The Liberation Lie: Female Sexuality in the Mass Media
by Elizabeth Winkler
Last weekend in NYC, I was overwhelmed by the enormous (say, 50 x 50 ft), looming billboard of a naked Eva Mendes, seductively poised above the heads of pedestrians. Her body was strategically positioned so as not to be dubbed "full frontal nudity," and yet the picture was as close to mainstream, public pornography as I have ever seen. Outrage, of course, is to be expected: the utter sexualization of the female body and its manipulation as 'object' of the male gaze has come to dominate mass media. It isn't the hushed secret of Victorian England or Puritan Massachusetts but instead is loudly proclaimed in public venues of every sort.
On the surface, the apparent 'progress' in the discussion and exhibition of the female body might be equated to "liberation." At last, one exclaims, women have been freed from the shackles of corsets and aprons and the debilitating, double-standard emphasis on chastity! This easy conclusion, however, simplifies the deeply-nuanced position of female sexuality in our society, and distorts the reality of female objectification, which is, arguably, exactly what such billboards intend to do. Liberation is in fact a falsified notion. Here is why:
When female sexuality is displayed in the media, it is invariably manipulated for a consumerist agenda. (In Eva Mendes' case, to advertise perfume.) In its association with objects of consumption, the female body, too, becomes a product to be consumed, both visually, by passersby and spectators, and socially whenever women's bodies are treated as objects to be judged and exploited. And let's remember: the moment a human body becomes an object, it becomes less than human, particularly when the focus is directed on certain parts of the body. Such a move strips the body of its human context; a body part, after all, is not a full human.
Just think: it is in advertising -- and advertising almost exclusively -- that aggressive, effectively pornographic, displays of sexuality are deemed normative. In other venues, the body is far from liberated, but can in fact be arrested under claims of indecent exposure. Mothers, for instance, are legally banned from breast-feeding in public venues, though a woman nursing her infant is, by all accounts, far less offensive than the naked images that uncompromisingly bombard us in magazines, television ads and billboards when we're walking casually down the street, minding our own business.
If anything, it should be noted that the means of objectification and oppression have become increasingly subtle and perverse in the modern era. Feminist discourse and a twentieth-century understanding of gender equality has forced the de-humanizing of women into these elusive, ever more indefinable venues. As the subjugation of women and women's bodies becomes even more difficult to locate and describe then, liberation and equality find themselves even further endangered. After all, what inequality and inhumanity could possibly be more sinister than the one that masquerades as physical and psychological freedom? It is this threat that we must be particularly attuned to in a society that professes full equality but still fails to realize it.