The Sexualisation of Women in the Media: Freedom of Expression or Oppression

26 Jul

Below is the unedited version of a paper I wrote for Gender Links‘ 10th issue of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal titled Gender, Popular Culture and Media Freedom .which was published and launched on the 15th of May, 2012. The published final edit of this paper is currently unavailable online without purchasing the journal. It is an in depth analysis of dynamics surrounding the sexualisation of women in the media with a particular focus on hip hop, advertising and pornography.


I have felt, for a while now, that the largely growing movement against the sexual portrayal of women by and in the media is somewhat narrow often making biased analyses informed largely by the personal. Of course the issue, in and of itself, is extremely personal, as well as political, in the broader sense, but it is mainly informed by their (gender activists) own opinions, validated by data that supports these opinions, while believing that they are or rather they should be supported by all women, including those whom they purport to represent.

It is true that it is pivotal to the quest for gender equality for the media to be more gender sensitive and not only practice but also encourage gender parity in its operations, publications and programming however we need not lose sight of what it is that we, as gender activists in Southern Africa, aim to achieve and what we mean by gender equality. I feel that although the media in most instances presents a diminutive picture of women, this war waged against the media’s portrayal of women ultimately leaves the women who practice their rights to freedom of expression and choice in the position of collateral damage.

In my opinion, the true empowerment of women is giving them a choice in all aspects of their life. Most other feminists tend to be very prescriptive and by doing so tend to have an approach that appears to reinforce the same patriarchal views that we fight against, only it is in a different way.

The gender movement in Africa seems to be mainly made up of the middle class academic elite or the religious, cultural or traditional moralists who feel that they know better about what it is that the ‘less empowered’ women should want. A case in point is the issue of sex, sexuality and sensuality and the expression therefore. Patriarchy, as way of duct taping female expression, has entrenched in society the ‘lady’ archetype that is basically a woman who is modest, demure, sexually ‘pure’ and never aspires to sexual gratification and pleasure but instead views sex as a way of fulfilling their maternal and reproductive roles and anything more would make her a ‘whore’ thus giving birth to the whore paradigm which has also found roots in some gender sensitive spaces:

“It is tragic that some/many women base their sense of worth on how ‘desirable’ they are- and truly ironic, considering we live in a world where sexual abuse is so rampant. Until women start taking themselves more seriously, and go all-out to instigate change and challenge the system, the world will never change for the better.”

The above statement is a comment that was made on a Gender Links facebook post on women and the media. This gives the impression that feminism seeks to do the same (as patriarchy) by making sexuality a degrading and disempowering thing and determining what constitutes a ‘serious’ woman with a high ‘sense of worth’; worth as is determined by the feminist sorority.

Yes, the media in this region should be monitored and taken to task for its contribution to negative and harmful reinforcements because it has a responsibility, bestowed it by the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development Article 30 of the Protocol but at the same time we should be careful not to wage a war on women who would rather subscribe to these stereotypes. The same women we claim to be representing and yet we have very little knowledge, understanding or acceptance of them.

The hip hop scene, pornography and advertising have been identified as the biggest culprits and I have made an attempt to look at all these three areas from an as objective perspective as possible taking into consideration both sides of the argument before drawing my conclusion. 

Imagery and Lyrical Content in Hip Hop 

Over the past two decades we have seen hip hop grow from a predominantly black consciousness culture to a multimillion dollar industry that now champions materialism, violence, sex, drugs and misogyny. The videos of most hip hop songs have seen women wearing less and less with each new release being portrayed as sexual objects and commodities. Accompanying this visual imagery are denigrating lyrics that reduce these women to ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’. This trend has understandably been the source of much dismay and anger from feminists and moralists alike however it goes without saying that there needs to be a more analytical look at this and a more inclusive approach needs to be taken.

In his online blog called Hip Hop News, Khalil Amani tackles the denigration and abuse of these women by both the public and the media. At one point he says:

“These are grown-ass women who choose (some out of necessity and some because they love it!) to expose their bodies for our consumption! It is art! We certainly don’t view male strippers as exploited! (Having been a male stripper myself, it was the most liberating feeling to shake my tallywacker in the faces of adoring women!… and get paid!)”

