Friday, May 30, 2008

The Stereotypes Next Door

Our time is one of social reform. Liberal governing policies are being implemented and privatization is being stressed. The government is taking a laissez-faire approach and trying to transform its citizens into independents. One way this is played out is through reality TV. As Ouellette and Hay say, “At a time when behaviors, personal responsibility, and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies, reality TV shows us how to conduct and “empower” ourselves as enterprising citizens” (Ouellette and Hay 2). However, this is not the case with all reality TV shows. Some of the programs exist as pure entertainment and may actually succeed in perpetuating or reinventing negative stereotypes. Such is the case with The Girls Next Door. I intend to analyze the ways in which The Girls Next Door both maintains and challenges popularly held hegemonic beliefs about femininity and sexuality.

The Girls Next Door features the everyday lives of 3 women living in the playboy mansion under the watch/ownership of Hugh Hefner. The show opens with a quick clip of Hugh with the 3 girls on both of his arms. Right away it’s apparent that the show is exemplifying the submissiveness of women. All of the playmates are at least 18 years of age and therefore considered, for all legal intents and purposes, grown adults, and hence, women. The fact the show is titled The “Girls” Next Door and opens with Hugh having his arms around the girls as if he owns them, leads credence to the devaluing of women as people; that they should be submissive to men and treated as (sexual) objects for men to own.

Another hegemonic belief that is ever-present and almost never challenged in the show is that women should be thought of primarily as sexual beings and focus mainly if not solely on their outward appearance. Yes, the girls are playmates. Yes, it’s their job to dress slutty. But that’s just it, it’s their job, it’s not supposed to be their lives. However, one would be hard pressed to find any episode of The Girls Next Door in which the girls don’t appear in low cut shirts, really high shorts or skirts, or just plain wearing bathing suits around the house. Rarely, if ever, are the girls encouraged to or facilitated in using any sort of intellectual talent or skill whatsoever. It appears as if the girls’ brains and personality don’t mean a thing; as long as they have big boobs, big asses, slim bodies, and attractive faces, they will live in the lap of luxury.

Perhaps this belief is not challenged in this particular scenario because “one class exercises hegemony to the extent that the dominating class has interests which the subaltern classes recognize as being some degree their interests too” (Lull 63). In this case, Hugh is the dominating class and clearly his interests are keeping a ton of young, hot women around his house that bring him billions of dollars and all the sex he wants. On the other hand, these girls are certainly interested in doing whatever it takes (looking good, often through surgery) to remain in a huge mansion being catered to and given whatever they want. Although this may seem like a compelling and legitimate reason to want to remain in the mansion, the problem lies in the fact that the girls’ stay at the mansion is at the cost of exploiting their own bodies; their stay is determined by their appearance and their appearance alone.

Something I noticed while watching episodes of The Girls Next Door is that it seems to send paradoxical messages about femininity. While, for the most part, the program typically shows the girls doing traditionally ‘feminine’ activities such as dancing, strip teasing, shopping, the audience also witnesses the girls doing some traditionally ‘masculine’ activities. However, when the girls appear to be breaking the mold and doing these ‘manly’ activities, there is usually some sort of mockery-toned music playing over the scene. For instance, in one episode the girls are at a bar and one of the playmates rides a mechanical bull. While this may seem to ‘empower’ women by showing the public that “girls can do it too”, there is a silly, almost circus-like music being played while she is riding the bull. Watching the episode, it’s clear that the producers of the show are making a parody out of the playmate riding the bull; as if to mock the woman for performing a traditionally ‘masculine’ act.

So while reality TV may seem to be beneficial in that most shows promote self ‘empowerment’ through personal governing practices, this is not always the case. Some shows, like The Girls Next Door, simply document the daily lives of people for viewing pleasure. However, the problem (or benefit) of such a program is that it may establish and re-establish (or break down) widely held negative beliefs about gender. Perhaps this is because of the heteronormative culture we live in. If taking advice and learning life values and ideals from reality television is what our society has come to, then hopefully it will further advance to a stage in which biases and stereotypes are not so prominent.

