The Plight of the Double-Standard in the Sexualization of Political Figures and Media Representation

This blog entry by Christy Ferguson, Instructor in English and Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, brings us our first installment in our Women’s History Month blog series on Gender, Sexualization, and the Media.

When typing the name of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into a search engine, what would you expect to find? Topics about his policies? A speech, maybe? Certainly, one does not expect to find this:

“Everyone is Extremely Thirsty for Young Justin Trudeau” –Marie Claire via Yahoo News

“Young Justin Trudeau Pictures Have Been Discovered and the Internet is Freaking Out” –Yahoo Style

 “Will Justin Trudeau Ever Pose Nude? Young, Shirtless Photos of Liberal Canadian PM Prompt Hopes and Hoaxes” –International Business Times

“The internet is losing its collective mind over Justin Trudeau’s Butt.” –Marie Claire

In political media, we have become accustomed to witnessing the continued sexualization of women who dare to climb the governmental ladder. With constant focus on their clothing choices, bodies, families, and marriages, women in politics have faced a myriad of sexism in the media as they fought their way to positions of power.

Until recently, the media’s sexualization of male politicians had rarely reached such a state of embarrassment. However, over the past few weeks, photos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been circling the internet with an extreme focus on his good looks. With much of the focus specifically on his backside, people all over the world are ogling the PM instead of focusing on his politics.

Trudeau butt

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: On the left, we see an innocuous photo of Justin Trudeau in dark slacks, a white shirt, and a button down tie. It is taken from the right side of his body. He is in profile, with his right leg forward slightly, perhaps resting on the crossbar of a chair leg. The righthand photo is zoomed in on his muscular backside. In a class sign of objectifying images, Trudeau is now headless and the focus is a single body part. (Photo Credit: Yahoo Image Search via lostateminor.com)

Of course, the discussion of the attractiveness of a man in office isn’t completely nonexistent. Crushes on former presidents JFK and Barrack Obama continue to surface in conversations across the nation. However, headlines regarding male politicians don’t typically flaunt a half-dressed, barely legal teenager’s old social media photos claiming how “thirsty” people are for his form.

Trudeau teenager

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: This is a photo of a teenaged Justin Trudeau. He is standing, wearing a pair of jeans with a belt, a sleevless plaid buttondown shirt that is entirely unbuttoned showing his chest and belly, which have clearly defined muscles. Behind him are too sitting persons wearing shorts and sandles with pale skin. Trudeau, by contrast, has light brown skin. (Photo Credit: Marie Claire via Twitter)

So, what’s the issue? Shouldn’t we, as feminists, be grateful that for once, the media is sexualizing a man in politics the same way they do every woman who has ever run for office? Not hardly. The way to equality is not through the degradation of men. It is through the elevation of women. Double-standards have been detrimental to the work of women for centuries. However, when the tables are turned, men in these positions tend to be elevated by the work of sexualization. Whereas women in politics who face the same treatment are disparaged and their careers put in jeopardy. Why is that, you wonder?

This is systemic sexism. The idea that any focus on women should be from a standpoint of whether she is pleasing to eye, yet controlled enough not to be sexual in any way, has been ingrained in our societal structure for centuries. Women must be both sexual and maternal, but neither is truly acceptable. In certain careers, women are expected to push through the expectation to look or act a certain way to get ahead, only to have those exact expectations used against them to keep them from certain levels of success and power. This is seen constantly in the political arena, where women must fight much harder to earn those positions of power. Men, on the other hand, can look any way they wish, with no true concern about what kind of parent or husband they may be, no one tells them to smile and their careers carry on unscathed.

In the case of PM Trudeau, the comments about his backside and questions about the possibility of a nude photoshoot have not damaged his credibly or career standing in the slightest. If anything, it has given him more positive press and made him more well-known and respected than ever before.

As feminists, we have an obligation to identify and eradicate this type of behavior in the media despite the sex or gender of the person being sexualized. We must expose the double-standard that exists in media exploitation of political figures and fight for equality and substance in reporting the true issues at hand.  We should not celebrate the degradation of men to further our own cause, because it does just the opposite.

 

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Kicking off Women’s History Month with International Women’s Day

This women’s history month, SIUE’s Women’s Studies Program will run a series of blog entries on the theme of “Gender,  Sexualization, and the Media.”  We will kick off our original blog entries tomorrow. While you’re waiting, check out our Feminist Songs Series from last year, starting with the first one, Loretta Lynn’s ode to oral contraception, “The Pill.”

