by Kim McCarten
[from the book 'Sex Appeal: The Art of Allure in Graphic and Advertising
Design," edited by Steven Heller of the NY TImes. This is, sadly, a
compilation, almost exclusively, of white male designers and art
directors congratulating themselves on the sexual revolution they've
helped create--primarily via Playboy. The cover design should say enough
about the awareness of what 'sexual revolution' is. There was little
critical commentary; hopefully the esaay below reached some reader.]
When you're born in a time of progress, you never expect things to go
backward. It's like you're on a train:at first, you don't really know in
what direction the train is going, but you can look out the window and
see the scenery changing. Then, as the train picks up speed, you
realized you're not only going in the wrong direction, you're going
there fast. And it's going to take quite some effort to turn the train
We would make our living in the design and advertising fields are among
the imagemakers in society. Yet we are not in control of the images we
make. We are products of our culture. We take in prevailing ideologies
(coming at us incessantly from our TVs, movies, and magazines) whether
we are aware of it or not. Our socialization is seeping into out work
and shaping those images, and unless we are aware of this, we cannot
even attempt to transcend it. Without an inquisitive, fairly suspicious
mind, we allow the dominant perspective into our work. And our industry
is not questioning this influence enough.
A main component of that dominant perspective is sexism. Other
Components - racism, homophobia, antisemitism - rest on the foundation
of sexism, the oldest form of discrimination. Because sexism is now
growing in our culture in a more insidious form than ever before, it has
seeped into the design and advertising industry like the Ebola virus.
It's something men ignore (or don't see in the first place) - assuming,
perhaps unconsciously, that their perspective, as shown by the images
they create, is objective or universal - and something many women don't
want to acknowledge at all.
In an issue of Graphic Design:USA (September 1998), several prominent
women designers were asked about their role in the industry, their
careers, and their work. As noted in the article, not one of them wanted
to make an issue out of her gender. Can you imagine a group of black
designers denying that racism or that their race negatively impacted
their careers in some way? What can explain this level of denial? A
quick look at the exploitative images in our culture, the rise of date
rape, and the growing problem of sexual harassment, shows that we're
living in a time of backlash against women. Why are women afraid to see
this? Perhaps it is part of the normal reaction that humans have to
random violence and injustice: there's a need to distance oneself, to
believe that the victim did something to deserve it, and therefore, it
could never happen to me. It helps one feel in control, even when one is
not. The belief that the images all around me of women as naked,
powerless, docile, nonthreatening beings won't affect how people see *me*,
or my daughter, or how I see myself, is absurd. The belief that if I just
work hard enough and don't make any trouble, I will be successful and
respected - even as salary surveys consistently show that women in all
fields, not just ours, are paid less than their equally-trained and
-experienced make counterparts - is delusional. These problems can't be
willed away. The denial of these women designers was startling.
Another survey, in the same issue of GD:USA, showed that women now make
up a majority of the design industry. So why hasn't the imagery changed?
Because imagemakers bring their socializing to work with them; women
designers are still clearly taking on a male perspective. Perhaps that's
why there is a paucity of outrage about this exploitative imagery and
about the still-stereotypical portrayal of women making dinner, doing
laundry, and taking care of the family when they're sick. Women are
raised in a predominantly white male society, and we are creating images
that still reflect this. Since our culture teaches us to consume women
visually, women make images from the perspective of being looked at,
often reflecting a picture of womanhood that has been defined by men.
But it's so pervasive a reality, it's often not even noticed.
A key reason for the predominance of this imagery is that men, until
recently, have been the primary imagemakers. Images are reflective of
what gender has made the photograph, painting, TV show, and so on. This
imagery is not due to the mythical "demands of the market." We
all know that *we* shape and create the market to a large extent and
feed the "intensity habit" in our culture. And since women
have not been allowed to openly "own" their sexuality yet (and
look at men), there are rarely images of men posing nude for our
There are more components to this trend. Men have been taught a
sexuality that dissects women into body parts, taught by photographer
imagemakers whose goal was not the overthrow of puritanical repression
but, rather, to make a buck (or two million). It is not a coincidence
that these images have peaked at a time of great political and economic
progress for women. THese men wanted to get back at women who had
rejected them (and others who were "threatening" them with
their demands for shared power) by humiliating, controlling, and
literally "owning" women through these images. Paper pimps
like Hefner and Flynt told everyone they were being
"liberated", but this "liberation" occurred with
other people's bodies, not their own (not even their own gender's). The
recent growth of so called men's magazines (Details, Playboy, Maxim,
even GQ, to name a few) feeds the idea that women can be consumed - and
the growth of these images is coinciding with the mainstreaming of
stripping and prostitution as "career options" for young women
to pay for college, the growth of date rape drugs and domestic violence,
and the regular sexualizing of twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls in
print media. In addition, we in the US have the second highest rate of
rape in the world (beaten only recently by a post-apartheid, still
stabilizing South Africa). The US has the highest rate of STDs and teen
pregnant.y. This is no revolution.