Ouellette, Laurie, and James Hay. Better Living Through Reality TV. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2008.

Lull, James. Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sex In The Media: How It Defines Us

The society we live in today is one of a free market. Big conglomerates are constantly looking for new and effective ways to market their products to their target audiences. Throughout the twentieth century, advertising has progressed into using “sex” to sell products. This has included everything from fully clothed, submissive women, to naked women used as billboards for product names, all the way down to displaying only part of a woman’s body for whatever reason the advertiser deems necessary. All of these methods have one thing in common; they play on and perpetuate popularly held, negative gender ideals about women. Perhaps one of the most irking aspects of advertising in this form is that the ads don’t even portray real people (dove commercial). Most of the time, the images are doctored to represent perfect, unobtainable forms of beauty and cause misaligned views from the consumer’s point of view. Therefore, the following discussion will analyze just how “sex” is “selling” and the effect that this “sex” in the media has on the ideals and values of both males and females.

The use of “sex” in the media may be most notable in advertisers’ placement of provocative, sexy women in ads in order to sell their products. These images can have adverse effects on both men and women. For example, consider the Trojan ad where the girl with big boobs has a condom sticking out of her bra. First of all, only her boobs are shown in the ad which hiddenly says something negative about the message being sent to guys about what’s important about a girl. Second, the more overt message is clear: Use Trojan condoms and you’ll sleep with big-breasted girls. This is a terrible message to be sent because it’s promoting the physical attractiveness of a woman as her only purpose; completely devoid of any intellectual attributions to the female sex. The problem for girls, as Kilbourne argues, is that they are adopting lifestyles based off these images: “They [girls] are even more powerfully attuned to images of women, because they learn from these images what is expected of them, what they are to become.”(Kilbourne 263) So as a girl views this same condom ad, she may be thinking, “I need to make my breasts bigger (or make some other cosmetically enhancing change depending on the ad and/or the product) if I want any guys to like me or sleep with me.” It is this fact that may lead to eating problems such as anorexia or bulimia for girls who are trying to achieve some socially accepted standard of beauty.

The ad for BMW in which a girl’s face is replaced by a magazine picture of a BMW is especially degrading. The message being sent to guys is clear: Drive a BMW and land hot chicks (like the one in the ad) in bed. The fact that her face is covered is a reminder to men that any eminence of personality which she may possess is irrelevant; only her body matters. Like Jhally states, “Advertising promotes images of what the audience conceives of as ‘the good life’.” (Jhally 251) The problem with this is that ‘the good life’ is often, and becoming ever more clearly, portrayed in advertising at the expense of women. These images are touching upon widely held gender ideals (male superiority, sexuality of women as dominant attribute) in society and as Jhally puts it, “Images having to do with gender strike at the core of individual identity; our understanding of ourselves as male or female is central to our understanding of who we are.” (Jhally 253) Consider the ad for shaving cream: it shows only a woman’s legs. A girl seeing this ad may be influenced to believe that her legs are an overwhelming defining characteristic of herself and must be kept in pristine shape by shaving with this shaving cream; that her sexuality is a core, if not sole, component of her identity. In the same idea, a male exposed to this ad is only exposed to one part of a woman’s body thought to be a sexual one. Therefore, this ad actually helps and perpetuates the idea in men’s minds that women are and should be thought of as sexual beings and sexual beings alone (which is obviously wrong). Perhaps nobody can articulate the effects of these advertisements better than Jean Kilbourne: “Certainly the cumulative effect of these images and words urging girls to express themselves only through their bodies and through products is serious and harmful.”(Kilbourne 264)

Kilbourne, Jean. "The More You Subtract, the More You Add." Gender, Race, and Class in the Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003.

