gender: objectification

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

A year ago, I posted about street harassment — specifically, that form of harassment women often experience in which random men “compliment” us and then feel entitled to our gratitude and attention in return, and often lash out with a barrage of misogynistic comments if they don’t get it.

Caitlin Boston recently posted a video at Sweet.Sour.Satire that she made to highlight the specific kinds of comments Asian American women often face from strangers and even acquaintances. These experiences, both on the street and on dates, represent the intersection of generic sexism and the stereotype of the submissive, hyper-feminized Asian woman, plus an added dash of conflating all Asians (and conflating Asians with Asian Americans) and assuming every Asian American woman’s heart will melt at hearing her date can eat with chopsticks.

Editor’s Note: Christie W.,  Michel E., Andrew S., and an anonymous reader asked us to write about the recent discussion of Thylane Loubry Blondeau.  We’re pleased to feature a guest blogger doing just that.

There is no shortage of sexualized images of girls in American culture.  Shows like TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras frequently contain over-the-top sexualized portrayals of girls.  Images like these are undeniably sexualized.

However, these images of Thylane Loubry Blondeau, a 10-year-old French model making headlines this week, are creating controversy instead of condemnation.  Some argue that, unlike the child beauty queens, the photographs of Blondeau are art.  There is an interesting class effect here; unlike the hypersexualized girls on shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, the photos of Blondeau are high fashion, therefore high class, and therefore acceptable.

I’m no prude.  I think that children are – and have a right to be – sexual beings.  However, there is a difference between sexuality (feeling sexual) and sexualization (being seen as sexy). I (and many other like-minded feminists) believe that girls should be sexual; but, sexualization (and its concomitant focus on appearance instead of desire) is bad because it denies girls’ sexual subjectivity in favor of sexual objectification.

There is ample psychological research to support this notion that sexualization is bad.  An American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls reported in 2007 that sexualization is linked with negative consequences such as disordered eating, low self-esteem, and deficits in cognitive and physical functioning.  These links have been identified in both girls and women – some as young as Blondeau.

Sexualized images like these are troublesome at the societal level as well.  They encourage others to view young girls as objects of sexiness.  Additionally, these images are hugely problematic for girls and women with body image issues.  The fashion industry already promotes the thin ideal.  These pictures of Blondeau push the envelope by explicitly promoting the prepubescent thin ideal, a body type that is wholly unattainable for women.  The normalization of beautifying a 10-year-old’s body type can have potentially disastrous consequences for women’s body image.

It is dangerous to assume that “high fashion” sexualization is “art” and therefore less of an issue than lower class sexualization.  I do not take the paternalistic view that girls should be “protected” against sexualization. Instead, we should work with girls (and boys) to discourage sexualization and to encourage strength, intelligence, and sexual agency.

Images from tvtropesJezebel, and Snob.

Sarah McKenney is a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin where she studies gender development and the sexualization of girls.

Cross-posted at Scientopia.

A couple of days ago I posted a video about stereotypes of Native Americans in video games, including the Hot Indian Princess. Though the video discussed video games specifically, these tropes are common in other area of pop culture as well. Dolores R. sent in a great example. Over at Beyond Buckskin, Jessica Metcalfe posted about the 2011 Caribana Parade in Toronto. This year the parade theme was Native America, including various sections such as Amazon Warriors, Lost City of the Aztecs, Brazilian Amerindians…and Tribal Princesses. Here’s a Tribal Princess costume provided by one band, Callaloo (it’s now sold out).

A commenter on Metcalfe’s post takes exception with criticisms of these costumes and the parade theme, saying,

[This is a] celebration of historic alliances between African Diaspora peoples and Native peoples. In New Orleans, the tradition was a specific response to racist laws that placed Native and other POC communities in a common frame of reference. This tradition is almost 200 years old among Caribbean/Diaspora people in North America…you are making a tremendous mistake by attacking a part of Afro-Caribbean culture as if this was the same as an expression of White/Euro privilege.

So the argument is that this can’t be problematic cultural appropriation or propagation of the sexualized Indian Princess trope because it is part of an event meant to celebrate and recognize the histories and cultures of groups that have themselves been the target of discrimination and political/cultural exclusion. Certainly there is an important cultural and historical context there that, the commenter argues, distinguishes these costumes from, say, the current fad of “tribal” clothing in fashion.

And yet, that argument seems to discursively claim a right to represent Native Americans in any way without being subject to criticisms of stereotyping or cultural appropriation. For instance, the Apache were not a Caribbean tribe (though the Lipan Apache moved far into southeastern Texas by the late 1700s, coming into regular contact with Texas Gulf tribes). Does this sexualized “Apache” costume, as imagined by non-Apaches and sold to the general public, differ greatly from other appropriations and representations of Native American culture and identity as fashion statement?