These imagemakers are portrayed as "sexual liberators"
(despite their lack of credentials and repressed, often sexually
violent, pasts). They offer up an adolescent focus on breasts, passivity
and control - but only in fantasy; nothing that actually works in real
life with real women. They have convinced people that watching others
have sex, instead of actually having it themselves, is liberating. Their
social acceptance is clear evidence of the power of both imagemakers and
the propagandistic quality of images (in this case, promoting backlash
against feminism and autonomy for women--autonomy to create an original
idea: *female* sexuality, which wouldn't look exactly like what male
imagemakers have been projects *on to* us for the last several
We went from too many rules about sex to no rules at all and we call it
Revolution - exactly what one would expect from our perpetually
adolescent American selves. And the people who made this happen were
twisted, greedy imagemakers. Countries that have healthier sexual
cultures (like Scandinavia, for example) have egalitarian societies that
*respect women.* (Men who respect women, vote for women, share household
duties, and so on, will find that women like them more - and want to
have sex with them more! It's not brain surgery.) These cultures have
more balanced representations of women and men in their media and some
stable social institutions that check the power of those images. But
this in not the case in our country's imagery and the resulting
propaganda reigns supreme.
Design annuals regularly feature layouts from Penthouse and Details -
aesthetics are separated from content. It's not deemed important that
these magazines whore women, and twist both male sexuality and female
self-concept. How is this separate of aesthetics and content possible?
Perhaps it is part of another lie taught to men by our culture - the
myth of compartmentalization. Why not feature a really well-designed
spread from Klan Monthly? What not a brilliantly minimalist book cover
for The Turner Diaries? How are they different? If it were only black
people who were naked in these publications, do you think the pattern
would be attributed to what the market likes or what African Americans
"choose" to do? Do you think this pattern would be ignored to
focus on how the typography compliments the photos? Any time there is a
pattern there is at least a question to be asked, and at most, a
systemic ill to be addressed.
Imagemakers in other media are following this same course. In movies,
the roles for women have come to routinely involved actresses showing
their tits - there has been an exponential increase in the amount of
"incidental" female nudity in film. Roles for women regularly
include parts for strippers and hookers (and are often recognized with
Academy Awards - Elizabeth Shue, Kim Basinger, and Mira Sorvino to name
a few). Just compare the movies of today to movies made as recently as
the eighties and early nineties, and the pattern and timeline for this
shift becomes clear. Many movies from the last decade feature
unapologetically strong women - not women, such as Charlie's Angels, who
are strong - but don't lose their femininity? (read: will still be shown
as ditzy girls who can't make decisions for themselves, giggle and show
lots of cleavage. I thought femininity actually meant perpetuating to
women.? This is not an image of our own creation). But the formerly
rather progressive trend has been replaced with a cunning technique
which now distracts attention from what is really going on: show one
strong woman (meaning she's serious and intelligent but has no sexual
identity) in exchange for one naked, nonthreatening one (but give her
some strong words to say so no one perceives her as being exploited).
Give it with one hand, take it away with the other. The same thing has
happened to African Americans, with more and more movies featuring
one-dimensional, buffoonish stereotypes. Coincidence? I think not.
So why all this focus on the images of women, and in particular, nudity?
Because female-only nudity is quite literally a representation of the
problem. This is not about sex, it's about money - and power. And the
people with the power have their clothes *on* - and are making the vast
majority of the money. If it is about sex, what is it that actresses who
finally succeed in their careers rarely continue showing their tits? Why
is it that the highest paid actress in Hollywood, Julia Roberts, who has
successfully worked to just about even the salary for (a few) actresses,
has never appeared nude in a movie (and hopefully never will). If this
is true liberation, why is it that few men show their penises (which
would be equal nudity, equal exposure) in a movie or on a billboard for
a "career break"?
It is no coincidence that at this point in history, when women are no
longer "tokens" in the military, the government (well, it's
better), and the workplace, but are actually moving into these areas in
droves, that the level of sexism in visual imagery has increased. It's
like men are trying to reassert their power through corporate mergers
and taking control of the media, the same way you do in a war -
consolidate your forces and control communications (almost as important
for getting control of a country than dropping bombs). Since women are
perceived as threats, there are more derogatory images that bash
feminists and depict women as submissive, sexualized playthings - not
threatening at all. Society's response is to legitimize the formal
exploitation of women through imagery (the most powerful form of
propaganda). Socialize men and women to consume women (images of women),
get men turned on by a particular "look" or body type, and get
women to abandon their recently made gains! and go back to spending their time dieting, exercising,
and being looked at. Get *women* to create the exploitative images, and
threaten those who protest with labels such as "prude." Get
*women* to whore themselves and tell everyone it's about
It's not that men aren't being exploited, too. This manipulation hurts
men in terms of their ability to see women as human beings and to relate
to women, and it stifles their ability to develop their *own* sexual
identities, to develop as full human beings (with the "skills"
to have relationships and be able to care for themselves emotionally).
