This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from Role/Reboot, Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, Salon, HyperVocal, Ms. Magazine, YourTango, Psychology Today, Princess Free Zone, The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.
The day I met Jean Kilbourne, I was in Dallas attending the International Boys' School Coalition's annual conference. Ms. Kilbourne showed the large international audience of mostly men and a few women her groundbreaking video, "Killing Us Softly," about advertising's representation of femininity in mass media, and how damaging it is to the self-esteem of girls and women and to the ways boys and men view them.
I remember sitting in the dark auditorium, feeling awkward amidst my male colleagues, watching the images of dismembered and scantily clad female body parts advertising liquor and cars and possibly orange juice flash across the screen in dizzying succession. Ms. Kilbourne's voice never rose, remaining coolly descriptive as it explained the relationship between these images and the objectification and ultimate dehumanization of women. There was no need for theatrical rhetoric when pictures spoke so many words.
Is it any wonder that the billboards and magazines that sexualize girls and women -- photoshopping them ironically to the brink of anorexic death and the illusion of eternal youth -- turn up living and breathing and walking down school hallways in their cheek-bearing cutoff shorts and t-shirts spray painted over push-up bras? Or that 90 percent of 13- to 14-year-old boys in a Canadian survey admitted to having watched hard core Internet porn, with one-third of those young boys reporting they watched it "too many times to count?" Executive summary: Score one for free speech and deregulation, zero for the human race.
On Halloween, these young unwitting female consumers of craptastic media messages will take to the stage as slutty devils or slutty witches or slutty nurses, competing via self-objectification for the superficial attention of male schoolmates who eagerly anticipate and cheer on the spectacle. And be advised: October 31, National Dress Up As A Hooker Day, is now moving into the elementary schools. It joins fellow new arrivals there that include sexting; the latest growing demographic for lingerie and cosmetic purchases; porn viewing by the under-10 set; and the replacement of dating (which never belonged in elementary school in the first place) by the hook-up culture. I will not try too hard to think of what I've left out.
What we are witnessing is the triumph of the free market economy over any iota of concern for the emotional and physical wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of society--our children. Parents are increasingly giving up, resigned that their kids live in a fallen world. Battered and beleaguered educators continue reeling from the inverse relationship between in loco parentis demands placed upon them by bureaucratic legislation, and reduced funding to pay for the execution of said demands.
It is unclear to me who will be the new children whisperers if we can ever wrestle our kids from the clutches of all the purveyors of pop culture who stand to make a buck from exploiting them and pitting them against each other. To everyone who assigns this daunting task to parents, that is analogous to asking them to make sure their children don't breathe any pollution or get washed away in a flash flood somewhere on this warming planet, because the oil industry and all its pimps and minions are not responsible for these circumstances.
If there is any hope of rescuing the pendulum as it swings into orbit around Mars, caring adults must join together when children are very young to create a new foundation for the future of male-female relationships. As a human society, we need to raise and educate girls and boys with fewer gender-specific limitations and stereotypes, and a greater awareness that life is better for both genders when they can support, rather than exploit, each other's vulnerabilities.
What would this kind of brave new world look like? For one thing it would look a lot less gender polarized than it does right now, as can be seen in the flaming comment threads on just about any article in the blogosphere related to gender equality or the problems being encountered by either males or females in society today. When does this polarization start? I think it starts from birth, or perhaps as much as four months before, when a baby's sex can be determined by ultrasound.
From the moment a baby's genitalia are categorized, everything else in his or her life is also categorized. Suddenly boys are swimming in an ocean of blue, while girls are transported into the Pepto Bismol world of princessified clothes, sparkly toys that don't do anything, make-up for preschoolers, and extra-special girl Happy Meals. Girls fall down a rabbit hole of beauty propaganda from which they may never emerge, while boys are shepherded down their own toy aisles where the adventure games, science kits, and all the colors of the rainbow except pink have gone to live. Adults who are naïve to these issues reinforce the cycle that the marketers have set in motion, making sure that they buy "boy" or "girl" clothes and toys. Just so there is no confusion, these are all labeled and occupy separate sections of stores and catalogs. Company profits double, while girls' possibilities shrink.
Once kids go to school, girls quickly gain advantage. Their learning styles and activity levels are better suited to the design of American public schools and the preferences of predominantly female teachers, and they mature more quickly than boys. Boys start falling behind in multiple ways...for example, their grades are lower, they are less often the leaders of clubs, and they are almost entirely disappearing among high school valedictorians. In college admissions, many schools are seeing an applicant pool that is 40 percent male and 60 percent female.
Meanwhile, something else interesting starts to happen. Right around the onset of puberty, the pretty pink princesses morph into pretty-obsessed Lolitas. Competing for the attention of boys pits girls against each other, leading to the "mean girl" phenomenon that, perhaps ultimately, results in some of the difficulties women have supporting each other. It is not hard to see why we have so few female elected officials or CEO's when women tend to view other successful women as too aggressive and less competent than men, and undermine them rather than help them gain power.
I wonder...is there possibly a relationship between boys being dominated by girls academically, and in turn objectifying them to degrade them and take them down a peg? In the adult world, do men who feel insecure about their roles vis-à-vis women in 2011 have a greater need to pornify them?
If girls have been fed a passive role by adults--the role of being gazed upon and focusing heavily on their looks--while boys have been guided to interact more actively with their environment for their whole childhoods, are they all set up for the polarized, exploitative adult gender behaviors revealed in Jean Kilbourne's video, and the anger and scorn spewed out in comment threads on the internet every day?
Men are still the power brokers. Has the exploitation of women grown this exponentially because men are angry with women, and have been messaged to view them as sexual objects? And do women enable their own treatment by men because they are so brainwashed by sexualizing media while young that they objectify themselves as teens and adults, believing their bodies to be their most important assets, trading on the fleeting nonsense of "erotic capital," and therefore setting themselves up for adult lives of dissatisfaction?
It all comes down to the timeless value of respect...self-respect and respect for others. Lack of respect can be found all the way from the neighborhood playground to Capitol Hill, and the degradation of norms we all hear about is not slowing down. We have to teach young girls and boys media literacy and how to deconstruct the messages the profiteers are sending them. We have to teach them to have authentic agency in their own lives. We absolutely must teach them respect.
Women must learn greater respect for their own talents and abilities, neither of which are best spent chasing youth, thinness, and sexual desirability 24/7. They must become more supportive of each other's aspirations, and begin to help each other manage the aging process with greater serenity and dignity. Mutual respect among girls and women should be encouraged by adults beginning when girls first snatch the silver tiaras off each other's heads.
Men must recognize and oppose the damage that is done to women, to themselves, and to their relationships by refusing to participate in the social construct that women are there to be looked at and sexually acquired. Women actually need to hear from men that their faces and bodies are not all that they are, and that they are loved, appreciated and valued for their insides.
We must all band together if we are to rise above the debasement we all suffer by the divisive market-driven world we've created.