Miss Represented: Women's Success in the 21st Century is Still Defined by Sex


“Back with a Vengeance — A Superfit Superheroine and (Finally) Lucky in Love” – Scarlett Johansson as described on Vogue’s May 2012 cover.

"[Contraception] is not OK because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also … but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen … if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation …all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure.” – Rick Santorum (full video at bottom of the page)

In his commencement speech at Barnard yesterday, President Obama urged the arrayed female graduates to “fight for your seat at the table.” It’s a sad truth that in 2012 young women still have to fight for that seat. Born in the eighties, I was raised with the belief that, thanks to our mothers and grandmothers (and some fathers and grandfathers), the feminine sphere had burst, and biology and society were no longer conspiring to relegate us women to the kitchen and nursery. I’ve come to realize, however, that while that sphere has been stretched and expanded in America (and elsewhere), it has certainly not disintegrated. Even as women have poured into the labor force and overtaken men in many measures of educational achievement, there is still a real gender gap in how popular culture represents our aspirations and our goals. While boys are told to dream of success based on what they do, girls are conditioned to see success in terms of how they appear—and whom they attract.   

For women in their twenties and thirties, marriage and reproduction are still held up as the sine qua non of female achievement. In perpetuating this belief, advertising is perhaps the most obvious offender. Examples of sexist ads are myriad (and I’ll leave it to the brave people at Jezebel to catalogue them), but a recent one by Acuvue really jumped out at me. Their “1 Day” contact lens campaign features teens talking about what they’ll do when they are freed from their four-eyed prisons. In the commercial I saw, the boys dreamt about sports fame and corporate success, while a girl -- as imagined by John Hughes --sat alone at the prom and vowed “one day, he’ll ask me to dance.” Clearly, 49 years after The Feminine Mystique, we still need to fight for definitions of female success that go beyond our role in the reproductive process.

[Women protest the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, NJ in 1968] 

While some might argue that ads just appeal to consumers’ desires, they are in fact based on societal assumptions (I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in suggesting that many young women dream about success beyond boys at prom). However, these assumptions are self-perpetuating: visions of “ideal” womanhood, as defined by the matrimonial-maternal construct, influence women’s own definitions of success through a seductive matrix of peer and societal pressure.

This limited and limiting vision of female success perpetrated by media bleeds into every aspect of our society. It conditions us to think of sexuality as our primary identity, and it is the backdrop against which national episodes like the recent contraception-panel-without-a-single-woman incident unfold. The sexual decisions of women of childbearing age have historically been considered national issues; from the queen’s duty to produce royal heirs, to Nazi motherhood, to Korea’s procreation days, women carry the success of the nation in their wombs. Insomuch as this construct is still a part of our national political landscape, a woman’s sexual decisions are still not considered her sovereign territory, and by extension, her future (whether it includes children or a hetero marriage or neither) is subject to fluctuating national attitudes towards that sexuality.

As long as we tolerate being saturated by media that depicts female success as tied inextricably to the ability to attract a man and produce offspring (think of that ubiquitous baby bump), we leave room for the notion that women are above all procreative vehicles. Since a woman’s decision to pursue non-traditional success during her fecund years depends on her ability to control the cycle of pregnancy and child-care, shifting paradigms of female success in turn reject societal claims over women’s sexual decisions. 

So let’s shift those paradigms and not only demand our seat at the table, but also demand more empowered (and realistic!) representations of women in media; otherwise, decisions about our reproductive health will continue to be made by these guys.

Note: I couldn't link you to the Acuvue ad, because they’ve removed the commercial from all corners of the Internet in response to criticism. They even noted how sorry they were that they unintentionally fed into gender and racial stereotypes. The fact that no one on their ad team questioned this until the Internet did is disturbing, but it proves that we can effectively push for more responsible representations of young women in media. In the absence of that video, check this awesomeness out.