A study out of the UK has found (as haveothersmore than once), that use of social media sometimes doesn’t make you feel like…really socializing. Rather, it can make you feel anxious and depressed.
The study found that participants noted a drop in their own self-esteem after viewing the accomplishments of their Facebook friends. Combine this with the fact that 25% of them claimed to have had relationship issues due to online ‘confrontations’ (which could, of course, mean many things), that more than half were rendered uncomfortable when they couldn’t easily access their social media accounts, that other studies have claimed more socially aggressive (subtly termed ‘hateful’) folks use Facebook more often, that people often deliberately post bad pictures of their friends to make themselves look better and subsequently compare their weight, body size, and physical appearance to these friends, and that Facebook is cited in divorce proceedings as being problematic for couples, and you may be liable to think that this phenomenon offer little in the way of improving our lives.
A good thing to remember here, aside from the pretty remarkable things being done with social media in terms of education, research, medicine, and public health (this USC study is great news, and touches upon the influence of social networks in ways I’ve been exploring as it relates to substance use, sexual behavior, and disordered eating behaviors, and that other studies have shown the exact opposite in terms of emotional response, is that social media does allow users to tailor the perception and identity they project. Another recent study (I’ll try to find the URL for it!) showed, unsurprisingly, that what users often admire about their friends’ virtual lives is the positive sliver that their friends elect to promote about themselves.
A new study released by University of Buffalo sociologists discovered something truly ground-breaking: there has been an undeniable and increasing hyper-sexualiztion of images of women in popular media over the last several decades.
This is something that I would normally take notice of and file alongside the slew of reports that have similar conclusions and continue to confirm what I’ve always felt to be true about advertising and media presentations of women. Being a major theme of my blog, I occasionally worry that I’m Not Tired Yet will begin to sound like a broken record as I continue to write about how damaging media portrayals of women and girls truly are, and how it impacts human development, sense of self-worth, and definitions of beauty for both sexes.
That being said, as long as women and girls continue to be hyper-sexualized in images, videos, and advertisements, there have to be just as many consistent criticisms of them. Creating a chorus of opposition that shows growing girls this is not normal, not healthy, and that they have much, much more to offer than what our culture’s media is telling them they do through a ceaseless blasting bullhorn.
In this particular study, researchers’ conclusions did offer a concrete example of gender disparity in this realm. While representations of men and women have become increasingly sexualized, it was the intensity of the sexualization of women which was particularly shocking and far exceeded that of men. A scale was developed to rate the intensity of the level of sexualization of images, which showed evidence of women being far more likely to be in positions of submission or of offering pleasure as tools of hetero-male sexual desire. This sets a dangerous precedent – women are those who satisfy, men are those who are satisfied.
In the grand scheme of things, media not only influences our decisions and impacts our thinking, but is a reflection of these things as well – it’s a circuitous pattern of reinforcement and ever-heightening intensity. The more these images are sexualized, then the more it is socially expected for women to act as sexualized as they are portrayed, then the more sexualized the images become, building upon themselves as viewers need increasingly overt sexualization to feel excited or as though advertisements are pushing boundaries – which is what advertisements do to draw in a receptive audience. This causes two immediately obvious problems – first, that this pattern leads one down a path that ends in unquestioned and irrelevant nudity and commodification of the sexual identity of girls; secondly, we move farther and farther away from the objections that this kind of imagery is entirely inappropriate, sexist, pedophilic, and harmful.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to guest speak on a radio show about the effects of sexualization and violence in video games and media. One of the last questions the host asked me was, “So, what’s the solution? Should we censor these video games and movies?”
My response to this was no, of course I am against censorship. The free speech I advocate protects the video game developers (and advertisers, fashion labels, films, etc etc) as well as my criticism of them – which I will stop as soon as I see the egregious violence against women, forced sex acts and trivialization of women stop. That being said, there is an element of self-censorship — editing, if you will — that could certainly happen on the part of the creators. Until the developers want to change the games, they aren’t going to change – which is why I said that the ‘solution’ as it stands is keeping up the constant conversation, the constant writing, the constant research, that refutes the idea that these games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc, that send the same messages) are just harmless entertainment. We know they aren’t. But the games (images, advertisements, movies, etc etc) keep selling and people keep buying because it’s seen as normal, and the media’s bottom line – $$ – is different than that of a parent, educator, coach, sibling, etc, who have concerns (hopefully) centered around the health of their children. So the ‘solution’ is to keep up the commentary, keep up the research, keep up the discussions about why these media messages are harmful, and ensure that parents, teachers, siblings, and, of course, anyone who are concerned about healthy children growing into healthy adults, are aware of why media matters and the kind of influence it is having.
Curbing the effects of non-stop media is difficult, but not impossible, and involves even more talking – this time directed at the kids. Getting media to change its tactics can feel damn near impossible, but keeping up a constant dialogue with children about the kind of messages they’re on the receiving end of can certainly help.
In the end, it comes down to what kind of society we want to cultivate – for us and our future generations. The kind of culture we want to look upon as having created – the definitions of gender, success, individual expression, and love – and having fostered. Is it one in which the bottom line is comprised strictly of financial and monetary goals, with little regard as to what happens to members of our communities and how our actions impact children and youth in pursuit of that goal? Or the opposite?
I got a lot of traffic and messages about a piece I wrote regarding Duke Nukem. People in the gaming community condemned it for its lack of originality, how it strayed from the original premise of apparently ostensibly mocking the ’80s action-hero genre, and how it overall disappointed those who are used to more complex and engaging videos. Some replies also included people needing to “get over it” when discussing images of coerced sexual activity or the game’s encouragement of merging violent and sexually explicit content together (I don’t post comments that are condescending or don’t encourage dialogue), something I found…disturbing. My initial argument, however, did not change – that is, that the imagery and the actions the gamer supposes in this video are tragically abusive and in fact detrimental to both men and women.