This feels a little like a different version of the “But we’re honoring you!” argument used in efforts to defend Native American sports mascots — that any concern the viewer has is only due to their lack of understanding of the reason for the depiction of Native Americans, not because that depiction might be, in fact, problematic.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

I don’t play video games. The few times I have played a game it involved a furry animal working his way through some kind of tropical forest and the most violent it got was when he hit a villainous turtle on the head with a coconut. So, I am not familiar with Duke Nukem.

Of course, one Google search tells me he is a supremely popular, freakishly over-muscled, machine gun-wielding, hyper-aggressive action “hero” who is described in the Wikipedia entry as “frequently politically incorrect.” His character profile also claims that when he was first introduced, he was a CIA operative hired to save Earth from Dr. Proton. But the current marketing materials make clear what the really important aspects of the game are. Exhibit A is this ad, which greeted me as I came out of the subway this morning:

Duke Nukem is sitting on a throne while two women in schoolgirl outfits sit at his feet. The caption leaves no doubt about the main attractions: “This game has bazookas. Both types.”

The game’s website presents a guy who looks intensely devoted to his steroid regimen, has a penchant for unloading 50 rounds into anything with tentacles, and who appears to live in a post-apocalyptic land which is somehow still able to generously supply women with fetish outfits, bikinis, and manicures. In a video promo for the game on YouTube there are scenes of Duke on a shooting rampage interspersed with what appears to be him walking into a room and seeing a switched-on vibrator skidding around the room. He then encounters two women (the Holsom Twins, Mary and Kate) in schoolgirl outfits who drop their weapons to touch and caress each other in sexually suggestive ways. Duke is watching this while pointing a gun at them, saying, “allll right, time for my reward” (NSFW due to images and language):

Unfortunately for the twins, they later have sex with an alien and get themselves into trouble (thanks to Michael R. for this clip; also NSFW):

Many other reviews of Duke Nukem have also pointed out its violent sexual imagery and encouragement of sexually violent behavior towards women. Just to tally up, we have:

  1. Fetishizing and infantilizing women by putting them in outfits associated with children.
  2. Referring to their breasts as “bazookas,”  both objectifying women and equating  their bodies with a military weapon.
  3. A lesbian encounter presented as titillation for the male viewer.
  4. Watching women engage in sexual activity with one another, and even threatening women with weaponry to continue engaging in sexual activity with one another, is your reward. You deserve it – you deserve to be sexually gratified.

People learn by watching. This can be good and bad. It can make us more accepting of others’ opinions and outlooks, and it can also desensitize and normalize harmful opinions and behaviors. In regards to Duke, the latter is where the risk lies — the more one sees images like those presented by Duke Nukem, the more likely they are to be seen as what is acceptable and usual. Normalizing harmful, degrading, and insulting stereotypes of and behavior toward women seems like a high price to pay for a video game’s success.


Larkin Callaghan is a doctoral student at Columbia University studying health behavior and education. She is particularly concerned with gender disparities in access to healthcare and prevention services, and has done research on adolescent female sexual health, how social media operate as an educational platform, and differences by gender in the effectiveness of brief health interventions. You can follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, and at her blog.

Mandi B. sent in this straightforward example of the way that women are positioned as commodities in advertising.  The email ad for Spirit Airlines reads “Trade Up for a Better Flight Awards Card” and illustrates that trade with a new car, a younger look, and a lady in red.  What does the lady have to do with it? Absolutely nothing. But it works because we’re accustomed to thinking of sexy women as prizes for men’s success.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” the third installment in this $1.5 billion franchise that just set a new record for a Fourth of July weekend opening, follows what has become a Hollywood action movie tradition of virtually erasing women, despite the fact that women buy 55% of movie tickets and market research shows that films with female protagonists or prominent female characters in ensemble casts garner similar box office numbers to movies featuring men.

Only two featured characters in the large ensemble Transformers cast are women, and none of the Transformers (alien robots, for the uninitiated) are female. And the two female humans consist of an unmitigated sexual object and a caricatured mockery of female leadership.

Let’s start with “the object,” Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), the one-dimensional, highly sexualized damsel-in-distress girlfriend of protagonist Sam Wikwiki (Shia LaBouef). Carly wears stiletto heels, even when running from murderous machines (except when the filmmakers slip up and her flats are visible), and she is pristine in her white jacket after an hour-long battle that leaves the men filthy.

