I loved your last letter, especially how you juxtaposed the situation in Swat Valley, Pakistan with the situation of Susan Boyle in the western media. I always like seeing the world through the lens of “inter-text”—putting seemingly non related topics side-by-side and noticing how they illuminate one another. And as we know, feminist study is at its best when it can name the connections between many different systems of power, privilege and marginalization as they play out across diverse cultures. You did that so well in your last letter. I would encourage all of our readers to play through the links you posted in your last letter, from the sensational performance of Susan Boyle in England to the coverage of the situation of girls’ education in Swat Valley, Pakistan.
Continuing the Conversation: “Ideal” Femininity in the Media
I want to start this letter by springboarding off your comments about Susan Boyle. I loved your sentence, “Her few moments on stage that night before Easter, 2009 would change her life incredibly and prompt endless discussions about whether we have had it wrong all along in our botox-injecting, silicone implanting, cosmetic surgery-loving society that has claimed to know what beauty is.”
Just last night I gave a presentation at a church on the images of masculinity and femininity that bombard our lives through the messaging of the media. To prepare for my talk, I have spent weeks researching images of women’s bodies in advertising. My research has made me feel nearly physically ill. Image after image of what is considered ideal feminine beauty—usually white, frighteningly skinny, often child-like and seductive presentations of women. And to be more accurate, the images are not really images of real women at all—they are body parts from many different women merged together through the use of photo editing software.
The cultural psyche is then imprinted with these “perfect” images, so that when we see a real woman like Susan Boyle who does not look like these fabrications of ideal femininity, she gets treated with immediate contempt when she walks on a stage. (I was so angry when I first saw the beginning of the video on Susan’s performance. How dare people be so blatantly rude to her!)
The more I have looked at pictures of women and advertising these past few weeks, the more I have grown gravely concerned about how these images reflect the status of women in our culture. What concerns me is not only that these images unconsciously influence our views of women, but that it is done so intentionally. The marketing teams who design these advertising campaigns do so because they know what their target audience responds to. I have seen some horrifying images in my research. I will link them here (at the risk of giving these companies even more attention), but please be aware that they are truly disturbing pictures. One magazine has a picture of a woman thrown in a garbage can, her legs sticking out. It’s an image that accompanies an article about how the economy is affecting men’s dating lives. (Thanks to feministing.com for drawing my attention to this ad.) Another ad came out last year from the high-end designer Dolce Gibanna, which is clearly depicting gang rape. (This ad eventually got pulled after protests in Europe.) Another high end designer, Duncan Quinn, has this ad, which has a well-dressed man holding his tie around the neck of a nearly naked, apparently dead woman with blood around her head. (FYI: That link takes a moment to load the image.) I could go on and on.
These more extreme images of male violence toward women are not disconnected from the more “normal” images of women’s objectification that we see in most magazines. All around us in the barrage of advertising, a woman has been reduced to a passive “thing,” her humanity stripped, her body pimped in a culture of mass consumerism. And as she has become more and more a “thing” and not a person, there has been a frightening merger of violence and sex in how she is depicted. Some ads are even subtly (or not so subtly) playing off scenes from pornography, which is an industry built on eroticizing violence toward women. If you want to read more thoughts on sexism in advertising, here is a thought-provoking and disturbing article published last year in the Huffington Post.
All that to say, I have been horribly discouraged this week. I fear we have a whole culture that—in the name of freedom of expression—dismisses the harm of these images. And as I noted earlier, these images are disturbing not just because they create culture and influence our minds, but more because they reflect what is already in the culture—a conscious and unconscious toleration of de-humanizing women and objectifying female sexuality for male use. And the counterpoint, of course, to these images of women-as-objects are the images of masculinity that are steeped in aggression and dominance. Both men and women suffer in this system. We both miss out on healthy images of human sexuality that promote mutuality and equality.
Closing Thoughts on Girls’ Education in Pakistan
I will end this letter by transitioning to the other topic in your letter—the destruction of girls’ schools in Swat Valley, Pakistan. The topic was timely for me, because just last week, I was studying and teaching on Mary Wollstonecraft’s book A Vindication of the Rights of Women. As you know, Letha, this important book, published in 1792 in England, presented one of the first written arguments for why girls should be educated. Wollestonecraft was responding to the kind of thinking found in Rosseau’s books. Rousseau wrote in Emilie: “Women’s place was to oblige us, to do us service, to gain our love and esteem, these are the duties of the sex at all times, and what they ought to learn from their infancy. Women is framed particularly for the delight and pleasure of man.”
So, when I saw the clips on Swat Valley, I couldn’t help but realize how the work of Wollestonecraft lives on. We still need to be educating people on why girls should be educated! It’s not an outdated topic.Perhaps you saw the 2001 letter written by the now re-instated Catholic Bishop Williamson who says that “almost no girl should go to university” because she was not created by God to study ideas and reason. (This, of course, is the same bishop who has denied the gas chambers existed in the Holocaust, so we can safely assume he has a level of insanity. But, I am not ready to let the other religious leaders off the hook, who allow a man like this to have such an authoritative position.)
What I liked so much about the clip on Swat Valley is that it showed so well the interplay of gender oppression with other forms of oppression. While the girls’ schools were being blown up, the boys’ schools were essentially recruiting and training grounds for the Taliban. And because many of the schools provided food and shelter, parents struggling economically were forced to send their boys to school, where they were then indoctrinated. The links you posted begin to help us see the interplay of religious fundamentalism with gender fundamentalism, poverty, and violence, especially the violence of the West. (For instance, when America bombs civilians in Afganistan, we are playing perfectly into the strategy of the Taliban. What better recruiting ground for Taliban idealogy?) I realize these political situations have much more complexity than I am going into here, but the tension I am trying to begin to see more is how much the oppression of girls and women relies on others systems of domination, too.
All for Now
Well, Letha, I better sign off now. It’s a beautiful day, and there is a fantastic dance festival happening this weekend in Seattle! I hope to finish my work today a bit early, so that I can enjoy the sun and take time to relax. As we have talked about so much on the phone, it is getting more and more important for me to prioritize self-care in the midst of thinking, writing, and teaching so much on these really difficult issues. So, this weekend I am going to play! I only have 10 weeks left in Seattle before I move to New Haven for graduate school, so I am trying to savor my time here. Thanks for your well wishes on Yale Divinity School. I am thrilled to get to study at such a fantastic place. I have visited twice now, and each time I have gone I am incredibly impressed by how well the school merges reflection and action. I think it will be an excellent place to learn better how to be a practitioner of social justice, while not forgetting the importance of dance and laughter and spontaneous potlucks! I am so grateful for the opportunity to be part of the community there and begin this next adventure.