On “Having It All”

Second Shift

Marissa Mayer’s ascendency to the helm of Yahoo! while seven months pregnant has caused a media stir. Mayer’s comment, “my maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” has drawn criticism that she’s setting an unreasonable “Superwoman” standard for working women, and that she’s capitulating to anti-family corporate norms.

I am elated that Marissa Mayer makes a gazillion dollars and is the CEO of a major company at age 37! I am disappointed that there’s a press frenzy about her baby bump. It’s not news when male CEOs take two-week vacations, so why so much focus on this? But since it’s in the news, I’m a little sad to see Mayer nodding to male-centric family leave norms, but hopeful that she’ll pioneer better norms for women in the future.

Mayer’s situation and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article have reignited the debate about whether women can “have it all.” Yes, women can “have it all” — balancing a paid job and kids — if they are wealthy, have a position of significant power, or have a partner who will equitably share the burden of childcare and housework. But a better option is to reconsider the sexist premise that women must excel in both the private and public spheres to be fulfilled. Men are assumed breadwinners, but standards for being a “good father” are incredibly low compared to expectations for “good mothers,” and fathers are given more slack in the workplace than mothers.

Women now comprise half of the labor force, and 4-in-10 are mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinner, but the idea of “having it all” is only applied to women because of sexist societal scripts that women will procreate and will be the primary caretakers of children. When is the last time you heard a man fretting about “having it all?” These gendered expectations place an undue burden on women to work the “second shift,” and rob some men of the opportunity to develop a deep bond with their children and create stronger relationships with women as egalitarian domestic partners. (Sharing housework makes men happier!).

The persistent assumption that parenting is “women’s work” is borne out with data showing that women who work full-time outside the home perform twice the child care and three times the housework as their spouses who work full-time. This gender gap causes 40% of working moms to always feel rushed compared to 25% of working dads. Stress is the norm for many of the 13 million single parents in the U.S. who are disproportionately female (84%) and women of color.

So how can we “have it all” without pulling our hair out? One way is to be wealthy. Mayer’s net worth of $300 million means she can afford lots of help, most likely from other women, and can hire a pediatrician and other baby professionals who can accommodate her busy schedule.

Another way to “have it all” is to have gain sufficient power within the workplace to set your own schedule. People in the highest echelons of corporate America have the flexibility to decide when and how they work, but only 3% of CEO slots and 14% of executive officer positions are held by women. A critical mass of female leaders could bring an end to anti-family corporate practices, but women’s gains in corporate and political leadership have recently stalled and even reversed, so this won’t happen anytime soon.

For most women who aren’t wealthy, corporate titans, our best option for “having it all” is to find a partner who is able and willing to share the burden of child rearing and housework. Based on the statistics above, these partners are few and far between. Women who identify as feminists do less housework per week than non-feminists, but men who are married to feminists do the same amount of housework as men married to non-feminists. In other words, it’s not enough that you’re a feminist. Your partner needs to be one, too.

Perhaps the best way to “have it all” is to recognize that working full-time inside and outside the home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to societal fairy tales about parenting, having children actually makes us less happy. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert finds that parents are happier eating, exercising, or sleeping than they are caring for children. “Looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.” Using survey data, Sociologist Robin Simon reports that “Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers.” Economist Arthur C. Brooks‘ research shows that people with children are 7% less likely to report being happy than those without children. In short, having children leads to less happiness.

The purpose of this post is not to criticize women or men who choose to have children (although societal pressure makes procreation virtually compulsory for women). Moms have it hard enough already. As Sociologist Lisa Wade points out, “the U.S. government fails to support our child rearing efforts with sufficient programs (framing it as a ‘choice’ or ‘hobby’), the market is expensive (child care costs more than college in most states), and we’re crammed into nuclear family households (making it difficult to rely on extended kin, real or chosen). And the results are clear: raising children changes the quality of your life.”

