Since the beginning of time, it seems like being a woman means having to deal with being looked down upon or objectified on a daily basis. I still remember when I was taking my Gender in Language class in University. The types of old advertisements targeting women yet simultaneously belittling them were disturbing, to say the least.
It doesn’t mean advertisements nowadays are perfect either, though. Have you ever looked at a billboard ad and wondered what the half-naked women sexily posing has to do with the actual product, which is usually something like a watch or perfume? Just because ads don’t directly insult women anymore doesn’t mean they don’t still treat us like objects now.
Ads back then
Curious about the shockingly sexist vintage advertisements I mentioned? There are multiple examples of this, and their trend is mostly about how a woman can be more useful to her husband or portraying her as incompetent.
It matches with the times, since back then, women were traditionally expected to get married and keep their husbands happy. In fact, in many cases, this would be their end goal, and those who didn’t end up married were seen as strange or undesirable.
Ads and content now
The phrase “sex sells” is a good way to put modern advertisements in a nutshell. Also, if you like to watch shows or play video games, you’ve more than likely seen your fair share of sexualized female character designs.
The completely unnecessary objectification of women (and even men) in ads is no rarity in modern times. However, because it’s so prominent, many of us don’t even do a double take when we see ads like that out in the wild. It’s become normalized for the general society.
Even in my video games, I’m pleasantly surprised when the design of a female character isn’t hypersexualized (often in the dumbest ways). Even when not blatantly promiscuous, women in the games I play always seem to have to have a random portion of skin showing, even if their design would be better off without it. (Hip windows? Really?)
Arguments for sexualization: “It’s good, actually”
When someone points out the sexualization of women in media, there’s always someone that argues that we should allow women to be sexual in peace if they want to be. I agree with that wholeheartedly. However, there’s a difference between a woman having the agency to dress and act as sexy as she wants to be, and a women being used as a sex object to attract a male audience.
Women in shows, video games, etc. are characters. Many of them are created by men to appeal to other men. Hence, they’re sexualized to the point of being caricatures because that’s what business have seen sells. The same goes for female models in advertisements. Yes, they accept to wear and pose whatever and however the company asks them to, but at the end of the day, they just want to get paid, like the rest of us. It’s companies’ responsibility to represent the models in a way that doesn’t objectify them.
Besides, before we talk about letting fictional characters be comfortable with their sexuality, can we focus on letting women in real life do so first? It’s telling that many of the people who want to keep objectifying female characters are the same ones who look down on a real woman for not being conservative enough with her clothing or sex life. This is a major flaw in reasoning and speaks volumes for how women are not seen as equals by these people.
Arguments for sexualization: “This happens to men too!”
I agree, men aren’t an exception to sexualization in the media. There’s no denying, though, that it’s more common for women to be in that role. Furthermore, even if both a man and woman are sexualized in the same advertisement, the woman is often in a “submissive” role or position, like in the previously linked Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana ads. I don’t think I need to explain why being normalized is not a good look.
Also, many who make this argument fail to distinguish between a male character being sexualized and a male character being designed for the male power fantasy. I’ve seen Kratos from the video game God of War being referenced as an example of male sexualization, but he is actually a prime example of a character that channels the male power fantasy.
He’s physically fit, strong, able to gain control and dominance over his enemies. Even the pose in the linked image exudes power. Like this, much of the male audience want to be him, and they’re able to feel like they have the same strength and dominance when they play as him. Thus, the male power fantasy is not a bad thing like sexualization is.
All in all, so many industries need a lot of work when it comes to creating character designs and advertisements. And we, as the audience, can’t have our cake and eat it too. We should focus on letting women go out wearing whatever they want without fear before going to bat for fictional women who would probably be extremely uncomfortable in their clothes if they were real.