtle sexism in press coverage, as documented in several studies, including this one.

In the back of the minds of many pundits and reporters, Bachmann has never been a serious contender because she is a woman, and this two-man framing all but ensures that she will not be.


#3  Sexism and Bachmann’s Problematic Female Personality

August 22nd, 2011
Caroline Heldman, Contributor

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has already faced a steady stream of blatant sexism since considering a presidential run.  In June, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked her the question, “are you a flake?”  Then in mid-July, Bill Maher mused during an interview with a laughing Piers Morgan that Bachmann and Sarah Palin would “split the MILF vote.”

About the same time, Bachmann faced intense focus on her migraines.  This medical ailment mostly affects women and was presented as a biological factor limiting fitness for the presidency, reminiscent of arguments about menstruation.  A few weeks later, sexism was spotted again in a Newsweekcover featuring Bachmann with “crazy eyes” that presented a visual representation of the “crazy women” frame used against Hillary Clinton in 2008.


#2  Only Women Get in Cat Fights

August 22nd, 2011

Caroline Heldman, Contributor

We imagine that women are in competition with each other in a way that they are not with men specifically because we see them as women first, and people second.

Bachmann was asked the “catfight” question by Fox News host Bret Baier:

BAIER:  Former governor Sarah Palin is here in Iowa this week as well.  She’s not in this race yet either. Congresswoman Bachmann, is she stealing your thunder?

BACHMANN:  I like Sarah Palin a lot.  We are very good friends. And I think there’s room in the race for Governor Perry, Sarah Palin, or even, Bret, you, too, if you want to throw your hat into the race.

BAIER:  I think I’ll be out of this one. (LAUGHTER)

This question reveals at least three disturbing assumptions about female presidential contenders.

First, since Palin is a female candidate, she would only be stealing thunder from another female candidate (based on the assumption is that female candidates don’t pose a real threat to male candidates).

Secondly, this question implies not only an interchangeability of female candidates, but also the idea that there’s only room in the race for one token candidate (again, revealing the assumption that female candidates aren’t “real” candidates).

And lastly, this question assumes that if two women are in a race (and let’s be clear here – Palin is not in the race), they will compete with each other as women in a way that supersedes the electoral competition.  Politico reporter, Maggie Haberman, caught up with Palin who noted the obvious sexism in this question:

“Just because there may happen to be two women in the race, that they would you know as Michele had put it once, get in the mud and engage in some catfighting that’s ridiculous. It’s kind of even a sexist notion to consider that two women would be kind of duking it out… If I’m gonna duke it out I’m gonna duke it out with the guys.”


#1  Whose Marriages are Relevant?

August 22nd, 2011

Caroline Heldman, Contributor

Sexism in the electoral arena is easy to determine with a simple test: “Does this action (in this case, two questions) treat Bachmann differently than her male competitors?”

During the Republican debate in Iowa last week, Washington Examiner reporter Byron York asked this question:

“Representative Bachmann, in 2006, when you were running for Congress, you described a moment in your life when your husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea. And then you explained, ‘But the Lord said, Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.’ As president, would you be submissive to your husband?”

In response, Bachmann offered a ridiculous revision of the meaning of the word “submission” (“submission… it means respect.”)  But she never should have been asked that question in the first place.  Bachman’s views on power dynamics in her marriage are irrelevant to the presidential contest, and since her male competitors were not asked if they uphold the prevailing societal/religious notion that men should be the head of household, this question was gendered and unfair.


For past examples of sexism in U.S. presidential politics, see the round up of our coverage of the 2008 election.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

In early 2009, I had dinner with a prominent, conservative political operative. He calmly (and accurately) predicted that the 2010 mid-term election would see the largest Republican gains in half a century. He then leaned in and half-whispered, “but you haven’t seen anything yet. Just wait until 2012 .” I pressed him on specifics, but he would only allude to a campaign that would rewrite the political rules. With the revelation that a centralized, state-by-state voter suppression campaign is underway, I now know what he was alluding to.