The ongoing debate about whether women can “have it all” will cease when we collectively reject the false premise that women need to work outside the home and have children to achieve real fulfillment. This social script is sexist and simply inaccurate. According to the data, women without children are the happiest, followed by moms who work outside the home, then stay-at-home moms (who are more socially isolated). But forget this data. The lower relative level of happiness for stay-at-home moms is no doubt a reflection of our society’s devaluation of this occupation. If we properly valued homemaking, parents would make $96,261 a year, men would work in the home as much as women, and the state would better support this important part of our economy.

The larger point here is that women are being set up by gendered cultural scripts that tell us we have to break our backs in both the public and private spheres to be fulfilled. If we choose to have children, it should truly be a choice and an informed one that eschews the myth that children automatically equal happiness. If we choose to pursue a career and not have children, we can be better prepared to deal with social pressures meant to make us feel like we’re “missing out.” And if we choose to “have it all,” mothers can approach this challenge with greater clarity about the resources and teamwork needed to minimize the personal toll.

This discussion has centered around the choices of privileged women, but many women don’t have the luxury of choosing between kids or paid work. Therefore, it’s vitally important that we pursue the larger projects of de-gendering parenting, valuing homemaking, and making workplace practices family friendly. Only then can women and men truly exercise choice in crafting their life paths.

Sexual Objectification, Part 4: Daily Rituals to Start

This is the fourth part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Daily Rituals to Start

This post details some daily rituals that girls and women can engage in to interrupt damaging beauty culture scripts.

1) Start enjoying your body as a physical instrument. Girls are raised to view their bodies as a project that they have to constantly work on and perfect for the adoration of others, while boys are raised to think of their bodies as tools to use to master their surroundings. We need to flip the script and enjoy our bodies as the physical marvels they are. We should be thinking of our bodies, as bodies! As a vehicle that moves us through the world; as a site of physical power; as the physical extension of our being in the world. We should be climbing things, leaping over things, pushing and pulling things, shaking things, dancing frantically, even if people are looking. Daily rituals of spontaneous physical activity and thanks for movement are the surest way to bring about a personal paradigm shift from viewing our bodies as objects to viewing our bodies as tools to enact our subjectivity.

Fun Related Activity: Parkour,”the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment,” is an activity that one can do anytime, anywhere. I especially enjoy jumping off bike racks between classes while I’m dressed in a suit.

2) Do at least one “embarrassing” action a day. Another healthy daily ritual that reinforces the idea that we don’t exist to be pleasing to others is to purposefully do at least one action that violates”ladylike” social norms. Discuss your period in public. Eat sloppily in public, then lounge on your chair and pat your protruding belly. Swing your arms a little too much when you walk. Open doors for everyone. Offer to help men carry things. Skip a lot. Galloping also works. Get comfortable with making others uncomfortable with your transgressions of gendered scripts.

3) Focus on personal development that isn’t related to beauty culture. Since you’ve read Part 3 of this series and magically given up habitual body monitoring, body hatred, and meaningless beauty rituals, you’ll have more time to develop yourself in meaningful ways. This means more time for education, reading, working out to build muscle and agility, dancing, etc. You’ll become a much more interesting person on the inside if you spend less time worrying about the outside.

4) Actively forgive yourself. A lifetime of body hatred and self-objectification is difficult to let go of, and if you find yourself falling into old habits of playing self-hating tapes, seeking male attention, or beating yourself up for not being pleasing, forgive yourself. It’s impossible to fully transcend the beauty culture game since it’s so pervasive and part of our social DNA before we’re even conscious of being conscious. It’s a constant struggle. When we fall into old traps, it’s important to recognize that, but quickly move on through self forgiveness. We need all the cognitive space we can get for the next beauty culture assault on our mental health.

Sexual Objectification, Part 3: Daily Rituals to Stop

This is the third part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1, Part 2).

This post outlines four damaging daily rituals of objectification culture we can immediately stop engaging in to improve our health.

1) Stop seeking male attention. Most women were taught that heterosexual male attention is our Holy Grail before we were even conscious of being conscious, and its hard to reject this system of validation, but we must. We give our power away a thousand times a day when we engage in habitual body monitoring so we can be visually pleasing to others. The ways in which we seek attention for our bodies varies by sexuality, race, ethnicity, and ability, but the template is the “male gaze.”

