Tag: Sexual objectification

Book Summary: Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique.

This short book summary will be the first of three which collectively focus on a mix of contemporary and classic feminist texts. I hope to provide people with a general overview of each book, the author and the social context in which the book was written.

Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. Penguin, London.

femininemystique1Let me begin by expressing how much I enjoyed reading this book. It was given to me as a gift when I left my voluntary job and I began reading it a couple of weeks before Christmas . I read the majority of it whilst in work, sometimes before I started if I happened to get in early, but mostly on my breaktimes. I had heard so much about the book being great but not a lot about the actual content or main arguments made within the book, however, when I started to read it and place it within the social context of post-war America during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the magnetism of the book drew me in and I began to realise what others had spoke about in reference to The Feminine Mystique (1963). I suppose it was a kind of realisation that yes, most women are unhappy when placed in the mould of housewife and mother alone and yes, in their hearts they strive for more, but do they go out and get this ‘more’ which they long for? Friedan (1963) informs us that no they don’t, not really, and if they do, it most often stops short of the point of satisfaction.

Reading words which were written at a time when they were rarely spoken aloud, for me, gave the book a controversial edge. As an artefact belonging to the early phase of second wave feminism, Friedan’s (1963) work sets out to reveal and share details of ‘the problem that has no name’- the deliberate manipulation of women by advertising agencies, editorial boards, journalists, educators, Freudian psychoanalysts and others alike, to believe in a false belief system. This belief system tells women that they must fit the mould or have their femininity stripped of them, for to be a housewife and mother is the greatest achievement a woman can obtain and if she fails, she fails as a woman.

OB-VK647_1122fa_D_20121120131535Friedan (1963) argues that this false belief system keeps women trapped in a state of perpetual infancy wherein they are never allowed to grow and realise their own worth and true potential. As I read the book, I felt myself agreeing with a lot of the things she wrote about this. When women live in a society in which domescity is a synomyn for femininity, all other possibilities of womanhood are erased. Domesticity therefore acts as a mass distraction, keeping women from becoming full women- women who know their own femininity, enjoy their sexuality and who do not feel threatened by education, employment or stepping out of their mother’s shoes.

Friedan (1963) explains that during the post-war years, men returned from war and it was no longer necessary for women to be employed, seek education or do anything other than stay at home looking after the house and children. Women were told that they had a choice about what to do with their lives. If they really wanted to they could seek education or a career, but at a time when resisting conformity surmounted to failure as a woman, how could they choose freely?

Betty Friedan published the words that thousands of women had uttered to themselves whilst wading in discontent. Friedan (1963) showed the female population that they could do more than what was expected of them. They could break the mould into a thousand pieces if they were determined enough. Framing her words with excerpts from some of the 200 open ended questionnaires she conducted with her former college classmates, Friedan’s (1963) work was pioneering and daring. Many claim that it planted the seed of second wave feminism by highlighting the social and political stagnation experienced by women across America and having sparked the consciousness of women all over the world, many began to embrace feminism and social activism as a means to achieving equality.

It has now been 50 years since The Feminine Mystique (1963) was first published and the impact the book had at its time remains unparalled. In the decades preceding The Feminine Mystique (1963)the problem with no name’ has gradually drifted away from the realm of domesticity to focus on women’s appearance; their beauty or lack there of. The false belief system Friedan wrote about, to me, is very similar to Naomi Wolf’s description of ‘the beauty myth’. The Beauty Myth (1991) acts as an updated version, a contemporary analysis regarding the new mould women are expected to fit. Therefore this problem; this weight holding women down like an anchor tied around our increasingly thin waists, still exists, the mould has merely changed shape.

As one of the most influential leaders of second wave feminism, Betty Friedan helped to found the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Friedan continued to teach and write about women’s inequality, consistently voicing her concerns, until she died of congestive heart failure in 2006 at the age of 85.


I will be posting the next book summary within a week so please check back or follow my blog if you are interested. It will focus on Ariel Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture.

Attending Academic Conferences

A while back in a post entitled “Today was a good day” I provided a list of academic conferences relevant to my research subject. Last week I registered for my first conference which will take place on the 25th January at Cardiff University. The conference is called Young Sexualities and the programme shows that there will be two talks which focus specifically on themes relating to the ongoing sexualisation debate.

