Thursday, December 17, 2009

Week 12 WebCT - Sex and the City

This week's presentation of Sex and the City was quite enjoyable. As I
mentioned last week, I have gained a new appreciation for the show after
what I've seen in class and what I watched on my own in lieu of the
youtube assignment.

I must say that the show does have a lot more depth to it than I would
have expected at first. As was mentioned in class, the four main women
protagonists seem to represent some aspect of the modern woman. There
is some aspect of every character that, I feel, any woman could relate
to, and the topics discussed in each episode I've seen thus far approach
subject areas that are at times considered taboo (or at the very least
indecent for discussing in public), but more often concern the daily
struggles of the modern working woman. While these four women do belong
to the upper class and thus have problems that vary from the show's
typical audience, I feel they still resonate with women of lower
classes, especially in terms of relationships (which, of course, the
show centers around).

Week 7 WebCT - The Endless Cycle

To sum up Ellis's The Rules of Attraction, I think the quote from Tim
O'Brien's Going After Cacciato says it best:

"The facts even when beaded on a chain, still did not have real order.
Events did not flow. The facts were separate and haphazard and random
even as they happened, episodic, broken, no smooth transitions, no sense
of events unfolding from prior events--"

Though as a reader I could make sense of events for the most part as I
was reading, there is a sense that these events do not matter. They are
doomed to repeat themselves, if not in the exact same way with the exact
same people, then with different people in a slightly different context
somewhere down the line. The characters in Ellis's novel do not seem to
learn from their mistakes, and since they are all chasing or obsessing
after some unattainable ideal to fill the empty void in their respective
lives, it can be assumed that the lives of these characters will be
forever stuck in this cycle of relationships (if one can call them
relationships) gone bad and horribly wrong, with little to no happiness
along the way.

Week 6 WebCT - Shakespeare/Waldman

Having spent the past week paying attention to sexist language for
an assignment in a different class, I could not help but notice that
Katherina's monologue in The Taming of the Shrew is filled with sexist
ideas and language, which no doubt stem from the patriarchal society
Katherina lives in. Barker's text cites McLuskie (p. 309) as saying
that the play treats "women as commodities within a pattern of luxury
consumption and aristocratic lifestyle." If that is not sexist and
degrading, I don't know what is.
From Katherina's monologue in its textual form, it is difficult to
discern whether Katherina is succumbing to the powers of the patriarchy
or stating the monologue as a sarcastic expression of her opinions. I
think it would be interesting to see how an actress interpreted this
text. Getting back to Barker's text now, The Taming of the Shrew is yet
another example of images of women in the media (yes, literature is
media). As to which image Katherina represents, she's not quite the imp
as she does not seem overly rebellious (though I feel there is a slight
rebellious undertone to her monologue), she is not quite the good wife
because she doesn't exactly seem to enjoy her position in domestication,
she's not the harpy because for all her words she is not truly
aggressive, and she's not the manipulative bitch. She quite easily
could be the victim, because she obviously is a victim of male
oppression, but I'd argue she is the decoy if anything - though she
seems to be the victim, her monologue (in my reading of it) seems to
express some sort of irony or sarcasm - as if she desperately wants out
of the situation. The other images Barker presents us with (siren,
courtesan, witch, matriarch) seem too far from Katherina's character to
even consider based on this monologue.
According to Barker, "the marginality or subordination of women is
understood as a constitutive effect of representation realized or
resisted by living persons" (p. 310). As I understand this, what Barker
is telling us is that images such as the ones mentioned above lead to
the marginality and/or subordination of women. If anything I would
certainly say that such images enforce it.

