Exploitation, Sexism, and Objectification of Women in Media
The exploitation of women in mass media presents them as sexual objects which are expected to reflect certain feminine beauty ideals, such as youthfulness and innocence. Major companies such as Calvin Klein and American Apparel have been criticized for using young and overly sexualized girls in advertisements, but the objectification can also be found in music, film, television, video games, and social media.
Researchers at Wesleyan University conducted a study of print materials and determined that across 58 different magazines, 51.8% of advertisements featuring women portrayed them as objects catering to the male gaze. Further, when women appeared in men’s magazines, they were considered to be objectified 76% of the time. One major example is female athletes; unlike their male counterparts, female athletes are rarely portrayed as performance athletes, and instead, companies and mass media use their beauty and sex appeal to overshadow their athletic accomplishments.
Another example of sexism and objectification is shown in the Dolce and Gabbana ad below. The ad positions the woman in a position of subservience, under overpowering and dominant men. The female model is also positioned in a pose of discomfort, with her head turned away from the man pinning her down, yet her state of undress and sexual positioning create the idea and visual that men have the right to overpower and sexually objectify women
The Male Gaze vs. the Female Gaze
Simply put, the male gaze “describes a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women” (very well Mind). Naturally, the influence of the male gaze affects female self-perception and self-esteem, as seeing women relegated to roles to please men in the media, conditions women to fill these roles in real life. The male gaze is a sharp contrast to the female gaze, which represents empowered women having more agency, as opposed to sexualizing them, and portrays women as a “subject”, not an “object.”
A comparison of the male gaze vs. the female gaze is the film portrayal of the American comic book character, Harley Quinn, from the popular DC comics. In the movie Suicide Squad, directed by a heterosexual white man, Harley Quinn is catered to the male gaze, under the thumb of her abusive partner, and wearing tiny shorts, ripped clothing, and even a dog collar. However, in Birds of Prey, directed by a woman of color, Quinn is portrayed as more independent, and adult-like, and dresses more maturely and less sexually.
Effects of Hypersexualization
The consequences of this hypersexualized
ation for young women include eating disorders, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and lower levels of self-esteem. Researchers for the Dove Self Esteem Project found that 6 in 10 girls avoid participating in certain activities because of concerns about their appearance, and only 11% of girls globally would describe themselves as beautiful.
Moreover, these stereotypes lead to increased sexual violence towards women, which often goes unreported as the media reinforces power dynamics that harm women. By showcasing women as objects of pleasure, the media normalizes acts of dominance and aggression towards women, which boys and men internalize.
These messages influence the subconscious biases of their view on women and tend to legitimize violence, harassment, and other anti-woman behavior.
How to Help
In a recent study by the Collage Group, ⅓ of Gen Z women see reducing sexism as a top priority, compared to just 10% of millennial women, and 3% of boomer women. Furthermore, 54% of Gen Z women said they were more likely to buy from brands if they supported reducing sexism, through methods such as equal pay and training employees to recognize and combat sexism.
Specifically, many organizations are working to combat sexism and exploitation of women in the media, and donating, volunteering, or signing petitions with the following organizations are all ways to help:
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media works in the entertainment industry to educate and influence media producers to increase positive female representations and reduce sexist stereotypes in their films. Further, they collaborate with producers to create diverse female characters in media designed for younger children.
The 4 Every Girl campaign calls on leaders in the entertainment industry to produce healthier images of women in the media, through petitions and mass mobilization
The National Center for Sexual Exploitation works to end sexual exploitation and abuse, prostitution, and sex trafficking through litigation, advocacy, and training. They offer briefings on related topics, internships, and an action center as ways to get involved.
Research by Sachi Gosal
Editor - Priyam Kusundal
Graphics - Jhem Picache