Last week on MSNBC, Foster Friess, Rick Santorum’s billionaire sponsor and bigoted growth-stockpiler said, “Back in my day they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”
Next weekend, 21 women from the Drexel community will present a benefit production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” For those of you who have not bought your tickets yet, or those of you who think it’s gross when Drexel guys high-five each other when they find out they are “Eskimo brothers,” or those of you who simply do not understand why “The Vagina Monologues” are more important than ever in our history as a people, here is a small effort to educate.
While “V-Day” specifically acts as a globally organized response against violence toward women, it reminds us of something much larger. Despite common notions that times have changed and that we are moving forward in 21st-century America, I believe there is scant evidence when it comes to gender equality. The ties between the media’s portrayal of women and its stimulation of our culture’s prosperous sexist hegemony are unwavering. We have come to accept the ideals and practices proposed by images in magazines, lyrics in songs, and role play in motion pictures and politics alike, prompting prejudice and violence toward women. Women of all ages continue to be stripped of their clothes, identity and dignity in music and television. It also happens on the doorsteps of Powelton parties, where bathroom mirrors and “glass ceilings” serve as powerful symbols of self-hatred and hopelessness.
The popularized degrading of women is no recent phenomenon, for it is rooted in the darkest corners of our nation’s history. Two hundred years prior to the dawn of Barbie Worlds and Playboy Penthouses, Thomas Jefferson and his gang of Founding Fathers failed to include women in that important document known as the Declaration of Independence. This confirmed the earliest of Anglo-American roles placed on women: wife, mother or mistress.
The same subliminal white chauvinism that whispered, “All men are created equal,” permeated throughout the rest of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Caucasian women were expected to marry and have children. Education was limited or nonexistent. Achieving political office was unthinkable. Meanwhile, enslaved African-American women were expected to reproduce “property” for their white master and were perceived as promiscuous and overtly sexual compared to the pure and innocent stereotypes of Anglo-American women. Since the emancipation of slavery, the pigeonholes vary with intersecting undertones of racism and classism. From the rebel girl and sex kitten to the cold-hearted corporate climber and “Mad Black Woman,” to the cougar and welfare mother, to the soccer mom and tiger mom — the typecasts plague our country from every angle. These stigmas have been vulgarized and continue to be fed by the media and digested in various forms, including V-Day’s cause.
And the effects are degrading.
In 2010 the Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey of more than 2,000 8- to 18-year-olds revealed that children and teenagers in the U.S. spend more than seven hours a day with various forms of different media. This includes movies, television, video games, the Internet, music, newspapers, books, advertisements and — more notably — magazines. Despite prevailing online social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, magazines remain a dominant and quite toxic influence on America’s young children today.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 69 percent of girls in fifth through 12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their perception of the ideal body shape. Forty-seven percent of girls in fifth through 12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine photographs. Perhaps what is most alarming is that 42 percent of first through third grade girls want to be thinner. In 2009 the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed an analysis by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Between 1999 and 2006 the hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 years of age had increased by 119 percent. This is disturbing.
Equally disturbing was the release of last year’s club-banger and party-girl favorite hit “S&M” by Rihanna. After suffering the plights of the 2009 domestic abuse scandal with Chris Brown that landed her in the hospital with a split lip, bruises across her head and bite marks on her hand, I find “S&M” largely ironic and offensive. Third-wave feminists could argue this, but when a nationally representative survey of 9,684 adults revealed that 10.6 percent of women experience forced sex at some time in their lives, I find Rihanna very unappealing. Approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year in the United States, compared to the 835,000 men. “Whips and chains excite” Rihanna, but she’s not the only one nurturing violence toward women.
In January of 2011, Constable Michael Sanguinetti of Toronto spoke on crime prevention at a York University safety forum and said, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” These remarks would spark the yearlong marches known as “SlutWalks,” stirring both favorable and fatalistic furor among rape victims, women’s rights advocates and feminist scholars. In contrast to the rather heteronormative and hypersexualized SlutWalks, Drexel’s annual “Take Back the Night” works to empower all women through a candlelight vigil and sharing of domestic violence survivor stories. One in four women and one in six men are sexually assaulted before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Our nation’s political landscape continues to be dominated by straight, upper-class white men who seemingly don’t care about the female voice. While funding for Planned Parenthood, which serves over three million people in the U.S., gets slashed across various states, religious conservatives have used the hackneyed “religious liberty” mantra as a modern scapegoat for oppressing women. Last Thursday, the Republican-dominated Senate committee of Virginia advanced a House bill that would shatter state funding for abortions for low-income women. That same day, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called for a hearing on President Obama’s so-called war on religious freedom, i.e., requiring health insurers to provide contraceptive coverage. No one should be surprised that all of the panelists invited were men.
Women inside the national political sphere are just as equally underrepresented as those who watch helplessly from the outside. Women in politics who come close to defying tradition and prejudice end up smothered by archaic stereotypes in the press. Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton were pigeonholed from day 1 in the 2008 presidential race. Whether or not you agree with their politics, it is clear that their relationship and image with the taxpayers was too lowbrow on one side and too ruthless on the other, as they took on two of the most beloved female stereotypes in American society — the ‘ditz’ and the ‘b—-.’
In an age of revolving sociopolitical turmoil and celebutante decay, who do young American girls look up to? When will America finally throw off the shackles of sexism and expel misogyny from its entertainment business, legal system and college campuses? And more specifically, what can we do at Drexel to combat the injustices here on campus and in the greater Philadelphia community? We can start by supporting “The Vagina Monologues,” hosted by the Office of Multicultural Programs, on Friday, March 2 from 8 to 10 p.m. and Saturday, March 3 from 1 to 3 p.m. The cost for students is $5, and general admission is $10. All proceeds will go to Dawn’s Place and the Women of Haiti.
William Lukas is a sophomore majoring in sociology. He can be reached at [email protected].