Cardiff University ‘Young Sexualities’ Conference

tb-poster3The conference cost is £10 which I think is excellent and my train fare totalled £35. So all in, travel and attendance comes to under £50. I think this is quite reasonable and hope that future conferences will cost a similar amount. However, I’m not sure how realistic that is as I am hoping to attend a conference in Chester university on the 9th March which I have just discovered is £75 to attend! It is a 3 day event and Naomi Wolf is the keynote speaker. If you are interested please see the link below for further details. I plan to register for this event as soon as I have got the money together.

Chester University ‘Talking Bodies’ Conference

So the motivational message attached to this post is… if you are thinking about attending academic conferences, don’t put it off or find excuses not to go, register your place and book the train/coach. You won’t regret it!


Feminist Must-Reads Part 2

In December I set myself the goal of reading three popular feminist texts in one month. As someone who doesn’t read a lot and who reads quite slow at times, I thought the deadline suited me, however, I ended up surprising myself by finishing all three books quite quickly. The books I decided to read were: The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005) by Ariel Levy and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010) by Natasha Walter.
ImageHaving now read these popular feminist texts I plan to produce 3 short book reviews. I will upload the book reviews every Friday for the next 3 weeks so please check back or follow my blog if you are interested!

Female Interpretations of Sexual Content in the Music Videos of Popular Female Artists

Undergraduate Dissertation Introduction

Here is my undergraduate dissertation ‘Introduction’. It is a bit dodgy in areas but I hope that this will provide an example and help those who are undertaking research in a similar area.


The debate surrounding the effects of sexual media has recently been reinvigorated with children and women’s charities, journalists and the current British and Australian governments, having all made attempts to address and tackle the sexual behaviours and attitudes expressed by female artists in their music videos and live performances. This renewed interest has mainly emerged due to the sexually provocative nature of current female artists such as Rihanna, whose notoriously raunchy performances frequently attract the attention of media critics, and Lady Gaga who has a reputation for wearing outrageous ensembles, often leaving very little to the imagination.

With a large majority of music being centred around relationships, romance and love, sex has always been a popular accompaniment to musical performance, lyrics and most recently, music videos. Early 20th century jazz and blues was recognised as exhibiting a certain level of sexual intensity with the gyrating crotch of Elvis, Little Richard and other rock and roll stars during the 1950s and 60s causing great controversy at the time (Arnett, 2002). Elvis was actually quoted in the 1970s as saying “Man, I was tame compared to what they do now. Are you kidding? I didn’t do anything but just jiggle” http://www.elvis.com. This quote emphasizes the percieved increase in the sexual nature of music from Elvis’ heyday in the 1950s through to the early 1970s.

During the 1980s and 1990s, sexual content had begun to increasingly permeate popular music (Roberts & Christenson, 1998) and can be seen and heard in the music lyrics and videos of female artists who enjoyed stardom at the time, most notabley Madonna, who in 1992 released the album Erotica along with a coffee table book entitled Sex which featured explicit photographs of the singer. Much tamer but still offering music fans scenes of a sexual nature, Britney Spears and Christina Aquilera have contributed to the array of provocative music videos with Christina’s Dirty video and Britney’s I’m a Slave for you consequently causing their own controversies. More recently during the 2000s and up to the present day, videos from artists such as the Pussycat Dolls, Shakira, Ciara, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna have all continued the trend (Jhally, 2007).

The majority of research focusing on sexual content of music videos can be divided into three categories: content analyses, effects research and audience interpretations. This dissertation falls into the third and least developed field of research by exploring female audience interpretations of sexual content in female music videos.

As a major source of information for young people and adolescents, the mass media is believed to play a crucial role in their sexual socialisation (Harris & Scott, 2002). The presence of sexual content in music video is so pervasive within popular music that it has now reached the point where it is highly predictable for sexual imagery to accompany the music videos of popular female artists, even when the lyrics do not match the imagery (Roberts & Christenson, 1998). For example, a recent music video by British pop artist Pixie Lott shows the singer in a variety of sexual poses despite the song having nothing to do with sex. This raises serious concerns regarding the effects sexual content may have on viewers, especially young people, who are a significant concern due to the amount of time they spend listening to music and watching music videos (Arnett, 2002).

Supporting the argument that sex is becoming an increasingly pervasive part of mass culture, this dissertation aims to fill a void within existing research whereby it fails to adequately address the interpretations, perceptions and attitudes of young women in relation to the sexual content of music videos.

The main aim of the research is to utilise the focus group technique in order to discover what young women think about music videos and their sexual content. Participants were selected through snowball sampling and are young women aged 18-25. Questions focus on the areas of body image, sexual objectification, self-objectification and sexualisation of young people. The aim is to discover how the participants interpret what they see, how it makes them feel about their body image, their relationships with men, sexual objectification and whether or not they think sexual music videos by female artists impact young girls in a detrimental way.