The New Voter Restriction Laws

In 2011, a sudden wave of state-level voter restrictions in Republican-controlled states has swept the nation, just in time for the 2012 election, with 19 new laws and two executive actions on the books. Some of these laws reduced or eliminated early voting, while others did away with weekend voting and same-day registration. All 50 states require voters to prove their identification at the polls, but 17 states have pending or approved law mandating government-sponsored IDs in order to vote, despite the fact that approximately 11% of citizens don’t have such IDs (for various reasons). For some Americans, even those with ample resources, getting an ID can be quite a challenge (even for nuns!).

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 5 million eligible voters face disenfranchisement from these new voter ID laws.


Voter ID laws disproportionately affect Black AmericansLatino/a voters, U.S. citizens who were born in other countrieselderly peoplepeople with disabilitiestransgendered people, and students — all of whom are less likely to have the required ID for different reasons. A 2006 Brennan Center study finds that 25% of Black , 16% percent of Latino/s, and 18% percent of elderly Americans lack the necessary ID. Some on the left have accurately likened these new laws to Jim Crow Era poll taxes because the expense involved in obtaining an ID place a disproportionate burden on many groups that have been historically disenfranchised.

What do all of these groups have in common? With the exception of elderly Americans who have shifted Republican in recent years (although they still comprise the most active voting group for Democrats), the Americans who will be disproportionately affected by voter ID laws all vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

There is little doubt, then, that voter ID efforts will affect the upcoming presidential election. The states that have restricted voting rights also have 185 Electoral College votes, two-thirds of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Out of the twelve battleground states in the upcoming election, five have already restricted voting rights and two others are considering new limitations.

Who’s Behind the New Laws?

The corporate organization behind the new spate of voter ID laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which claims to be a “nonpartisan public-private partnership” between legislators, the private sector, and the general public to promote “principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” (How is requiring government-issued ID to vote a promotion of “limited government” and “individual liberty”?) In actuality, ALEC is a hyper-conservative Republican organization that receives 98% of its funding from corporate entities, such as Exxon Mobil, Atria (formerly Phillip Morris tobacco), AT&T, Coca-Cola, and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

And ALEC is more than just a corporate lobbying organization. They work directly with legislators (who are ALEC members) to craft model legislation that is then introduced in statehouses across the country without acknowledging that corporations drafted the bill. ALEC drafted model ID voter legislation, and every single new voter ID law was passed with ALEC member involvement. ALEC’s policy agenda for 2011 included bills to deregulate polluting industries, privatize education, eliminate unions, and voting restrictions.

David and Charles Koch, two brothers who have quietly promoted their radical, free-market agenda with $100 million in contributions to conservative causes, including bankrolling Scott Walker’s election and subsequent recent assault on public unions in Wisconsin, have long ties to ALEC. Koch Industries has been one of a select group of members on ALEC’s governing board for nearly two decades, and from what little financial information is available, the Koch contribution to ALEC likely exceeds $1 million. The lead lobbyist for Koch Industries formerly chaired ALEC. Koch brother involvement in voter ID laws should be of particular interest for the Occupy Movement considering that David Koch’s project, Citizens for a Sound Economy, spearheaded the effort to repeal Glass-Steagall that enabled banking institutions to gamble in securities and tank the economy in 2008.

The purpose of new voter ID laws is to demobilize certain portions of electorate who are more likely to vote for Democrats, a goal laid out by ALEC founder, Paul Weyrich many decades ago who stated that “I don’t want everybody to vote… Our leverage in the elections goes up as the voting populus goes down.”

In short, this is a corporate-sponsored attack on democracy, spearheaded by Republicans intent on disenfranchising certain groups in the electorate in order to gain political control.

But Don’t We Need to Enhance Voting Security?

