gender: objectification

The blog Street Anatomy looks at representations of human anatomy in textbooks, design, and pop culture.  One aspect they look at is gendered presentations of human bodies in medical texts. Some of the examples they’ve collected are on display in the Objectify This: Female Anatomy Dissected and Displayed exhibit, which runs through September 29th at Design Cloud Gallery in Chicago.

Curator Vanessa Ruiz posted a textbook included in the exhibit. The Anatomical Basis of Medical Practice, published in 1971, used naked female bodies posed in ways reminiscent of pin-ups. As the authors explained,

In our own student days we discovered that studying surface anatomy with a wife or girl friend proved to be not only instructive, but highly entertaining. Since the majority of medical students still tend to be males, we have liberalized this text by making use of the female form. But, more to the point, we have done so because a large portion of your future patients will be women and few texts have pointed out surface landmarks on the female.

Below are some sample illustrations; I’m putting them after the jump since they include nude women.


[Note: Trigger warning for sexist, demeaning language and violent imagery.]

If you’re a regular reader of Soc Images, chances are pretty good that you also know about Anita Sarkeesian’s project to look at sexism in video games. Sarkeesian, who runs the fantastic Feminist Frequency site, attracted a large amount of hateful online attacks and harassment after starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise a few thousand dollars for a project looking at sexism in video games. If you aren’t aware of the story, check out any of the many media stories about her experience.

Sarkeesian’s project looks at stereotypes or sexist imagery in the design of the games themselves. My coworker Darren D. let me know about a website that highlights another element of sexism in the gaming community: the demeaning or threatening sexist comments gamers often send to other players, especially those they believe are women. Fat, Ugly or Slutty collects examples of the sexual harassment and sexist attacks that are an unfortunately common part of female gamers’ lives.

Many of the comments sexualize and objectify the women by suggesting they should be sexually available to other players or open to comments on their appearance. Some angrily lash out with hateful sexist attacks and put-downs about physical appearance and sexuality. Others send threats or vivid scenarios of violence.

As one of my female students told me last semester, as a gamer, she has the extra mental and emotional burden of having to decide, every time she considers playing, whether the joy she gets from the game outweighs the likelihood that she’ll be called a whore or a bitch or have to ignore sexual comments as she tries to concentrate on the game.

For more on the topic, check out the BBC’s documentary “Guns, Girls and Games.” Also check out Not in the Kitchen Anymore, where Jenny Haniver posts recordings of the types of sexist comments she has to deal with as a female gamer.

UPDATE: Several commenters have pointed out that men also get comments like at least some of these. That is absolutely true. Insults of a wide and creative variety are thrown around. But these comments, whether targeted at men or women, illustrate a common cost of admission to online gaming: whether a man or a woman, you have to expect sexist, demeaning, violent insults if you want to play. Those are the informal rules of the game.

And yes, both men and women receive these types of objectifying or sexist comments. In a world in which women are more likely to face this type of behavior in their everyday lives outside of gaming, and in which women playing multi-player or FPS games generally find themselves in the minority, the fact that both male and female gamers experience these insults shouldn’t reassure us that the impacts of them are equal and, thus, harmless.

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

A new submission from Rucha S. inspires me to bring back our 4-year-old boob products post.  Hers is added last, so enjoy the scroll!

Sent in by Jessica F. and found at Trend de la Creme. Boob hot water bottles:


Boob ice cubes:


A boob/rocket-shaped “stress toy”:


The boob glasses don’t even make sense:


Taylor S. sent us this picture of “boob stress relievers” sold at a flea market:


Pitseleh S. found these boob clogs at boinkology.  You can also get these clogs with piercings or tattoos.

In comments to another post, Tim pointed us to this ad:

Many, many more after the jump.


Earlier this month, Lisa posted about the objectification of female beach volleyball players at the Olympics, discussing the types of photos and poses that are used when reporting on different types of sports, including gendered differences.

Autumn B. sent in another over-the-top example of the objectification of female athletes. The commercial is for RoadID, a company that sells “identification gear.” Autumn saw it while watching the Tour de France; she found this shortened version online, which she says actually features less objectification than the original did.

The main focus of the ad is a slow investigation of various aspects of cyclist Jenny Fletcher’s body. The camera travels slowly up her leg, then shows her full profile before zooming in on her breasts as she zips up her shirt:

Jenny Fletcher has no dialogue. She exists as a body to be broken down into eroticized parts for the consumption of the viewer. As Autumn put it, it’s frustrating that, a fan of the “the male-centric Tour de France,” that “when they do FINALLY feature a female cyclist, it is as a sexual object.”

For other posts on this topic, see Serena Williams’ patriarchal bargain, Sports Illustrated covers, feminizing female athletes, Serena Williams in ESPN magazine, and media portrayals of female athletes.

Sociological Images owes a great debt to Jean Kilbourne, a pioneer in the feminist critique of advertising.  She’s most famous, probably, for her video series, Killing Us Softly.

In those videos, she offers a typology of ways that women are subordinated in media content.  One of those is silencing.  Sometimes this means actually covering a woman’s mouth (forcibly, but also playfully), other times copy simply says that she need not (or shouldn’t) speak.  Below are a series of images we’ve collected that illustrate this.  Some of them are dated, but they give you an idea of what the mechanism of silencing looks like.

Canada’s Next Top Model (Cycle 3), sent along by Julie C., included a photoshoot in which the models’ mouths were covered with duct tape.

Erin S. sent in a link to a set of fashion photos in New York Magazine that show faceless women.

Reanimated Horse sent us an American Apparel ad in which the woman’s body is highlighted but her face is obscured:


The next two ads are examples of one’s that suggest that women need not speak, that products can speak for them.