He points out that they should still be regarded as women deserving of respect and in the same article berates a fellow online blogger for his disparaging remarks against Buffie the Body, a well known video vixen (as these women prefer to be called) whom he accuses of being ‘ghetto trash’ and having an ‘offensive face’ and a ‘skewed perception of her worth in this world.’ Amani also points out that Juan’s opinion of Buffie the Body, and other brown skinned women, much like most so-called hip hop commentators, is a racist one he would not apply to Caucasian women with the same physic and in the same profession and he uses the example of glamour model Nicole Coco Marie. He encourages people to look at these women as the symbol of black sexual womanhood instead of hos or victims.

He also makes reference to the Ho paradigm which he says ‘is an old one used to keep women as second class citizens in a patriarchal society.’ This can also be said of the feminist movement’s attempt to deter women from expressing their sexuality and claiming ownership of their bodies. The lines are blurry when it comes to determining whether or not these video vixens, who have been the butt of much disapproval and belittlement from society at large, are disempowered or they are practicing their rights to freedom of expression through sexuality. There are no set parameters that divide what is and what is not genuine sexual expression as sexuality is a very individual concept.

Sabrina Ford, on the Golden Gate X Press site acknowledges that for all its misogynistic content, hip hop has awarded the women of colour and women with fuller figures in general, the chance to have a more positive outlook on their bodies in a world laden with a history of determining the beauty of women by a very European standard of beauty. Given the history of brown skinned women with the example of Saartjie Baartman who was exploited and treated as a ‘freak’ due to her physic, this is the one scene that takes back the reverence of that stature and build with more and more women across the racial board aspiring to look like that.

She states that hip hop has in some ways reinforced a sense of sexual empowerment in women and she goes on to make note of female rappers like Trina, Foxy Brown and Lil Kim who have never shied away from sexual themes and have defended their images, that have also come under attack, and whose lyrics are believed to have led women to realise that sex is one of the tools that renders men helpless and makes women powerful.

Ford says that many women MCs make reference to sex in their songs and they are as cavalier and unashamed as their male counterparts and she feels that this is an attempt to position themselves as equals and according to her, this, in its own way, is their own version of a feminist movement.

On the Hip Hop Summit South Africa 2011 site there are some pointers available for aspiring video vixens which may shock the feminist group. Shock in the sense that they seem to show more respect and appreciation for the women in the videos than they would expect. The how-to guide opens up like this:

“The coolest thing about hip hop modelling is that rap video vixens come in all shapes and sizes. In the vast majority of the modelling world, they’re really only looking for a very specific type of girl, they all want someone who’s impossibly tall and stick thin. Hip hop honeys, on the other hand, can have a shapely figure, they can be tall or short, thick or thin and everything in between. One rap video might feature a thick black model, a petite Asian model and a tall white model, it really takes all types.”

The page also touches on the move to make people start appreciating full figured women again and not only that it advises the aspiring video vixens to draw their own boundaries as to what it is they are willing to do from the onset and to stick to them and not be swayed into doing anything they are not comfortable with.

In a British documentary called Music, Money and Hip Hop Honeys which looks into the lives of some of these women, we find that they chose this career path and not only that, but they have dedicated a lot time and have invested a lot or money in achieving their goals of becoming video vixens. Possibly, with as much tenacity and perseverance as the law student or aspiring biologist.

However, like with most things, there is always a dark side. For all the aid in shifting society’s idea of what constitutes beauty in a woman, it has also, in its own way, dictated how women should look resulting in an increase in the number of women, instead of getting liposuction, going under the knife to get ‘butt’ implants. Something that started off as a celebration (if you choose to view it as such) of a fraction of the population of women’s natural physical build has now created a model of its own of what an attractive woman should look like and some women feel pressured to now subscribe to it and this has negative financial, emotional and physical health implications.

In as much as these women (video vixens) have made these choices themselves and have taken up their own agency by being in these videos, it does not change the fact that the songs that they go to great lengths to appear in have very misogynistic lyrical content with most of them referring to women as hos, sluts and bitches and implying that they are not worthy of respect by objectifying them and treating them as commodities. Although some hip hop artists and fans may argue it to be just entertainment or freedom of expression most of these lyrics are tantamount to hate speech that has a negative impact on societies, particularly those that have high incidents of gender based violence (GBV) like South Africa.

