gender: politics

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)?

Dolores R. sent in a story at about a recently-released internet campaign ad in the CA-36 special election that Talking Points Memo has called “Willie Horton on steroids,” referring to the infamous racial-fear-mongering ad released by George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign. The CA-36 ad was released by a new super-PAC (able to raise unlimited funds), Turn Right USA. (The guy who produced it also produced a striking ad for a candidate for Alabama Agriculture Commissioner in 2010.) It attacks Democratic candidate Janice Hahn over her support for gang intervention programs. And it’s a doozy. It is definitely NSFW:

Aside from the just over-the-top racist and sexist nature of the ad, it’s also interesting because of the issues it brings up about technology and democratization of ad campaign materials. Turn Right USA isn’t directly linked to or affiliated with the campaign of Hahn’s Republican rival in the race, Craig Huey. Huey’s campaign has reacted with dismay, condemning the content and distancing themselves from it. They clearly fear a backlash that will hurt Huey’s chances (and he’s already the underdog in the race). And yet, they didn’t create the ad, there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that they worked with Turn Right USA, and they don’t have any ability to take it down or symbolically fire the producer to show how little they think of it. We saw a similar situation recently in Florida, with a mailer apparently intended to discredit a candidate who had nothing to do with it.

While non-campaign-funded attack ads clearly helps candidates in a lot of situations (for instance, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry in 2004), they can also hurt the candidate they’re meant to help. Campaigns can’t control their content and they can’t retract them if they sense a public backlash. Voters may blame candidates for content they didn’t approve and can’t fix. And the increasing number of third-party advocacy groups, combined with the ability to distribute materials widely over the internet instead of buying TV time, seems likely to increase the danger to campaigns of these types of ads ostensibly meant to “support” them.

Cross-posted at OWNI.

Something has been nagging me about the Representative Weiner (D-NY) sexting scandal: how would this story would play out differently had the sexting-congressperson been female? I wrote earlier about how differently “sexy” pictures of male and female political candidates are handled.

When Krystal Ball ran for congress, images of a past Halloween party became some of the most Google’d images in the world, unlike male politicians running for office at the same time who were also involved in scandals about images of their past behaviors. The images of women in general, and, in this case, female politicians, become poured over, detailed, dissected, analyzed and obsessed upon to a far greater extent than what is occurring with Rep. Weiner. Yes, the images he sent are being shared on and offline, but had Weiner been female the images might be shown akin to the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction”: the media would scowl at the perversion while simultaneously showing them on a constant loop, dissecting every pixel in detail.

So let’s do quick Google Image searches for Krystal Ball and Anthony Weiner. (In these screenshots I am logged out of Google and “SafeSearch” is off, however, neither of those factors influenced the results much).

Krystal Ball’s results are dominated by the images that caused scandal. You have to scroll through pages of images in Weiner’s results to find the “offending” images. Given that Google’s resultsare based in part on popularity and website inter-linking, we have to wonder how Weiner’s post-scandal online presence would be different had he been female. [We should note that Weiner had a larger online presence before the scandal than did Ball. However, many of the top images in the search are post-scandal, so that is not a complete explanation for the discrepancy]. In fact, it is easier to find women showing skin in Weiner’s results than the so-called “lewd” images themselves.

Even Sarah Palin, who has never tweeted “lewd” photos of herself to all of the Internet, has search results more focused on her body than does Weiner.

Michel Foucault noted that sexual repression is closely related with sexual obsession; and the obsessively prying “gaze” is really the regulation and controlling of ourselves and our sex. The relative lack of obsession of the images in this scandal strikes me as evidence of the weaker regulation of the male body and men’s sex.

How else would this scandal play out differently had Rep. Weiner been female?


Please welcome guest blogger Nathan Jurgenson.  Jurgenson is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland and co-edits the Cyborgology blog.

Tim, Cindy S., and Kenny V. sent in an interesting story. The Brooklyn-based newspaper Der Tzitung, which targets the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community, published copies of the now-famous photo of President Obama and his staff in the Situation Room during the Navy SEALs operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Here’s the original (via the New York Daily News):

However, the version of the photo that ran in Der Tzitung had been photoshopped to remove the two women in the room, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (initially posted at Failed Messiah):

We’ve seen this before. Usually the argument for deleting women or girls from photos is that they are sexually suggestive or show women interacting with men in ways that are considered inappropriate by the Ultra Orthodox. Whether that’s the case here, or whether it was discomfort showing a woman in a position of significant political power, the effect is to rewrite history to erase the role of women in political decision-making.

UPDATE: While this post led to a lot of interesting discussions, some individuals also posted problematic and offensive comments about the Orthodox community. Due to a family emergency I was overwhelmed and distracted and did not monitor the comments closely at the time, and thus those comments have remained up for the past week. I am going to delete some offensive or inappropriate comments, but I apologize that they were left up for so long without any response from me.

That said, a lot of readers made really great comments, both about how we go about being culturally respectful/sensitive but also thinking through issues such as public representation, and that the Orthodox Jewish community is quite diverse and that this newspaper, and the policies it espouses, shouldn’t be taken as indicative of the behavior or attitudes of Orthodox Jews more broadly.

