In a round of Overrated/Underrated over on Feministing, I kept seeing “analysis of sexism in the media” pop up on the overrated lists. “Yes, we know it exists already,” one commenter said. The lists are bringing up a lot of interesting observations about what issues people think get a disproportionate amount of attention within feminism and which they feel should be getting more attention, and I don’t take issue with that; there are so many different facets of the movement that demand our attention and there’s bound to be tension about which we should prioritize. (Incidentally, my own “overrated” list thus far: scifi; Christian Bale; pastries; public radio; soft drinks; mingling at parties; seafood; outing moral hypocrites; Citizen Kane; Christianity; cute shoes.)
I talk about media and pop culture because it’s what I’m good at talking about, being a big tv and movie nerd trained in literary analysis, and I think it’s important because I believe that the “big” issues–violence against women, sexual assault, economic discrimination, lack of reproductive rights–happen because we live in a culture that devalues women. The issues won’t change without the culture changing, and pop culture teaches us what to think about the world before we even realize it’s happening. And with all respect to the abovementioned commenter, who probably means “we” as the feminist community: as someone who teaches eighteen-year-olds for a living, they don’t know it exists already. They really, really don’t. And that’s a big problem. [Edited to add: I spoke too broadly there, and I apologize; I am not equating young adults as a whole, who necessarily often go through a rough learning period when on their own for the first time, with young progressives and feminists who, in my experience, are much more aware of the world around them. I appreciate commenter Fizzygood calling me on it; please see my reply to her.]
A friend and I (::waves to Victoria::) were discussing a billboard downtown the other day, whether or not it was sexist. It’s not always easy to tell; the thing about sexism in the media is that it’s so insidious that some times it’s more noticeable than others. I mean, sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s like this:
Because raping and murdering women is fashionable! Or something.
Then this morning I saw this commercial:
It’s probably the third or fourth time I’d seen it. I knew it annoyed me, both in the way that it plays into diet culture and the way that it relies on that dumbass “husband cowering before the wife’s rage when he dares mention weight” trope. But with that last line–because it tastes good–suddenly a whole other layer of dumbassery became apparent to me.
I wish I could track down the original conversations on feminist blogs, but there was a lot of conversation surrounding this NYT piece a couple years ago:
Red meat sent a message that she was “unpretentious and down to earth and unneurotic,” she said, “that I’m not obsessed with my weight even though I’m thin, and I don’t have any food issues.” She added, “In terms of the burgers, it said I’m a cheap date, low maintenance.”
Salad, it seems, is out. Gusto, medium rare, is in.
In an earlier era, conventional dating wisdom for women was to eat something at home alone before a date, and then in company order a light dinner to portray oneself as dainty and ladylike. For some women, that is still the practice. “It’s better not to have a jalapeño fajita plate, especially on the first date,” said Andrea Bey, 28, who sells video surveillance equipment in Irving, Tex., and describes herself as “curvy.” “You don’t want to be labeled as ‘princess gassy’ on the first date.”
But others, especially those who are thin, say ordering a salad displays an unappealing mousiness.
“It seems wimpy, insipid, childish,” said Michelle Heller, 34, a copy editor at TV Guide. “I don’t want to be considered vapid and uninteresting.”
“Being a vegetarian puts you at a disadvantage,” Ms. Crosley said. “You’re in the most basic category of finicky. Even women who order chicken, it isn’t enough.” She said she has thought of ordering shots of Jägermeister, famous for its frat boy associations, to prove that she is “a guy’s girl.”
“Everyone wants to be the girl who drinks the beer and eats the steak and looks like Kate Hudson,” Ms. Crosley, 28, said.
Of course, there are always those rare women who order what they want and to heck with what a man might think.
Why hast thou forsaken me?
The ideal woman is one who looks like she lives on salad… without being a finicky bitch who acts like she lives on salad. That’s who Cheerios, that wholesome, healthy breakfast of my hippie childhood, is selling their multigrain Cheerios to. The woman in the commercial and the voiceover assure us that she’s not interested in her weight. Maybe she’s trying to get enough whole grain; maybe she likes the taste (what? Those of us with wholesome hippie childhoods think that kind of stuff tastes good). The commercial goes out of its way to assure us that it’s not talking about weight, that it doesn’t think you should be worried about your weight–oh, but on the off chance you’re curious, it’s only 110 calories per serving. You know. In case you were wondering. Not that you should be worried about it.
Because that’s the thing about trying to play patriarchy’s game–you cannot win. The slut/prude catch-22 is the most well-known one, but there are so many more. The ideal woman is expected to eat calories without her body actually processing them. Because there is no way for you to win.
And even though I know all this, it took me three or four times seeing that commercial before I realized what it was really saying to me. Because it seeps in at all corners. And that’s why analyzing sexism in the media is important.