Moving on to the Feminafesto by Anne Waldman. It was the second to
last sentence of this piece, "Turn the language body upsidedown"
(Waldman), that drew my attention back to when we were discussing
Saussure's ideas of signs and semiotics. As Barker tells us, these
ideas were also explored by Julia Kristeva (p. 296). The very language
of our culture is a method of social control which (whether
intentionally or not) more often than not puts women in a subordinate
position to men. If one is to truly start changing this social order,
one needs to influence the language of the culture - turn it
"upsidedown" as Waldman suggests. As mentioned before, I spent the last
week recording sexist language examples from my daily life for another
class. Though we may not realize it, many parts of our language are
intrinsically sexist and patriarchal. The very word "woman" stems from
"man," truly making women the "'second sex'" (p. 297).
Julia Kristeva's ideas (as presented by Barker) seem to be quite
closely aligned with Waldman's ideas. Waldman envisions a culture where
"the body [is] an extension of energy, that we are not defined by our
sexual positions as men or women in bed or on the page" while "Kristeva
advocates a positions in which the dichotomy man/woman belongs to
metaphysics" (p. 297). While I don't think our culture can come to such
a change within my lifetime, I do believe that our culture is slowly
shifting closer to this direction. Though women are still subordinate
to men in many instances, they are closer to being equal to men now than
ever before. Heck even gays and lesbians are beginning to be
recognized. Maybe our culture's concepts of gender will get a makeover.

Week 4 WebCT - Rom Com Chick Flicks

I'll admit it: I love a good chick flick. Yes, the plot line is as predictable as ever, yes,
my girl friends and I all know who will end up with who within the first 5 minutes of the
film, yet each film has its own subtle differences that bring something new to the table
to make it interesting and worth watching. And there is just something fun about
watching the whole boy-meets-girl plotline play itself out.

However, I also hate chick flicks. I hate them because once my friends and I leave
the theater, pretty soon we're all talking about how we wish we had boyfriends, or how
we wish our relationships were better, or how much thinner we wish we were, etc. While
we may have been laughing all along the way while we were watching the movie, we
suddenly come out of it in a depressed state.

I think our book (Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre) correctly put it when
the author quoted Kate on page 14: "that whole love thing is just a grown-up version
of Santa Claus, just a myth we've been fed since childhood." Only with this myth, no
one seems willing to wake us up to the reality of the world because our consumer
culture depends too heavily upon it. As the book's author puts it (also on page 14),
society doesn't want us to wake up from this fantasy because "the self-dissatisfaction
such films breed can create a vulnerable space which advertisers have been only too
quick to target." A girl coming away from a romcom feeling sorry for herself because
she hasn't met "the one" is exactly what these companies want - someone vulnerable
enough and so wrapped in self-pity that she'll join a gym, buy more beauty products,
and spend more on clothing and perfume in some vain hope that one of those items
will bring her closer to true love.

Disgusting, isn't it?

However I do think the genre is beginning to remake itself. I've started to see a few
more films pop up where the girl and the guy do not end up together in the long run,
("All About Steve" for example, or "500 Days of Summer") but I think it is going to
take a revolution of sorts before anyone starts seeing films that portray the troubles
with relationships alongside the good stuff (because let's face it, there is some good
stuff). While it is fun to live in the fantasy for a few hours, we need a balance
between the reality and the fantasy if we want to foster healthy relationships.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Week 3 WebCT - The Nature of Relationships

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I feel that there would be no play if not for
the complexities of the characters' relationships. Not just what is
obvious about their relationships, but more specifically what is hidden
and left somewhat ambiguous.

This got me thinking back to our discussions about culture. Take
Brick's relationship with Skipper for example. Why can't their
relationship simply be one of great friendship? Why must there be
something romantic about their relationship? I'm not entirely sure
about how things would have been interpreted in that time period, but it
would seem that with the way our society is progressing today it is (or
might) become harder for people of the same sex to develop close
friendships with each other without someone claiming the two are
homosexual. Think about it: in today's culture, the idea of being gay
is becoming more widely acceptable (though still looked down upon in a
number of circles). Same-sex couples are appearing in tv shows and
movies, more people are "coming out" so to speak...
But what might this do to the culture? Will it still be possible for
guys to have best guy friends? or for girls to have best girl friends?
Is it possible now? (I'm not just talking about normal friendships
here - I'm talking about deep, close relationships.)

