Are females primarily agents in their own lives or objects to fulfill the needs in the lives of others? This question was brought forward very strongly to me recently when my nine-year-old daughter, after having silently observed several billboards and ads in public places featuring semi-clothed women, asked me, “Why are women’s bodies used as posters to sell stuff?” I asked her what she meant, and she said, “It’s like companies put what they want to sell out there and put a woman’s body by it, even if it has nothing to do with her. They use her body to sell their stuff.” This was an astute and disturbing observation, because it points out the fact that often times women are presented in the media as objects rather than as agents. What do I mean by that? Objects are things that serve the purposes of others, while agents are active participants who advance their own agendas. The view of women as objects is very passive and doesn’t have anything to do with what the woman herself wants or needs. The view of women as agents is active and focuses on her own goals.
After a recent Twitter conversation with Revolution of Real Women, I began to consider the contrast between the two videos for sports wear above. The Under Armour video shows female athletes as strong, focused, capable. The second video shows a lot of male athletes, with a few scenes of females thrown in, only one of which includes athletic participation. When you watch the second video after the Under Armour one, it seems strange. With all of the amazing female athletes in the world, and considering the fact that the ad is for athletic gear, why are the females in the second ad primarily not engaged in athletics? These are great examples of women being portrayed as agents vs objects. Cat at FeministLetters wrote a great analysis of this particular commercial on her blog. It was called, “Adidas wants us all in – unless you’re a girl.“
In two recent studies, Dr. Elizabeth Daniels has investigated how sexualized images of female athletes compared to athletes pictured performing in their chosen sport impact both girls and boys. Dr. Daniels wanted to see if adolescent girls and college women would tend to look on themselves more as objects of desire after having viewed the sexualized pictures of female athletes than they did after viewing a female athlete playing a sport. In another study, she wanted to see if adolescent boys focused on different qualities of female athletes depending upon if they were viewing sexualized or performance-oriented photos.
There has been some hope expressed by many that the depiction of female athletes in popular media can help girls and boys see female bodies from a different perspective, less objectification and more agency. Meaning, instead of viewing females primarily as objects of desire, they can be seen has having strong, healthy bodies that are used to accomplish a goal for themselves, such as playing a sport. Research has shown that girls who are actively involved in athletes tend to be less likely to engage in risk sexual behaviors. In my own work, I’ve found that adolescent girls who play sports do tend to have more body confidence and express a stronger ability to see themselves as agents in their physical relationships.
But, a lot of female athletes are also highly sexualized in the media, from the Sports Illustrated’s “International Athletes” section of their swimsuit addition to Danica Patrick’s Go Daddy images. Dr. Daniels says in her 2009 article, “ there is reason to believe sexualized images may be problematic because these representations excise women athletes’ highly fit bodies from an athletic context and repackage them as desirable objects. (pg. 403).” In other words, they take perfect examples of women who are acting as agents, and objectify them. These studies explored the different responses from both boys and girls to these two types of images.
In both studies it was found that adolescent girls and boys who view sexualized images of female athletes are more likely to then reflect objectified views of women. For the girls, this meant that they viewed themselves as objects of another’s desire. For boys, this meant that instead of focusing on the athlete’s abilities and strength, they focused on her as a sexual object.
So how do adults and adolescents deal with this idea of females presented as objects? I would suggest that in order to increase the media literacy of the kids in our lives, we do the following:
- Expose both boys and girls to those images and stories of females that focus on their agency, or ability to make decisions and take actions that are responsible and self-affirming. The Under Armour commercial at the beginning of this post is a great example. For older kids, The Hunger Games Trilogy provides a heroine who, even in the midst of very controlled circumstances, strives to act as an agent in her own life.
- The key to media literacy is teaching kids to critique media rather than just accepting the images. When you see women depicted as agents or objects, point it out to the children and adolescents that are around you. For example, when my daughter asked me why women’s bodies were used to “sell stuff, “ we started talking about how that makes her, as a girl, feel. We also looked for other examples of women acting as agents in ads (few and far between, unfortunately) and talked about which were more realistic.
- Use real life examples of people who you and your child know to contrast the ideas of females as objects vs agents. Is it the goal of most women you know to sit around looking sexy? Probably not, most of us have work to do and things to accomplish. Teaching kids to see the absurdity of certain media depictions can help them learn to recognize and critique them.
- With adolescents and pre-adolescents, you can use this conversation as an opportunity to talk about feelings of objectification. How would it feel to be a person who was valued only for the beauty of their body? What about what’s inside those women who are pictured in the ad? What are their goals in life? This is an especially useful process for boys, as they can often be led by the objectified portrayal of females to view women as objects themselves.
What I’m advocating is a kind of media “show and tell” with both younger children and adolescents. Find age appropriate ways to open up the conversation about what it means to be treated as an object and an agent. As we work to increase the media literacy of all children, these kinds of conversations are vital.
Daniels, E.A. & Wartena, H. (2011). Athlete or Sex Symbol: What Boys Think of Media Representations of Female Athletes. Sex Roles, DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9959-7
Daniels, E.A. (2009). Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes : How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women. Journal of Adolescent Research 24: 399 DOI: 10.1177/0743558409336748