Media's Influence on Sexualisation In North America

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Introduction

Biological determinism refers to the notion that all human behaviour is innate, natural, determined by genes, ethnicity, sex, and other biological factors. It is the idea that free will does not exist; therefore individuals are devoid of responsibility for their actions in which they take part. Biological determinism eliminates the role of society along with culture’s power to influence behaviours and characteristics. Additionally, the media works to construct sed roles by portraying the "ideal" man and woman -- thus resulting in spikes in mental illness.

Biological Determinism

Throughout the 20th Century, the concept of biological determinism was used as a tool to instigate inequality and oppression of women. Now as society sees it, the ideals of biological determinism in history are encoded into social stigmas. It is used to argue that women are inherently nurturing, whereas men are inclined towards adventure, violence, leadership, and sex oriented. Furthermore, not only is there a social divide, many acts of injustice towards women are accepted. The axiom, “boys will be boys” is associated with so-called “masculine” and inherently male characteristics such as sexual tendencies and violence. The perception that men are unpretentiously predisposed to behave in a certain manner from birth rationalizes and justifies toxic masculine characteristics. Proponents of this concept of “boys will be boys” and men’s uncontrollable violent behaviour can persist in situations of rape, sexual assault, and criminal behaviour. This ultimately promotes rape culture and oppresses women further.

Moreover, biological determinism dictates men and women’s sexual behaviours. The implication that men are biologically crafted more sexually oriented conveys the message they are built to seek multiple sex partners, whereas women, are only built to seek one partner. This is the stem of slut-shaming women who have intimate relationships with more than one partner. Another misconception of biological determinism is the presumption that men are intellectually superior to women – thus resulting in greater support networks for males, reinforcing male superiority in society and continuous threat of treating women like property and subhuman.

The entire notion of biological determinism is one of the roots of normalizing sexualization of women today. The presence of sexually objectifying women and young girls in society is global. It is seen in movies, music, advertisements, social media, and more. Most times, sexualization is used to sell products and services. This imbalance of power reinforces the values that women are solely sex objects. Devaluing women and portraying them as objects in the media is extremely demeaning, damaging, and diminishes sexual ideas and expectations of women. Not only does this contribute to a negative view on women in society, it is linked to mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.[1]

Male supremacy is not “natural”, but an unrighteous system of power and oppression – constructed for the reasons of exploitation and discrimination. Women are not “naturally” subordinate, they are socialized to be so.[2]

Historical Context

Femininity

Within the broader history of the field, the paradigm shift of social history between the 1960’s and 1970’s was a very productive and important time. Historians of the post World War Two generation questioned how history had been done up to this point and started to criticize popular narratives within the field.

Social historians focused on social structure rather than political history, assigning a higher importance to how a society was organized politically and in other ways than to the individual decisions of individual actors, while other historians thought to write history from new perspectives, including that of women.

But this was by far not the end of the big paradigm shifts. With the 1980s and the growing influence of cultural history, i.e. the historical perspective centered on the question what frames of reference for producing meaning and explaining the world, past societies had as well as with the growing influence of post-modern philosophy and methods – primarily discourse –, a new set of sub-fields emerged among them gender history.

What gender history does and where its importance lies is, in the words of German historian Achim Landwehr, in that "it makes one wonder about things about nobody usually wonders." Meaning that it expands what categories are seen as subject to the process of historical change. In this case and broadly speaking, what it means to be a woman or man in past societies and times.

To understand the foundations of gender history as well as its importance, it is imperative to understand the distinction at the basis of the field. The category of "sex" meaning to denote the physical attributes of a person and if they are female, male, something in between or neither, the category of "gender" is meant to denote the social context and implications of what it means to be male, female, in-between or neither.

Gender history has subjected gender roles, i.e. what it constitutes to be male of female in a social context, to historical inquiry, rejecting the overcome notion of them being "natural" as they have been portrayed in the past, but rather seeing them, as so many social categories, as subjects to historical change and changing social circumstances. It does so by subjecting historical sources to inquiry as to how gender roles are constructed within them.[3]

Masculinity

The concept of masculinity is apparent as far back as 3000 BC through expected conduct of males enforced by law or ideal masculine gods/heroes. In the Code of Hammurab there exist rules solely aimed towards males, rules such as “if one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” The use of only masculine pronouns implies that it is specifically a males role to accuse and judge. Since the Medieval era, the concept of chivalry has been a staple for masculinity. In literary works such as Beowulf and King Arthur, ideal men are presented to be courageous, respectful of women of all classes and generous.