Week 1 WebCT - Gamer Culture

In class this week someone mentioned the gamer culture as an example of
a culture from below, but nowadays this seems to be almost a culture
from above.

For example, there is an online mini-series called "The Guild" which
follows a group of gamers who form a team on World of Warcraft (an
online game).

A step above that, there is the television series "Big Bang Theory"
which often has gaming as a subplot (or in some episodes the center
conflict of the plot).

Also, has anyone noticed how many gamer cartoons there are on television
these days? While it may not be video games or computer games, the
various card game shows are now more of a culture from above than a
culture from below. Take television shows like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, or
Byakugon, for example. These shows use the the card game as the center
of their plot, then create tons of merchandise, influencing what kids
choose to play, wear, etc.

Moving a small step away from the media, many retailers now sell
t-shirts with sayings like "Get a life" with an image of a mushroom head
from the Mario video game, or "Know your roots" with an image of the
very first video game controller.

Video games used to be a culture from below, with mostly young boys
playing the games, but now it has become more and more popular with
games geared toward boys, girls, and even adults. The elderly are even
getting in on it with the Nintendo DS game Brain Age, which is said to
increase brain power.

The Ideal Woman - An Impossible Feat

When we look at this ad we laugh because these are all things we expect women to say/think about themselves. My friend and I had just changed into our swim suits before heading out to the pool to do a few laps when my friend, looking at her reflection in the mirror, asked me, “Oh gosh! Is that how I really look?” It’s the same trap of “Does this dress make me look fat?” No one wants to answer the question at all for fear they might say the wrong thing. Yet instead of trying to figure out how we should answer, we should be considering why a woman is even asking these questions at all. Why do so many women feel insecure about their own bodies? Why the obsession with looking perfect?

The truth is, there are many factors that contribute to women’s obsession with perfection, but all of it boils down to one thing: our culture. We live in a culture where thin is “in” and fat is anything but “phat”; a culture where the media constantly reinforces the unattainable ideal woman as the standard of beauty. This creates many problems for women and girls such as unhealthy dieting, eating disorders, and plastic surgery. The media also perpetuates the notion that women should be seen as sexual objects, offering a limited, hypersexualized view of how women should look which impacts girls and women as well as boys and men, and may just be responsible for the sexual activity of teens. This essay will explore all of this in more detail.

When a woman is feeling bad about her body she may buy a new outfit, or perhaps some new makeup to see if that helps. But many of them, like Miranda from Sex and the City in the episode “Cover Girl” (shown below), will go on a diet.

According to an article by the Media Awareness Network, “women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet aids” in hopes that one of these products will make them feel good about the way they look (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Some women will go to even greater lengths to alter their weight. Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc., an American research group, says that “one out of every four college-aged women uses unhealthy methods of weight control – including fasting, skipping meals, excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Though these methods may begin as a way to lose weight in a short period of time, many of these habits can escalate into eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. According to Real magazine, “more than 10 million females suffer from eating disorders” compared to 1 million males (Real). 95% of people with anorexia are female, 80% of people with bulimia are female, and 60% of those who binge eat are female (Real). Surprise, surprise: women are more greatly impacted by eating disorders. According to Barker, “slenderness is a contemporary ideal for female attractiveness so […] girls and women are culturally more prone to eating disorders than […] men” (Barker 310). But this is not even the most disturbing part.

What is even more disturbing than all these statistics is that this need to be thin in order to be perfect is pervading the minds of younger and younger girls. The Canadian Women’s Health Network says that “weight control measures are now being taken by girls as young as 5 and 6” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). 5- and 6-year-olds! The 2006 study “Appearance Culture in Nine- to 12-Year-Old Girls: Media and Peer Influences on Body Dissatisfaction” shows that “nearly half of all preadolescent girls wish to be thinner, and as a result have engaged in a diet or are aware of the concept of dieting” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). A similar study conducted by Teen magazine in 2003 found that “50 to 70 percent of normal weight girls believe they are overweight” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Now these children could be learning about diets and weight control from their mothers who may be dieting, or perhaps they’ve learned from their friends or older siblings or cousins, but where did those girls and women learn this from?

