A Reflection on The Presence of Sexism in Media
Lately I have found myself flooded with grief, heartbreak and sadness around the ubiquitous presence of violence on both a large and small scale in the United States. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, sizeism and ableism continue to dominate the cultural scripts of our lives. This prejudice and discrimination is far from harmless and results in the loss of many lives. There is no question that change needs to happen on a great scale if we are ever to truly achieve safety, peace, harmony and equality for all.
Popular media in the United States is a perfect mirror for the discriminatory and prejudiced beliefs our culture clings to. The media we consume is a wellspring of problematic narratives surrounding marginalized groups. These narratives feel inescapable. When I watch the movies I grew-up with, or listen to my favorite musical artists I see it and I hear it everywhere (sexism, racism, transphobia...etc).
Experiencing these narratives on a regular basis makes me realize just how deeply entrenched these violent beliefs are in our culture and how, in many ways, until recently with the rise of social media, there was no equivocal large-scale counter-narrative to challenge these problematic narratives.
For the purpose of this article, I wish to zone in on one area in particular: sexism in some of the popular media that I used to love growing-up.
What I have noticed in the last 24 hours…
Last night I found myself lying in bed and feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and intense emotions of grief and rage about the white supremacy, violence and inequality that exists in our country. I attempted to sleep to no avail for several hours. Finally, I decided to watch one of my go-to “feel good” films in an attempt to distract my mind from the intrusive thoughts preventing me from sleeping (“What can I do to enact meaningful change?” “What can we do?” “Will it ever be enough?”).
I had started watching Legally Blonde earlier that day. Like many of the “feminist” films of my generation, Legally Blonde is a film with a message that attempted to address sexism in male dominated institutions (in the case of the film, the institution of law) and in some ways, it does hit the mark.
What is positive...
The film portrays Elle Woods, the film’s protagonist, ultimately abandoning hope of winning her less-than-mediocre and incredibly privileged ex-boyfriend back and instead becoming best friends with Warner’s girlfriend in a plot twist that was unique to films at that time. Most films I watched growing-up pushed the exhausted narrative that women would turn on one another in order to obtain a man who was ultimately the “prize” and symbol of worth achievement for female lead characters. How sad and pathetic.
If we are discussing ways to make large-scale change happen in the United States, we must overcome the narrative that individuals belonging to marginalized groups must fight against one another for resources; whether that resource is money, a job, a house or a less-than-mediocre white man (which, I have to ask, like why?) The fact that Legally Blonde pushes a counter-narrative to the tired “cat fight over man” narrative is very important and models some of the themes we need to see continue in order to overcome problematic narratives that maintain the status quo of those in power (white, wealthy people).
What felt disappointing…
Like many white films of the 90’s and early 2,000’s, Legally Blonde is largely lacking in diverse representation of marginalized racial groups. Like many feminist films of this time, the feminism is hardly intersectional and is overly focused on the wealthy white woman experience which excludes many important narratives of those who experience multiple layers of oppression within white, male-dominated fields. If Elle Woods struggled to get into Harvard as a wealthy, attractive, white woman, then you can believe there are countless others who did not make the cut.
The second narrative I felt disappointed in while watching Legally Blonde is the moment when Elle considers leaving Harvard after being sexually assaulted by one of her male professors. Not only is Elle sexually assaulted, but shortly after she is also shamed by Vivian, another female law student who Elle eventually becomes best friends with. Vivian accuses Elle of using sex as a means to get what she wants and shames her for doing so; which is problematic for many reasons.
The next scene shows Elle saying goodbye to her friend Paulette who works in a beauty parlor. Elle tells Paulette that she has decided she’s not cut out to be a lawyer and feels that she does not belong at Harvard. This is a completely understandable and realistic portrayal of what women often feel after being raped, sexually harassed and sexually assaulted. We often decide to leave, to quietly bow out, to blame ourselves for not being enough. This portrayal is so accurate and important; however the film’s response to Elle’s feelings about being sexually assaulted are very disappointing.
A female professor that Elle looks up to, who unbeknownst to Elle has been listening to Elle’s conversation with Paulette while getting her hair done, comes over and tells Elle something like, “If you’re going to let one prick stop you from reaching your goals then you aren’t the woman I thought you were.” After hearing this, Elle feels empowered and returns to Harvard ultimately to save the day and graduate with honors.
