Exploitation of women in mass media

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A model promotes Jägermeister, 2006

The exploitation of women in mass media is the use or portrayal of women in the mass media (sسکسuch as television, film and advertising) to increase the appeal of media or a product to the detriment of, or without regard to, the interests of the women portrayed, or women in general. Feminists and other advocates of women's rights have criticized such exploitation. The most often criticized aspect of the use of women in mass media is sexual objectification, but dismemberment can be a part of the objectification as well.

Criticisms of the media[edit]


Robert Jensen, Sut Jhally and other cultural critics accuse mass media of using sex in advertising that promotes the objectification of women to help sell their goods and services.[1][2][3]

In Gender Advertisements, Erving Goffman sought to uncover the covert ways that popular media constructs masculinity and femininity in a detailed analysis of more than 500 advertisements. The relationship between men and women, Goffman argued, was portrayed as a parent–child relationship, one characterized by male power and female subordination.[4]

Many contemporary studies of gender and sexualization in popular culture take as their starting point Goffman's analysis in Gender Advertisements. Among them, later research which expanded empirical framework by analyzing the aspects of women's sexualization and objectification in advertisements, M.-E Kang examined the advertisements in women's magazines between 1979 and 1991 and found out there are still showing the same stereotyped images of women: Nude or partially nude images of women increased nearly 30% from 1979 to 1991.[5] Lindner further developed Kang's analytical framework in a study of women in advertisements and found out magazines rely on gender stereotypes, but in different ways, particularly in terms of sexualization. For example, in Vogue, sexualized images of women are the primary way of portraying women in positions of inferiority and low social power.[6]

Latest research conducted by Eric Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner included a longitudinal content analysis of images of women and men on more than four decades of Rolling Stone magazine covers (1967–2009). It found out that in one sexualized images of men and women have increased, though intensity of sexualization between men and women is severely different in that women are increasingly likely to be hypersexualized, but men are not. Researchers argue that the simple presence of images of sexualized men does not signal equality in media representations of women and men. Sexualized images may legitimize or exacerbate violence against women and girls, sexual harassment, and anti-women attitudes among men. They concluded that similarly sexualized images can suggest victimization for women but confidence for men, consider the implications when women are sexualized at the same rate as men are not sexualized, as they were on the covers of Rolling Stone in the 2000s.[7]

Clothing designer Calvin Klein was criticized for using images of young, sexualized girls and women in his ads, having said -

"Jeans are about sex. The abundance of bare flesh is the last gasp of advertisers trying to give redundant products a new identity."

Calvin Klein has also received media attention for its controversial advertisements in the mid-1990s. Several of Calvin Klein's advertisements featured images of teenage models, some "who were reportedly as young as 15" in overly sexual and provocative poses.[8]

In a recent analysis, it was found that almost 30% of the clothing items available for pre-teen girls on the websites of 15 national stores had sexualizing characteristics. The clothing emphasized or revealed a sexualized body part (e.g., bikinis and push-up bras), or had characteristics associated with sexiness (e.g.,red satin lingerie-like dresses). This exploitation of women is being seen in younger girls.

The overt use of sexuality to promote breast cancer awareness, through fundraising campaigns like "I Love Boobies" and "Save the Ta-tas", angers and offends breast cancer survivors and older women, who are at higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women who have breast cancer say that these advertising campaigns suggest that having sexy breasts is more important than saving their lives, which devalues them as human beings.[9]

Another trend that has been studied in advertising is the victimization of women. A study conducted in 2008 found that women were represented as victims in 9.51% of the advertisements they were present in. Separate examination by subcategory found that the highest frequency of this is in women's fashion magazines where 16.57% of the ads featuring women present them as victims.[10]


In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood film-making. Budd Boetticher summarises the view thus: "What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance."[11] Laura Mulvey's germinal essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (written in 1973 and published in 1975) expands on this conception of the passive role of women in cinema to argue that film provides visual pleasure through scopophilia and identification with the on-screen male actor.[11] She asserts: "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness," and as a result contends that in film a woman is the "bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning".[11] Mulvey argues that Lacan's psychoanalytic theory is the key to understanding how film creates such a space for female sexual objectification and exploitation through the combination of the patriarchal order of society, and 'looking' in itself as a pleasurable act of voyeurism, as "the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking".[11]

Additionally, the sexual objectification of women in film has a detrimental affect on girls and young women. Research shows that when girls had extended exposure to films in which female super heroes were dressed in over-sexualized costumes, they became more aware of their own body competence. Additionally, the exposure impacted their view of the female gender and female roles. Such over-sexualization in popular Hollywood films takes away from girl's self-esteem and encourages them to want to alter their bodies to look more like the actresses in films and media.[12]

