“Raunch culture isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular – and particularly commercial – shorthand for sexiness” (Levy 2006: 30). With reference to your own examples, discuss the sexualisation of culture and its effects on media production.
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When we look at examples of how the sexualisation of culture, in particular women, has risen over the past decade we turn to things such as ‘raunch’ culture. It is all tied to the discourses of consumerism, empowerment and individualism. The significance of sex in culture has been brought more into light of late as an interest in the mainstreaming of sex or ‘striptease’ culture has risen.
Mainstream sexualisation has become a way of describing how sex has become a bigger part and more visible part of contemporary western cultures. As things such as pornography and other explicit materials become easier to access by more people, many just being a click away. In many ways the pornographic industry has entered the mainstream world as porn stars are becoming celebrities and the pornographic ‘style ‘is becoming a commonplace in many industries, including advertising, Television, film and music videos. It is normal now to see scantily clad women in ice cream adverts and rap videos, but it is not only in the media that this is normal now, it is also common to see such things on the streets. Ariel Levy’s book on ‘Raunch’ culture describes sexualisation as ‘a desperate stab at free-wheeling eroticism in a time and place characterised by intense anxiety’ (Levy, 2005: 199) suggesting that the increase of sexualisation in the mainstream media does more harm than it does good.
Britain in particular has a longstanding culture of sexual explicitness of women in the mainstream media mostly starting at the turn of the millennium. However this is no longer passive, a contemporary image of femininity is now likely to be enunciated as being ‘active, recreational, material, independent [and] consumerist’ (Evans, 1993: 41). Contemporary British culture has been sexualised in part by a neo-liberal bombast of choice and self-determination, which in turn has created a femininity with and ‘up for it’ and active personality. The shift in public discourse from a heterosexual female who is passive and has less sexual prowess than her male counterpart to an active female has been created by this mainstreaming of the explicit material. But it is not only in women we see this cultural shift as men have also been given an image that the must conform to in order to be the ideal heterosexual man. For both sexes it is clear that the change in sexuality in modern culture has had an effect on what it means to be desirable.
If we look at Film as an example of how much sexual propriety has changed. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an excellent example of how innocence and passivity were coveted in the 1940s, when the film was released. Donna Reed who plays Mary Hatch is the ideal image of youthful innocence, she is well spoken, young, beautiful and most of all quite passive and naïve in her sexuality. All we have to do it look at the original Disney princesses and the ones we have now to see how much the ideal passive love struck woman has changed into one of independent mind and sexuality. Where in the past we can see clearly that women were objects to be desired but not to desire themselves, whereas now there are many examples of sexually aware and advanced women in film. ‘Friends with Benefits’, a comedy starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, is about two friends who engage in sex without being married or in a relationship. This film in itself can show how sexuality has become less of something to happen in private, as it would have in older films, where the camera would usually fade into the distance or look away, and more something to be broadcasted. Mila Kunis in the film embodies what it means to be a free thinking, sexually independent, heterosexual women, she is beautiful and fierce. Radner (1999: 15) states, ‘the task of the Single Girl is to embody heterosexuality through the disciplined use of makeup, clothing, exercise, and cosmetic surgery, linking femininity, consumer culture and heterosexuality’. His statement shows us how the sexualisation of culture is having a profound effect on the media, where there was once naivety and innocence there is now cleavage and sex. Showing the “shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification” (Gill: 2008, 41).
Concerns have been raised over this shift in discourse as not only raises the sexual subjectivity of women but it also excludes many people who do not fit the narrow, homogenised quota of what is means to be feminine and beautiful – young, heterosexual, Caucasian. (Gill, 2009; McRobbie, 2009, Orchbach, 2009) Though some see this as a negative, it can also be seen as an opportunity for which women can now be free to express their sexuality without distain or outrage. If we look at female icons like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry we can see how they use their own sexuality to empower themselves and inspire others. Though there is a fine line between sexual empowerment and sexism. It can be both sexist and empowering to show cleavage, where on one hand it is the women showing she is sexually independent, it can also be seen as sexist because she has to use her sexuality to get the places instead of using other means.
