Friday, June 14, 2013

Is sexualized the same as sexist? Or: sometimes I'm very concerned about feminist discourse. Or: If you're reacting to a sexualized heterosexual world the same way a fundamentalist reacts to sexualized gay culture, you're doing feminism wrong.

I think the Axe body wash commercials about the astronauts are pretty funny (Kate does too - she saw one before me and excitedly told me I would love it). Here's a sample although they've got a couple that basically go the same way in the end:

Today a female facebook friend - kind of a feminist but not usually one to post a lot about those issues (far, far less than I post on feminist/gender issues) called the astronaut commercials "sexist". I worry when I see things like this because I think overusing the term really twists its meaning (kind of like calling people who advocate policies that are in the end probably bad for minorities "racists"... we can say we don't like that but it's quite a stretch to say they are racists).

It's not even clear exactly what inspires this. My best guess is that it's obviously a super-charged sexual encounter. I don't say that because there's anything that explicit going on, but after almost being eaten most people are probably not going to be weighing which guy they want to be with. The concern may be that the guy is doing the rescuing but that seems like an even weaker case. It's a product for men so obviously the astronaut has to be a guy. The lifeguard could be a girl but for the sake of statistical frequency and ease of exposition I don't see anything especially wrong with presenting heterosexual relationships here (i.e. - the astronaut has to be a guy, if we are assuming heterosexuality for the reasons just stated that makes the victim a girl and the lifeguard a guy). Certainly there's nothing sexist or homophobic about that choice. We see female lifeguards on TV all the time too. There was of course the golden age of Baywatch, but check out any Syfy mutant shark/octopus movie. So I don't think it's that.

There's also, of course, that the victim and the lifeguard here have idealized body types - a perennial concern. There is good reason for this concern, for what the body types we see on TV do for body image, etc. There's good reason to want to see a change. Hollywood and TV go overboard and ought to be disciplined on this point, but this gets tricky too because people have preferences and are attracted to different things. Of course it's socially constructed and might need some tweaking on the extremes, but it gets very tough when you start trying to tell people what they ought to find attractive because then you're just substituting your views about body type for theirs. And who really has a right to scold me for my apparent tendency (completely subconscious - I'm just looking at the data) to like shorter women? In other words, (1.) it's not clear this is "sexist" because body image ideals are around for both sexes, and (2.) there are very real limits to how far you can push this one before you're scolding people for having sexual urges which is presumably NOT the direction we want to go.

So in summation, there are some things you could make some interesting and even important commentary on here (sexualization, body image, MAYBE gender roles but that's the weakest of all) but the case for "sexism" isn't really there at all. If you don't like sexualized advertising you are welcome to gripe about that (say something like "ugh - why does everybody have to be half naked and sweating on TV"). Some of us don't have as refined tastes (I thought it was funny and I found the people attractive). Say that if you want to. But it worries me that people tie their own prudishness/refinement/sense of what's "appropriate" to feminism and "sexism". What I am saying here is not the equivalent of people who say "if it's not overt racism it's not racism". Obviously there's a lot of subtle sexism out there, and some of it is very much tied up into sexualization as well. If you think I'm denying that, start from the beginning and reread. I refuse to play the game of being told I'm missing that. You don't have to convince me that sexism can come through sexualization. You have to convince me that the mere observation of a sexualized culture presents an instance of sexism - because that's not always going to be the case. We're sexual beings. We're going to act like it. Sorry. That means we're going to have thoughts and reactions that some people might even consider crude. Insofar as frustration with that is what feminism means to people, feminism is in trouble.

As a way of making that point consider that feminism is much broader than just male/female dichotomies and issues. A lot of feminism is about LGBT issues too and defending LGBT people when they have sexual reactions that bothers other people. That door swings both ways, feminists. ***If you're reacting to a sexualized heterosexual world the same way a fundamentalist reacts to sexualized gay culture, you're doing feminism wrong.***

This is getting long but I oughta say something about what doing feminism right means (because I'm a feminist, one of my fields is gender economics, and it matters to me. Feminism done right is about opposition to patriarchy (as a matter of historical circumstance), but more practically speaking its an opposition to power relations generally that threaten human capabilities and are organized around gender or sexuality. Since these power relations can emerge through the way culture is sexualized, of course that comes up as a subject to examine. But as a philosophical orientation the key point is the power relations and not the mere fact that we are sexual beings. As a theoretical/scientific orientation in the social sciences it involves a positive acknowledgement of and interest in studying the power relations that are of normative interest to feminists more broadly.