Sexualization of Men

Masculinity, describing the sexualization of men, defines a socially constructed set of traits, characteristics, and roles that are normally attributed to men; this set forms the socially expected norm of men in a society that if not followed could result in social exclusion. With the emergence of feminist theory in the 1700s, there have been various proposed models of masculinity. Feminist theory being a branch of conflict theory, aims to expose the conflict between gender classes, and specifically expose western society to be male dominant. As such, the relevance of most proposed models is not only owing to the description of male sexualization, but also the implication of said description on other genders. This section will outline some prevalent models of masculinity and identify how these models expose gender inequality, as well as explore some common criticism of Masculine models.

Common criticism of Masculine Models

Generality of a Model

As masculinity is socially constructed, it is self-evident that a model of masculinity is only applicable within the scope of the society it is defined in. As an example, while the common consensus is that western societies are patriarchies, there exist other societies such as the Minangkabau from Indonesia that are matriarchies;[4] clearly western models of masculinity are only relevant western society. Perhaps what is even more irritating is that even within western society, there exist subcultures that contradict the assumption set by a model. An example is the Goth subculture that is prevalent in many western societies; Goth aesthetic subvert beauty standards proposed by hegemonic masculine models and they commonly describe themselves as gender egalitarians.[5] As a result some criticize that models of masculinity are abstract and do not properly describe society, and criticism based on said models are invalid. As a result any valid model of masculinity is normally supported by empirical data on the society in question.

Nature versus nurture argument

The assumption that all masculine traits are socially constructed is often contested; there exists a constant debate on whether certain gender traits are a result of biology or socialization. This debate is relevant as if certain gender traits are natural, the models involving these traits are no longer critiques on society but on nature which is immutable. One common argument against nurtured sexuality is that that biological production of hormones such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone varies depending on ones biological sex; as hormones affect ones behavior, ones biological sex would determine how one acts. However the effect of hormones are still in question, and many sociologists not only argue that social environment can influence behavioral changes commonly attributed to hormones,[6] but also argue that it can actually interfere with the biological production of said hormones.[7] Other arguments that support the natural aspect of masculinity involve studies of genetics, evolution, and biological disorders that directly influence sexual behavior such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia.[8] A common consensus is that while there is a natural difference between the sexes, they are exaggerated by societal influences that result in what we call gender.

Models of Masculinity

Breadwinner Model

Around the mid 19th century, common forms of masculinity are apparent in family structures where fathers are expected to be breadwinners, providing for their family, and mothers are expected to be homemakers, doing house chores and caring for the young. The breadwinner model like most other forms of masculinity, took root in our legal system and ideology. Policies such as maternal and not parental leave forced mothers to care for newborns, and the ideal of males being breadwinners partially resulted in males, to this day, getting paid more than females in the same industry. On top of unfair pay and marginalizing male homemakers the breadwinner model has also been criticized for making “women dependent within marriage cohabitation especially when they have young children.”

Hegemonic Masculinity

Another concept that has become more prevalent in the field of sociology in current times is hegemonic masculinity, a concept was first coined in 1982 in an article by Raewyn Connell. Hegemonic masculinity is a model that aims to validate male’s dominant position in society. The model is built on the concept of hegemony, where one social class has leadership or dominance over all other groups. With regards to hegemonic masculinity, the dominant social class refers to a varying type of masculinity across time, where currently it refers to middle class white heterosexual males. The model highlights the patriarchal nature of western society, and identifies issues such as the Glass Ceiling problem, where females while legally legitimate for socially powerful roles are prevented from obtaining such roles. The model was further evolved to include multiple competing types of masculinity that fill the dominant role, through the introduction of gender hierarchies.

Social Media and Sexualization

In modern society, men and women have been continually sexualized. This is done through many forms of media. Within the 21st century, social media has become the preferred platform in which people enjoy and create content. Different apps have been created for this very purpose, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok, and etc. Though not blatantly obvious, a large amount of content spanning these platforms have continued to perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes.

TikTok

Tiktok (video-sharing platform) has quickly become one of the most used apps worldwide with up to 800 Million users within the year of 2020. Due to the app’s popularity, the demographic of users reaches from young children to elderly adults. Within this demographic, impressionable teenagers (known as Generation Z[9]) are most likely known for their influence within the app.

The most followed female TikTokers on the app are Charlie D’Amelio, Addison Rae, Bella Poarch, and Loren Gray. Although the content that these influencers produce is extremely common on the app (dancing, singing, etc.), a large majority of their success has been accredited to their beauty or image. Shaofu Wang conducted a study to analyze what aspects garnered more likes within a video. Some significant factors that showed significant influence in likes were “breast, stance, and facial expression” as well as half body or full body shots[10]. Wang discusses how these aspects play into how women create their “personal brands” online, whether they do this consciously or not.