‘Living Doll’ Vs Real Woman

This is a great image which highlights the fact that not all men desire a ‘living doll’, which in this scenario is someone who does the washing in her underwear, looking perfect in every way. In this image you will see that somebody has written around the model, drawn clothes on her and have even given her a pair of glasses to complete the juxtaposed look!

“I like to see a girl in the study, proof-reading her just completed astrophysics thesis while sipping Earl-Grey tea in her tweed sweater and modest, conservative plaid pencil skirt.”

Why feminists were right all along…

The recent Jimmy Savile revelations have impacted the world of feminism in a positive way, uncovering paedophilia within showbusiness, institutional sexism, sexual abuse and a culture which allows all three to be covered up. The link below, an article which was published in The Times on 17th October 2012, offers a great overview of why feminists were right all along.

Why feminists were right all along

Sexualising Student Culture

Links to recent articles from The Independant addressing the sexualised culture surrounding students and freshers week:

‘Slut dropping’ and ‘Pimps and Hoes’- the sexual politics of freshers’ week

We’re students, not slags

I came across these articles coincidently after a conversation with a collegue at university in which we discussed the sexual themes surrounding freshers week and student nights. I was outraged as my collegue told me about a local bar displaying a slogan reading “Grab yourself a slutty fresher”. The bar which is called ‘Bumper’ and based in Liverpool city centre, is apparently investigating the issue after a number of complaints from the public. Hopefully I will hear more about this soon and be able to provide an update.

A Content Analysis of Sexual Imagery in Popular Music Videos (2010)

The motivation for this research came from my personal interest and concern regarding the sexualisation of young girls and women. Whilst there has been a lot of recent media attention addressing this problem, there is a lack of up to date academic content analyses.

With this research, I would like to determine how common sexual imagery in music videos is and to discover what forms of sexual imagery are portrayed most often.

Ever since the advent of the music video in the early 1980s, there has been a continuous array of commentary and analysis regarding its content and form. Previous research has focused on the perceived influences music videos have on viewer’s attitudes and opinions regarding sex and sexual relationships. This includes studies by Greeson & Williams, (1986), Vincent et al (1986) and Christenson & Robertson, (1998), whilst others have specifically focused on the role of music videos in the sexualisation of young people, for example, Ward (2003), Cummins (2007) and Arnett (2002).

Due to recent reports in the media and the release of a Home Office report entitled “Sexualisation of Young People Review” (2007), it was decided that this area is one of great interest and contemporary relevance. Many critics argue that music videos and performances by pop artists are becoming increasingly explicit and inappropriate for young people. This research hopes to add weight to this argument. The aim of the research was to discover how prevalent sexual imagery is within music videos and to distinguish what forms of sexual imagery are most common. A content analysis of 10 randomly selected music videos from the year 2010, as predicted; demonstrates a high level of sexual imagery within music videos. In addition, ‘sexually suggestive non-dance movements’ and ‘provocative clothing’ were found to be the most commonly occurring categories of sexual content. More explicit categories such as ‘simulating group sex’ and ‘sadomasochism’ were displayed less often.

Literature Review                                                                                                                                                                                Popular music has always had a close relationship with sex. Early 20th century jazz and blues was noted for its “sexual intensity” and in the 1950s the era of jazz and blues “gave way to rock and roll and the explosive sexuality of Elvis, Little Richard and others” Arnett (2002:254). By the latter half of the century, sexual themes had come to increasingly permeate popular music (Christenson & Roberts, 1998) cited in Arnett (2002).
According to Arnett (2002), sexuality in pop music has become increasingly explicit, having lost almost all subtly. There are many who agree with this claim, for example, record producer Mike Stock made headlines recently criticising music videos for sexualising young children. Stock claimed that “most R&B videos are like soft pornography” http://www.guardian.co.uk. In addition, a 2007 Home Office Report by psychologist Linda Papadopolous, entitled “Sexualisation of Young People Review”, found that women in music videos are portrayed as sexually available and that there is often visual focus on women’s specific body parts such as breasts, bottom and lips (Papadopolous, 2007: 50).

