Following some links from a discussion of the visual imagery in some computer games, I ended up at the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, as well as a short BBC news item on the study.
I’m going to leave aside the side of the task force concerned with documenting the effects and extent of such sexualization, save to say that I have the same skepticism about those arguments that I have about most “media effects” claims. Such claims are habitually reductionist in their understanding of how expressive culture is interpreted, used and productive of consciousness. They’re almost always slippery in the way they infer the scale or size of the effects observed from laboratory or survey contexts that do not scale at all well to the complexity of the overall social world, and also ignore contradictory trends at the overall level that shouldn’t be possible. (In this case, for example, the report argues that sexualization in media is at an all-time high and argues that this makes women less able to self-actualize and pursue professional and aspirational goals, but shouldn’t that lead us to look for the steady retreat of women from professional or working life?) Such studies are also largely uninterested in the complexities of the longer-term history of the images and effects they describe: they’re hopelessly presentist, envisioning a state of crisis which is uniquely aggravated at this exact moment in time.
It’s the other side of the argument that gets my goat more this time: the proposed solutions. All the stuff about teaching girls to value themselves for who they are and all that is great, fine, valid. It’s also been around for a long time, is well-distributed in a variety of well-meaning media contexts as well as a lot of educational and institutional settings. Like all ABC Afterschool Special messages, it has less meaning as a maxim and more meaning if it’s just a quietly lived and demonstrated philosophy. In fact, I suspect such well-meaning ethical propositions become less and less effective the more we attempt to teach them as external dicta.
What bugs me more is the suborning of the concept of “media literacy” to the delivery of a single dogmatic reading of media images. A media-literate person, man or woman, should be able to look at a representation and understand its hermeneutical, historical, contextual complexity, to decode its power, and even to playfully defenestrate or reimagine the image in question. And that kind of literacy is not a simple function of education, something that’s best left for the Right Kind of People. That’s what I usually hear back from media-effects critics when I say, “But some people can look at what you term a ‘sexualized image’ and see it in many ways, or be unaffected by it, or reuse it”. What they’ll always reply is, “That might be true in the household of the Right Kind of People, but we’re worried about what those images are doing to the proles”. Media literacy is about about means, not ends. It’s about a toolkit. What people build with it is up to them.
Eileen Zurbriggen, one of the Task Force members, is quoted as saying in the press release, that “we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settingsâ€”ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls”. We need to replace. There’s so much wrong with that simple sentence. It’s just not how culture works, whether we’re talking about a premodern agrarian village or contemporary global popular culture. You don’t go out and just say, “We need to get rid of all the bad images and make a lot of good ones instead”, whether you’re the United States government trying to promote liberal democracy or the APA Task Force trying to go after sexualized images. Expressive culture is path-dependent, an organic product of history. It doesn’t turn on a dime. The APA is, as most modern professional institutions as well as governments are wont to do, speaking a top-down language about a quintessentially bottom-up problem. You want a different culture than what you got? Make it, don’t call for it. And make it so it sells, so it comes out of what has already been rather than out of some idealized conception or antiseptic utopian alternative to what has already been. Cultural consumption as Heroic Duty works when you’ve got a gulag and some commissars, but in the here and now it’s just a way to pave the way towards being a target on the next season of South Park.