The movie opens with a tight shot of Carly’s nearly bare ass as she walks up the stairs:


In a later scene, Carly is reduced to an object as her boss (Patrick Demsey) compares her to an automobile in a conversation with Sam:


And in case the audience doesn’t know to leer at Carly, they get constant instruction from a duo of small robots that look up her skirt and Sam’s boss (John Malkovich) who cocks his head to stare at her ass:


Sam’s “friend,” Agent Simmons (John Turturro), also ogles Carly and suggests she be frisked against her will:

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In a disturbing scene of sexualized violence, Carly’s (robot) car sprouts “arms” and threatens to violate her:


Normalization of female objectification causes girls/women to think of themselves as objects, which has been linked to higher rates of depression and eating disorders, compromised cognitive and sexual function, decreased self-esteem, and decreased personal and political efficacy. Ubiquitous female sexual objectification also harms men by increasing men’s body consciousness, and causes both men and women to be less concerned about pain experienced by sex objects.

Transformers 3 is pitched as a “family movie” and the film studio carefully disguises it as such with misleading movie trailers showing a story about kid’s toys. (Okay, I still have an Optimus Prime robot…) Young kids were abundant at both screenings I attended, taking in the images with little ability to filter the message.


It would have been easy for Michael Bay to positively present the second female character, Director of National Intelligence Charlotte Mearing (Frances McDormand). Instead, she is a tool to openly mock female leadership and promote female competition.

McDormand does her best to breathe some realism into Director Mearing, but the script calls for a caricature with “masculine” leadership traits – arrogance, assertiveness, stubborness, etc. – who is ultimately “put in her place” at the end of the movie with a forced kiss. Women continue to be vastly under-represented in positions of corporate and political leadership, partially due to the double-bind of women’s leadership where, in order to be considered acceptable leaders, women have to project a “masculine” image for which they are then criticized.

Director Mearing’s authority is challenged by virtually everyone she encounters in a way that simply wouldn’t make sense for a male character in her position. Sam openly challenges her in this scene:


Director Mearing’s authority evaporates when Agent Simmons comments, “moving up in the world, and your booty looks excellent”:


Director Mearing is even challenged by a transformer. [SPOILER ALERT: Director Mearing is the only one to challenge this transformer’s intentions, and she gets no credit when it turns out she was right.]


This Transformer again puts her in her place with the dual meaning of “I am a prime. I do not take orders from you”:

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Director Mearing also has a running theme of not wanting to be called “ma’am.”


The “ma’am” theme doesn’t readily make sense since Director Mearing isn’t young and doesn’t appear to be trying to look young. But it does make sense when viewed through the lens of director Michael Bay intentionally mocking women’s leadership. Remember the flap when Senator Barbara Boxer at a hearing requested that a general use her professional title instead of “ma’am”?:


The “ma’am” theme resurfaces in a particularly troubling scene where Director Mearing meets with Sam and Carly, who, in good double-bind fashion, challenges whether she is even a woman:


Bay does include a few minor female characters with lines – Sam’s mother, the nagging mother/wife; Director Mearing’s subservient Asian assistant; a scene with both the “Olga” and “Petra” Russian woman stereotypes; and a Latina with a bare midriff who has a “Latin meltdown”:

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If Michael Bay can buy off the most accomplished actors and even musician/social activist Bono to participate in such harmful media, what hope is there in the war that pits girls/women (the Autobots) against unrepentantly sexist movies makers (the Deceptacons)?

Lauren S. sent in this ad for a used car dealership that ran in the London Free Press, a free newspaper in London, Ontario. The ad compares used cars to sexually experienced women with the lines, “You know you’re not the first. But do you really care?”:

As Lauren points out, it’s blatant objectification of women, but “in addition to objectifying women to sell vehicles, this campaign suggests that a woman’s sexual past is equivalent to depreciation.”

I suppose someone could argue that the message that you shouldn’t “care” whether your women/cars are “used” rejects the sexual double standard, but the objectification and the implication that non-virgin women are “used” undermine any apparent rejection of that double standard.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this type of ad for used cars; we previously posted a BMW ad, but in that case, I suspect (though we’ve never been able to confirm) that it might have been a spec ad made by an ad agency but never actually used by BMW. In this case, Lauren actually saw it in print.

UPDATE 1: Well, I must give Dale Wurfel some credit. He is apparently an equal-opportunity objectifier. He ran a second ad that uses a man instead of a woman:

Via Wheels.

Of course, equal objectification doesn’t necessarily have equal effects. We live in a world with a sexual double standard. Calling a woman “used” resonates culturally in a way that it simply doesn’t for men, because we don’t punish men for sexual experience in the same way.

UPDATE 2: Lauren let us know that the car dealership issued an apology:

UPDATE: Comments closed.

Kristie C. sent in a Hardee’s commercial for their turkey burger that is an example of something we’ve talked about before: the conflation of women with food products to be consumed and the sexualization of both women and food in ads. But watch closely! It’s very subtle, so you might miss it the first time.