It is evident that body image is heavily emphasised on TikTok with female creators. An example of a desirable body type that has been displayed on the platform is the hourglass shaped body. This indicates a large chest and hips as well as a significantly smaller waist. Within the 21st century, this body type has become popularised with the influence of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Many have found that this body type is extremely unrealistic for the average woman and that it has become an unhealthy expectation for young women[11]. This is just one example of how women have been sexualized and how their bodies and looks are what audiences focus on.

On the contrary, the most followed male TikTokers on the app are Zach King, Spencer Knight, and Will Smith. There is a large contrast between the content between these male creators and the female creators previously mentioned. The content that they produce is more broad, from filmmaking to beatboxing. There is a larger emphasis on the skill and talents they possess rather than their appearances. Although, there are still a large number of male TikTokers that have a following purely based on their looks as well it is still less common.

Trends are a large part of TikTok’s popularity, with new trends appearing almost daily[12]. However, a lot of these trends become problematic once they reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. There have been many trends for women that have reinforced this type of sexualization. For example The Earphone Trend (where women wrapped earphones around their waists in order to determine whether they were “small enough”), The Ice Cube Trend (where women would put ice cubes in their vaginas in order to make them “tighter”), and The “What I Eat In A Day” Trend (where many women showcase what they eat in a day, usually being very little amount of food). Again, there is a large emphasis on their bodies. Women are seen as objects and female creators who create other types of content do not generate as much exposure. On the other hand, although more rare, men also have expectations for what people now perceive as attractive. This can be seen through trends such as The Rasputin Trend (where men show off their muscular bodies to a song), and the ongoing trend in which women express their liking for “skinny, tall, and white men”. This sets the standard for masculinity, where they are expected to either be large and muscular or the complete opposite. There is no room for anything in between.

Instagram

One way in which Instagram users encourage beauty standards for men and women is through photoshopping the images they post. There have been multiple accounts of celebrities photoshopping their bodies in order to look smooth, skinnier/more muscular, and what people consider to be “perfect”. Not only do celebrities do this but so do fitness influencers. It has become an ongoing problem as fitness influencers are posting in order to promote their “healthy lifestyle” and show off the results of their “hard work” through their bodies. This “hard work” has revealed to be, on several occasions, heavily touched up. Many female fitness influencers will photoshop their appearance in order to appear with a flat stomach and large hips. It pushes the narrative that only women who are skinny but curvy are attractive[13]. This is the same with male influencers as well, as they photoshop their muscles to be larger[14]. On both accounts, these behaviours reinforce unrealistic beauty standards that people have set for both men and women around the world.

The distinction between men and women becomes even clearer when looking at product placements from fitness influencers[15]. The same idea is reinforced as many female influencers are promoting products such as weight loss pills or appetite suppressants (e.g. Khloe Kardashian promoting appetite suppressant lollipops). Whereas male influencers are more likely to be selling muscle building supplements (in the forms of powders, drinks, etc.) It becomes clear the society has set a standard for what is considered to be feminine (being small yet having certain accentuated features) and masculine (large and muscular)[16].

Mental Illness Associated with the Media's Influence

The objectification and sexualization of women can and has led to mental and physical health complications in individuals such as eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.[17]

The objectification theory model of eating disorders starts with the premise that women are sexually objectified much more than men. Because of the sexualized depictions of women’s bodies creates a disconnect between one’s own body and their sense of self. The theory serves as an argument that women are socialized to internalize others perceptions of them through strictly physical merits. This is called self-objectification, which is a chronic monitoring of one’s own appearance. This takes up time and resources, and has several cognitive, emotional, and motivational consequences. Consequences such as a high amount of shame, anxiety and disgust at one’s own body and self for not meeting the standards set in place for women’s bodies. Disordered eating may be predicted to occur within this model via two routes. First, like dieting, using cosmetics, or other body-altering activities, eating disorders may be a direct consequence of self-objectification itself.[18][19]

In the USA alone, there are roughly twenty-four million identified cases of eating disorders. About 90% of those cases are women.[20]

Beauty standards enforced by society and one’s environment can lead to obsession of the body. Women’s bodies are scrutinized and judged, and effectively punished when they do not meet the awfully specific criteria considered to be the “ideal” body. The internalization of a person’s worth being linked to their attractiveness has consequences on their mental health during development. This includes eating disorders. Shame can also be a contributing factor that leads to obsessive self-monitoring. Such as the motivation to “disappear” by becoming thinner and smaller, or not eating foods in public that might be considered phallic. This shame is often reinforced by the sexualization and objectification of bodies by strangers. Such as cat calling and street harassment. It’s yet another motivation for disordered eating, with the hopes that the street harassment may stop, and others will be unable to comment on one’s body, if you have complete control over it and how it looks.