Heterosexual male attention is actually pretty easy to give up when you think about it. First, we seek it mostly from strangers we will never see again, so it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of life. Who cares what the man in the car next to you thinks of your profile? You’ll probably never see him again. Secondly, men in U.S. culture are raised to objectify women as a matter of course, so an approving gaze doesn’t mean you’re unique or special. Thirdly, male validation through the gaze doesn’t provide anything tangible because it’s fleeting and meaningless. Lastly, men are terrible validators of physical appearance because so many are duped by make-up, hair coloring and styling, surgical alterations, girdles, etc. If I want an evaluation of how I look, a heterosexual male stranger is one of the least reliable sources on the subject.

Fun related activity: When a man cat calls you, respond with an extended laugh and declare, “I don’t exist for you!” Be prepared for a verbally violent reaction as you are challenging his power as the great validator. Your gazer likely won’t even know why he becomes angry since he’s just following the societal script that you’ve just interrupted.

2) Stop consuming damaging media, including fashion, “beauty,” and celebrity magazines, and sexist television programs, movies, and music. Beauty magazines in particular give us very detailed instructions for how to hate ourselves, and most of us feel bad about our bodies immediately after reading. Similar effects are found with television and music video viewing. If we avoid this media, we undercut the $80 billion a year Beauty-Industrial Complex that peddles dissatisfaction to sell products we really don’t need.

Related fun activity: Print out sheets that say something subversive about beauty culture — e.g., “This magazine will make you hate your body” — and stealthily put them in front of beauty magazines at your local supermarket or corner store.

3) Stop Playing the Tapes. Many girls and women play internal tapes on loop for most of our waking hours, constantly criticizing the way we look and chiding ourselves for not being properly pleasing in what we say and what we do. Like a smoker taking a drag first thing in the morning, many of us are addicted to this self-hatred, inspecting our bodies first thing as we hop out of bed to see what sleep has done to our waistline, and habitually monitoring our bodies throughout the day. These tapes cause my female students to speak up less in class. They cause some women to act stupidly when they’re not in order to appear submissive and therefore less threatening. These tapes are the primary way we sustain our body hatred.

Stopping the body-hatred tapes is no easy task, but keep in mind that we would be utterly offended if someone else said the insulting things we say to ourselves. Furthermore, we are only alive for a short period of time, so it makes no sense to fill our internal time with negativity that only we can hear. What’s the point? These tapes aren’t constructive, and they don’t change anything in the physical world. They are just a mental drain.

Related fun activity: Make a point of not worrying about what you look like. Sit with your legs sprawled and the fat popping out wherever. Walk with a wide stride and some swagger. Public eating in a decidedly non-ladylike fashion is also great fun. Burp and fart without apology. Adjust your breasts when necessary. Unapologetically take up space.

4) Stop Competing with Other Women. The rules of the society we were born into require us to compete with other women for our own self-esteem. The game is simple. The “prize” is male attention, which we perceive of as finite, so when other girls/women get attention, we lose. This game causes many of us to reflexively see other women as “natural” competitors, and we feel bad when we encounter women who garner more male attention, as though it takes away from our worth. We walk into parties and see where we fit in the “pretty girl pecking order.” We secretly feel happy when our female friends gain weight. We criticize other women’s hair, clothing, and other appearance choices. We flirt with other women’s boyfriends to get attention, even if we’re not romantically interested in them.

Related fun activity: When you see a woman who triggers competitiveness, practice active love instead. Smile at her. Go out of your way to talk to her. Do whatever you can to dispel the notion that female competition is the natural order. If you see a woman who appears to embrace the male attention game, instead of judging her, recognize the pressure that produces this and go out of your way to accept and love her.

Stay tuned for Sexual Objectification, Part 4: Daily Rituals to Start.

Sexual Objectification, Part 2: The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1).