I was left devastated and floored by this message which essentially states if you’re a woman who has survived sexual abuse and doesn’t just buck up and keep marching on then its a major shortcoming on your part! WTF? I was so distracted by the problematic nature of this message that I couldn’t move past it. I just kept feeling it in my gut; like a punch. This is what our culture expects of women and of anyone belonging to a marginalized group. You’re abused by someone in power? Keep on marching and if you don’t then you aren’t strong enough. This is the narrative that maintains the status quo; one that keeps those in power from taking accountability and continues to place the burden or responsibility for not “making it” on those without power. Marginalized folks often internalize the narrative that their inability to succeed after experiencing trauma is somehow their fault or a shortcoming on their part.
We see a similar narrative (perhaps intentional) reflected in the recent film, “Promising Young Women” where the character Nina, after being raped by one of her male colleagues, drops out of law school and completes suicide. This second narrative is more likely the outcome of such an experience, versus the fantasy of the Elle Woods success story. Films like “Promising Young Women” are paving the way to a place of greater honesty rather than selling the false glorification and problematic narratives about the struggles of individuals from marginalized groups trying to survive in institutions and structures dominated by patriarchy and white supremacy.
Sexism in music…
I woke up this morning craving some peaceful music. I decided to put on Cat Stevens who sings the lyrics, “If you want to sing out, sing out and if you want to be free, be free because there are a million ways to be, you know that there are.” I started the album, “Tea for the Tillerman,” and began to change the sheets on my bed.
As I listened, I noticed myself feeling increasingly annoyed. Listening to the song “Hard Headed Woman,” Stevens talks about how he needs a hard headed woman to help him out and get his life together basically. I was so disappointed by this narrative that is so exhausted in male-dominated music that either shames women for being a certain way, (just wait until the next track on the album titled, “Wild World,”) or expects them to take care of or facilitate growth for the male musician in some way.
Hey men, I was not put on this earth to help you grow; despite what you may believe. My main purpose in life is not to serve you, push you, help you, assist you, teach you, fuck you, and make things easy and comfortable for you. It is not. I am so beyond sick and disgusted by these narratives. Male musicians, please stop writing these songs that put women into these extra limited boxes centered around pleasing or otherwise serving you. Come on Cat Stevens! How can you sing about peace and being what you want to be and then write songs like this?
So many male musicians preach peace and equality for all before first examining their own internalized sexism, privilege and problematic beliefs about women. That absolutely needs to change.
In “Wild World,” the next track on the album, Stevens flips to sharing another problematic side around his expectations of women. He essentially cautions a woman from going out into the “wild world.” He describes her as being naïve and smiling and basically tells her the world is dangerous and that he wants to remember her like a child. One second Cat wants a hard headed and worldly woman to help him out and the next song he’s infantilizing a woman by telling her to look out for herself because she can’t handle herself in the “wild world?” His lyrics sound like a veiled threat to women who have the courage to put themselves out there.
It is nearly comical how these two songs, back to back on the album, subscribe to the problematic narratives our society holds about women; either shaming us for not being strong enough to take care of ourselves and men (a job I don’t care to have in the first place) or shaming us for being childish and naïve in thinking we can make it on our own.
The examples I have shared here are only a few examples of the way in the span of 24 hours I have experienced media that I loved at one point in my life pushing problematic narratives. There are many more examples out there. I urge you to be a critical consumer; really listen to the undercurrents of prejudice and discrimination that you experience in media. It really is everywhere. If we begin to see the ubiquitous presence of these messages dominating the media we consume, it's no wonder we live in a culture that is tone deaf to the suffering of so many people from marginalized groups.
If change is really going to come, we need to wake up and realize how prevalent these messages are all around us. They often exist, unchecked and unquestioned and enabled. I’m not saying that we need to exhaust ourselves by calling out every little thing we see; but I know how I feel when I notice these messages existing in beloved music and film. I feel sick, disgusted, disappointed, sad, and hopeless.
My guess is that I am not alone in noticing these things. The problem is that dominant voices and dominant narratives move through our lives unquestioned and unchecked. There is a defensiveness or dismissiveness that often arises when these themes are brought to their awareness in service of preventing change from happening.
I would be thrilled if straight, white, wealthy men took it upon themselves to become aware of the way these messages dominate our cultural scripts. We need them to tune into the ways problematic narratives show up and to put themselves into other people’s shoes. There is no question that those in positions of power need to be aware of how these narratives dominate our lives if we are ever to see real change happen.
I am a licensed psychologist and counselor in northern Colorado based in Fort Collins, CO. I see clients for relationship and attachment counseling. I work from a social justice framework that incorporates liberation and deconstruction of cultural injustices into the healing process.