What comprises sexism and feminism? Do sexist images in the media have an impact on women and girls? And, what are the broader political issues here? I am hoping that we can reframe the debate around sexism and nudity in the media in a way that makes sense for socialists.
We’re all probably aware of sexist representations in the media from newspapers and magazines to the movies, TV and radio. For example, Rolling Stone magazine didn’t used to be a soft porn magazine, but it is so common now for female musicians to be in soft-porn poses on its cover. Howard Stern, the radio DJ, is always asking his female guests and callers what they are wearing. Stern focuses heavily on women’s physical attributes for the titillation of his male listeners. We also see many movies each year where the female characters are there solely to support and gratify the male characters. Magazines often show only pieces of a woman, such as her legs, or torso so that women are seen as pieces of a human being, reduced to only body parts, which are usually hyper sexualized for male stimulation.
The currently popular TV show Desperate Housewives has a predominantly female audience, but tends to appeal to male viewers with story lines involving the women in their underwear or locked out of their houses nude. Soft-core pornography is the staple of many mainstream men’s magazines such as Maxim. In the past decade the decline of the mass movement, and the capitalist’s promotion of escapism, has been at the cost of increased degradation of women in the media.
Webster’s Dictionary defines sexism as “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles” or “discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex.” According to Webster’s, this word came into usage in the period of 1965-1970 and was modeled after the word racism, which itself came into use in the 1865-1870 period, during the revolutionary days of Reconstruction in the South. The timeline of the creation of the word sexism gives us an idea of the dramatic change in the consciousness of women in the 1960s and 70’s, which was directly influenced by the civil rights movement. However for a word with such a short history, a mere 40 years later, capitalism is trying to make women believe that sexism no longer exists.
In my research for this introduction, I came across discussion of something termed “post-feminism” which argues that the old ideas about what is sexism and who is a feminist no longer apply. That it is not sexist, but merely ironic, that naked women are used in advertising such as the TV ad where Nicolette Sheridan from Desperate Housewives dropped her towel in front of a football player to get more men to watch the NFL. The idea is that women are now in control of their bodies and that to object to the use of a nude woman in an advertisement is actually an attempt to repress that individual woman’s sexuality, or an expression of prudishness, and not a comment on the exploitation of women for financial gain.
The Repackaging of Sexism & Feminism
Feminism is being repackaged and portrayed as a repressive police force telling women what not to wear, how to have sex and not allowing women “to live their personal lives without the constraints of a rigid ideology,” as one post-feminist writer put it. On the positive side women, and especially young women, are more confident about their sexuality, but for some women this liberation is expressed through the assumption of some of the roles, attitudes and sexual behavior previously more common among men. This is what one so-called feminist writer described as a shift from the old ‘victim feminism’ to the new ‘power feminism.’ In fact the shift is away from challenging the old male-dominated status quo and toward finding a place within it.
Christine Thomas in her article The New Sexism writes about this shift in feminist thinking. She writes about...