No. The voter ID movement is based on a bald-faced lie that voter impersonation is an issue. It’s not. As the DNC humorously notes, a person is 39 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to engage in voter impersonation, and 3,600 times more likely to report a UFO.

This voting fraud figure is based on a Bush Administration investigation into the matter that involved only 70 prosecutions nationwide, some of which were honest mistakes.

The Real Problem: Voter Turnout

We don’t have a voter impersonation fraud problem in the U.S., but we do have a voter turnout problem. Turnout in presidential years has declined since 1960, and pitifully hovers below 60% of the eligible electorate. We should be undertaking Herculean efforts to increase voter turnout, not erecting barriers to voting based on trumped-up problems to serve partisan ends. Yet, despite the data, untold resources are being spent to “correct” a problem that simply doesn’t exist. These new laws will cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually to implement, not including the cost of certain litigation. When a situation like this arises in politics, it means there are other motives at play.

We don’t need new barriers to voting, we need a state-by-state response with the concrete goals of getting people ready to vote, registering new voters, and overturning these laws.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Demand #8 from the Occupy Wall Street list of demands is a call for a “gender equal rights amendment,” a good sign that OWS is thinking about inequality in all its various forms.  This sentiment, though, seems to be lost on (supposedly) liberal filmmaker, Steven Greenstreet, whose past work  includes documentaries about the Mormon influence in passing Proposition 8 and the conservative backlash against Michael Moore.  Greenstreet is also the proud creator of the website, Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street.  He was watching news coverage of the Occupy movement that inspired him to tell a friend,

Wow, seeing all those super smart hot chicks at the protest makes me want to be there… Hmmm… Yeah, let’s go with that.

We instantly went to Tumblr and made [Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street]. Our original ideas were admittedly sophomoric: Pics of hot chicks being all protesty, videos of hot chicks beating drums in slow-mo, etc. But when we arrived at Zuccotti Park in New York City, it evolved into something more.

There was a vibrant energy in the air, a warmth of community and family, and the voices we heard were so hopeful and passionate. Pretty faces were making signs, giving speeches, organizing crowds, handing out food, singing, dancing, debating, hugging and marching.

The evolution from “sophomoric” to “something more,” inspired by “community and family,” is not evident on the website.  Aside from the obvious reduction of activist women to sexual objects, this site is shockingly offensive in its inclusion of young women/girls, one with the caption “She is identified as being 18 years old.” [Hint: If you have to identify “her” as being of age, that’s a sign you probably shouldn’t be posting the photo.]

Greenstreet does not provide information about whether he gained permission from the girls/women featured, but since no names are provided, we can assume he did not systematically seek permission.

It is also unlikely that Greenstreet informed his subjects of his intention to post their photos on the Hot Chicks website.  With his accomplice, Brandon Bloch, Greenstreet shot a video with interviews of women in which it is clear they thought their words, not their bodies, would be the focus:


Greenstreet has posted criticism on the Hot Chicks website like a badge of honor:

@JaeChick: Nothing like degrading women to get attention. You are a small, sorry excuse for a man.

@MeFunk: Whatsay you take down your sexist video, issue a formal apology to female protesters, and then I pour hot coffee on you?

He responded to critiques of sexism with the following statement:

Apparently a lot of controversy has erupted online from people passionately opining (among many things) that this is sexist, offensive, and dangerously objectifies women. It was not my intent to do that and I think the spirit of the video, and the voices within, are honorable and inspiring.

However, if you disagree with me, I encourage you to use that as an excuse to create constructive discussions about the issues you have. Because, to be honest, any excuse is a good excuse to bring up the topic of women’s rights.

Wow, what a humanitarian.  It appears that this fumbling display of overt sexism was really just a ploy to get us talking about women’s rights.  Thanks, Steven.

Thanks to Katrin, Melanie L., Jessie W., and Nathan Jurgenson of Cyborgology for asking us to write about this topic!

