Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is What You See, What You Get?

The body is so much more than a physical entity with rational and emotional capabilities. It is terrain for political, racial, economic, social and sexual discourse, all of which shape and often time compartmentalizes the human experience. Media has proven to be a critical component in human and societal development. As Susan Douglas points out in her book, Where the Girls, Are, “along with parents, the mass media raised us, socialized us, entertained us, comforted us, deceived us, disciplined us, told us what we could do and told us what we couldn’t.” (pg. 13) So it should be no surprise that the media too, is governed by the same patriarchal systems, institutions and structures that define our current status quo. It a media rich society, advertising images not only become the back drop to New York City’s infamous 42nd street but more importantly, they serve as an intricate and complex language offering both verbal and nonverbal cues that are often framed and positioned in direct opposition to another.
In a patriarchal society, the gaze of white capitalistic men has dominated mass media, influencing not only what we see but the message that each image contains. Here the phrase, “object of one’s desire” takes on a life of its own, by demonstrating through advertising images that women are nothing more than an object, which reduces and trivializes their experiences as human beings. According to John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, “to be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.” This limited and restricted existence is met with control and contradiction, as women find themselves split into two, forced to identify as the surveyor, as well as the surveyed. “See has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” (Berger, p. 46)

Recently Suzanne Somers, the actress, fitness exert, breast cancer survivor, philanthropist turned writer, made headlines when she decided to set Miley Cyrus straight after she commented about the decline of sexual activity upon those 40 years of age and older, while being interviewed on Today, with Matt Laurer. Ms. Somers took time while promoting her new book on day-time talk show, The Talk, to debunk this idea, explaining that “she and her husband have sex a couple times of day. “He's on hormones; I'm on hormones… [so we] usually start the day off well. There's some level at 4 in the morning, and then I'm really awake around 8 or so. We have busy mornings.” At the age of 66 and being married for 36 years, Ms. Somers makes an amazing champion for a great cause, the advocacy of sexual activity for mature adults, but it is clear from the picture that she is promoting more than her new book. It is her look, her ability to embody the beautiful woman archetype, a youthful appearance, small waist, having large breast and being blonde, that allows her to remain news worthy. Suzanne Somers at the age of 66 is considered “hot” and “sexy”. Would this story have read the same had the woman who wanted to stand up for mature adults had been obese? The reality is probably not. “Advertisers have an enormous financial stake in a narrow ideal of femininity that they promote…The image of the ideal beautiful woman may perhaps be captured with the concept of the perfect provocateur (an ideal image that arouses a feeling or reaction). The exemplary female prototype in advertising, regardless of product or service, displays youth (no lines or wrinkles), good looks, sexual seductiveness, and perfection (no scars, blemishes, or even pores).” (Cortese p. 54)  
"Women feature in culture more often than not because of how they look and the preferred look is young, slender, sexual and white.” (Wykes & Gunter, p. 206) Therefore, women of color find themselves thrust into an even more complicated relationship with media due in part to their gender and now race. Black bodies, but female bodies especially, have been exploited and devalued historically in the United States. In addition to not being valued as a woman, Black women often find themselves defending their value as a person. This can be seen in the severely limited and stereotypical depiction of Black women in media. Let’s take for instance, Aunt Jemima, a brand of pancake mix, syrups and breakfast foods, owned by the Quaker Oats Company. Aunt Jemima is based on the stereotypical archetype of “mammie” and was inspired by a white man in blackface performance. It was upon hiring Nancy Green, a former slave, as the spokesperson for Aunt Jemima in 1890 which helped to make “mammie” a celebrated concept in American history. (Manning, 1998) However what was there to celebrate about being a slave? Is the joyous smile which lays upon her brown skin the truth? Would a women forced into captivity, whose children where often separated at birth, and whose body was regularly defiled by her White male captor, really be smiling making pancakes and syrup? While Aunt Jemima has received a bit of a make over in modern times (ditched the kerchief, combed her hair and got earrings), “mammie” is still one of the most prevalent images to depict Black female identity and femininity. Mammie is not youthful, nor slender, definitely not sexual and or course not White, so where does she fit in. Where does Black femininity find a home or maybe the better question is, what does Black femininity look like?
The female body is a spectacle, both something to be looked at, whether real or mediated, and to be looked through in the search for feminine identity.” (Wykes & Gunter, p. 206) Whether or not Aunt Jemima meets normative standards of beauty, she is still a woman, one that is on display and has been reduced to nothing but an object, or in this case packaging, to be sold. As the female body takes it position as a major commodity in the world of consumerism, there is yet to be a government sanctioned office/department or organized union to protect woman from the impact of imposing unrealistic standards and expectations on their bodies. The stakes continue to grow increasingly high for women and girls, as they are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, depression and self-mutilation; in addition to diminishing self-esteem and worth, which can have long term effects on not only personal and professional opportunities but overall life aspirations.
What does this say about the world we live in and the value or lack thereof that we as a society have given to female bodies? We are told that women’s bodies, minds and voices are subordinate and inferior to men and popular culture continues to be the life line to the production and perpetuation of this message.  There have been attempts to challenge this message and portray woman in a more totalizing light, allowing them to be seen and valued as a whole person, yet their connection to beauty products, such as Dove complicate the message. Dove’s social mission is “imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety”, yet the on the same page of their website, there’s a link titled, “Your Purchase Help Build Self-Esteem”. Now I realize that these purchases that build self-esteem are actually proceeds from purchases that go to support self-esteem programs across the US, but consider the framing of the title. Is appears that it is the purchase that actually builds the self-esteem, which implies that without the purchase, your self-esteem can and will remain impaired.  
While I commend companies such as Dove for their “Real Beauty” campaign and Proctor & Gamble’s “My Black is Beautiful” initiative, which celebrates the beauty of Black women everywhere, the fact still remains that these messages of empowerment, wholeness and self-esteem are linked simultaneously to beauty products which make the ideas of agency and autonomy problematic. Yet, I still find hope and pride in both social movements, as they make a conscious effort to challenge normative standards of beauty, diversify the depiction of Black women in media and celebrate women of all shapes, sizes and color. From Girls Inc., to Black Girls Rock, girl power is on the rise and women and girls everywhere are taking notice. Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old Pakistani girl who was shoot in the face over a year ago, upon speaking out against girls being denied the opportunity to attend school in her community. Malala has become a symbol of peace and an advocate for the advancement of girls and women everywhere but for me, she’s a beacon of light, representation of the possibilities of female bodies and that too is worth a Noble Peace Prize nomination.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1977. Print

Cortese, Anthony P. Provocateur: Images of Women & Minorities in Media. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print
Frances, Lisa Respers. “Hey, Miley, Suzanne Somers is having lots of sex”. CNN. 11, October, 2013.<>

Douglas, Susan. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Three River Press, 1994. Print
Manning, M. M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1998. Print
Wykes, Maggie & Gunter, Barrie. The Media & Body Image. London, England: Sage Ltd, 2005. Print

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