April 1, 2009

The woman is armed (and, apparently, possibly dangerous)

Filed under: Body Image,Gender,Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Melanie @ 9:10 pm

I came across this interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago. It explores the reaction Michelle Obama has received for her propensity to reveal her arms. The reaction has been mixed and numerous. The debate brings about issues about femininity and the beauty norm.

Here are a few excerpts:

First Lady Michelle Obama stands tall and regal in her official portrait, a double strand of creamy pearls around her neck, her figure clad in a fitted Michael Kors dress. But there’s one aspect of this seemingly benign photograph that’s causing something of a commotion, and it lies in that exposed 10-inch-or-so stretch between her shoulder and elbow. The first lady is buff, and she’s not afraid to show it.

Her curvy biceps have become something of a lightning rod for remarks from both sexes in a larger discussion of how much female muscle constitutes too much. While some praise Obama as a role model in a world gone obese, others say she’s gone too far in displaying the fruit of her workouts. Read one online forum comment: “There is nothing uglier than manly, muscular arms on a woman. Mrs. Obama should be hiding them instead of showing them off.”

Why do we care so much? The issue speaks volumes about how men and women view the parameters of femininity and strength.

“In some ways it’s kind of an old, tired way of thinking about women and power and boundary policing — when you can display that power and when you can’t, or when it’s appropriate,” says Sarah Banet-Weiser, an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

For Obama (who told People magazine she hits the gym almost every day), the decision to wear sleeveless designs that show off her physique sends a strong message, says Janet Lee, deputy editor of Shape magazine. “If she was at all self-conscious about her body, she wouldn’t put it out there.” And that may be intimidating and unsettling to some who are used to seeing first ladies more covered up.

From the get go, Michelle Obama has brought a new vision of femininity to the public forefront, one that is confronting and challenging to many and a sigh of welcomed relief to many others.  Personally,  I like it and I like her arms.

December 29, 2008

Masculinity and The Spirit: at theaters now

Filed under: Gender,Media,Sexuality — Tags: , , , , , , — Melanie @ 1:58 pm

Here’s a great take on the latest comic book film, The Spirit, from Bitch Magazine:

The Spirit is Frank Miller’s tribute to Will Eisner’s classic comic book series from the 1940s, and it features quite a line-up of female characters: Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) and Lorelei Rox (Jaime King).  But don’t get too excited about this – after all, what we’ve really got here is a sexy jewel thief, a sexy surgeon-next-door, a sexy secretary (Silken Floss was actually demoted from scientist to secretary in the film adaptation), a sexy exotic dancer, and a sexy siren (yes, a siren!).  Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that there’s also a sexy female cop in the film, too.  Kudos to the actresses who play these roles, as they really do make something out of their characters (Scarlett Johansson actively lobbied Miller for more to do in the film).  And it’s worth noting that these women are not helpless: Paulson commented in a recent interview, “The thing I liked about the part was just that there’s not a single woman in this movie who’s a damsel in distress. There’s not a single woman in this movie who isn’t a strong woman.” The Spirit and Sin City pretty clearly show us that Frank Miller knows how to write tough women.  The central problem with The Spirit isn’t so much the female characters or the cleavage shots, but the fact that they’re entirely deployed in the service of a dumb, juvenile fantasy of malehood.

Here’s Miller on the film: “I wanted to recapture some of the glory of manlihood that I feel the
world has lost. I wanted to bring it back through the Spirit.” Comic book adaptations took some leaps and bounds this year with their more thoughtful representations of masculinity and it’s a bummer to see Frank Miller close out the year by wasting so many talented actresses on a completely adolescent fantasy.  And it’s not great news for men, either.  Miller basically flushes The Spirit and his nemesis the Octopus, played by Samuel L. Jackson, down the toilet – yes, they even get a fight scene in sewage.  Crazy, sexy babes and toilet humor: is this a comic book masterpiece?

October 5, 2008

Gender Socialization in the Media from Childhood to Adulthood


Geena Davis has been a long-standing advocate for the analysis of media images and gender socialization.  She founded the See Jane Project in 2004 and the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (GDIGM).

In 2005, Geena Davis and her institute partnered with the esteemed media analyst, Dr. Stacy Smith at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Prompted by Davis’ informal observations regarding the portrayals of gender in media directed at children, GDIGM and the research team organized under the direction of Dr. Smith watched over 5oo hours of children’s programming that summer.

Research showed that in 101 top-grossing G-rated movies released between 1990 and 2005, three out of four characters were male. Girls accounted for only 17 percent of the film’s narrators and 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes. Only seven of the 101 movies were nearly gender-balanced, with a ratio of less than 1.5 males per 1 female character. “Although many people would argue that things seem to be getting better, our data shows that this is not the case,” says the principal investigator, Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where the research was carried out.