In Yvonne Bynoe’s article Hip Hop’s (Still) Invisible Women, she says that in spite of there being hip hop generation women who seek to empower other women, there are no concerted efforts to address the issues of race, gender and class that create environments that allow black male hip hop artists and white radio show hosts to call women ‘hos’ in main stream media.

The actual presence of women in these videos validates these claims that do not only serve the purpose of inconsiderate and harmful entertainment but also send a message to the consumers of this genre of music that is what women are in essence and this has negative consequences to societies and most importantly to women in these societies particularly so in the younger generation by perpetuating a cycle of misogyny and the under appreciation of women. Young men and boys start to believe that women are nothing more than a commodity and a sexual possession and young women and girls begin to feel that their entire worth is determined by how sexy they look and how sexy men consider them to be and this can result in self loathing and low self esteem as is seen in the documentary Hip Hop Gurlz by filmmaker Tamika Guishard:

“Girls do what they see in videos,” a black, pre-teen girl said in the film. “If I can get skinny, dress, and dance like that, I can be in videos too. 

The eight minute film was shown at a US national conference, Feminism and Hip Hop, hosted by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC), Chicago. At the same conference the question as to where the objectification and anger towards women comes from was raised and the possible answers given by participants ranged from ‘the capitalist influence of the corporate enterprise on the music industry, sexuality, drugs, crime, misogyny, consumerism and nihilism’ to the complexities of American black masculinities as suggested by Byron Hurt, a former marine and current antisexism activist. He made reference to the homophobic culture also very present in hip hop and suggested that the misogyny is as a result of a fear of the feminine and homosexuality.

Whatever the reasons may be, it goes without saying that there needs to be a paradigm shift in the hip hop industry but I really do not feel that calling for the end of the sexualisation of women is the ideal way to go about it as that would take away from the women who really enjoy this way of life and this profession and their right to choose by prescribing to them what dignity and worth should mean to them. More spaces need to be established where they can address their issues and they can reclaim their dignity, as defined by them, and empower themselves as women who have a right to choose how they identify and how they earn a living as well as challenge the way women are presented by the hip hop artists who undeniably have a lot of influence.

Sexualised Images of Women in Advertising 

Much like the world of hip hop, advertising has come under attack from the public and the feminist members of society and probably more so.

In Africa, and more specifically the Southern African region, gender activists have acted as watch dogs and have monitored the media closely and as a result have succeeded in having some ad campaigns banned on the grounds of gender insensitivity through the objectification and sexualisation of women.

In 2009, a billboard advertising the SEXPO in South Africa came under much scrutiny and disapproval and it was ultimately pulled down and banned by ASA (Advertising Standards Authority). The advertisement depicted a woman whose underwear is being taken off and the picture was of only the lower half of her body.

The bone of contention was based on how sexualised the image was and that it objectified women as the picture did not have the woman’s upper body or her face and therefore it made her a faceless without an identity. Somehow I get the feeling that were there an upper body, complete with face, the outcry would have been far louder.

Nevertheless, surely a sexualised image would be expected in the publicising of the event and this cannot be considered degrading given that what is being advertised is an expedition centred on sex. In addition, I think the objectification argument is slightly flawed given that there have been no out cries against shoe adverts that only show people’s feet. Taking that into consideration, one can not help but feel the feminist sector is against the idea of sex as a concept and this makes one wonder if the definition of an empowered woman is an asexual woman?

Instead of the women’s sector focusing on the subject or imagery of the billboard, which mind you, in no way portrayed or encouraged GBV, they should have questioned why the SEXPO ad campaign only featured women and not men too and why at the actual expo, it was only the women who were barely clad given that out of the reported 40 000 visitors expected to attend the expo, a significant proportion of them are women? This is not to say that there are no sexualised images of men in the media, albeit less than the women, because there are and yet, again, the watch dogs of the media remain mum on that issue which makes one wonder if, whether consciously or subconsciously, gender activists also consider women the weaker sex.