Today, however, is International Women’s Day.  The UN’s theme is “Women in the Changing World of Work.” Part of the goal is to think through how to accelerate the 2030 Agenda, which aims to accomplish key milestones in gender justice by 14 years from now. Some elements include:

  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.
  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education.
  • End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Key to trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation is the sexualization of women in ways that paint us as less than human, and encourage us to see ourselves as less than human.  Exploration of this theme is necessary for thinking seriously about gender justice. And to do so well, we will need intersectional analyses of sexualization.  international women's day.jpg

Watch for all the entries in this series throughout the month of March.

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A Brief List of Feminist New Year’s Resolutions

The Director of the SIUE Women’s Studies Program, Alison Reiheld, here offers a few of her own New Year’s Resolutions and those of some friends and feminist thinkers.

  1. I will wake up ready to fight, and have no truck with fascism.
  2. My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.
  3. I will take risks for what I believe in.
  4. I will use my power and position on behalf of those who don’t have as much.
  5. I will amplify rather than speak instead of or over.
  6. I will listen.
  7. I will be gentle with myself, and with others who are trying.
  8. I will be angry when I should be angry, in the right way, at the right time, at the right people, for the right reasons.
  9. I will do more calling in, as well as calling out.
  10. When I think of my own fleshy self, I will set my skeptical eye to watching for the filters of strange and damaging notions of what makes a body a good body.  I will focus on what my body does for me that I need it to do.  I mean, hell, it turns sleep and food and oxygen into motion and thought and water vapor and carbon dioxide. Behold it.
  11. Like Saba Fatima, I will stop backing down on what I know is right. I will not avoid confrontation to appease the powers that be.

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Solidarity and Activism Starter Kit

Regardless of aims, activist-and-solidarity movements from across the political and values spectrum face similar problems. The SIUE Women’s Studies Program Director and faculty have produced the following Solidarity and Activism Starter Kit. It is designed to help avoid some of the very real problems that happen within movements, to help people who haven’t been involved before get involved, and to help a group be effective. It is designed to enable the just pursuit of justice. It is not meant to be the last or only word. It is simply meant to be a starter kit. May it serve you well.

–Alison Reiheld, Director of SIUE Women’s Studies

solidarity

This image depicts solidarity by showing human hands of many skin tones, some with colorful bracelets, all reaching in to put their hands together.

We also have this available as a PDF document that prints on one sheet of paper, double-sided: solidarity-and-activism-starter-kit

1) LISTEN to hear and understand, not to formulate a response.  BELIEVE people when they speak of their experiences and concerns.

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“He said/She said” and the gendered dynamics of rape reporting

SIUE Criminal Justice faculty member Trish Oberweis has long been concerned with sexual assault, especially on college campuses. In this blog entry, Dr. Oberweis again takes up this long-standing concern. She wishes to thank former SIUE faculty member Carly Hayden Foster, now on the Political Science faculty of Luther College, for assistance in developing this consideration of a local sexual assault case and how it reflects light on taking women’s word for it.  Does presuming innocence on the part of the alleged perpetrator require presuming incompetence or malfeasance on the part of the alleged victim?

–Alison Reiheld, Director of SIUE’s Women’s Studies Program

This autumn, Missouri House candidate Cora Faith Walker alleged that Steven Roberts, Jr., another House candidate from a different district, raped her. They were strategizing legislation together, in anticipation of a future in which they would both be elected to the Missouri House of Representatives from their respective districts, and would be collaborating on various projects. It was a late meeting, and one that Walker asserts ended in violence.

cora-faith-walkerShe reported the crime to police, who investigated it. On October 25, 2016, the special prosecutor appointed to the case, Tim Lohmar, declined to press charges. “There simply wasn’t enough credible evidence that sexual relations between these two people were anything but consensual,” he said. In other words, it was a he said/she said situation. How can we possibly sort out that sort of situation?

Well, I am not convinced that it is really that difficult.

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Pat Summitt: athlete, coach, subversive

On October 20, WNBA star Candace Parker’s LA Sparks beat the Minnesota Lynx to take the title. In a short and bittersweet interview with  ESPN on the boards immediately after the game, Parker, with tears in her eyes,  said “This is for Pat.” Pat Summitt was Parker’s college coach at Tennessee and a giant in women’s sports.  She passed away in June of 2016. As our own SIUE Women’s Basketball team starts its season (you can find the schedule here and support our Cougars by attending games), Professor Sharon McGee of SIUE’s English Department brings us this reflection on Pat Summitt’s life and significance.

