Decoding Sexiness on the Screen

By Soumya Rachel Shailendra '21

Artwork by Emma Ogden '21

Artwork by Emma Ogden '21

In preparation for International Women’s Day, Professor Eileen Zubriggen inaugurated the Society, Culture and Thought Spring 2018 colloquium series titled “Beyond the Binaries: Gender Formations across Space and Time” with her March 8 talk, “The Sexualization of Girls: Feminist Reflections on Objectification and Empowerment.”

Over the span of the next two months, the series will host eminent speakers such as Susan Stryker and Sahar Sajdadi, who will touch on themes like feminist freedom, transgender history and labor relations with regard to the current discourse surrounding gender in academia and beyond.

Drawing from her research on the effects of Barbies on career cognition in girls, she elaborated on the influence of pop culture portrayals of women in guiding perceptions about employment opportunities for young women today. The showcase of “sexy nudity” in the media sets unattainable standards of beauty, diverting the academic attentions of school-going girls and refocusing them instead on girls’ own self-consciousness. Besides propagating a myopic vision of “physical sexiness,” the imposition of sexualized photoshoots limits these girls to becoming vessels of passivity. “The narrow standard equates physical attractiveness with sexiness by focusing on body parts for the viewer’s entertainment,” said Zubrigeen.

Several instances in history have paid testament to Zubriggen’s claims; for instance, the widely-circulated photographs of Brandi Chastain, after she won the 1999 Football World Cup, primarily captured her taking off her shirt after scoring the winning goal -- a victory gesture often performed by male footballers. Zubriggen states, “Imposing sexuality on a moment of victory completely takes away the  historical significance of the moment. It was called a strip tease and the team was welcomed home by the name of ‘booters and hooters.’” Another moment Zubriggen brought up was a photograph from Newsweek of  Governor Sarah Palin’s legs during the 2008 electoral campaign. The political gravitas of her campaign was suddenly reduced to high heels and toned legs, insignificant components of her policy and ideology.

Addressing critiques of her work by others from the discipline, Zubriggen clarified that she is not sex-negative and that she encourages positive discussions of sex. Instead it is the flagrant objectification of girls she opposes, which has consistently utilized nudity as a means of sexual fantasy. However, recent social movements such as “Free the Nipple” and “Slut Walks” have seen feminists across the spectrum embrace nudity as a revolt against masculine ideas of proper clothing. This reassertion of femininity has proven to be an antithesis to her claims on nudity and sexualized portrayals. By providing collective solidarity, they have assisted in unifying voices of women against the rampant sexual violence across industries and societies.

Zubriggen responded to these claims by underlining that the audience for such protest movements are different from those who consume sports magazines containing explicitly objectifying images of nude female athletes. She further added that the effect of body positive movements on young girls is an evolving arena of research, as these feminist movements are still struggling to find contextual relevance and meaning across different social classes.

She concluded the session by suggesting schools adopt a comprehensive sex education with a special focus on media literacy, which not only creates conscious viewers but enables them to interpret media without being passive. Besides discouraging the circulation of sexualized content, it assists girls in participating in domains and disciplines which have traditionally been controlled by men. However, several students were unsatisfied with this narrow understanding of sexualization and pushed Zubriggen to adopt an intersectional approach in creating structural change. Jessi Faircloth, ‘21,  commented, “Eileen Zurbriggren dipped her toe in the implications of the sexualization of young women. Her talk left out critical issues surrounding women across the world, transgender women, queer women, and women of color. One could infer from her talk that the way to combat this social and political issue is to dress modestly, do math, and abstain from sex.”