Studies also found that survivors of sexual abuse or assault are more prone to disordered eating. Roughly fifty-three percent of sexual assault survivors develop an eating disorder.[21]

Depression and anxiety are other negative results of sexual objectification, as the previously discussed body obsession and monitoring take up a lot of time and energy in a person. The standards set in place also cause low self-esteem and negative thinking towards one’s own body for not being able to live up to those standards. Shame, anxiety, and depression. According to objectification theory, the internalization of sexual objectification leads to constant self-monitoring, creating a state of self-consciousness that breeds feelings of shame and anxiety. Newer studies support this assertion, finding that self-objectification is in fact correlated with higher rates of body shame and appearance anxiety. Furthermore, recent research also shows that sexual objectification in the form of stranger harassment can be a source of anxiety if it inflames underlying fears of victimization and rape. The feelings of shame and anxiety resulting from self-objectification have been found to subsequently lead to depression. Prolonged exposure to sexual objectification may also contribute to insidious trauma which is marked by psychological trauma symptoms that occur due to lifelong exposure to microaggressions, as opposed to one large trauma. Some of the psychological symptoms found to be associated with the trauma of sexual objectification include anxiety and depression.[22]

References

  1. American Psychological Association. (2007, February 19). Sexualization of girls is linked to common mental health problems in girls and women [Press release]. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2007/02/sexualization
  2. Kellie, D. J., Blake, K. R., & Brooks, R. C. (2019). What drives female objectification? An investigation of appearance-based interpersonal perceptions and the objectification of women. PloS one, 14(8), e0221388. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221388
  3. Zosuls, K. M., Miller, C. F., Ruble, D. N., Martin, C. L., & Fabes, R. A. (2011). Gender Development Research in Sex Roles: Historical Trends and Future Directions. Sex roles, 64(11-12), 826–842. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9902-3
  4. Bhanbhro, Sadiq. "Indonesia's Minangkabau culture promotes empowered Muslim women". The Conversation.
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  6. Berenbaum, Sheri (2018). "Gendered Peer Involvement in Girls with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: Effects of Prenatal Androgens, Gendered Activities, and Gender Cognitions". Archives of Sexual Behavior.
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  9. Seemiller, C. & Grace, M. (2019). Generation Z: A Century in the Making. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.4324/9780429442476
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  12. Haenlein, M., Anadol, E., Farnsworth, T., Hugo, H., Hunichen, J., & Welte, D. (2020). Navigating the New Era of Influencer Marketing: How to be Successful on Instagram, TikTok, & Co. California Management Review, 63(1), 5-25. https://doi.org/10.1177/0008125620958166
  13. Fardouly, J., Willburger, B. K., & Vartanian, L. R. (2018). Instagram Use and Young Women’s Body Image Concerns and Self-Objectification: Testing Mediational Pathways. New Media & Society, 20(4), 1380-1395. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817694499
  14. Chatzopoulou, E., Filieri, R., & Dogruyol, S. A. (2020). Instagram and Body Image: Motivation to Conform to the “Instabod” and Consequences on Young Male Wellbeing. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 54(4), 1270-1297. https://doi.org/10.1111/joca.12329
  15. Neal, M. (2017). Instagram Influencers: The Effects of Sponsorship on Follower Engagement With Fitness Instagram Celebrities. Rochester Institute of Technology: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  16. Macionis, J. J., Benoit, C. M., & Jansson, S. M. (2020). Society: The Basics (7th Canadian ed.). Prentice Hall.
  17. Fox, Ralston, Cooper, Jesse, Rachel A, Cody K. (October 2 2014). "Sexualized Avatars Lead to Women's Self-Objectification and Acceptance of Rape Myths". Psychology of Women Quarterly. Check date values in: |date= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. Lauren M. Schaefer and J. Kevin Thompson, Self-Objectification and Disordered Eating: A Meta-Analysis, Published March 8 2018 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6002885/
  19. Roberts, Tomi-Ann. "Objectification Theory Model of Eating Disorders".
  20. Fabello, Melissa (June 3rd, 2020). "Here Are 3 Ways Sexual Objectification and Eating Disorders Interact". Healthline. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  21. Tylka, Hill, Tracy L, Melanie S (December 2004). "Objectification Theory as It Relates to Disordered Eating Among College Women" (PDF). Sex Roles. 51.
  22. Corcoran, Mary Murphy. "THE IMPACT OF EATING DISORDERS ON SEXUAL FUNCTIONING IN WOMEN".