Neo-liberalism has brought many social evils and one of those is the increased commodification and sexualization of women’s bodies. In this post I will compare regular-looking photos of women with sexualized photos and discuss how free-market capitalism is playing a role in this increased sexualization.
To make sure we’re on the same page in terms of what neo-liberalism is, here is a quote from Neo-liberalism or Democracy by Arthur MacEwan:
The economic policy that became dominant in most of the world during the final decades of the twentieth century has given greater and greater rein to unregulated, private decision-making. The policy calls for reducing the economic roles of government in providing social welfare, in managing economic activity at the aggregate and sectoral levels, and in regulating international commerce. The ideas at the foundation of this policy are not new. They come directly from the classical economic liberalism that emerged in the nineteenth century and that proclaimed ‘the market’ as the proper guiding instrument by which people should organize their economic lives. As a new incarnation of these old ideas, this ascendant economic policy is generally called ‘neo-liberalism.’ P. 4
So, neo-liberalism is the economic system where the market is unregulated and the capitalists may do whatever they want with hardly any restrictions. This system is not just economic in nature, it is also the belief system that we apply to all areas of our lives. The individual has the right to do anything he wants to earn a living and whatever the individual chooses is what’s right for him; there is no class structure in society and we are all just individual agents choosing choices. What humans decide to produce is based on what sells and can generate profit; ethical or environmental issues are not considered. Because it is justifiable to sell anything that people will buy, and because we live in a patriarchy, it is acceptable to buy and sell female bodies. The buying and selling of female bodies takes its extreme form in pornography and prostitution, but milder forms include the use of female body parts to sell unrelated products in advertisements and the over-sexualization of women celebrities in order to sell entertainment products such as pop music, TV shows, films, and music videos.
There is no better example than the formation of the Spice Girls to illustrate how popular music is not a manifestation of culture or art but an entertainment product created by capitalists in order to generate profit. The Spice Girls were not a group of women who knew each other and who got together to sing. They are a product created by the company Heart Management, who saw room in the market for an all-girl band that would appeal to both girls and boys. (The bubbly pop tunes are supposed to appeal to girls and the sexualized appearance of the women is supposed to appeal to boys.) They auditioned women for the parts and they chose women who were young, feminine, and conventionally attractive. Theoretically, if what they were looking for was talent and musical skills, they would have chosen well-established musicians who were older and more experienced—but companies are looking for profits and what sells is women who are young, cute and only minimally talented at dancing and singing. After their rise to fame they became a brand name. All sorts of merchandise was sold with the Spice Girls logo and photos on it. Children were sold not just CDs and videos but Spice Girls toys, school supplies and other paraphernalia.
In the following image I have juxtaposed two images of women in musical groups. The first group is a folk group called The Rankin Family and the second group is The Spice Girls.
I know that I’m comparing apples to oranges here, but that’s the point. The folk group is there for the purpose of making music. They look like regular people and they are dressed as themselves, not as characters. The Spice Girls are wearing skimpy outfits; two of them have skirts so short their underwear is deliberately showing, one of them has an open shirt to reveal most of her bra. They are not dressed in normal clothes; they are wearing stage costumes and they are in character. The sexualization here is evident—in order to sell lots of records and concert tickets, women have to wear costumes inspired by soft core porn so that while they are performing, men can be titillated and imagine having sex with them. Although female fans are not expected to be turned on by these costumes, we are expected to accept that this is the way attractive women must look. These outfits were reproduced on Spice Girls merchandise and sold to fans who were mostly children and teen girls. In this way, popular culture succeeded in selling soft-core pornography to children. I remember a joke we told in middle school when the Spice Girls were popular: “What is the difference between a Spice Girls video and a porn video?” Answer: “The porn video has better music.” The fact that soft core porn was being sold to us was evident to us even as pre-teens.
Here is a juxtaposition of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and pop entertainer Lady Gaga.
In the image of Joni Mitchell we simply see an ordinary woman playing a guitar. In the image of Lady Gaga we see a porn outfit consisting of high heels, stockings, and stylized lingerie, with tons of makeup to create a Bardie-doll face. Mitchell could easily walk into a grocery store or a library or a school and look like any other person. Gaga could easily walk into a strip club or a brothel and she would be already dressed for a role as an escort.
Here is a juxtaposition of activist/musician Miriam Makeba and pop entertainer Beyoncé.
Makeba is fully dressed and appears as an ordinary woman singing a song. Beyoncé is wearing a stage outfit that mimics lingerie including bodysuit and stockings. The back of the bodysuit, which is shown in another photo at the above link, reveals about half of her bottocks. As in the previous pair of photos, the first woman looks like she could walk right into a classroom and start teaching, and the second looks like she would fit right in at a strip club.
Gail Dines names this over-sexualization as ‘porn culture’ and talks about how women can either be fuckable or invisible. As feminists we do not blame individual women for choosing sexualized outfits, we criticize the culture that makes sexualized outfits an imperative. Both Gaga and Beyoncé have musical talents and performance skills, and should be able to sell records and concert tickets even while looking like regular people, but in order to break through the pack and become famous they must market themselves as a product. This is what people have to do to succeed in a free market economy. When women market themselves as a product, if they want to be successful, the product that they must sell is a pornified image of themselves. Over the last few decades, and particularly with the creation of the Internet, pornography has gone mainstream and is now everywhere we look. Soft core porn is sold to children on a regular basis. Just take a look at the Bratz dolls.
Photo credit: Tree Change Dolls Tumblr.
Not only has neo-liberalism facilitated the buying and selling of women’s bodies and the over-sexualization of women and girls, it has made it much harder for us to talk about these issues. In the West we have lost the ability to consider our class interests as women or as working class people and to think critically about our culture. We all believe in the idea of the individual who chooses choices and the mainstream “feminist” discourse is all about preventing anyone from challenging any choice any woman makes. But we do not make choices in a vacuum, we make choices in a neo-liberal capitalist patriarchy and the options we have to choose from are decided upon by those in positions of power: rich white men who govern corporations and government. Women only have so many choices available to us and the menu of choices gets smaller and smaller as you add multiple oppressions such as race, class, disability and sexual orientation. When women critique sexualization we are told by neo-liberals that we are ‘slut-shaming.’ This is a position that assumes that women decide on their own to dress in pornographic outfits or to enter the sex industry and that it has nothing to do with the culture that has ensured that we are poor and powerless and that we are either fuckable or invisible. The idea of ‘slut-shaming’ places blame on feminists with a critique of capitalist patriarchy and takes blame away from the men whose power and money are dictating what women can do with our lives.
There are lots of women who appear to “choose” sexualization and pornification but we are choosing this within a system where sexualization has been normalized and promoted during our whole lives and where we have not been taught to question it. Lots of us are choosing it only because that is what we must do to survive in this world.