Jhally, Sut. "Image-Based Culture." Gender, Race, and Class in the Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gendered Consumers/Engendering Consumerism

The messages that big toy companies are sending with their products are encoded with all kinds of philosophies, values, and ideals about today’s society. In particular, nearly every product on the market is advertised towards a specific gender. Take Transformers and Barbie Dolls, for example. The very use of the words “action figure” and “doll” are cues towards what’s appropriate for a specific gender. You won’t find many boys playing with ‘dolls’ or girls playing with ‘action figures’ since, as Newman states, “Unfortunately, children whose behavior doesn’t conform to generally accepted standards of gender are subject to ridicule or worse.” (Newman 115) So from a very young age, children are indirectly told what is acceptable and unacceptable to play with simply by what it is called.

While shopping for Transformers and going to the website, one is bombarded by a black background with red and blue caption boxes (primarily ‘boy colors’), followed immediately by a flash video of an explosion. More specifically, some of the toys offered include “Robot Heroes, Cyber Slammer, Optimus Prime Battle Rig Blaster, Robot Fighters, Puzzles, etc.”(Transformers) Clearly this is showing children that boys should primarily be occupied with action, violence, competition, exploration, etc. It seems as if the toys embody the hegemonic ideals of the CEOs themselves; men should be independent and powerful and ready to fight any competition. They even seem to fit right in with Johnson’s idea of Patriarchy: “...standards of masculine toughness …masculine protectiveness…’naturalness’ of male aggression, competition, and dominance.” (Johnson 94)

On the other side of the gender spectrum, during a trip to, one is bombarded by a pink background followed by glittering starry banners along with a greeting of “Think Pink”. (Barbie Girls) Clearly this product is marketed towards girls but what message is it sending? Barbie epitomizes the stereotype for the ideal female in American society: slim, curvy, ‘pretty’, generally flawless (aesthetically, anyway). This ideal of impossible, unattainable beauty is potentially a dangerous one to be ingrained in a child’s mind at such a young age. For example, the strive for Barbie’s slender physique may actually cause some girls to obtain eating disorders later in life. Furthermore, although there exist a handful of non-normative Barbie dolls, such as Speed Racer Barbie, shows that there are vastly more normative Barbie Dolls than not, such as, “Miss Sapphire Barbie, Perfectly Pink Barbie, etc”. (Barbie Collector) The message being sent to young girls here is to emphasize their looks and physical aspects as much as possible, even to the point where it may affect the type of job you attain one day.

Further shopping on these sites shows that their products parallel commonplace stereotypes held in American society. For instance, toys on the Transformers website include complicated role-playing toys which the child must figure out and subsequently take charge in a given scenario using such toys. These toys then influence the gender of a child by instilling in him the ideals that men should be strong and independent and should be encouraged to explore and learn new things. On the other hand, Barbie toys are geared towards aesthetics. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a toy on the Barbie site that deals with anything of intellectual value. Everywhere on the site, toys can be found that come with accessories that encourage girls to “mix the fashions, hair, and faces to match your mood!” (Barbie) Clearly these toys coincide with stereotypes of woman having no intelligence and their bodies and looks being the most important aspect about them.

So these toys are geared towards one specific gender or the other and cause this extreme dichotomy in classification that may be unhealthy. Children become ingrained with these ideas that one thing is OK for one gender, one thing is OK for the other gender, and there is nothing in between. Like Newman says, “It is a short step from these dichotomies to identifying one member of each pair as good and the other bad, one moral and the other immoral, one worthy and the other unworthy.”(Newman 37) So he is saying that this dichromatic characterization of gender that children are learning from such a young age is the first step in instilling, essentially, racism and other unhealthy ‘white and black’ comparisons and judgments. It’s teaching children to be closed minded and quick to try and put people into categories.

Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.

Johnson, Allan. Patriarchy, The System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us. Temple University Press, 1997.

Transformers. 19 May 2008 .

Barbie Girls. 19 May 2008 .

"View All Barbie Dolls." Barbie Collector. 19 May 2008 .