A well-known study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that repeated exposure to images and advertisements ultimately were processed in people the same way actual experiences were processed. That is, if you see or watch something enough times – in a video game, in a fashion magazine in which models are photoshopped to near obscurity, in a parent abusing your sibling – you begin to process it as though it was you yourself experiencing the act and identify with the “player” (model, game character) you are watching. You see enough pictures of a model like this:
And you begin to think you are supposed to align yourself with her, that this image is what is normal (the image on the right was criticized heavily in 2009 for being so drastically photoshopped). After so many exposures, you begin to mold yourself after her, to think that since this is how we project women for adoration in our culture, that you should begin appropriating yourself to match her image. Just like a gamer, after so many exposures, can begin to mold themselves after the image of the character they are impersonating in a game. And while they may not go out on a shooting spree, they are desensitized to the effects of that reality, just as they are desensitized to the effects of coerced sex in a game, which can lead to difficulty distinguishing that from a healthy sexual relationship.
We’re humans. We learn by watching, by then mimicking and imitating what we observe. It doesn’t happen all at once, which is why fashion moguls or game designers claim they have no real impact. Are girls entering periods of self-mandated starving as soon as they open this month’s Vogue? Are adolescent boys heading to the hills for a sawed off shotgun fight after the first round of Duke or stealing cars after playing the new Grand Theft Auto? No, of course not. But can it impact their sense of compassion, affect their interpersonal relationships? Can it make violence seem less threatening, less damaging, and less impacting than it is? Yes. Can that change the way people behave, from nuance to imitation? Sure. Even researchers who admit that it won’t necessarily turn children violent admit that’s likely true (and, interestingly, still disallow their children to play). Human development takes time – language acquisition, understanding of and the processing of visual messages, being able to comprehend meaning from a block of text – these are all cognitive functions that take years to develop and perfect, and their influence lies in the words and actions of children’s families, friends, teachers. Unfortunately, messages of gender have been largely commandeered by the media. And the repeated exposure, over years, to these specifics of models’ physical appearance has resulted in the erosion of self-confidence that many girls and women – and boys and men – experience as young children becoming adolescents. And the repeated exposure, over years, to the specifics of war, sexual violence, and the presentation of hyper-masculinity, can also result in the erosion of what kind of impact violence truly has, as they become desensitized, and what a healthy understanding of and relationship with the opposite sex is (as opposed to its portrayal in my Duke Nukem piece). As the study articulated, it’s about changing people over time, it’s about how perceptions and perspectives change when a new definition of the norm that is not contested or dissected – a Ralph Lauren model, a Duke Nukem – enters the picture. Women who suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, while not blaming the fashion industry, have emphatically articulated that it certainly has had an impact as it normalized this destructive self-image and behavior.
I think it’s also relevant here to bring up the Supreme Court’s decision about a week ago to shoot down California’s attempt to ban the sale of violent video games to children. Timothy Egan, a Times columnist, had a great commentary on this, noting how ridiculous it seems for there to be a perpetual ban on nudity and sexually explicit images, but not on virtually dismembering a human or sexually assaulting a woman. It does seem…well, more than troubling, that a game in which a player can simulate murder and rape is protected by free speech but a bare breast is the height of vulgarity. (I found a great post from a female gamer about this kind of sexual violence in video games, and I agree with her assertion that sexual expression can in fact exist without it also involving violence and degradation.) I don’t think any of the representations of sexuality that I have seen in video games are appropriate for children because they overwhelmingly associate it with abuse and/or coercion (I’ve done a lot of viewing in the past couple days after my Duke Nukem post). To say that sexuality would have a more harmful impact than violence seems questionable, when representations of both are equally unhealthy.
It should also be said that I am far from someone who believes nudity and sexuality itself is vulgar. I celebrate and support healthy (and protected!) sexual expression in any way the individual consents and desires. I firmly believe that discussions of sex and sexuality should be brought up early on, so children can ask questions, be informed, protect themselves when they do engage in sex, and have an understanding of what a respectful, consensual sexual relationship is. I also believe that when these discussions in families don’t take place, and when sex is a taboo topic, that it is a disservice to these children, and that any confusion they have about sex or uncertainty about what a healthy sex life actually is will be magnified by the messages the media sends them. I’m an advocate of early onset, comprehensive sexual health and reproductive health education. Sex shouldn’t be confusing, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized. Sexual violence, however, and a misappropriation of the presentation of sexual relationships that are abusive, coercive, and violent, should be condemned.
This is also why a diversity of exposures is important. It’s important to not be inundated with the same message over and over again. Advertisers know that repeated exposure is key to getting people to buy what they want to sell. If you see an image of a Coke bottle once, it won’t register with much impact. If you see it every time your favorite TV show breaks for commercial, when you’re leafing through the pages of a magazine, when you’re driving down a freeway and it’s up on a billboard, when you’re listening to the radio and it breaks for the Coke jingle – it adds up, as do afternoons in front of a game console, as do hours reading “women’s” magazines and fashion spreads, as do episodes of spousal or child abuse, (which we know increases the likelihood of the child being in an abusive relationship him/herself and hampers healthy development – the others are logical extensions, to a lesser degree). We have to have enough positive images, positive games, positive and healthy discourse about relationships to not just equal the stream of negative imagery and messaging, but to overtake it. Positive, healthy messages, not abusive, harmful, violent messages, have to be in the majority. The norm. It’s nice that the docs finally said so.