After nearly three decades, the feminist “sex wars” are back.  This fiery debate from the 1980s pitted radical feminists who claimed that female sexual objectification is dehumanizing against feminists concerned about legal and social efforts to control female sexuality.  Over a decade of research now shows that radical feminists were right to be highly concerned.

The end of the “sex wars” gave rise to so-called third wave feminism that generally celebrates women’s sexual objectification as a form of female empowerment.  It also enabled a new era of sexual objectification, characterized by greater exposure to advertising in general, and increased sexual explicitness in advertising, magazines, television shows, movies, video games, music videos, television news, and “reality” television.

Getting back to the “sex wars” and how radical feminists were right, women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression, “habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, access to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.  Add to this the countless hours that most girls/women spend primping and competing with one another to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that many are now recognizing the damaging effects of female sexual objectification.

To sum up, widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women.  The following posts in this series provide ideas for navigating new objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.

Magic Mike: Old Sexism in a New Package

Fireworks

Magic Mike is “wildly overperforming” because women and gay men are going to see it in droves.  Thank you Hollywood executives for finally noticing that there’s plenty of money to be made off of heterosexual female and gay male sexuality.  Magic Mike purports to be a movie that caters to het women, and while it does provide a highly unusual public space for women to objectify men, the movie in fact prioritizes male sexual pleasure in tired, sexist ways.

Watching Magic Mike was an experience.  Many of the female theater-goers around me were hollering demands (e.g., “take it all off, baby!”) and grunting approvingly during dance scenes.  The camera unabashedly focused tight on the dancer’s abs and buttocks, requiring viewers to objectify the male actors.  I’ve written elsewhere that living in a culture that objectifies girls/women is highly damaging, and emerging male objectification is a corporate wet dream to sell products by creating new body dissatisfactions/markets.

Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more.  It baffles me that the filmmakers were so effective in conveying these themes in a movie about male strippers that a mostly female audience is eating up.  Have we learned to devalue our own sexual pleasure so thoroughly that the scraps of het female sexual pleasure provided by Magic Mike feel like a full meal?

On Fire

Aside from the questionably empowering viewer interaction with the film, the content of Magic Mike is old-school sexism wrapped in a new package.  It reinforces prevailing notions of masculinity where white men are in control, both economically and sexually, and women are secondary characters to be exploited for money and passed around for male sexual pleasure.

Most of the women in the film are audience members portrayed as easily manipulated cash cows to be exploited for money.  In one scene, the club boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) gets his dancers pumped up before a show by asking them, “Who’s got the cock?  You do.  They don’t.”  Dallas has a running commentary that forcefully rejects the idea that female audience members are sexual subjects in the exchange.

Beyond the foundational theme of male control, many (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers.  Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc.  As a culture, we have deprioritized female sexual pleasure to such a great extent that these acts seem normal in a setting where they don’t make sense.

Face Humping

While the men in Magic Mike strut their sexual stuff with a plot line that constantly reaffirms their sexual subjectivity, the few supporting female roles show women in surprisingly pornified, objectifying ways.  Magic Mike is pretty tame when it comes to male bodies.  Lots of floor and face humping and naked asses, but no penis or even close-up penis tease shots through banana hammocks.  In fact, viewers aren’t exposed to any male body part that they wouldn’t see at Venice Beach.  The same cannot be said for women.

The movie features gratuitous breast scenes galore (yes, the breasts are the scene) and full body (side and back) female nudity. One of the male stripper’s wives is reduced to a pair of breasts that are passed around when her husband encourages another male stripper to fondle them because “she loves it.”  The few recurring female roles in the cast are flat with no character development, including the romantic interest, while the white men in the film enjoy extensive character development.

Other disturbing moments are peppered throughout the movie.  Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) makes a thinly veiled rape innuendo when he’s “teaching” a younger guy how to approach a woman at a club: “Look what she’s wearing. She’s asking to be bothered.”  The movie also asks viewers to laugh at a larger woman who hurts a dancer’s back when he picks her up (see photo and trailer below).  And one of the main characters has a homophobic reaction when he’s grossed out that his sister thinks he’s gay.  Also, this is a story about white men where both women and men of color exist at the margins.  The Latino DJ is a drug dealer (how original), and the two Latino dancers barely talk.