This manipulation certainly impacts the images they make of women.
No one debates that violence desensitizes us to violence, but the
effects of exploitative images of women is still, somehow, open for
discussion. The media either have the power to impact behavior and
beliefs or it doesn't - you don't get to pick and choose which behavior
you think is affected. (Of course, they don't have these discussions at
ad agencies or movie studios; they already know the answer). The rise of
corporate mergers, Congress changing the laws to allow for this
consolidation, and the irrefutable effects of our Jerry Springer culture
are ocurring at a particular point in history and are *not* a
It makes our awareness as imagemakers that much more important. As
designers in the new millennium, we need to be more aware of the beliefs
that we are bringing to the imagemaking process. We have the power to
significantly shape and alter people's perceptions. And when you live in
a time of backlash (not only against women, but against affirmative
action, against African Americas, gay people, et al) you need to wield
that power responsibly. All problems between men and women, or any
groups, are about power. You'd think we'd be at a more balanced place at
the beginning of this new century, but we're not there yet. We need to
fight this devolution for the sake of both genders.
Feminism, many scholars say, is a 500-year revolution - the biggest
revolution in human history. It's not just a political, industrial, or
information revolution, but one that affects the entire species in every
aspect of our lives from dating to child rearing to the workplace,
education, and government. Maybe it's really a compliment to the power
of feminism that it gets this kind of backlash - we would be ignored if
this wasn't important. But should women be helping that backlash along?
Should men? No one can win if this continues - and the gulf between
women and men will only widen if it does.
Feminist/ Activist Colleagues:
The City of Chicago is officially designating
the eastern part of Walton St, leading to the Playboy Mansion and
located in the north end of the Loop, as 'Honorable Hugh Hefner Way' on
Monday, April 10th.
Many who are not
focused on these issues might find porn and the mainstreaming of sexual
images of women as liberation, and not at all offensive--despite the
fact that changes in the power structure in our country have not
But the idea that the third largest city in US
would deem it acceptable to not only name a street after a man who pimps
women, but call him Honorable, is a contempt for women that should not
be met with silence.
The City Council this past fall passed CEDAW:
the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women. This Convention, originally convened by the UN, states that, in
addition to attending to the "civil rights and the legal status of
women . . . is also concerned with . . . the impact of cultural factors
on gender relations."
Article 5 states that parties who have signed
CEDAW must "give formal recognition to the influence of culture and
tradition on restricting women's enjoyment of their fundamental rights.
These forces take shape in stereotypes, customs and norms which give
rise to the multitude of legal, political and economic constraints on
the advancement of women."
Noting this interrelationship, the preamble of
the Convention stresses "that a change in the traditional role of
men as well as the role of women in society . . . is needed to achieve
full equality „ between men and women.
State parties are obliged to work towards
modifying social and cultural patterns of individual conduct in order to
eliminate "prejudices, customary, and all other practices, which
are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority ofeither of
the sexes, or on stereotyped roles for men and women."
Parties who have signed this Convention are to
"condemn discrimination against women in all its forms;" to
"refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination
against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions
shall act in conformity with this obligation."
They are obliged to "take all appropriate
measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person,
organization or enterprise;" and to "take all appropriate
measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws,
regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination
Prostitution continues to be the ONLY
'profession' where women make more than men. Many will suggest that
women freely choose to pose in Playboy or participate in the porn
But as long as a vast economic imbalance between men and women exists;
as long as women's reproductive decisions are limited; and as long as
our Government is almost exclusively white and male, there cannot be a
serious discussion about 'free choice.'
It will only be when these and other changes,
such as when women have a substantial voice in the media and the
cultural institutions in this country, that the potential of free choice
will be possible.
This is another in a long line of 'bombs' that
have been aimed at women in the gender war, another attack in this
dangerous time of backlash and the vilification of feminism, which is
after all, our civil rights movement.
As long as we continue to take these offenses
without responding, the line for what is tolerable and intolerable will
continue to move: it will not go back, and it will not move in the favor
True sexual liberation can only exist in a
society where women who are dressed are respected, valued---and paid--
as much as those who are not. Only when women have full participation in
education, government, media, and business will there be an environment
for women to be free to express themselves sexually.
Until that time, men in 'the sex industry' (who
make millions while the actual women make thousands, if that) must be
viewed as pimps, exploiters of women--and certainly not honorable.
Playboy and Hefner are dangerous because they give this exploitation a
'main street legitimacy.' Yet another reason that this 'honor' must be
Please pass on any of this info to like-minded
activists.And please, take a minute to write or make a call to: Mayor
Richard M. Daley, 121 N. LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60602 (312) 744-4000.
Women are a powerful force in Chicago--or can
be--and we deserve better than this. Thank you for your time.
Kim is the editor of a fantastic feminist paper in
Chicago called Merge. Check it out at http://www.merge.simplenet.com