From Lara Croft in Tomb Raider to Ruby Summers in Marvel’s X-factor – the common thing that surrounds these women is their super-heroine nature. Yet, what is also ubiquitous through the media is that they are deemed “sexy”, as they often wear tight or revealing clothes, leaving us to wonder why such a pattern exists. While we all understand that Lara Croft had to be ripped to dig up all those graves, why did she need to be stripped down and, ultimately, be sexualized? This will be clear after you read this article.
How Has the Image of Women in the Media Changed?
The image of women has changed tremendously over the years. From the 1970s, where women used to almost always play the secondary role to the man, to our current entertainment landscape where they have transformed into being main characters who are cool, financially independent, and powerful. But to really illustrate the lack of diversity there was in images of women back in the day, Erving Goffman carried out a study in 1979 to find out a study on women in advertisements. He noticed that women were frequently in submissive poses, such as bending their knees and lying down. Moreover, he pointed out that when men used an object in an ad, it was usually used in its functional manner compared to women, who used the object in a distracted and sexual way.
However, the identified qualities have changed over time all thanks to the growing influence of feminist movement due to which today we have different representations of what it means to be a woman.
Essentially, across the advertisement industry, women were shown to be seductive, and thus, be seen as sexual objects. This went in line with a very prominent phrase in the advertising industry, “Sex Sells”. For example, in the 1980s, Calvin Klein built its brand on heavily sexualized ads. In one of them, a 15-year-old Brooke Shields was portrayed in very tight jeans, accompanied with the line, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”. However, the identified qualities have changed over time all thanks to the growing influence of the feminist movement due to which today we have different representations of what it means to be a woman. Yet, the diversified representations still have some nuances.
The Main Causes Behind Such Portrayal
There have been a couple of theories posed about why women were portrayed in such a way. The two theories that are really intertwined are the male gaze and scopophilia. The first to coin such terms, also with the help of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was Laura Malvey in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in 1975. According to her terminology, gazing is an act of “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to controlling and curious gaze”. Additionally, scopophilia explains the visual pleasure people get looking at a physical object, which is derived from the erotic fetish that women are treated as an icon for the enjoyment of men. Ultimately, Laura explains that this power imbalance is caused by the difference in the male/female social status.
A particularly interesting media platform is that of video games that show the strength of the male gaze. Overall, it is a platform where women are one of the least represented. Let’s get into the numbers to fully understand this problematic situation. For example, only 14% of all video game characters are female. But when they do appear in video games, they are often presented in a sexual manner. 41% of female characters appeared in sexually revealing clothing, while 43% were depicted partially or fully nude, compared to 11% and 4% of the male characters, respectively. Yet, what is important to consider is that 71% of the game developers are male and only 29% are other sexes, thus implying the under-representation in the industry itself. This can be explained by the male gaze, as males are often the ones that construct the characters. Besides, it is imperative to notice that most of the video game audience remains male, therefore, the game developers also have the demand to satisfy the needs of the audience.
The Effects of Objectification and Misrepresentation
Even in the 21st century, women who are portrayed as action heroes, whether it be movies or video games, are still hypersexualized.
Thus, we get to the crux. Even in the 21st century, women who are portrayed as action heroes, whether it be movies or video games, are still hypersexualized. There are two main consequences that arise from such phenomena. Firstly, it gives a false image of the woman’s body to men, thus causing a misunderstanding of reality. Secondly, it pressurizes women, who watch these movies or play these games, to self-objectify lowering their body self-esteem, considering how unrealistic the bodies shown actually are.
While such consequences are truly appalling, it is not as one-sided as it now seems to be. For example, in movies such as The Hunger Games and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, leading female characters Katniss and Rey, respectively, have been portrayed as independent and powerful women in a non-sexual manner. They remain exceptional examples in the mainstream media, yet they are great signs of things to come. Hopefully, the diversity of portrayals of women will be more and more representative for all.
Edited by: Pritha Ray