While many factors are involved in shaping women’s perceptions of their own bodies, none is more prevalent than the media. Everywhere you go, billboards, magazines, movies, commercials, and television shows boast images of western culture’s ideal woman. According to the GDIGM study on gender stereotypes in popular films between 1990 and 2006, “females were nearly three times as likely as males […] to be shown with a thin figure” (Smith). I argue that similar statistics exist within television. Take a look at these women:

Our culture’s ideal woman is tall, thin, curvy (but not too curvy), and most of the time, if the ad or photo is in print, she is not real, or at least not entirely. Her face has been airbrushed so she has no visible pores, her neck has been lengthened, her waist has been made two sizes smaller, and if she did not already have breast implants, she has them now thanks to the wonders of technology. Remember this photo?

Kiera Knightly made some noise about the digital enhancement in this photo a few years back. Though she has naturally smaller breasts, the people in charge of promotion for the film decided that a chestier Kiera Knightly would draw in more viewers. (Click here to see for yourself how drastically a photo can be altered.)

Real or not, though, these images of the ideal woman have some serious consequences for us real women. After television (more specifically western television) was introduced to people in Fiji, a “sharp rise in indicators of disordered eating, such as induced vomiting,” occurred among teenage Fijian girls (Reynolds). Fijians have historically “preferred robust body shapes, reflecting the importance placed on generous feeding and voracious eating,” but things have changed since western television was introduced in the 1990s (Reynolds). Girls saw the slim bodies of actresses and models on television and wanted their “bodies to become like that,” so they began using different methods to lose weight (Reynolds). Little do they realize the tortures they will now endure in their quest for the “perfect” body. They’ll never realize how good they had it not being exposed to western media culture until it is too late.

For those of us who have lived all our lives with this western media culture, we are so immersed in these media images that many of us do not even notice it. But “research indicates that exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). In 2002, Australian researchers found that girls who were exposed to such images “lost self-confidence and became more dissatisfied with their own bodies. Girls who spent the most time and effort on their appearance suffered the greatest loss in confidence” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Because the images of women presented by the media offer a very rigid and unattainable idea of beauty, only a small percentage of women can fit within that mold (and even then it is an unnatural fit helped along by extreme dieting and plastic surgery). This means that the large majority of women are already being set up to fail in their attempts to attain perfection.

This is exactly what media advertisers want. They want women who will feel bad enough about their bodies to want to change them by purchasing products, but they don’t want women to stop buying products. No, they want the continued revenue. So while any normal person would say “how awful!” upon hearing that “90% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance in some way,” the fashion and beauty industries think about all the potential buyers (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Forget social responsibility. It’s all about the profit.
Diets (healthy or unhealthy) are not the only way women try to alter their appearance to match that of our culture’s ideal woman. In recent years, plastic surgery has become the new quick fix. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, “since 1997, there has been over 162 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures” (ASAPS Statistics). 681,000 cosmetic procedures were done in 1989, compared to 10 million procedures last year (Bordo 1100; ASAPS Statistics). In 2008, “women had over 9.3 million cosmetic procedures, almost 92% percent of the total” (ASAPS Statistics).

Among cosmetic procedures, breast augmentation is the most popular of the surgical procedures according to ASAPS (ASAPS Statistics). Samantha from Sex and the City considered it herself in the episode “The Ick Factor” (shown below).

But plastic surgery has its own array of scary consequences. According to the Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, women with breast implants, for example, experience “pain, permanently deformed skin if [the] implant[s] [are] removed, loss of sensation in [their] breast[s], [and] interference with [the] early detection of a tumor” (What’s the Problem? project citing stuff). There is also a potential link between breast implants and serious auto-immune disorders (What’s the Problem?). However, even with all these potential risks, according to the ASAPS, breast augmentation is the most popular surgical cosmetic procedure for women as a whole, and it is also the most popular surgical cosmetic procedure among those aged 19-34; a total of 355,671 breast augmentation surgeries were performed in 2008 ( ASAPS Statistics).