Music videos[edit]

Gan, Zillmann and Mitrook found that exposure to sexually explicit rap promotes distinctly unfavorable evaluations of black women. Following exposure to sexual rap, as compared with exposure to romantic music or to no music, the assessment of the female performers' personality resulted in a general downgrading of positive traits and a general upgrading of negative ones.[13] A 2008 study by Zhang et al. showed that exposure to sexually explicit music videos was associated with stronger endorsement of sexual double standards (e.g., belief that it is less acceptable for women to be sexually experienced than for men). Exposure to sexual content was also associated with more permissive attitudes toward premarital sex, regardless of gender, overall television viewing, and previous sexual experience.[14] However, Gad Saad argues that the premise that music videos yield harmful effects and that the harm would be sex-specific (e.g., women's self-concepts will be negatively affected) has not been supported by research.[15]

A survey found that 72.2% of black, 68.0% of white, and 69.2% of Hispanic youths agree with the suggestion that rap music videos contain 'too many' references to sex.[16][17] It's true that women are objectified in hip hop and rap videos all the time. It's usually done by the way they are dressed, to how they speak in seductive or suggestive tones and how they dance in a sexual manner. Sometimes the woman's face isn't shown in these videos. Her body becomes a showpiece and is put on display. The woman loses her identity and it reinforces her role as the sex symbol.

Women's bodies are often dismembered in these videos as well. Breasts, butts, or legs are usually put on display, which makes some people think that the woman's body is no longer connected to her mind and emotions. Also, where the woman is placed can also convey male superiority.


In her article, "Negative effect of media on girls," Monique Smith discusses the evolution of acceptable female figures throughout time. The transition between sexy meaning curvaceous to sexy meaning thin made it difficult for women to keep up with the ideal feminine figure. Striving for the virtually unattainable perfect body, women were viewed as a new way to make money.[18][self-published source] The use of size 0 in advertisements and products of the clothing industry has been met with criticism. For example, Dawn Porter, a reporter from the UK who had been challenged to go on an extreme celebrity 'size zero' diet for a new BBC programme, Super Slim Me, logged her experiences about her journey to a size zero.[19]

A study conducted in the UK found evidence that anorexia nervosa is a socially transmitted disease and exposure to skinny models may be a contributing factor in the cause of anorexia nervosa.[20]


In Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography, a review of pornography research conducted for the Surgeon General in 1986 Dolf Zillmann noted that some inconsistencies in the literature on pornography exist, but overall concluded that extensive viewing of pornographic material may produce some negative sociological effects, including a decreased respect for long-term, monogamous relationships, and an attenuated desire for procreation.[21] He describes the theoretical basis for these conclusions stating:

The values expressed in pornography clash so obviously with the family concept, and they potentially undermine the traditional values that favor marriage, family, and children... Pornographic scripts dwell on sexual engagements of parties who have just met, who are in no way attached or committed to each other, and who will part shortly, never to meet again... Sexual gratification in pornography is not a function of emotional attachment, of kindness, of caring, and especially not of continuance of the relationship, as such continuance would translate into responsibilities, curtailments, and costs...[22]

Another study conducted by Svedin, Åkermana, and Priebe concluded that male partners' use of pornography might be integrated within the objectification theory framework for women, considering that pornography is a socialization agent for sexual attitudes and behavior. It often portrays men objectifying women via gazing at women's breasts and/or labia, non-permitted aggressive and sexualized touching of women's body parts, making sexual and derogatory remarks about women's body parts, and engaging in forceful oral and anal sex despite women gagging and crying. As pornography portrays women succumbing to this objectification, male viewers may internalize a view that these behaviors are acceptable.[23] According to the tenets of social learning theory, men who view pornography may learn and transfer the objectifying behaviors they view in pornography to sexual encounters with their female partners. Men's pornography use may correspond to higher levels of experienced sexual objectification by their female partners and it may socialize men treat their female partners in objectifying ways and believe that it is acceptable to do so.