Fat Joke

I was heartened and humored by grandmas and teenage girls asserting their sexual subjectivity in the theater by yelling at the screen.  It is wonderful to see so many women spending money for an experience that purports to cater to our sexual desires.  We want to feel powerful when it comes to our sexuality because we’re constantly robbed of sexual subjectivity through popular culture, pornography, the male gaze, and in the bedroom.  One Sexual Revolution later, men are still twice as likely to achieve orgasm than women during sex.

If Magic Mike is our sexual outlet, we deserve something better.  When women turn around and engage in the same objectification that harms us, is that empowering?  When the men we’re objectifying on the screen are degrading women and prioritizing their own sexual pleasure, and we eroticize this behavior, is that empowering?  And when women eroticize sexual acts that don’t involve the clitoris/orgasm, is that empowering?  I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that Magic Mike would have been a radically different film had it truly been about female sexual pleasure.  It’s high time more women were calling the shots in Hollywood and making mainstream movies that feature female sexual pleasure.

Magic Mike trailer.  To see the sexual double standard, note how the trailer frames male stripping as a “fantasy” life, and imagine this term being applied to female strippers in a Hollywood trailer.

Sexual Objectification, Part 1: What is it?

This is the first part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects.

Around since the 1970s and associated with curmudgeonly second-wave feminists, the phrase “sexual objectification” can inspire eye-rolling. The phenomenon, however, is more rampant than ever in popular culture, and we now know that it causes real harm.

What is sexual objectification?  If objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like an object, then sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure.

How do we know sexual objectification when we see it?  Building on the work of Nussbaum and Langton, I’ve devised the Sex Object Test (SOT) to measure the presence of sexual objectification in images.  I proprose that sexual objectification is present if the answer to any of the following seven questions is “yes”:

1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?
Headless women, for example, make it easy to see her as only a body by erasing the individuality communicated through faces, eyes, and eye contact:

We get the same effect when we show women from behind, with an added layer of sexual violability. American Apparel seems to be a particular fan of this approach:

Covering up her face works well, too:

2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?

The breasts of the woman in this beer ad, for example, are conflated with the cans:

Likewise, the woman in this fashion spread in Details in which a woman becomes a table upon which things are perched. She is reduced to an inanimate object, a useful tool for the assumed heterosexual male viewer:

3) Does the image show a sexualized person as interchangeable?
Interchangeability is a common advertising theme that reinforces the idea that women, like objects, are fungible. And like objects, “more is better,” a market sentiment that erases the worth of individual women.  The image below advertising Mercedes-Benz presents just part of a woman’s body (breasts) as interchangeable and additive:

This image of a set of Victoria’s Secret models, borrowed from a previous SocImages post, has a similar effect. Their hair and skin color varies slightly, but they are also presented as all of a kind:

4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person that can’t consent?

In this “spec” ad for Pepsi (not endorsed by the company), a boy is being given permission by the lifeguard to “save” an unconscious woman:

Likewise, this ad shows an incapacitated woman in a sexualized position with a male protagonist holding her on a leash. It glamorizes the possibility that he has attacked and subdued her:

 5) Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person? 

This ad, with the copy “now open,” sends the message that this woman is for sex.  If she is open for business, then she presumably can be had by anyone.

6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity (something that can be bought and sold)?

By definition, objects can be bought and sold, but some images portray women as everyday commodities.  Conflating women with food is a common sub-category. This PETA ad, for example, shows Pamela Anderson’s sexualized body divided into pieces of meat:

 And this album cover shows a woman being salted and eaten, along with a platter of chicken:

In the ad below for Red Tape shoes, women are literally for sale:

7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

In the two images below, women’s bodies are presented as a particular type of object: a canvas that is marked up or drawn upon.

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The damage caused by widespread female objectification in popular culture is not just theoretical.  We now have over ten years of research showing that living in an objectifying society is highly toxic for girls and women, as described in Part 2 of this series.