As if that weren’t shocking enough, research also shows that large numbers of teens are also going in for plastic surgery. According to, “all plastic surgeries among teens increased by almost 50% from 1996-1998” (What’s the Problem?). While more recent ASAPS statistics show only slight increases or decreases in cosmetic procedures among teens, there were 160,283 cosmetic procedures performed on teens (18 and younger) in 2008 (ASAPS Statistics). Even though the FDA recommends that cosmetic breast augmentation be restricted to women age 18 and older, 4,108 breast augmentation procedures were performed on women 18 and under, and 50.3% of these were performed for purely cosmetic reasons (ASAPS Statistics). I’ve even heard of girls who for their sweet 16 or their 18th birthday go to get new boobs instead of getting a car. What sort of a culture do we live in if parents will buy their daughters new boobs? A culture obsessed with the ideal woman with Barbie-like proportions, or so it would seem.

Our culture’s ideal woman is not just thin and big breasted, but hypersexual. In fact you would be hard pressed to find an image of a woman that was not sexualized in some way. The GDIGM analysis of popular films found that “females were over five times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, which was defined as attire that enhances, exaggerates, or calls attention to any part of the body from neck to knees” (Smith). In this same study, “two types of females […] frequent[ed] film[s]: the traditional and the hypersexual” (Smith). According to Barker, such “representations of gender in advertising, which depict women as housewives or sexy bodies alone, reduce [women] to those categories” (Barker 10). This Desperate Housewives image attempts to do both:

Each day women and girls are bombarded with hypersexual images of what society dictates as the norm. According to the Media Awareness Network, “the pressure put on women through ads, television, film, and new media to be sexually attractive – and sexually active – is profound” (Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Though the television series Sex and the City seems to be all about promoting women’s sexuality and encouraging women to be sexually active, it still makes commentary on the fact that women are so sexualized by the media. In the opening clip from the episode “Cover Girl” (below), Carrie talks with the publishers for her book. Though the book is about sex, the cover mock-up with Carrie, naked, hailing a taxi on a busy city street is not the kind of image she wants to portray of herself, even if it is the way the publishers (the media) want to portray her (“Sex sells!”).

“Sex sells” is one of the scary truths about the media today, but it isn’t restricted to adult women. Young girls are no longer just cute and innocent little girls who like to have fun; they’re being eroticized and sexualized by the media – especially in advertisements, in which girls’ “vulnerable poses mimic the visual images common in pornographic media” ( Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). “This is a disturbing trend given that these stereotypes make up most of the representations of [girls] which girls […] see in the media” ( Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Such a limiting assortment of images leaves girls with one vision of themselves, and it is not beneficial. The American Psychological Association’s report on the Sexualization of Girls lists a number of cognitive, emotional, mental, and physical consequences for girls exposed to sexualized images. According to the report, “sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust” ( Report of the APA Task Force p.3). Evidence from the report also “links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood” (Report of the APA Task Force p.3). This ad, humorous and disturbing, is trying to combat the hypersexualization of young girls and sexual abuse:

The proliferation of images of the ideal woman has an effect on men and boys as well. As stated by Michael Levine and Hara Estroff Marano in their article “Why I Hate Beauty,” the contrast effect (whereby one person/thing will appear more or less attractive based on the people/things surrounding it) is making love life difficult for men. “Exposure to extreme beauty [in the media] is ruining [men’s] capacity to love the ordinarily beautiful women of the real world, women who are more likely to meet [men’s] needs for deep connection and partnership of the soul” (Levine ). When men are presented with the media’s image of the ideal woman over and over again, men become dissatisfied with the real women they are with (or could be with). This can lead to some serious relationship issues.