Outside of the sex industry’s advertising tactics, there is also concern over other industries using sexualised images of women and again I can not help but feel that there is little consideration and respect of the women who appear in these ads or the acknowledgement that they have the aptitude to decide for themselves what career path they want to follow or what advertising campaign they want to appear in and instead of having that agency vilified and become the subject of judgement and belittling, particularly from those who claim to be representing them, they should be encouraged and empowered to be able to stand up for themselves and to be able to protect themselves from any exploitation that may be presented by their career choice. Not only that, it completely takes away the possibility of these women being the ones with the upper hand and instead of them being exploited by a patriarchal capitalist system they may be the ones who control whether or not the companies or products they are advertising experience success. This may come across as a very loose justification for the acknowledgement that it is the women who determine the substance and success of men but if the words by a British music video producer are anything to go by we will see that this holds some weight:

“Eye candy always helps. You could have a rubbish song, but then you have that video with them girls in it so that everybody will start to watch your video due to the fact that them girls are in it.”

Some may feel that this is a reinforcement of the thought that women are only valued for their physical appearance but one wonders if that is really a bad thing if we actually accept that with some of these women that is enough for them in the same way that the academic or more conventional professional who only seeks acknowledgement for her intellect and is not interested in being considered a physically attractive or seductive person. Real support and representation of these women would be to empower them to realise their worth in this area and not sell themselves short i.e. appear in these images for nothing or close to nothing out of desperation for recognition and to ensure that the power lies in their hands and not the hands of exploitative men or cooperates.

With that said there is a great need to inform women of what their options are and that they are attainable and if they continue to feel the way they do, they must be properly equipped to protect themselves. I concede that some women feel that is the only option available to them, mostly thanks to socialisation, and that messaging that endorses misogynistic views needs tackling but tact is paramount i.e. do not allocate villain or victim status to the women involved. In addition to this we need a greater commitment from the media to not propagate and normalise harmful practices and beliefs in their messaging (and this is not to say that it should be done by splitting hairs and pushing individual ideas and agendas) as the media plays an integral role in how information is disseminated and lived. Their message is far reaching and is taken as the gospel truth by most. This can be achieved by maintaining a balance between the sensuality and the intellect and brawn of women. There is a need, in the messaging, to deconstruct the belief that women’s bodies are products to be acquired or things men are entitled to without taking away from the celebration of a woman’s physical attributes and her right to express herself in whatever way she chooses.

Pornography: Friend or Foe? 

The concepts highlighted above still apply to this industry and not only that but this topic as been the cause of many-a-debate amongst feminists since the 80s and is said to have caused a great division between feminists and this can be seen in the outbreak of what is known today as the Feminist Sex Wars which resulted in the feminist movement being split into Anti – Pornography Feminism and Pro-Sex Feminism or Sex Positive Feminism.

Those who acknowledge pornography as a form of sexual liberation and freedom of women say that the attacks on the sex industry are trivializing the women in this industry’s agency and that the argument that pornography is synonymous with violence against women (VAW) reinforces the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and that women merely endure it or in the cultural context in Africa, women shouldn’t want it as sex is not for them to enjoy. It also ignores the fact that women too like to watch other people have sex as was pointed out in an article in German magazine Stern in their September 2007 issue and completely overlooks that there are some pornographic films where women are the dominating character, admittedly in lesser instances than the opposite.

The 90s saw the emergence of the sexually empowered woman in the form of the likes of Madonna and Sharon Stone and although they have come under much scrutiny and disapproval and have been accused by the more scholarly feminists of bringing about the death of feminism one cannot deny that these women are anything but disempowered and not sexually liberated. The same can be said for self-described sex-positive feminist porn stars like Nina Hartley, Ovidie, Madison Young and Sasha Grey who do not see themselves as victims of sexism. In fact, they defend their decision and maintain that much of what they do on camera is an expression of their sexuality. They also maintain that in most cases it is the women who get paid the most in comparison to their male colleagues.

On the other hand, the anti pornography feminist faction says that women are coerced into pornography, either by someone else or by unfortunate circumstances and that this industry should be regarded as VAW. This belief was galvanised by the publication of the book Ordeal which looked at the life of former porn star Linda Boreman who says in her book that she had been beaten, raped and pimped by her husband into the pornography industry.

