Socialization and Imagemaking


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Socialization and Imagemaking

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 around.s

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 observation.

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 millennia).

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 "choice."

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 coincidence.

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.

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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 occurred.
     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 against women."
     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 industry.
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 of women.
     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 reneged.
     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.

Sincerely,Kim McCarten
Chicago, Illinois


Kim is the editor of a fantastic feminist paper in Chicago called Merge. Check it out at


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