If we look at the cultural changes in youth culture we can see how much sexualisation has changed over time and how it has affected the media. Shows like ‘Toddles in Tiaras’ and those like it show how the shift in sexuality has changed how we view the young. It has become almost normal for children to dress sexually, in short skirts and tank tops and covered in make-up. ‘Toddles in Tiaras’ is an example of just how extreme the change in the sexualisation of children has been. In it there a children as young as 4 dressed like they are 30 dancing around the stage. Gill (2007a: 72) contends that ‘[f]or young women today in postfeminist cultures, the display of a certain kind of sexual knowledge, sexual practice and sexual agency has become normative – indeed, a ‘technology of sexiness’ has replaced ‘innocence’ or ‘virtue’’ (p. 72). Even advertising has changed to mirror this new sexualisation of children. Toy companies and even lingerie companies have started releasing more sexual merchandise aimed toward the young. Jours Après Lunes launched a ‘Loungerie’ Line for young girls, the advertising for it consisted of pre-teens dressed in their underwear. The shift in cultural sexualisation has made it a social norm to see young girls flaunting their sexuality. 10-year-old French model Thylane Loubry Blondeau ended up making news headlines when she appeared on the cover of Vogue France in a high-fashion pose many though was too mature and sexual for her age, yet images like this continue to be shown. This is due to the endless bombardment of sexual imagery that is shown to children making them want to look like adults and to look sexy in order to be women.
More of print and advertising has become sexualised as we can see when we analyse the covers of the magazine Cosmopolitan. If we look at the cover for the 1894 edition, there isn’t actually an image for the consumer to look at, instead just text detailing what will be in the magazine, much of which is informative and formal. As we move up to 1896 we start to see women being present on the cover, she is dressed formally and again the text shown is not explicit or suggestive in any way. Yet as we move into the 1940s we start to see more idolised images of women, on the cover of 1941 is a beautiful blonde woman with a small amount of shoulder showing, though this can be seen as sexual it is not sexual in a sense that she is showing sexual prowess. The model looks more innocent with baby blue eyes and rosy cheeks inferring innocence, as was desired prior to this decade. Now into the 70s the images and style of the magazine have changed completely, sexual culture has started to shift more towards objectification of sexuality as opposed to innocence. Moreover the language on the cover has changed a lot to what it once was, the words are more suggestive of sexuality. The images are becoming “Less regulated, more commercialized, and more pluralistic sexual culture” (McNair 2002: 11). What we see when we reach the current decade is a clear and obvious indicator as to how much the ideas of what is considered sexual and sexualisation of culture has changed over time and its profound effect on the media. The images are of beautiful women flaunting their beauty while showing off a lot of skin, moreover the text around the images is much blunter and to the point about being sexual. The work ‘Sexy’ is capitalised across the cover of the December 2012 edition and on the March 2013 edition the words ‘your best sex ever’ are captioned along the top. As we can see through the progression of these covers the effect that the change in the sexualisation of culture has actually had on the media. The constant advertising of this one type of image as the ideal sexually confident woman can be seen ‘as consumers in pursuit of their own pleasures’ (Juffer, 1998:147).
Overall we can see that culture, generally, has always been quite sexual in the sense that we have always coveted sex in an intimate way. Yet it has not always been so open and obvious, especially in the media. What we can say is that sexuality has always been present in our society in one form or another whether it be beautiful innocence in the movies or picturesque models on magazines. The major change that we have seen is that instead of it being about sexuality, it has become more about sex itself. With the help of the media sex and sexual behaviour has become a norm in society where once it was a private act. We see it more in the movies and on the covers or magazine and it has become even easier to access online. Our culture is no longer looking for just the image of sexuality in men and women but about the act itself. Magazines and movies are no longer selling the sexy looking models and actors, they are selling sex, and be it in advice columns, perfume adverts or sex scenes in the movies. Sex sells and the media knows it. Despite the regulations in place to stop the endless flow of sexual images reaching the public, it has become a social norm to be a sexualised person and that is mostly due to the media jumping on the band wagon that is the cultural change in what it means to be sexual and sexy.
Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Free Press, 2005
Cosmopolitan March 1894: Cover. Print.
Cosmopolitan May 1896: Cover. Print.
Cosmopolitan November 1941: Cover. Print.
Cosmopolitan February 1970: Cover. Print.
Cosmopolitan December 2012: Cover. Print.
Cosmopolitan March 2013: Cover. Print.
Evans, D.T. (1993) Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities. London: Routledge.
Gill, R. (2007a) ‘Critical Respect: The Difficulties and Dilemmas of Agency and “Choice” for Feminism: A Reply to Duits and van Zoonen’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 14(1): 69–80.
Gill, Rosalind. (2008). Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising. Feminine and Psychology. 18 (35), 41.
Gill, R. (2009) ‘Beyond the “Sexualisation of Culture” Thesis: An Intersectional Analysis of “Six-packs”, “Midriffs” and “Hot Lesbians” in Advertising’, Sexualities 12(2): 137– 60
Juffer, Jane (1998) At Home with Pornography: Women, Sex and Everyday Life. New York & London: New York University Press.
McNair, B, 2002. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratization of Desire. 11: Routledge.
McRobbie, A. (2009) the Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage.
Orbach, S. (2009) Bodies. London: Profile Books
Radner, H. (1999) ‘Introduction: Queering the Girl’, in H. Radner and M. Luckett (Eds) Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
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