As part of our #IWD2021 blog series, Laura Cunliffe-Hall examines the patriarchal objectification of women in popular culture and its implications for women.
For far too long, women’s bodies have been treated as ‘fair game’, some sort of entertainment that patriarchal society can wield collective ownership of. This is particularly prevalent across popular culture, where in countless music videos, fashion editorials, social media platforms, films, books and more, women have been and, in some cases, continue to be presented as ‘objects’. Misogynistic culture is damaging for society as a whole, and has harmful impacts not only for women, but for all gender identities.
The recent revisiting of the sexist treatment endured by global music icon Britney Spears across her career in the New York Times ‘Framing Britney Spears’ documentary was met with an outcry from a largely millennial audience. The audience’s disgusted reaction to the media’s hypersexualisation of Britney highlighted that to an extent we have moved on culturally from the 1990s when older men could interview ten-year-old girls and ask if they had boyfriends. (Britney’s male counterpart interviewed on the same talent show, in contrast, was merely asked what it was like to grow up on a farm.) Sirin Kale’s recent article in The Guardian demonstrates that these just plain creepy attitudes continued into the 2000s, a “cursed era” for young women and girls where upskirting photos and ‘celebrity cellulite’ magazine specials were normative.
This retrospective cultural review raises several questions about how women’s bodies and sexuality are viewed as public property. Firstly, why did the media ever think it was acceptable to depict women through this lens and why did so many people consume such portrayals of women uncritically? Secondly, how many patriarchal structures are still in place that are continuing to negatively impact women’s lived experiences? For example, people self-identifying as women or men joining a professional meeting are met with different expectations surrounding their appearance of ‘professionalism’. For a man, this usually involves putting on a shirt and trousers and turning up. For a woman, this usually involves wearing at least a layer of make-up and a carefully chosen outfit that can’t be too frumpy, sexy or casual. It’s the classic double bind that women face – if you’re too sexual you’re punished, if you’re not seen as sexually attractive you’re still critiqued.
It’s undeniable that the view of women through ‘the male gaze’, a term Laura Mulvey originally coined in 1975, referring to the way women are portrayed as objects of desire rather than as full human beings in media and literature through the eyes of straight men, still persists in popular culture. Women’s bodies as objects become the subject of patriarchal commentary. This objectification influences behaviour and subsequently filters through into everyday interactions. Just as Britney Spears’ humanity was irrelevant to the media outlets determined to focus on her appearance and their perception of her sexuality, some men consume such patriarchal commentary and internalise the dehumanisation of women. This cultural overspill is hugely harmful and consequently, contributes to sexual harassment, abuse and violence against women and girls.
Patriarchal ideologies regarding womanhood and sexuality have hugely damaging impacts, which can contribute to violence upon women’s bodies. According to 2013 ONS statistics, one in five women has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Trans women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and as outlined in a recent article by Moya Lothian McLean in gal-dem, face enormous difficulties both in accessing immediate frontline services and through falling victim to prejudiced ideology that seeks to shut them out of the entire gender-based violence sector (GBV).
The oppression facing women must also be understood as intersectional. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American law professor who coined the term in 1989 explained, “all inequality is not created equal.” Women from BAME backgrounds are more likely to experience online abuse as shown in a recent report from the End Violence Against Women Coalition which identified that during the COVID-19 pandemic 42% of white respondents had experienced online abuse compared to 52% of BAME respondents. Of respondents reporting online abuse, nearly half (48%) reported suffering from gender-based abuse which emphasises how online abuse against women exists as a form of violence.
Online abuse targeting women has worsened during the pandemic and has been particularly focused on ‘punishing’ women for their sexuality through a huge increase in Revenge Porn. In 2020, the Revenge Porn Helpline saw an 87% increase in the number of adults seeking support for intimate image abuse, according to data shared with BBC Three for their documentary Zara McDemott: Revenge Porn. Amendments to the Domestic Abuse bill relating to Revenge Porn are due to be expanded to include threats to disclose intimate images following on from a powerful campaign by Refuge. This is a massive step in the right direction, yet victims still need more support and we need to change the way we teach young people about sex, consent and women’s bodies.
Gen Z, millennials and young women today are now increasingly aware of and able to speak out against misogynistic culture and its role in upholding patriarchal structures that damage women’s quality of life. This International Women’s Day, it’s time for us to #ChoosetoChallenge how people talk about our bodies and fight for a culture where women are empowered, not objectified.
Laura Cunliffe-Hall is the Communications Officer for the Young Fabians and Vice Chair of the Communications Network. Laura works for a communications consultancy, specialising in stakeholder engagement and public affairs. Laura is also a Champion for the Labour In Communications network. Laura is an advocate for women, climate justice and social mobility. She writes in a personal capacity.