gender: objectification

S. Alfonzo sent us a link to the abridged version of The Codes of Gender, in which Sut Jhally, known for a number of documentaries on pop culture, analyzes current messages about masculinity and femininity in advertising, applying the ideas of Erving Goffman regarding gender and cultural performance. Definitely worth the time to watch:

The Media Education Foundation has provided a full transcript and tips for using the film in the classroom.

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?

Flickr Creative Commons, Lau

Stephanie Medley-Rath sent in a new example of urinals shaped like women’s mouths (source).

Liz B. sent in a slide show of “innovative” urinals that included this example.

Urinals at the Rosenmeer restaurant in Moenchengladbach, Germany, are shaped like women’s bodies (source).

Others are shaped like nuns urinals (more nun or maybe the Virgin Mary urinals here).


Emma B. sent in this image of sinks:


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

A while back, we featured a post by Mary Nell Trautner and Erin Hatton about the gap in depictions of men and women on Rolling Stone covers. Their study found that women on the cover are not just sexualized, but are generally hypersexualized, whereas men are generally not sexualized at all, and this gendered trend has grown over time.

An anonymous reader sent in an example that highlights this pattern. The British version of GQ is putting out a comedy issue in April. The issue has two covers, one featuring actress Olivia Wilde (via):

The fully-dressed men are “kings of comedy,” while Wilde is a “fantasy figure.” Notice also that the cover on the right that the four female comedians at the bottom are introduced as “sexy.” While these women may be funny, it’s clearly essential that they be hot while being funny; comedic skills alone just won’t do.

GQ created a trailer featuring some of the comedians in the issue. The video consists of 17 male comedians. One woman does make it into the video; at 0:14, Wilde jiggles her boobs:

Because apparently none of those female comedians are worth including as representatives of comedy in the same manner as the men, but only in an explicitly sexualized manner.

Cross-posted at Sociology in Focus.

Back in 1987, Raewyn Connell coined the term hegemonic masculinity in a seminal text, Gender & Power. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the dominant form of masculinity that exists within a particular culture. Relative to this ever changing, idealized form of masculinity are different subordinated masculinities – those within a culture that do not live up to the so-called masculine gold standard. Put simply, there are “real men” and then there are all other men.

In watching the 2012 Super Bowl commercials, we can see versions of hegemonic masculinity demonstrated. Perhaps the most vivid version was seen in H&M’s Super Bowl ad, utilizing soccer (futbol) star, David Beckham:


Tattooed, rugged, athletic, showcasing a lean musculature and menacing glare, Beckham embodies a hegemonic masculinity that would surely resonate with sporting audiences. And while not presented in this commercial, it is important to also note that Beckham carries other cultural traits that ad to his hegemonic masculine status – he is globally recognized, financially wealthy, and married to a woman who also holds currency in popular culture. This last point is critical. By being married, Beckham confirms his heterosexuality, and her extraordinary beauty and international popularity raise his standing as a “real man”.

In contrast to Beckham, other males were presented in this year’s Super Bowl commercials, who represent a marginal masculinity, meaning they would love to hold hegemonic masculine status and are pursuing such an identity, but for any number of reasons are unable to achieve it. You could say these are the “wannabe real men”. A good example of marginal masculinity is presented in the following commercial for FIAT:


In contrast to the commercial with Beckham, the male in this commercial lacks qualities that would otherwise provide him with a sense of hegemonic masculinity. Although he appears to be employed (wearing business attire), he is relatively short in comparison to the woman in the ad, cast as nerdy and lacking confidence. Given the fantasy he has with the female actor, we can see he desires hegemonic masculine status. But because he lacks a kind of physical prowess, he is marginalized.

Of even greater importance here, the concept of hegemonic masculinity is not only about men and their relation to one another. Hegemonic masculinity also represents a cultural system that dominates women. Thus, the FIAT commercial is also useful because it illustrates women’s overall subordination. Connell also defined the term “emphasized femininity”, which refers to women’s “compliance with this subordination… oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men” (p. 183).

When women emphasize their femininity – or are coerced to emphasize their femininity – they are often times objectified. Objectification refers to the depersonalization of someone, such that her/his humanity is stripped and the person(s) is turned into an inanimate object. Sociologists have argued that when humans are objectified, they tend to be “seen as less sensitive to pain,” and, “we care less about their suffering” (Loughnan et al., 2010, p. 716). In other words, when we turn people into object, we remove their humanity, and it is easier to commit violence against them. Feminists commonly argue the objectification of women in the media facilitates women’s ongoing victimization in society at large.

In the FIAT commercial, the woman “emphasizes her femininity” by catering to the male’s sexual desires. She is also objectified – likened to an inanimate car that would lack human feelings and emotion. Go Daddy also aired a commercial clearly objectifying women, where female celebrities paint another female, who is used as an inanimate, sexualized prop to promote the Go Daddy company.


While the Super Bowl is known primarily as a sporting event where millions of Americans tune in each year to watch men engage in athletic competition, the event also includes advertising content that is highly gendered. With so much attention attention directed to this advertising, it is important to dissect it through a gendered framework.