Many times these sexual images of women also depict women in vulnerable poses. Occasionally their makeup is done in a way that mimics injuries from abuse, making the woman the victim of violence, as in this ad:

The copy for this ad reads: “Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head ‘no,’” implying, as Jean Kilbourne puts it, “he’ll understand that you don’t really mean it and he can respond to the scent like any other animal” ( Media Portrayals of Girls and Women). Not only does this tell women that it is “okay” if not “normal” to be victimized and sexually consumed like commodities, but it also tells men that this is what is expected of them. This tells men that violence toward women is “okay” and “normal,” not a crime.

This same idea applies to the media’s “directions” for women about how to catch and keep a man. Every magazine has an article about it; movies, television, and books have plots that circle around it. You want to know why women are obsessed with their looks? Well one big influence is boys, boys, boys. The media tells women that if they are pretty enough, men will flock to them. We can see this being reinforced when Miranda finally loses that baby weight from the episode “Cover Girl” and is able to fit into her skinny jeans once again in the episode “The Post-it Always Sticks Twice” (below).

As you can see, it is only once Miranda loses weight and fits into those skinny jeans that she attracts the male gaze (and on multiple occasions throughout the episode). Though she likely draws this attention to herself because she feels more confident than she did before, this is bypassed in the episode. After all, if not for those skinny jeans she would not have had that confidence.

Media’s insistence that women need to catch and please their man may be responsible for the increase in sexually active teens. Television shows, and even the commercial previews for these shows, have more sexual content today than ever before. According to the Girls, Women + Media Project, “teens themselves say that TV, as well as movies and other media, are some of their leading sources of information about sex and sexuality” (What’s the Problem?). Could television and movies be responsible for encouraging teens to become sexually active? According to Sex on TV 4, yes. The study says that parents and teens agree that “sexual content on TV influences the sexual behavior of young people” (Sex on TV 4). Going beyond personal opinion, a longitudinal study conducted by the RAND Corporation “found that those [teens] who were heavy viewers of sexual content were twice as likely to initiate sexual intercourse over the subsequent year as those who saw the least amount of sexual content” ( Sex on TV 4). One thing is for sure, if teens are watching Sex and the City frequently enough, they are certainly getting an eye-full and an ear-full of information about sex! Not to mention infidelity, having multiple sexual partners…and very rarely is anything about safe sex or even the risk of STDs mentioned (though the occasional girl does get pregnant).

As much as one might wish to, there are few options for escaping the effects of the media in the world we live in today. The media permeates our lives. But the media is merely a reflection of our culture. Even if we could escape the media, we could not escape all its detriment effects entrenched in our culture. Before our culture’s ideal woman gains a few pounds, before she covers up her cleavage and takes off her air-brushed makeup, our culture needs to change. As a society we need to find a voice that supports the right to positive body-images for all, and demands the media give us that right. Only then can the ideal woman be the attainable real woman.

Works Cited
ASAPS Statistics. 2009. 16 Dec., 2009. .
Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd., 2008.
Bordo, Susan. “‘Material girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture.” Cultural Studies. (class handout – pdf).
Levine, Michael and Hara Marano. “Why I Hate Beauty.” Reproductive Justice and Gender. 8 Aug., 2008. 16 Dec., 2009. .
“Media Portrayals of Girls and Women.” Media Awareness Network. 2009. 16 Dec., 2009. .
Real. Nov. 2009. 16 Dec., 2009 <>.
Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls: Executive Summary. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007. retrieved 16 Dec., 2009. .
Reynolds, Tom. “Sharp Rise in Disordered Eating in Fiji Follows Arrival of Western TV.” Focus. 28 May, 1999. 16 Dec., 2009 .
Sex on TV 4: Executive Summary 2005. 16 Dec., 2009. .
Smith, Dr. Lacy L., Crystal A. Cook. “GDIGM Major Findings Overview based on Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV.” The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. 16 Dec., 2009. .
“What’s the problem? Facts about girls, women + media.” Girls, Women + Media Project. 16 Dec., 2009. <>.