An American Apparel ad for a flannel shirt shows a man sitting by a window, shirt buttoned and tucked in, hands in pockets, looking relatively normal. An ad by the same company for the same shirt depicts a woman stretched out in front of a wall, shirt fully unbuttoned, underwear and bra exposed, looking totally sexualized.
Call me hypercritical, but I can't stand the blaring sexism that infiltrates modern media. Music videos like Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" portray practically naked women with excessive makeup and skimpy bodies next to fully clothed men. Advertisements reinforce old, invalid cultural statements that men can't cook or clean, women are valued only for their looks, and only women can care for children. Movies lag acceptable standards, characterizing women as fragile, incapable and in need of men's protection.
In the world of Mr. Advertising Man, there are two kinds of sexism. The first is winking sexism, where women are purposely objectified but something in the ad seems to acknowledge to the audience: "We know we're being sexist, so that makes it OK." In 2003, Miller Lite aired an advertisement with two busty women having a cat-fight in a fountain. The ad acknowledged its absurdity by revealing that the whole scene had been imagined by two men talking in a bar while their girlfriends looked on in disgust.
Second, there is backlash sexism, where men fight back against their domestication and emasculation in the modern world of relationships. The 2010 Super Bowl was the epitome of sexist advertisements like the Dockers' "It's Time to Wear the Pants" campaign and a Dove spot that likewise promoted that consumer products were the saving grace for men burdened by their wives' expectations. Most hideous of all, a Flo-TV ad mocked a boyfriend shopping with his girlfriend on a football Sunday, implying that adult relationships are an eternal hellhole of emasculation.
Even movies encourage sexism, although most viewers don't notice it. Movies are male-dominated, portraying women as dependent characters or tools of affection for their heroic lovers. Of the top 100 American films in 2011, women made up only 33 percent of all characters and only 11 percent of the protagonists, according to a study by the San Diego-based Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
Another study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showed the ratio of male to female characters in movies has remained at about 2 to 1 for at least the last six decades. That study, which examined 855 top box office films from 1950 to 2006, showed that female characters were twice as likely to be seen in explicit sexual scenes as males, while male characters were more likely to be perceived as violent.
The state-funded Swedish Film Institute has recently started supporting a system that rates gender equality in movies. To get an "A" rating, a movie must pass the Bechdel test, which means it must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. The entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, all "Star Wars" movies, "The Social Network," "Pulp Fiction" and all but one of the "Harry Potter" movies fail the test.
Understanding the reality of sex and relationships is a crucial step in curbing the impact of the almost inescapable harmful messages children and young people are faced with. It's not just so that girls stop believing that they have to be idealistically attractive and subservient to men or so that men stop going ballistic about emasculation. It's so that people of all ages, genders, races and sexualities are not internalizing content that frames men as predators and women as prey, sexualizes youth and reduces women's sexual activity to something that happens when women get a bit freaky/drunk/wild and want to entertain men.