The return of Mad Men for a third season takes us back to 1963, the year in which Betty Friedan’s classic book The Feminine Mystique laid bare the myth that women could find nirvana as Stepford Wives, happily cooking dinner in high heels and full makeup. Friedan revealed that many women of the time were bored and frustrated with their constrained roles, and some turned to the bottle or tranquilizers to get through the tedium.
Now we live in a different time, one in which the image of the Stepford Wife makes little sense to young women. How many people today see the perfect woman as on her hands and knees waxing the kitchen floor? Not many, I bet. Today the perfect woman is still on her hands and knees, but rather than waxing, she is the one waxed, as in Brazilian.
Something has shifted so profoundly in our society that the idealized, pop culture image of women in today’s pornified world is no longer a Stepford Wife but rather a plasticized, scripted, hyper-sexualized, surgically enhanced young woman. The media world we live in today has replaced the stereotyped Stepford Wife with the equally limiting and controlling stereotype of a Stepford Slut.
This image didn’t appear from nowhere but is rather a logical outcome of living in a society that has become increasingly swamped by pornography. The image of the “slut” that is central to porn has now seeped into pop culture to such a degree that media representations today look like soft-core porn from ten years ago. Whether it be an almost-naked Britney Spears writhing around onstage or a Victoria’s Secret model clad in a plunging bra and thong, women and girls today are bombarded with images of themselves as sex objects whose only worth is their “hotness.” In this hypersexualized, image-based culture, the Stepford Slut is everywhere, all the time.
The effect of hypersexualized images on girls and women is devastating. By bombarding them with the message that their most worthy attribute is their sexual hotness, pop culture images are slowly chipping away at their self-esteem, stripping them of a sense of themselves as whole human beings, and providing them with an identity that emphasizes sex and deemphasizes every other human attribute.
An American Psychological Association study on the sexualization of girls found that there was “ample evidence” to conclude that sexualizing girls “has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.” Some of these effects include risky sexual behavior; higher rates of eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem; and reduced academic performance. These symptoms are also found in girls and women who have been sexually assaulted, so we appear to be turning out a generation of girls who have been assaulted by the very culture they live in. While some girls and women manage to live their lives without being sexually assaulted by an individual perpetrator, there is no avoiding the culture. The very act of socialization involves internalizing the cultural norms and attitudes.
To call conforming to the slut image a choice, or to see it as empowering, is to miss the way in which our culture bullies girls and women into conformity. The sheer ubiquity of the slut image is what gives it power, since it crowds out any alternative ways of being female. How can we expect a girl or young woman to resist this hegemonic image when her peers look as though they just tumbled out of Maxim? By not dressing in a hypersexualized way, girls and women are rendered invisible. And what girl or young woman wants to go unnoticed?
Thanks to feminist historians, we now know that women in the 1950s conformed to the Stepford Wife image because they had few choices. Why, then, when we see girls and young women conform to the Stepford Slut image, do we celebrate this as free choice? For girls to have real choices, they need access to a broad range of images, especially those that subvert the dominant ideas of what it means to be feminine. Now that would be empowering!
GAIL DINES is a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College and chair of American Studies. A nationally known lecturer and author, she is a founding member of Stop Porn Culture. Her new book, Pornland: How Pornography Has Hijacked out Sexuality, will be published in July by Beacon Press. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org