Earlier this year, Rashida Manjoo, a United Nations human rights expert, reported that Britain’s sexist culture was more widespread, more visible and more accepted than in any other country she had visited; particularly with regards to the portrayal of women and girls; and recommended that schools have mandatory modules on sexism.
We’re not sure we agree however; about it just being Britain anyway. We have noticed a shift in recent years in how women perceive themselves (what we call the Miley Cyrus Syndrome), which is possibly down to the influence of the sexist society that we live in. The question we wanted to ask is; have women not only accepted sexism but also internalised it?
We have noticed a shift in recent years in how women perceive themselves, which is possibly down to the influence of the sexist society that we live in.
Internalized sexism is the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths that are delivered in a sexist society are true. Young people hear the sexist messages over a lifetime and as a result, men and boys will grow up to believe the messages as a fact and will treat women accordingly; protecting their male privilege. However, women and girls also grow up believing the lies and stereotypes and play up to those roles. Again, this being the Miley Cyrus Syndrome.
We live in a society that bombards us with sexist messages from the moment we’re born, and it starts with the toys we’re encouraged to play with as children. There are the pretty pink toys for girls and the robust blue toys for boys; and although old fashioned, toy manufacturers are still making them and parents are still buying them.
Harrods recently removed a sexist book series from its shelves after a Twitter campaign by an angry parent. The children’s books, which were written by a woman, were titled ‘How To Be Gorgeous’, clearly aimed at girls, and ‘How To Be Smart’, aimed at boys. But there are thousands of examples of sexism within toy manufacturing, publishing and within the computer game industry. Only 4% of the top 25 computer games of 2013 had lead female characters, and even they were represented as either the pink Barbie type, damsel in distress or ultimate warriors (which are hyper sexualised).
With these types of influences from such an early age, it would be easy for women to accept and internalise sexism.
As we grow up these sexist messages become more prevalent. Take The Sun newspaper for example; a British tabloid that features a topless woman on page 3. It’s soft porn in a family newspaper that kids see their parents reading and come to believe it’s acceptable. And whilst there is a movement in the UK called ‘No More Page 3’, on the other side of the ocean in America, there’s a movement called ‘Free The Nipple’, where women are protesting about not being able to show images of their breasts within the media. The movement (started by a man who has also written and directed a film about it), questions why media censorship is not restrictive towards images of violence, but restrictive of images of women’s breasts. Whilst the film also aims to challenge laws across America where it is effectively illegal for a woman to be topless in public, which also includes breastfeeding; women have jumped on the bandwagon and have made the campaign about being free to show their breasts on social media.
Scout Willis (the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), even strolled topless around New York City to protest against Instagram’s restrictions, and was publicly supported (not surprisingly) but Miley Cyrus and Rihanna.
But why are women protesting about not being able to freely show their breasts on social media? And why do they feel it’s empowering to do so? Surely this in itself is a clear example of internalised sexism. The majority of women are not interested in seeing images of other women’s breasts; so who are they doing it for?
Popular culture is huge in this day and age, particularly with young adults, with many of them looking up to celebrities as their modern day heroes.
But what happens when your modern day heroes appear naked and overtly sexualised in all their videos and social media pictures?
It started with Madonna in the 90’s with her sex book and masturbating on stage; now pop stars such as Miley and Rihanna regularly appear naked and claim to feel empowered by it. They are lowering the bar with regards to common decency and sending out a message that it is OK to be a sexualised object for male gratification. Because, let’s be clear here, they aren’t getting naked for other women. Miley is seen licking a large hammer, sucking on her finger and writhing around naked on a wrecking ball in her video. This is not for the benefit of her female fans.
These are perfect examples of women who seem to have internalised sexism and now feel empowered by portraying the male fantasy of a woman. But aren’t they just corrupting a new generation and doing women a disservice in general?
In Emma Watson’s speech to the UN she talked about women being given the same respect as men; but how can this happen when women are publicly using their bodies instead of their minds or talent?
“If a girl walks on stage and picks up a guitar and starts playing like Jimi Hendrix, believe me no-one would be asking her to take her clothes off.” – Chrissie Hynde, Pretenders
And then of course, we have the women whose careers were started by selling their own sex tapes – come forward Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Kim Kardashian has 24 million followers on Twitter and Instagram (largely a female audience), and is one of the most photographed celebrities of the moment. However, what she regularly shares with her followers are half naked pictures of herself.
Brands aimed at women are also feeding into this stereotype; take underwear brand Dear Kate for example; their recent ad campaign featured six female technology executives from Silicon Valley, shown in their bra and knickers. The brands founder Julie Sygiel said the move was intended to empower women in tech and bring awareness to the many women working in that industry. But why did they have to take their clothes off to feel empowered and to bring awareness to women working in the industry? Surely they can see that posing semi-nude undermines their being taken seriously!
It’s because of this deeply ingrained and widely accepted sexism from all areas of society, that girls and young women are undervaluing themselves in the way that they dress, in the way they behave and in the way that they think.
Young girls are being taught that it’s normal to take their clothes off to get noticed, appreciated, valued or liked. There is a need for society to change as women and girls need to be afforded the same respect as men and boys. Perhaps when the pendulum falls the other way and there is a shift in the way women are perceived in society, women can start expecting more of themselves and their peers.