Partner's use of pornography can also be negatively linked to women's well-being. Qualitative studies of women whose male partners heavily use pornography have revealed that these women reported lower relational and psychological well-being. The women perceived that their partners pornography use was connected to their inability to be intimately and authentically open and vulnerable within their relationships. Women from this qualitative research also reported a personal struggle regarding the implications of their male partners pornography use for their own self-worth and value. These women were feeling less attractive and desirable after becoming aware of their male partner's pornography use.[24] Similarly, women view their partners in a new way. The general conclusion that women feel is that their partner is not who they originally thought he/she was. The mate is seen as a sexually questionable and degraded being since the partner seeks sexual fulfilment through the objectification and sometimes degradation of women.[25]


Recently, television has come under fire for the sexual exploitation of women on screen, particularly when teenagers are involved. In 2013, the Parents Television Council released a report that found that it was increasingly more likely for a scene to be exploitative when a teenage girl was involved. The report also found that 43 percent of teen girls on television are the targets of sexually exploitative jokes compared to 33 percent of adult women. Rev. Delman Coates, a PTC board member said, "young people are having difficulty managing the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate sexual conduct". This report is of a series that's about media sexualization of young girls.[26]

The researchers from the study claim that "[i]f media images communicate that sexual exploitation is neither serious nor harmful, the environment is being set for sexual exploitation to be viewed as trivial and acceptable. As long as there are media producers who continue to find the degradation of women to be humorous, and media outlets that will air the content, the impact and seriousness of sexual exploitation will continue to be understated and not meaningfully addressed in our society."[27]

A 2012 study led by sociologist Stacy L. Smith found that in both prime-time television and family films, women were highly likely to be depicted as thin and scantily clad. They were also vastly underrepresented in STEM fields when compared to their male counterparts, and had less speaking roles. According to this study, only 28.3 percent of characters in family films, 30.8 percent of characters in children's shows, and 38.9 percent of characters on prime time television were women.[28]

According to a report by the Women's Media Center (WMC), it found that the gender gap has not declined and that in some industries it has gotten worse. In television, it found the percentage of female TV characters has decreased and that the ones who make it on-screen are not likely to get the lead roles compared to the male characters. "According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film's 'Boxed In' report, CW Television Network[29] is the only TV network where women can be seen in accurate proportion to their representation in the U.S. population".[30]

Video games[edit]

According to a report done by the Entertainment Software Association in 2013, 55% of game players are male and 45% are female.[24] Women's roles in many modern games usually are less important to the game and rely heavily on stereotypes.[31] Video games' female characters also tend to be portrayed as light skinned, with racial stereotypes coupled with women of color in games, with white male characters often being the main characters with little to no negativity in their presentation.[citation needed]

Many video game roles for women are often simply just minor helpers, or a love interest that requires rescuing. These roles for women have been found to have a negative impact on the perception of women in gaming and even main playable female characters are found to be unrealistically proportioned with revealing clothing. If a sexualized female character is the main protagonist and portrayed in a positive light, studies have shown a potential negative effect if the character is hyper-sexualized in a stereotypical manner.[32] A recent Ohio State University Study has found that sexist and violent content in games cause male gamers to identify with the male lead, and find less empathy with female victims of violence.[33] Similarly, the results of a 2015 study suggested that "sexist video game play is related to men perceiving women in a stereotypic and sexist way", but found that the same correlation did not occur with female players.[34]

A German longitudinal study from 2011 to 2015 explored the connection between gaming and sexist attitudes. The results of this study concluded both that playing video games was not predictive of sexist beliefs and that sexist beliefs were not predicative of video game play. The researchers stressed, however, that the study did not, nor was intended to, disprove the existence of sexist attitudes in general.[35] A 2012 study also raised concerns about the correlation between video games and individual attitudes. Focusing on the Singaporean subjects playing the game Grand Theft Auto, the study found some evidence of "first order cultivation effects" – which relate to the perceptions of situations and issues – but found that second order effects, relating to beliefs and issues, were provided with only limited support by the study. This led the authors to conclude that previous studies on cultivation effects from television may not directly relate to effects from video game playing.[36]

The trend of portraying sex-typed images of women and violence against women in popular video games continues to proliferate and promulgate in video games. Video games depicting sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in statistically significant increased rape myths acceptance for male study participants but not for female participants.[31] A 2016 study by Fox and Potocki had similar findings, in which they ran a survey which found that "video game consumption throughout the life span is associated with interpersonal aggression, hostile sexism, and RMA [Rape Myth Acceptance]".[37]

Out of the top 10 video games listed midyear 2010 (New Super Mario Brothers; Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare; Battlefield: Bad Company 2; Final Fantasy XIII; Wii Fit Plus; God of War III; Pokémon SoulSilver; Wii Sports Resort, Mass Effect 2, Pokémon HeartGold Version; Morris, 2010), most have violent content, including violence against women, and some contain sexual objectification of women. Not only are gamers increasingly being exposed to video games containing sexual objectification of and violence against women, research indicates that such exposure can be excessive.[31] A national sample of youth aged 8 to 18 found that "8.5 percent of video game players exhibited pathological patterns of play," which is "very similar to the prevalence demonstrated in many other studies of this age group, including across nations".[38]