–Alison Reiheld, Director of Women’s Studies at SIUE

I didn’t know Pat Head Summitt (I still refer to her with three names) personally, but I knew her in the way that anyone who has attended the University of Tennessee knows her, as anyone who has ever lived in Tennessee knows her, as anyone who cares about women’s issues knows her. What she did in a lifetime was incredible—not just the eight national championships or the winningest record of college Division 1 coaches (male or female), the Olympic medals–but what she did to make women’s sports, and not just basketball but especially basketball–as competitive, important, and significant as men’s. Under her leadership, UT women’s basketball pat-summitt-montagehad a 100% graduation rate for student athletes. 161 student-athletes who completed their eligibility graduated—an astonishing feat in Division I sports.

 

Summitt died Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at the age of 64. She was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type in 2011. Regardless of whether or not one values college athletics, women owe a debt of gratitude to Summitt.

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If you could be anything, anything at all…: Are Halloween costumes getting better at providing a range of possible selves?

As Director of Women’s Studies, I usually use this blog to amplify others’ voices. But today, I want to use this venue to follow up on a blog I wrote long before I became Director. After all, ’tis the season.  –Alison Reiheld

Several years ago I wrote a widely read SIUE WMST blog entry on sexism and Halloween costumes including pictures I took of the local Target Halloween section, myself.  In that blog I argued that boys and girls were presented with limited visions of imagined selves, and that girls’ were distressingly likely to be sexualized or otherwise feminized.  You can find it here, for comparison.  Why comparison?  Because I want to sound a hopeful note.

Homemade costumes have always been a source of invention for something beyond the commercialized mass produced costumes. And while commercial presentation of options is getting somewhat better, there are still problems. As has long been the case, homemade costumes can provide a model for doing it differently, and even for doing it better. Check out the first results for Pinterest on girls’ Halloween costumes, which include one for a main character from the recent film Zootopia (a kickbutt female police bunny) and several just made from imagination, some from scratch and some by combining commercially available bits and pieces.

pinterest-girls-costumes-2016

This year, as Halloween has slogged toward us like an unstoppable beast, I came across a delightful cartoon about a homemade costume, and a truly exciting actual homemade costume. These inspired this follow-up to my original blog entry on this topic.

Lindsay Sherman (@LindsayWSherman) got her kiddo the costume of her dreams as Holtzmann from the Ghostbusters reboot. And baldocomics.com hits home with a comic about a little girl who wants to dress up as a different kind of hero:  Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Consider this: if you could be anything… anything at all… what would you be for Halloween?  Ask your children. Ask yourself.  And find a way to make it happen. My mom did it for me.  Behold the author, about age 5 or 6, as a “witch” “doctor” (my love of puns is neither new nor sophisticated; the stethoscope is from a doctor’s kit and the hat is homemade from construction paper):

alison-witch-doctor

Giving kids the Halloween they deserve doesn’t require Pinterest, a sewing machine, and Goddess-like construction skills.  It could involve those.  But a kid and a cardboard box and a spray can and some duct tape can work wonders. So can combining the things you already own in interesting ways. Commercial options are also available if you don’t mind spending money and want a complete look. For more on feminist-friendly mass-produced Halloween costumes that provide a range of selves to choose from, see as always A Mighty Girl.  Or maybe even your local department store. But I urge you to always do Halloween with an eye to expanding kids’ options for imagined selves beyond the tiny constrained boxes of masculinity and femininity norms.

So, I ask again.  If you could be anything… anything at all… what would you be for Halloween?

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Signing Away my Assumed Ability as a Man that I Could Rape a Women if I Wanted to

In the second of two posts on sexual assault, Women’s Studies student Layn Abbott writes about his experience accessing one of the most shocking forms of male privilege: the assumed ability to take sex from women without consent.  Or as he puts it, to rape. You can find some background on masculinity studies in another of our blog entries, here.  I leave the floor to Layn.

–Alison Reiheld, Director of SIUE’s Women’s Studies program

Something shocking happened to me a couple of months back and I would like to share it, because I think it needs to be heard. I am transitioning from female to male right now and identify as a trans* man. I have been on testosterone for 6 months, I am a feminist, I love women, and I love equity for all.

Lately, I have seen slivers of privilege like “Joining the Boys Club”. Great for me, right? I can be a little overweight now and it is fine, I can be more negotiable with my salary offers for jobs that I am currently interviewing for, I am getting more of those jobs, men talk to me differently, and in all of this I pass as a man; which is a dream come true to me. For once, my identity and expression are synced with me both mentally and physically. I am a part of the boy’s club, but I come from the girl’s club so I don’t think that being a man is following gender norms. I feel like I have been gifted with a unique and enlightening perspective that I want to share.