Sonita M. sent in a link to an image at GOOD that shows the makeup of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives now in terms of various characteristics (race/ethnicity, gender, political party, religion) and what it would look like if its members were more demographically representative of the U.S. population as a whole:

As they point out in the accompanying article, however, the area where Congress most differs from the U.S. population as a whole is in terms of socioeconomic status. The average wealth of members of Congress, according to (they don’t specify if it’s the mean or the median, so I presume it’s the mean):

For the U.S. as a whole, median wealth was $96,000 in 2009 (the mean was $481,000), according to the Federal Reserve (via CNNMoney).

Clayton W. sent us a political mailer that recently went out against Rose Ferlita, a candidate for mayor of Tampa, Florida. What makes her unfit for office? Among other things, she’s single:

Text from the other side:

(Via Think Progress.)

So, awful, right? She’s single, she has a “suspect commitment to family values,” which I think it isn’t a stretch to say means “she might be a lesbian,” she’s a bitch. Given our current political alignments, we might legitimately assume this mailer was created by a very far right, possibly religious-based group, presumably on the conservative side of the spectrum.

But the story turns out to be weirder than that. Ferlita is a Republican, though Tampa’s mayoral races are non-partisan. The mailer, as you can see in the return address, is from Less Government Now, a 527 political action group (that is, one that can take unlimited donations as long as they do not directly advocate voting for a specific candidate). And it’s tied to a man named Scott Maddox, a Democrat who ran (unsuccessfully) for office last year. In that race, he had a friend enter the campaign as a fake Tea Party candidate in hopes of splitting the Republican vote.

It appears that Less Government Now is pursuing a similar strategy here, sending out materials that attack candidates from the right by coming up with the types of arguments they imagine will resonate with very conservative voters and thus split their vote. It doesn’t seem clear whether the other candidate for mayor of Tampa, Bob Buckhorn, had any knowledge of the mailer, or if Less Government Now acted on its own (Buckhorn has denounced the mailer).

I gotta say, I thought this was repugnant when I first saw it and assumed the group who put it out might actually believe this kind of crap. But to encourage people to vote based on sexist, homophobic values that you presumably don’t even agree with, simply as a political ploy? That is some nasty, nasty business.

UPDATE: Suzie emailed us about her post on March 20th at Echidne of the Snakes (there’s no way to link directly to the post, sorry) questioning the origin of the mailer. The St. Petersburg Times Tampa Bay site reports that according to the post office, the permit number listed on the mailer is fake, and there’s no evidence it was actually mailed. Less Government Now denies all knowledge of it. It’s possible that this is a fake mailer created to discredit the Democratic candidate by making it look a Democrat-affiliated group sent out something sexist. The person who first made it public, claiming to have received it anonymously, has been involved in political consulting and has a history of criminal charges. This is all making my head spin.

The décor in my childhood home was unusual. Interspersed with photographs of my sister and me were vintage political posters, inherited from my late grandparents. The most startling of these were the posters promoting women’s right to vote: as I grew up, I realized that the viewpoints they depicted contrasted starkly with the narrative of women’s suffrage that I had learned in my history classes.

This poster supports women’s right to vote not by asserting their equality with men, but by appealing to their ability to bear children:

By contrast, this poster actively highlights woman’s ability to contribute to society beyond stereotypically female roles: women were not only nurses and mothers, but doctors and mayors. Yet at the same time, the image disparages the mentally and physically ill by painting men with these conditions as inherently lesser.

Lastly, a picture that speaks for itself.  Women should have suffrage, says the poster, but they must always remember where they truly belong.

Although the right to vote politically empowered the women of Western society, many of the proponents of the women’s suffrage movement espoused ideologies that would not be considered feminist or politically correct today. My history classes dwelt only briefly on these unpalatable schools of rhetoric, but the images in my home allowed me to glimpse a debate that was just as complex and fragmented as the political disputes we face today.


Alison Marqusee is a high school senior from Massachusetts.  In addition to sociology, her interests include linguistics, psychology, and physics.  She looks forward to attending Haverford College.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Coverage of the Egyptian protests this week disproportionately interviewed and photographed male protestors, occasionally using the terms “Egyptian men” and “protestors” interchangeably (excellent example here).  What images we did receive of women depicted them as separate from the demonstrations if not dependent on male guardianship.  The paucity of images or stories about women activists excludes them from the national uprising and silences their protests.

Outside of the mainstream media a widely circulated photo album, available to anyone with Facebook, collected over a hundred pictures of Egyptian women demonstrating. Curation of this album during the internet blackout, when nearly all images were filtered through the media, serves as a testament to the value of diaspora and transnational networks.  Additionally, placing these images side by side becomes a powerful counter to women’s media invisibility and highlights diversity of backgrounds, opinions, and forms of protest undertaken by Egyptian women.

It might be worth nothing that we’re seeing more stories about women since a You Tube video (below) of a woman calling for people to join her in protest on January 25th caught the attention of the media.  Namely this excellent NPR story and an AFP article.  Lastly, anyone interested in social media should visit this Facebook group.

April Crewson is completing her masters in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.