“Eye contact is speaking without words”:

“Make a statement without saying a word”:

Finally, Sarah B. sent along a form of resistance to these kinds of images.  Colin von Heuring, who just started a brand new blog on media subversion, saw an ad with the copy  “You don’t need words to make a statement.”  He decided to “ma[k]e it explicit” (original on the left, modified on the right):

For more on Jean Kilbourne and the subordination of women in advertising, here’s the trailer to Killing Us Softly 4:

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.

First the marketing team for an energy drink out of Poland, called “Black,” hired a Black person, Mike Tyson, to personify its product.  Then, they surround him with White, female models and have the convicted rapist call himself a “beast” that can’t control himself.  Tag lines include “that’s the power of Black” and “Black power.”

So we have, in one ad campaign, the fetishization of Black men, the White supremacist portrayal of White women as the ultimate female, their objectification (see #3, he actually hands one out in the second ad), the trivialization of his crime (he can’t control himself, LOL right!?), the use of animalistic language to refer to Black people, and the appropriation of the Black Power movement.  Anyone see anything else?  Does it matter that this comes out of Poland and not the U.S.?

Thanks to Tom Megginson at Work That Matters for the heads up.

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.

I’ve heard critiques about both the uniforms of the beach volleyball players at this year’s Olympics in London (i.e., bikinis) and the photographic coverage of the athletes (i.e., “butt shots”).  Then yesterday eight readers — Tom Megginson, Cheryl S., Cerberus Xt, Richard D., Anna G., @sphericalfruit, @bfwriter, and @HaphazardSoc — sent us a link to a story that asked the question: “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?”  More on that later.

First, I wanted to see if the rumors were true, so I googled beach vollyball and three other sports: track, diving, and gymnastics.  All involve relatively skimpy uniforms, but beach volleyball certainly stood out.  The top results included five photographs of just butts in bikini bottoms and four “cheesecake” pictures in which women are posed to look like pin-ups and volleyball is not part of the picture (all images can be clicked to get a closer view).

That may not seem like a lot but, in contrast, none of the top photos for the other three sports included butt shots or pin-up poses (with the exception of one butt shot for track, but it was of a fully-clothed man and used as a photographic device, not a source of titillation).

There’s an interesting lesson here that goes beyond the sexual objectification of women and asks “which women? and why? (because the sport is associated with the beach?) and in response to whose rules? (who is in charge of uniforms?) and to whose benefit? (the photographers, the Olympics, their corporate and media sponsors?).”





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.

Part of the challenge of taking care of a blog involves keeping the archive alive.  One way to do that is to link readers to older posts they they might be interested in.  We do that, in part, with an automated process called Link Within.  When we publish a post, the program searches our archive for similar posts and includes a set of thumbnails at the bottom that readers can click on if they’d like to know more.

At the bottom of a recent post about the role of carrots in World War II, for example, linkwithin offered these options:

There are pitfalls to this type of program that illustrate a bigger problem involved with talking about social inequality.  A reader named Sarah C. emailed us the following observation in response the thumbnails that followed a post about the sexual objectification of women:

I wanted to point out the dissonance I feel when I spend time reading a thoughtful article about gender equality and then when I finish the bottom of the page greets me with a line of 100 x 100 px images of sexualized womens’ bodies.  They are the same kinds of images I would see browsing Cracked or College Humor, or other mainstream sites.  The Huffington Post does it too – sites claiming to be (and often actually are) more or less progressive are using sexist tactics to get people to click, or at least that’s what it seems like…

I think it’s great to include examples of objectification in your posts in order to illustrate your point.  But using those images as a thumbnail gets you the wrong attention.  It feels hypocritical, or at least incongruous with your blog’s goals.

This is what Sarah saw:

Since the thumbnails are automatically generated, we don’t actually know what the thumbnails will be until we see the published post on the site.  So, upon seeing Sarah’s screenshot of the thumbnails, I was taken aback.  I understood immediately why she felt compelled to send us an email.

The phenomenon goes far beyond thumbnails.  Even if we did away with Link Within, our posts on the sexual objectification of women would include images that sexually objectified women.  We are Sociological Images, after all.   So our posts drawing attention to and criticizing the phenomenon also reinforce it.  It’s two steps forward and one step back, plus or minus a step.

But even if we weren’t an image-based blog, even if we simply discussed sexual objectification without an accompanying visual, doing so would remind readers that women are objectified, that they need to worry about how their bodies look, and that they’re being judged by their appearance.  At least one study has demonstrated that simply being exposed to objectifying words, devoid of imagery, can increase the degree to which women self-objectify.

Talking about sexual objectification always threatens to deepen the degree to which people feel sexually objectified, even if that is the opposite of one’s intention.  This phenomenon applies just as well to other forms of oppression.  Talking about the way in which state policies help or hinder Mexican immigrants to the U.S., for example, potentially further entrenches the idea that all Latinos are “illegals.”  Pointing out under-development in parts of Africa potentially affirms the notion that all of Africa is economically backward or politically corrupt.  Referring to women’s lack of representation in math and science may make women even more anxious about pursuing these careers.

This is one of the ways that power works.  It  co-opts the strategies available for fighting back.   Power is flexible and accommodating, it controls and convinces through all possible channels, it finds ways to infiltrate all mediums.  This is why it’s so hard, in the first place, to eradicate prejudice and inequality.

Coming to our blog is, for these reasons, a scary proposition.  Because we sometimes talk about ugly things, there will be ugly things here.  Taking out the thumbnails won’t change that; neither would deleting all of the images we reproduce.  Deleting all posts that address inequality would, but then we would be silently complicit with the status quo.  So, we keep blogging, and we keep uploading, and we keep trying to engage our readers further… for better or worse.

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.