Effects on society[edit]

Critics of the prevalent portrayals of women in the mass media observe possible negative consequences for various segments of the population, such as:[39][40][41]

  • Women self-objectify in terms of body surveillance by adopting a form of self-consciousness in which they habitually monitor their own body's outward appearance and spend significant amounts of attention on how others may perceive their physical appearance[42]
  • Unrealistic expectations by men of how women should look or behave.
  • Stereotyping of women who are positively portrayed by or sexualized in the media, such as the theme of a "dumb blonde" or "blonde bimbo", limiting the societal and career opportunities for people who fit these stereotypes.[43]
  • Psychological disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, anorexia, and bulimia.
  • The excessively coercive nature of appeal to strong sexual instincts to sell products or promote media.
  • Increase in the likelihood and acceptance of sexual violence.[44]

According to Muehlenkamp and Saris–Baglama, self-objectification of women can lead to depression, noting that "the relationship between self-objectification and depression can be explained by the anxiety and powerlessness women may experience as a result of not knowing when or where they will encounter objectification. These feelings may increase women's vulnerability to depressive symptoms. Once a woman starts to self-objectify and compare her body to others, it may be a risk factor for holistic human functioning, and may also lead to impairment in multiple life tasks, such as forming meaningful interpersonal relationships and achieving academic success."[45]

In addition, it can lead to sexual dysfunction. Engaging in sexual activity involves another person focusing attention on one's body and during sexual relations a woman can be distracted by thoughts about her body rather than experiencing sexual pleasure.[46]

Many studies have shown the negative effects that this exploitation of women in the media has on the mental health of young women, but recently the studies have focused on aging women in western societies. It has been observed that the exploitation of young attractive women in the media causes aging women to feel a variety of emotions including sadness, anger, concern, envy, desensitization, marginalization, and discomfort that their appearance was being judged by others.[47]

The common use of sexualized female images in the media is concerning because often these women are very young. Some critics think that this is causing men to feel entitled to seeing women's bodies, also including teen and adolescent girls. This leads to objectification and dehumanization of young women by men and the normalization and acceptance of being subjected to this type of behavior by young women.[48]

Counter arguments[edit]

Gallup & Robinson, an advertising and marketing research firm, has reported that in more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness, it has found the use of the erotic to be a significantly above-average technique in communicating with the marketplace, "...although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique ... handle with care ... seller beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing." This research has led to the popular idea that "sex sells".

Camille Paglia holds that "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." In her view, objectification is closely tied to (and may even be identical with) the highest human faculties toward conceptualization and aesthetics.[49]

Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky's Studies on Pornography and sex crimes in Denmark (1970), a scientific report ordered by the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, found that the legalizing of pornography in Denmark had not (as expected) resulted in an increase of sex crimes.[50] Since then, many other experiments have been conducted, either supporting or opposing the findings of Berl Kutchinsky, who would continue his study into the social effects of pornography until his death in 1995. His life's work was summed up in the publication Law, Pornography, and Crime: The Danish Experience (1999).[51] Milton Diamond from the University of Hawaii found that the number of reported cases of child sex abuse dropped markedly immediately after the ban on sexually explicit materials was lifted in 1989.[52]

Some researchers, such as Susan Bordo and Rosalind Gill, argue against using the phrase "sexual objectification" to describe such images because they often depict women as active, confident, and/or sexually desirous.[53][54] For this argument, there have been several refutations that intensity of women's sexualization suggests that "sexual object" may indeed be the only appropriate label. The accumulation of sexualized attributes in these images leaves little room for observers to interpret them in any way other than as instruments of sexual pleasure and visual possession for a heterosexual male audience.[24] Yet, some scholars have criticized such statements as overly homogenizing because they render invisible differences in this process of sexualization.[55]

Some social conservatives have agreed with aspects of the feminist critique of sexual objectification. In their view however, the increase in the sexual objectification of both sexes in Western culture is one of the negative legacies of the sexual revolution.[56][57][58][59][60] These critics, notably Wendy Shalit, advocate a return to pre-sexual revolution standards of sexual morality, which Shalit refers to as a "return to modesty", as an antidote to sexual objectification.[57][61]

See also[edit]


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