March 8th is International Women's Day. This year's theme is inspiring change. As an IWD supporter, a female CEO, and more importantly, a mother of twin daughters, the plight of women around the world resonates deeply. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write in their book Half the Sky that the global oppression of women is "the paramount moral challenge" of the present era.
Around the world women are subject to violence, rape, murder, trafficking and the list goes on. The numbers and facts are staggering. Kristof and WuDunn write that gendercide, (the continual slaughter of girls in the developing world) is responsible for the loss of more lives than all the genocides of the 20th century.
In 2008, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that one in every three women is likely "to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime." Here in the United States, over 200,000 American children and young adults are at risk for sex trafficking each year. In developing countries, rape of both women and children is considered a weapon of war. Rape in many countries is condoned.
It has been shown that there is a direct link between a country's attitude toward women and its social and economic progress. The status of women is key to the health of society.
"No society treats its women as well as its men." That's the conclusion from the United Nations Development Programme, as written in its 1997 Human Development Report.
So, if a country's culture determines its social mores, how does America's culture fare when looked at through the gender discrimination lens? Pop Culture in the United States, plays a significant role in influencing the attitude of the younger generation. I've always been a bit of a pop culture junkie and spent several years in the music business. There's been quite a seismic shift in the depiction of women in music over the years and that obviously can impact our culture overall.
It's interesting to analyze the portrayal of women vs. men in the music industry since the 80s. Male imagery has evolved from artists wearing low-hanging/underwear-exposing pants, gangsta colors, to today's rat pack inspired tuxedo-clad titans. The guys are looking more and more respectable and sophisticated. Their story lines are elevated. Unfortunately for women during this same period, the reverse is true. With the arrival of Madonna and the dawn of hip hop, women have been objectified in one video after another, in one performance after another. Their sexuality, in the name of personal freedom, has been exploited. Can you imagine, Pat Benatar, Linda Ronstadt, Annie Lennox, Blondie, Chrissie Hynde singing in a thong or bikini or pole dancing? Why are the women in a male artist's video barely clothed ("Blurred Lines") while the guys looks polished, cool and in control. This can't be sending a good message.
Considering the often tenuous and vulnerable position of women all over the world, is this cultural imagery where women are portrayed as strippers, as inconsequential window dressing for men, insensitive and irresponsible? Does it undermine the hard-won battles for women's equality, stature and status in this country? Considering the strides made by women who have struggled and sacrificed for respect, equality and freedom, are we sending the wrong message by simply accepting cultural imagery that perpetuates the objectification of women?
Music has always been about pushing the envelope but one would think it could be done without resorting to sexually exploiting women. The "party line" defense seems to be that women are not being objectified; they are simply claiming their own sexual liberation. This is not about liberation. It is about attention. It is not about being equal with men. It is about sales. Rashida Jones recently said it best "But the poles, the pasties, the gyrating: This isn't showing female sexuality; this is showing what it looks like when women sell sex." (Also, let's be real. Every woman's sexuality is different. Can all of us really be into stripper moves?)
None of this is to imply in any way that our pop culture is responsible for the plight of women, but it can impact the way women perceive themselves and the way the society perceives them. Since it has been established that the way women are perceived within a society is pivotal to a healthy culture, does it make sense to diminish ourselves, to subjugate ourselves through this type of imagery? The promoted propaganda that overt sexuality is leveling the playing field between men and women and toppling double standards, is spin of such a staggering magnitude, it's worthy of Fox News. Even if that was a believable motivation does it outweigh the potential cultural consequences?
As International Women's Day approaches with its theme of inspiring change, perhaps in American we can be more sensitive to the imagery of women in all businesses. We are doing a disservice to our society and our daughters if we don't.