If you take your claim to its logical conclusion and that logical conclusion is that all people should be sexually attracted to everything equally (accounting for differences in sexual orientation, of course), then I think you're making a bad argument and you're missing what feminism is about.


  1. Not that I think its particularly "sexist," but it does seem to enforce the stereotype of the dumb, flighty, attractive girl who is shallow enough to leave the man who saved her life for a better prospect (e.g. the astronaut).

    1. Ya and this is one thing to talk about, but I think it's hard to call out specific ads or shows for this because she's a character and we don't want to rule out any shallow attractive female characters because there are shallow attractive females in real life (and because we don't want flat story-telling). So I think it's legitimate to do a statistical exercise about the extent to which this is overdone, but I don't know how you would do that. You also have the problem that human storytelling follows tropes. There are more heroic people, period, than in the general population. There are more villains, period, than in the general population. There are more foils/jester characters than in the general population. So to me it seems very hard to draw meaningful inferences from this. We're basically stuck with musings.

      Actually if we're thinking in these terms I wouldn't be surprised if there are less shallow people (men and women) on TV than there are in real life. There are a LOT of shallow people in real life. On TV shallow people are usually just foils, right? There are a few to introduce some dynamism to the plot. We don't usually like to watch movies where 60% of the characters are shallow - although that might be a plausible percent of the population that is "shallow".

      So what do you do with THAT? Or is it even right? It's incredible hard to say - I have no idea. And for me that means it's hard to have a firm opinion on.

      There are other areas - questions of disparities and power differentials - where it is much easier to have a firm opinion, and that - it seems to me - is firmer ground for feminism.

    2. "shallow enough to leave the man who saved her life for a better prospect"

      Who says that makes her shallow? What do you think she "owes" the lifeguard?

      ( I loathe that ad but Shane Van Der Westhuizen is awesome. )

    3. The life-guard is kind of buff and did just save her life. On the other hand, the astronaut has demonstrated both a very high intelligence, drive, splendid physical capabilities and emotional balance. (Well, ok, maybe NASA is working on that one, but at least, that's supposed to be part of the screening) The astronaut is not the shallow choice.

  2. I guess if TV under-represents shallow females, then the Axe commercial turns into a symptom instead of a cause right?

    But I'd be hard-pressed to say that media as a whole under-represents this stereotype. The questions is, what segment of the population are we most concerned with here? One would certainly be impressionable young girls....and what do they watch? Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, Millionaire Matchmaker. Hard to argue that shallow women are not found in abundance here. And these are probably the exact shows where you will find the Axe commercial being aired.

  3. You put my thoughts into words better than I could have. I think this is EXACTLY the right way to think about gender issues - but then again, I'm a guy so maybe I'm just mansplaining.

  4. Hmm, I actually think most media characters are pretty shallow. With women, for example, it tends to be hard to think of women in media (let's think about main characters, not fillers) who are both "tough" and "tender" role models. Most are competent-but-not-warm, e.g. "the iron lady" or warm-but-not-competent, e.g. housewives. Side note: you might actually like the original paper on those two dimensions of stereotypes: "A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition" by Fiske et al. And in general, most characters in media tend to be pretty darn one dimensional -- so much so that you could sum them up in one sentence. This I think is largely because, while actual people are messy bundles of contradictions, we want our media people to be clear-cut so we know whether to love or hate them. Relateable, but not complex. Typically, that appeals to the masses since the masses (myself often included!) don't want TV shows and movies to make them think deep thoughts; they merely wish to be entertained.

    Also, re: "A lot of feminism is about LGBT issues too and defending LGBT people when they have sexual reactions that bothers other people." There's actually a lot of discussion in the legal literature as to whether gay rights should be folded in with women's rights, or if doing so actually hurts the advancement of gay rights. I've found that discussion -- both sides of it -- incredibly fascinating and am happy to dig up some articles for you if you would like!

  5. Also I feel bad for the shark in that commercial. Poor sharks get a bad rap in media, that's for sure. I mean, there are over 470 species of shark and only a handful pose any real threat to humans. Is there such a thing as sharkism? Because that's obviously the REAL problem with this commercial :)

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