David Mayeda is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at Hawaii Pacific University.  His recent book publications include Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America and Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society.  He also blogs at The Grumpy Sociologist.

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.

On the heels of our guest post describing the surprising rise in hypersexually-objectified women on the cover of Rolling Stone, comes troubling research out of cognitive neuroscience, sent in by Dolores R.

Mina Cikara and colleagues did a series of experiments — using Implicit Association and fMRI — to test whether sexist and non-sexist men’s cognition varied when looking at sexualized versus non-sexualized images of women. In fact, when men who tested high on a scale of sexism were shown images of sexualized women, they associated them more easily with words that implied an objectified “thing” than a thinking “person.” This was reflected in the fMRI study.

The take home message? When sexist men are exposed to strongly sexualized messages, they are inclined to dehumanize women, to see them as things.  Seeing someone as a thing is the first step towards treating her like her desires, thoughts, and preferences do not exist (because objects don’t think).  In other words, it facilitates sexual assault.

So… hmmmm… who to pick on here.  How about American Apparel…

American Apparel, this is brain poison (after the jump; NSFW):


Way back in 2008 we posted about the conflation of food with women’s bodies — that is, presenting women’s bodies as food, and presenting food items as sexualized women, an issue covered in depth by Carol Adams. Two readers sent in additional examples. Sarah noticed this ad for canned tuna fillets, which have apparently sprouted heels-wearing legs:

And Whitney R. pointed out that Ludacris’s 2003 album, Chicken-n-Beer, presents a woman’s disembodied leg as the equivalent of fried chicken, ready to be consumed:

For many more examples — including a bikini-clad pin-up turkey — see our original post.

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.


You often hear that everything is sexualized nowadays, and not just women but men too. In the September 2011 issue of Sexuality & Culture, we examine this idea in an analysis of Rolling Stone magazine covers.  Specifically, we wanted to know if men and women are equally sexualized, and if they have become either more frequently or more intensely sexualized over time.  To do this, we analyzed every cover from the first issue of Rolling Stone in November 1967 through 2009, minus a few (such as those that featured cartoons rather than people, etc.). You can read more about our methods in the article here.

In order to analyze these 1000+ images of men and women, we developed a “scale of sexualization.”   This scale was composed of 11 different variables to measure different aspects of sexualization.  For instance, a cover model was given “points” for being sexualized if their lips were parted, if they were scantily clad (more points if they were naked), if the text describing them used explicitly sexual language, or if they were lying down on a bed or otherwise posed in a sexually suggestive way.  Images could score anywhere from 0 points (and 176 did) to 23 points (though 20 was our highest score).

Once all of the images on all 43 years of Rolling Stone were scored, we divided the images into three groups:  those images that were generally not sexualized, those images that were sexualized, and those images that were so sexualized that we dubbed them “hypersexualized.”

The graph below shows our findings:

Looking first at images of men (represented by dotted lines), we see that the majority of them– from 89% in the 1960s to 83% in the 2000s — were nonsexualized.  Men are sometimes shown in a sexualized manner (about 15% in the 2000s), but they are rarely hypersexualized (just 2% in the 2000s). In fact, only 2% of the images of men across the entire dataset — all 43 years — are hypersexualized.

But, again, the vast majority of men — some 83% in recent years — were not sexualized at all.  So, if you were to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone in the 2000s, you would most likely see men portrayed in a non-sexualized manner, such as in these images:

In contrast, women, especially recently, are almost always sexualized to some degree.  In fact, by the 2000s, 61% of women were hypersexualized, and another 22% were sexualized.  This means that, in the 2000s, women were 3 1/2 times more likely to be hypersexualized than nonsexualized, and nearly five times more likely to be sexualized to any degree (sexualized or hypersexualized) than nonsexualized.

So, in the last decade, if you were to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone that featured a woman on its cover, you would most likely see her portrayed in a sexualized manner, since fully 83% of women were either sexualized or hypersexualized in the 2000s. Here are a few examples of hypersexualized images:

In our article, we argue that the dramatic increase in hypersexualized images of women — along with the corresponding decline in nonsexualized images of them — indicates a decisive narrowing or homogenization of media representations of women.  In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, journalist Ariel Levy (2005:5) describes this trend in this way:  “A tawdry, tarty, cartoonlike version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular.  What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression,” Levy writes, “we now view as sexuality” (emphases in original).  In this article, we offer empirical evidence for this claim.

So what explains this trend towards women’s hypersexualization?  We don’t think it’s just the idea that “sex sells.” If that were true, we’d see many more images of women on Rolling Stone’s covers (only 30% of covers feature images of women) and we’d also see more sexualized and hypersexualized images of men.  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Mary Nell Trautner and Erin Hatton are Assistant Professors of Sociology at SUNY Buffalo. Trautner is the author of many articles on the relationship between law, culture, organizational practices, and social inequality (and has written a fantastic Soc Images Course Guide for Sociology of Gender courses).  Hatton, a sociologist of work, is the author of The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America.