Wait, what?! It’s capitalism’s fault women are sexualized in the media. It’s capitalism’s fault that populations of women obsess over clothing, makeup, fashion, and the insecurity that drives them to buy these things in the first place. CAPITALISM has driven women to the depths of self-loathing and despair with its powerful media messages.
Feminists, parents, and psychologists alike blame the evil forces of capitalism that seem to strip women of their dignity as an attempt to fool them into buying products. It’s true that by portraying products alongside unachievable standards of beauty, a deep-rooted desire to appear that way (and settle for having the product, instead) is planted.
However, this psychological attachment to material possessions is not a product of capitalism, but of consumerism. This rampant, emotional need to own products is a consequence of a 20th century that saw war propagandists and bankers establishing (at least in America) a society built on superficial values and material possession. Consumerism may occur in a capitalistic society, but the two cannot be confused.
Capitalism is different and not limited to the “consumer” realm . This is not to say that the basic principles of capitalism are not at work in the female world of pop culture. Women want to know what Miley Cyrus’ ate for breakfast and want to know what the celebrities wear so they can copy their style–that is why magazines, television shows and websites.
While that demand may have been deceptively encouraged in the 1920s when master PR agents were first hiring stars to sell products, the products sold because people responded to the marketing technique. As long as there is demand for information like this and people do not see through the manipulation, it will be supplied.
In spite of its bad reputation, capitalism is also what brought the world technology, smart phones, and transportation. It is what allowed the demand for cars to be satisfied, as well as hybrid vehicles and research into alternative energy. Capitalism underpins all free interaction as it is simply the voluntary interaction and association of free individuals. It is the reason the “organic” food market has grown so substantially in the past years–so much so that small farms are slowly making a comeback in the face of pervasive factory farms who have dominated markets with government subsidies.
The free market is what finally convinced Subway to remove yoga mat rubber from their sandwich bread while Mrs. Obama was signing the company up as poster child for “eating healthy.” The White House and FDA had no problem with rubber in bread and the approval of this chemical for use in hundreds of other processed foods–it was outrage from the people and the Internet that pushed Subway to fix the problem.
But what do successes of the free market have to do with sexism in the media? While the demand for pictures of pretty, famous people and lists of must-have fashion remains high, and therefore is still satisfied, the free market is responsible for an evolving presentation of femininity in the media. Since the early to mid 2000s, the peak of anorexic models in the mainstream has dwindled. Women’s preferences have changed and the market has had to respond. Abercrombie and Fitch suffered a massive blow to its reputation after its CEO derailed fat people last year and is now developing a plus size line to accommodate those it previously shunned.
Fuller figured celebrities, such as Adele and Cristina Hendricks, are praised for their beauty in the celebrity culture sphere because women respond positively to their presence. Recent years have seen an increase in “non-airbrushed” ads, such as American Eagle’s lingerie line, which caters to the idea of all bodies being beautiful. While this may clearly a marketing ploy, it is a healthier one than depicting women so thin they are likely infertile.
Regardless, all of these examples show a shift in what depictions of females women are willing to accept, and their tolerance for unrealistic standards of attractiveness is gradually decreasing.
But the market is at work in forces larger than consumer products. The free market is the foundation for more intelligent, independent media for women. Mad Men, arguably one of the best shows in the history of television, successfully portrays the lives and struggles of both men and women in the 1960s. The characters are multi-dimensional and the show attracts viewers of both genders. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the writers for the show do not suffer a gender disparity: they are both men and women and what they produce appeals to all. The market responded to a show that dared to take this route, the show’s massive success providing incentive for other productions to balance male perspectives with female ones.
The Netflix original series Orange is the New Black is a similar example of this free market shift in our culture’s view of women. Most shows for women are centered around a romantic relationship (whether reality TV, drama, or even celebrity news shows) or fierce, contentious competition between women. While these topics are arguably evolutionary (the female prerogative in nature is to secure a long-term man and ward off other competition), the extent to which they have been repeated and obsessed over in the media is comical.
But Orange is the New Black, about a waspy woman who goes to prison, offers a female perspective increasingly seen in mass media. While the show certainly incorporates drama over men and competition between females, none of these plot lines (typical in reality TV) is the main one. They are peripheral to the main character’s own internal struggle and journey.
The same can be seen in the wildly successful book series-turned film franchise, The Hunger Games. While the story’s excessive violence (and its symbolism of strength for the main character) is a conversation for a different day, this book and movie series strays dramatically from the common female narrative. Again, while romance is an important part of the story, it is not the main attraction: the individual struggle of Katniss, the protagonist, against the evils of her oppressive government is the main issue. These films are some of the top grossing of all time, influencing other film producers in Hollywood to pursue similarly themed stories that dwell not on the typical female stories but on those that depict individuality and strength.
Side note: both Orange and Hunger Games appeal to women and men, demonstrating an “equality” of the sexes that no government law or feminist dictate can force.
The successes of these stories are all examples of the free market at work. Lionsgate would never have produced the Hunger Games if the market were not there for it, nor would Mad Men be in its seventh season. When consumers demand a shift in the presentation of women, the shift occurs.
Of course, society is a long way from eliminating the plague of reality shows, celebrity worship and music videos of half-naked pop stars that supply young girls with ideas of sexuality. On one hand, the attraction of girls and women to makeup, fashion and sexual celebrities is a consequence of evolution: we are programmed to make ourselves appealing for the sake of reproduction (women have been wearing makeup for thousands of years, long before conglomerations started selling it). However, the extremity and exaggeration of these qualities in the media has come at the sacrifice of self-empowerment and actualization and a strongly-rooted, internal sense of identity.
The only way an evolution away from these values will take hold is if the people who consume the product stop demanding it–if they become smart consumers, as many already have. As much as it is easy to point fingers to the media and corporations for constructing an unattainable, male-centric version of what it means to be a woman, the media cannot be blamed for continuing to sell what people keep buying.
The change in representations of women in the media will occur when parents actively, rationally teach their daughters why the circus they are exposed to is undesirable. Better yet, “sexism in culture” (as well as mindless consumerism) will stop when parents stop exposing their children to television as a crutch for raising their offspring. Before misrepresentations of women cease, women must decide that they don’t need conglomerated media corporations telling them how to live their lives and how to love themselves. The must grow tired of consuming information that has no relevant impact on their lives and as a result, grow tired of watching it. As soon as people stop consuming the trash presented to them, the producers will quickly change what they are selling.
It may seem hopeless and distant, but it is a long-term trend that has already begun. The more products and entertainment that reflect changing desires and personalities of women, the more like-minded ones will continue to emerge–it is a feedback loop. It may be impossible to force others to drop superficiality, insecurity, or addiction to television or celebrity gossip, but it is possible to support a revolution of thought in the power of the media and the ability of people to shape their environments, identities and values.