Feminism is the name given to a philosophical thought and political movement that was active in the Western world during the 60’s and 70’s. It presumes that women face oppression and that adequate measures need to be taken to make up for the continued universal subjugation of women. One of the earliest and most eloquent feminists was Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Later, famous French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir showed that human society always took the male as the original gender and as the reference point for women. Betty Friedan published the results of her research titled The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and argued that contrary to popular belief, home and family were not the sole aim of an educated female, who needs more than her husband’s or children’s success to be happy.
Quite predictably, their critics have stereotyped feminists in order to dismiss the seriousness of their demands. Typical feminists are regarded as unattractive or unmarried women, though there are also male feminists, who hate men and who want to impose freedom on otherwise happy homemakers. The most prevalent stereotypes regarding feminism can perhaps best be summarized in Phyllis Schlafly’s words that she said in reaction to the Equal Rights Amendment movement in 1972: “(Feminism is) a series of sharp-tongued, high-pitched, whining complaints by unmarried women”.
As a result of this, a lot of educated and successful women sometimes make a point of clarifying that they are not feminists because they do not want to be seen as unfeminine. Most women, even if they feel that the distribution of labor and power between genders is unjust, prefer to play their allotted roles and do not contemplate joining mass protests or speaking out against the system.
Women do not wish to be perceived as unfeminine. But what is femininity itself? Femininity is the set of characteristics and traits that are socially associated with women even though there is no evidence of these qualities being biologically inherent to the female gender. Though there are cultural variants of femininity, some of these features are almost universal. For example, women everywhere are assumed (or preferred) to be delicate, emotional, soft-spoken, vulnerable, weak and talkative. On the other hand men are thought to be strong, rational, protective and tough. Furthermore, it is thought that the characteristics of men and women are essentially opposite to each other. It is by not possessing supposedly masculine qualities of rationality and strength that women are feminine. This is how most feminists come to be seen as unfeminine and going against nature to demand a different kind of life from what society always decides for them.
Another assumption related to the supposedly feminine nature of women is that being a wife or mother is the ultimate goal or ambition of every woman’s life and that family life is what all women want. Therefore, if a woman appears not to want home and family, or to want more than that, she is supposed to be lacking in femininity. This is what Betty Friedan refers to as “the feminine mystique”, the myth that a home is all any woman would ever want. According to Friedan, it is the media that strengthen this idea.
From Hollywood movies to Barbie dolls, everything the mass media feed us reinforces the stereotypical idea of perfect womanhood. By their very nature, the mass media have to make use of stereotypes and produce content that would appeal to the masses. Television or films do not target intellectuals or enlightened philosophers as their audience. Media content is made to sell and entertain. People do not expect to do a re-evaluation of their ideas when they sit down to watch a movie. Entertainment is now generally erotic, violent and fantastical. Apart from actual media content, advertising is a specific area where objectification of females is now actually part of strategy. The fact that women’s portrayal in the media does not correspond with reality hardly remains relevant as the mass media are an industry just like any other with the sole aim of earning profits and surviving competition. Another very important and sensitive aspect is that of pornography. Like prostitution, it usually targets a male consumer and exploits the female worker on various levels. So far it has been impossible to control or contain pornography or even to give it a proper definition.
On the whole, the media almost always present to us women who are beautiful, slim, vulnerable and desperate to get a man. Hardly ever do we see someone who is successful, smart, happy and single, or someone who is unattractive but happily married. Therefore, the media reinforce and perpetuate the traditional idea of femininity. Even in cases where women are supposed to have been freed from conventional morality, this freedom is manipulated so that the end result is the same; the gratification of male instincts at the expense of female dignity.
Recently Pakistan has seen a tremendous development, as regards quantity, in the electronic media. However, where formerly the state-controlled media depicted an unrealistically pious and colorless Pakistani woman, the picture now shown by the private channels is just as improbable. Now we see heavily made up and stylized women who are the complete opposite of the average Pakistani woman. The sub-standard soap operas in particular show women to be fighting over the affections of husbands and sons, conspiring to maintain influence in the joint family or sacrificing their own ambitions to nurture the family and to obey the elders. These are all highly traditional interpretations of femininity.
The perpetuation of femininity is the need of two interdependent industries; fashion and media. It is interesting that most fashion prerequisites for attractiveness are uncomfortable ones, such as high heels, extra-thin figures and flimsy clothing. It is the norms and structures of these industries that regulate people’s views about ideal womanhood. And the underlying philosophy of these industries is not some ideology but the drive to make money.
To conclude, it cannot be denied that the media have had a great role in disseminating political movements such as feminism. In the absence of television, newspapers or the internet it would be impossible for someone in Pakistan to know about Simone de Beauvoir or The Feminine Mystique. Yet, when we look at the bulk of what is being churned out of the media outlets today, there is no positive change in the stereotypical image of women. It is these stereotypes that feminism wants to shatter. However, it would not be realistic to assume that today’s consumerism and hyper-commercialism would allow for a more intellect-oriented and less typically-feminine woman to be represented in the media. At least for now, the objectification of women is part of the most reliable best-selling formula for media content.
The contributor is a student of National Defense University, Islamabad.