What was she wearing? How did she look? Was she asking for it? Questions like these are typically among the first things asked of female rape and sexual assault victims. Besides the dismissive, irresponsible, and victim-blaming nature of these queries, an important commonality among all these questions is how they all have to do with a woman’s appearance/mannerisms and how that somehow justifies any type of sexual assault.
Even as our society as a whole becomes more progressive in its collective thinking, stereotypical portrayals of women in media remain the same. Therefore, these same victim-blaming questions are asked whenever a new case of sexual assault is reported. Thus, one has to wonder, does the portrayal of women in the media contribute to rape and sexual assault culture?
The portrayal of women in the media heavily contributes to rape and sexual assault culture. It is important for our society to consider this because any new information on the matter has the potential to help us further understand any correlation between the way the world continues to view women as weak, how different modes of media portray women, and how sexual predators select their victims based on common stereotypes.
The way media poses women in advertisements, the positions our media places women in television and film, and the way sexual predators select their female victims all relate back to how the media tends to portray women as vulnerable, weak, and easily manipulated.
Examples of these negative portrayals are everywhere in our media. If you were to flip open a magazine, you might see Dior’s 2017 advertisement campaign for their perfume, Miss Dior, featured actress Natalie Portman lying on the floor with only a blanket to cover her naked body.
You might flip on the T.V. and happen across a rerun of the 2004 film, the Stepford Wives. The entire premise of the movie? Men turning their wives into literal robots that can cook, clean, serve, and please their husbands the way the ‘perfect wife’ should.
The clearest depiction of what late sociologist Erving Goffman calls “displays of female powerlessness” can be easily seen in a simple magazine advert. These are things like making women’s necks appear very elongated and exposed to their surroundings, dressing or posing women in childlike manners to convey a sense of innocence and naivety. A rather significant commonality among many advertisements is featuring females in a lying down position.
The documentary, The Codes of Gender, goes over Erving Goffman’s analysis of
“The Ritualization of Subordination” and what Goffman believed the true significance behind the lying down pose is, “This a posture that communicates submission and powerlessness and women are overwhelmingly featured utilizing it… In this position, it is difficult to defend yourself. Therefore, you’re dependent upon what he calls benignness of the surround-that is the reclining position in which women are placed in gives them no defense against possible threats, is submissive and powerless position, utterly dependent on the world being risk and danger free”.
Goffman continues on to explain that, “Displays of female powerlessness have become sexualized and conventionalized expressions of sexual availability”.
From the minute we’re born, we are subjected to all different types of media. Goffman explains that we are socialized through the media to believe that female identity is directly connected with female sexuality. The danger behind this sort of thinking? If an entire civilization believes that the media’s depiction of female sexuality (“submissive, powerless, and dependent”) is, without exception, entirely correct and they also believe that a female identity and sexuality are interchangeable terms, than wouldn’t it be safe to assume that our society views the entire female gender as, like Goffman said, “submissive, powerless, and dependent”? I believe it is. I also believe that it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge how this ideology is continually perpetuated through the media.
When a culture sees an entire gender as weak and sexually available, the lines between sex and rape, consent and rejection, right and wrong become blurred. We have the opportunity and knowledge to change the media’s perception of women to create a safer future. Although better representation is already underway, we must not settle or get too comfortable. The fight is not won just yet.