What was revealed was not only the disparity of images between male and female characters but the typical gender socialization that continues throughout adulthood.  As media analyst George Gerbner pointed out many years ago, it is not the introduction of one image or message that causes a change in one’s attitude of one’s self or the worl they inhabit that is worth noting.  It is the repetitive and continuous stream of images that consistently reinforce the same values and norms from our earliest years throughout the life course.  This concept is know as cultivation.  Cultivation refers to the stability of these prolific messages versus the change-oriented model.

When one considers the process of cultivation in a media saturated culture, it is the seemingly benign, obvious messages that we don’t consciously take note of that constructs our sense of reality.  In turn, this framework informs and shapes our expectations of who we and others should be and we consider these attitudes and behaviors as normative and natural.

Considering the work of Stacy Smith, Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne and many others that have actively studied gender and the media, it is not surprising that media directed at children hardly differs from media directed at adult men and women.  Cartoons aimed at girls and boys carry the same messages/plots/themes/characters that “chick flicks” and “dick flicks” reinforce in adulthood.

Girls/women are encouraged to focus on beauty and relationships with men,  After all, you must be beautiful to get a guy.  Boys/men are encouraged to be tough, adventurous and independent.  Considering the prolific and ubiquitous nature of the contemporary media, it is no surprise that young girls strive to be beautiful through more and more extreme measures.  They are repeatedly told early on that girls/women must be beautiful in order to be validated in order to be considered worthy of a relationship.  Boys/men are told repeatedly that real boys/men are tough and independent or they are considered weak and effeminate.

Essentialism, the notion that gendered behavior is inherent and “natural,” is not surprising considering a climate that cultivates attitudes, behaviors and expectations of girls/women and boys/men within a structured environment that provides a steady stream of images that constantly reinforce themselves.  The images become unremarkable or un-noteworthy.

In this mediated cultural climate, negative sanctions in the form of derogatory names and physical punishment is also unsurprising.  If gendered characteristics and their expected behaviors are sen as inevitable and natural, punishment for one’s transgression is seen as inevitable.  And, that’s where the danger resides.


October 3, 2008

Female sexuality/pleasure in the age of the hook-up

I appreciated Courtney Martin’s post on Feministing today in response to Michael Kimmel’s latest book, Guyland. Kimmel reported an orgasm gap between men and women engaging in heterosexual hook-ups involving oral sex and intercourse.

It’s not that I’m shocked by these numbers. I’ve heard enough horrendous hetero hook-up stories to know that they’re usually not all that orgasmic, or even all that pleasurable, for the ladies involved. I’m one of those who believes that long term relationships (or at least multiple hook ups with the same partner) are pretty necessary to figure out how your two unique chemistries best match up for good sex (widely defined). This, of course, goes for queer lovin’ as well.

What really made my jaw drop was the discrepancy between the way women reported orgasms and the way men reported women’s orgasms. As Kimmel put it, “Many women, it turns out, fake orgasm.”…

It is your feminist duty to 1) seek pleasure and feel entitled to it and 2) to make the world a more    orgasmic place for other women.

Amen to that, sister.

September 24, 2008

Sexy Girls, Sexual Boys…

…and it starts so early.  I’ve posted several items in the last few weeks exploring the early sexualization of younger and younger girls from heels for infants to stripper poles and “virgin” waxing.

Gender socialization is not a recent phenomenon. From color codes to silly head bands on bald baby girl heads, parents and society expect that clues about the infant’s anatomy will be provided through the use of various sign systems. Right or wrong, this has been around for quite some time and certainly lends itself to lengthy conversations and analysis.

What is more recent and more disturbing, in my opinion, is the blatant sexual socialization of younger and younger members of our society in line with the sexual expectations society dictates of heterosexual men and women.

Girls/women are sexy. Boys/men are sexual.

I’m almost 6 months pregnant and I am having a son.  As a budding feminist in my early twenties, I imagined myself raising an empowered daughter.  My best friend and I used to joke about the inevitable likelihood of giving birth to a son.  As expected, 15 years later, I have been given the task of raising a conscious feminist boy.

I spend a lot of time browsing the internet for baby gear. In doing so, I am sick and tired of running across crass sexual messages for infant boys proclaiming their sexual prowess long before they can hold up their own head. I mean, seriously?  Boob man?  Lock up your daughters?  You’d be hard to press to ever find a onesie for a girl reading: Penis gal!  Lock up your sons!

In either case, do we need to thrust these sexual/sexy messages on newborns?  I can’t help but recall a scene in The 40 Year-Old Virgin where one of the main characters puts his unborn son’s sonogram on a big screen TV and points out the large penis his boy is packing in utero.

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