Seems great, but I left out some details that keeps me up at night. Everything I have ever stood for with equity of gender has been scrambled for me. I feel like part of the problem and I sense that others now see me as part of the problem. I still have friends, family, and loved ones like my fiancé struggling to make it and telling me that I am going to eventually forget what it was like to be a woman or relate to daily struggles of oppression that I don’t face as much as my trans* women friends.

Do you want to know what the most painful thing is for me? I have spent two years of my college career diving into deep issues surrounding sexual assault, violence, and rape on college campuses. I have tons of training in prevention and conducted research for the University to advocate for a grant for programming. I have written many papers and encompassed my whole internship to the police department at SIUe to look further into these issues. I have taken countless classes on gender, sexuality, race, class, social inequality, social justice, women’s studies courses and serial rape. All of these things are engrained in my roots and now women fear that I might rape them.

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Should Universities be Seeking Awareness or Effectiveness with Sexual Assault Prevention Programs?

Layn Abbott has taken multiple Women’s Studies courses including an independent study this semester, the capstone project for which involves not just one but two blog entries for us. Abbott has worked with WMST faculty member Dr. Trish Oberweis on Sexual Assault Prevention research for the university and has done two independent study courses focusing on in depth research of issues surrounding sexual assault.  He will be graduating this weekend with a major in Criminal Justice and Sociology. Congratulations, Layn! Without further ado, I yield the floor for the first of Layn Abbott’s blog entries.

–Alison Reiheld, Director of SIUE Women’s Studies

It is assumed and expected that prevention programs should be reducing sexual assault, but the critical question that not many talk about is: Should the main objective be increasing awareness in the hopes that women will be encourage to report instead of focusing on reducing sexual assault or should the goal be to achieve both prevention and awareness? Is it possible to completely abolish sexual assault on college campuses? The massive amount of underreporting doesn’t support this. Universities like Southern Illinois University Carbondale received a bad rapport for providing effective programming when their statistics of reports go up after an academic year of improved programming. Is it possible that you can achieve both effectiveness and awareness, and is there a cap on how far steps can be taken for legislators, faculty, staff, and students to fix the proposed problem?

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Visibility & Piety

This blog entry comes to us from SIUE Philosophy professor Saba Fatima.  Dr. Fatima has published on social and political concerns as they pertain to the Muslim identity. Here, she combines her interest in Women’s Studies with her work on religion to reflect on an important topic: the presence of women in Islam.  Scholarship in history and in religious studies has long examined the role of women in Judaism, the Catholic Church, in protestant Christianity and in Islam.  Dr. Fatima joins that tradition by turning a careful gaze–one both critical and respectful–toward Islam and its varied forms. Being herself a Muslim, Dr. Fatima’s reflexive gaze comes from within  Islam.

Reservations

 I have been thinking about writing this blog for over a year. My reservation stemmed from the fact that for as long as I can remember, there has been a plethora of negative misconceptions about gender & Islam in the Western world, and I would hate to add any fuel to the fire.

Just recently, at the Republican debate in Miami on March 15, Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, stated: “There is tremendous hate. Where large portions of a group of people, Islam, large portions want to use very, very harsh means…Let me go a step further. Women are treated horribly. You know that. You do know that. Women are treated horribly, and other things are happening that are very, very bad.”

Such rhetoric (and its tamer forms) has been historically used to justify imperialistic wars against Muslim men, women, and children and has made the American public complacent to war crimes committed by Western governments. For some Americans, part of bombing the Middle East until ‘the sand glows in the dark’ is for their own benefit. To kill indiscriminately, in order to save their women from their men…. Or so the thinking goes.

This is all to say that when minorities are critical of certain practices within their own frameworks, the criticism is almost always re-appropriated to alien contexts by the dominant political frameworks in order to justify larger systemic harm to that minority. As a Muslim American woman, such flawed logic makes me very apprehensive.

Visibility and Piety 1

Muslim Americans praying in front of U.S. House of Representatives, Washington DC. Bodies kneel and bow, oriented toward the east face of the building looking over the National Mall, and thus facing toward Mecca.

That said, I also think Muslims have a lot to contribute to discussions on gender relations, and co-opting of internal-criticism by Western worldviews has often kept us, Muslims, from challenging the status quo; it has kept us on the defensive. However, if there are to be any challenges to the status quo, they have to come from an internal critical analysis. And I am Muslim, and I am a woman, and, yes, I do live in the United States. My critical outlook on issues that are systemic in nature and that I face, are situated from my particular social location. And thus, this blog appears in my university’s women studies program blog. The placement may appear as an external gaze, but I want to own my location as that of a Muslim, similar to if I had lived in a Muslim majority culture.

So what is it that I wish to write about, that required such a prologue?

I want to put some thoughts down about how much space women are allocated in the two most holy sites for all Muslims: Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.

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