Of course there is a risk of abuse and exploitation but any profession or space poses the same threats. The risk of encountering unscrupulous and violent people is in all spaces, public or private, and the focus should be on ensuring safety in these spaces as opposed to trying to remove those spaces.

The problem lies with the narratives that, I must admit, can be violent and can in some ways convey the message that pornography is only for male sexual gratification and that women are the subordinates and their pleasure is secondary. It may also, in the way a film is written, give credence to the rape myths like the belief that women really do want to be raped and that ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’.

Feminist scholars like Catherine Mackinnon believe that pornography enforces a male dominated social hierarchy in which rape is socially acceptable. Others still, believe that the sometimes violent nature in some of these films desensitises viewers to VAW. I cannot dispute the validity of these concerns, as I share similar concerns, but only as far as the narrative is concerned and not the industry as a whole.

There have been ongoing debates as to whether or not the consumption of pornography increases the incidence of rape. Todd Kendall, in his research paper, cites scholars like Russell, D.E.H.  (2000) who says that because it is used to arouse the consumer, said arousal may result in the demand for sex and the particular experiences associated with rape implying that pornography and rape are economic compliments while other scholars like Posner, R.A.  (1994), also cited by Kendall, maintain that pornography may reduce instances of rape if rape and pornography are viewed as economic substitutes. He believes that consumers are already aroused when they seek the material and the material acts as a function to relieve this arousal thereby making pornography a complement of masturbation and consensual sex therefore serving as a deterrent of rape.

Looking at these arguments I have come to believe that the more productive endeavour that serves not only the women who choose to work in this industry but all women is similar to that of film makers like Erika Lust, Petra Joy and Anna Span who have decided to make porn for women by women. They have acknowledged that pornography is one avenue used by women to sexually express themselves freely as well as enable women to consume pornography without feeling violated. Erika Lust says in an interview with The Guardian that she realised that pornography has historically been made by men for men and she identified a gap that needed to be filled. This, in my opinion, is more productive than calling for the ban of pornography all together. Another recommendation would be that there should a shift in mindset of all the producers of pornography and demand a more gender sensitive approach when producing pornography.

I appreciate that in most societies, particularly in the South African context there is an epidemic of GBV and that some believe that the sex industry perpetuates this but in fighting GBV in this way i.e. demonising sexuality, are we not, much like patriarchy, stereotyping women as victims and depriving of their sexual rights and the freedom to express these rights?

So What Now? 

Sexuality and sensuality and the expression thereof seem to still be an unattainable and taboo thing for women even in the eyes of women’s rights activists. Some gender activists maintain that for those who choose to embrace their femininity and sensuality, as prescribed by patriarchy, it is as a result of patriarchal social conditioning and that renders these women disempowered. To some degree this could be true but it completely ignores the possibility that these women have considered this too and have made a conscious decision that that is what they want. We need to ask ourselves ‘when does socialisation stop and when does preference begin?’

In my view, instead of shaming or relegating these women to victim status, desperately in need of rescuing, we should applaud and encourage their agency and appreciate that the beauty and sensuality of a woman and her body, in whatever shape or size, is neither a curse nor something to be ashamed of or to be viewed as a vice that aids the forces of patriarchy that seek to disempower women but instead, as a gift and a tool of empowerment.

Indeed, we must encourage women to realise that their potential is not limited to their sensuality and sexuality and we must make men see that a woman is so much more than her body and that her strengths lie in so many other places, like her mind or athleticism for example and if she chooses a career as a video vixen she should not be degraded or judged or ill treated as a result of that choice. We must ensure that the media proclaims this message too along with that of non violence towards women instead of calling for the pulling down of each and every advert in which a woman has made the decision to celebrate her physical attributes.

When we are not calling for the uncovering of the Muslim women, we are calling for the covering up of other women but at whose behest exactly? There are women who feel stronger under the niqab as there are women who feel empowered in a two piece swimsuit. Is it really our place to take away those choices from these women or rather it’s more our place to fight for their right to choose?

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2012


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