My colleague and co-author, Lisa Wade (you’d know her better as one of the people behind SocImages), gave a seven-minute speech at an Occupy Teach-In at our shared institution, Occidental College.  She said I could post it for you.

In the video she says she’s optimistic about the movement because it’s deeply sociological, drawing our attention to the way we organize our society, not just the individuals in it.  She contrasts this ability to critique the system with the early years of the Great Depression, during which many of the unemployed felt like they had failed their families because of personal faults (leading to a rise in the suicide rate).  Then, using the truly inspirational story of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott (in which people walked to work and rode carpools for over a year!), she warns students that the movement is about to stop being fun and require real commitment. She ends by asking the the audience whether they can rise to the occasion and make the sacrifices needed to move Occupy forward to achieve specific demands.

Also see the three-minute bit on hook up culture that she did for MTV Canada.

Cross-posted at Racialicious and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Tower Heist (2011) the new movie starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, is the latest installment in blatantly racist movie-making. Stiller plays a high-end condo manager in Manhattan who bails out a local criminal (Murphy) to steal a stash of cash that one of the wealthy condo residents swindled from the condo staff. It’s been nearly thirty years since Murphy played nearly the same character in his breakout role in 48 Hours, and the fact that he is still cast as a jive-talking criminal speaks to how little has changed when it comes to the portrayal of black Americans in popular culture.

Hyperbolic racial stereotypes are still sooooo amusing for some.  As LA Times film critic Betsy Sharkey writes, “Murphy and Stiller are a good pair, with Murphy once again mainlining his ghetto-comedy crazy and Stiller suited up for another straight-man gig. These are the kinds of roles they both do best, and their face-off in the front seat of an out-of-control car is worth the price of admission.” (Now reverse the names in this quote to see how racialized and racially offensive it is.)

Perhaps more disturbing is the way in which film critics are talking about this movie as a comback for Eddie Murphy  (“Eddie Murphy’s Road to Reddemption,” “Tower Heist: Murphy is Back on Top,” “‘Tower’ Heist Features Eddie Murphy Back in ‘Classic ’80s Form“). What does it mean when playing an insultingly stereotypical black criminal is deemed “redemption” for a black actor whose movies have grossed nearly $7 billion worldwide? And where, exactly, did Eddie Murphy go? The Shrek series grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide, while his Nutty Professor and Doctor Dolittle franshises grossed $428 million and $470 million, respectively. Murphy has appeared in a steady stream of successful movies in the past decade, including Dreamgirls for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Closer examination of media critics’ analysis reveals a nostalgia for Eddie Murphy’s breakthrough role as a criminal in 48 HoursJon Niccum writes that inTower Heist “Murphy shows flashes of the aggressive, non-family-friendly persona that made him a superstar following 48 Hours. Aggressive?  Non-family friendly?


To summarize, Eddie Murphy grossing oodles of money as a successful director, producer, writer, and actor in films featuring him as a doctor, a veterinarian, a dedicated father, and the voice of a beloved donkey in the second highest-grossing animated film of all time is considered some sort of failure, but playing a jive talking felon is redemption. Huh?

There are many ways to interpret this — that Hollywood and movie critics (and many in society) are more comfortable with black actors playing damaging, stereotypical roles involving criminality, violence, and deviance (remember back in 2002 when Denzel Washington finally won the Oscar for playing a crooked cop?); that male actors are failures if they appear in family-friendly movies, regardless of how economically successful these movies may be; that to be considered successful, male actors have to appear in movies geared towards male audiences.

Whatever the reason(s), it is embarassing for Hollywood and its “critics” to continue to be so ignorant. Eddie Murphy called out the movie industry’s racism at the 1988 Academy Awards during his presentation of the Best Picture award: “I’m going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear anymore. I want you to recognize that.” Two decades later, Murphy finds himself riding the caboose, furnished by the creators of Tower Heist.