Due to the popularity of music videos amongst adolescents, it is not hard to comprehend the levels of concern regarding the impact of sexual imagery. A 1994 study by Tapper, Thorson & Black (1994) found that teens on average, watch music videos for 15-30 minutes a day. Despite the amount of spare time young people spend listening to music and watching music videos, much more research has looked at adolescents and television (Arnett, 2002). However, in the 1980s there were a number of studies in response to the emergence of the music video. The results of early content analyses such as Baxter et al (1985), Greeson & Williams (1986) and Sherman & Dominick (1986) revealed the presence of sexual themes in music videos.

Baxter et al (1985) used a sample of 62 MTV music videos. The research was unbiased and due to the lack of research in the field at the time, the main focus was to establish a method of quantifying specific areas of content. Baxter et al (1985) proposed the need for a coding form for collecting the data and produced a coding manual defining the various content categories, which were divided into 23 categories. In line with Levy’s (1983) study, the results show that MTV videos portrayed high levels of sexual content with 60% of music videos displaying sexual content. The sexual content found was mainly “characterised by innuendo and suggestiveness, perhaps reflecting MTV’s adolescent audience appeal” Baxter et al (1985:333). In a similar study Sherman & Dominick (1986), found that sexual behaviour was present in over 75% of videos analysed with an average of 5 sexual acts per video.

The observations made in these studies raise serious concerns regarding the sexualisation of young people. In more recent years research has largely focused on building this argument and analysing the potential affects and influence music videos have on viewers. Focusing specifically on the role exposure to sexually oriented media has on adolescents; Ward (2003) conducted a review of the empirical research addressing these claims. The findings suggested that “frequent and involved exposure is associated with greater acceptance of stereotypical and casual attitudes bout sex, with higher expectations about the prevalence of sexual activity and of certain sexual outcomes” p.347. According to Zhang et al (2008), the reason music videos have the potential to affect and influence sexual socialisation is due to their popularity and ease of accessibility. The research will now consider the methodology adopted reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of content analysis.

To discover how prevalent sexual imagery is in music videos and determine what forms of sexual imagery are portrayed most often I decided to conduct a quantitative content analysis. This decision was largely determined by the research questions, thus adopting a deductive theory. In doing a deductive analysis, the idea is to begin with a hypothesis before beginning the coding process and the purpose is to test whether the hypothesis is correct (Bernard, 2000).

The research hypothesis claims that there are high levels of sexual imagery within contemporary, popular music videos. Additionally, the research aims to discover what forms of sexual imagery are most commonly represented in music videos. The hypotheses are based on my personal knowledge and theories relating to the field of sexual content in mass media. I believe that a quantitative content analysis was the most appropriate method for the research as it “seeks to quantify content in terms of predetermined categories in a systematic and replicable manner” Bryman (2008:275). It is “systematic, empirical and quantitative” Burton (2000:333), which are suitable characteristics for achieving the two research objectives outlined above. The research took a positivist perspective and an empirical approach which were considered the best means for testing the hypothesis. A positivist approach requires the collection and assembly of data on the social world (Burton, 2008) and is “unconcerned with people’s inner mental states” May (2001: 10) which is well suited to the nature of quantitative content analysis (Burton, 2000). Positivism requires the social scientist to study social phenomena “in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist or physiologist when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain” Durkheim (1964: xiv) cited in May (2001: 10). Positivism is in contrast to interpretivism, which is concerned with the “empathetic understanding of human action” Bryman (2008: 15). An interpretivist approach would be better suited to analysing the affects of music videos on young people, perhaps using a method such as longitudinal observation study, allowing causal implications to be made (ibid).

There are numerable advantages to content analysis including that it is an unobtrusive, non-reactive research method which avoids “researcher effects associated with reactive methods such as interviewing” Burton (2000: 334). Although content analysis is often associated with the mass media, the method has much greater applicability than this. It is a highly flexible method that can be applied in many contexts and to a wide variety of data (ibid). Due to the lack of participants, content analysis has the advantage of being relatively straightforward. For example, there are no requirements to contact people, arrange meetings, interviews, send out questionnaires, etc. This also means that there are very few ethical concerns due to the lack of participants and the fact that there were no problems gaining the data needed. Access is rarely a problem for content analysis as a lot of documents; media texts etc are available online for free or in libraries (Burton, 2000). In the case of the research at hand, the music videos analysed were freely available to view online. Another advantage of content analysis is that it is a very transparent method which can be easily replicated and produces consistent results (Bryman, 2008).

Despite the variety of advantages offered by content analysis, there are some limitations which are not as easily foreseeable and do not necessarily disrupt the research process. For example, a disadvantage is that content analysis deals solely with information that can be measured and standardised. Burton (2000) argues that this focuses on what results are produced rather, neglecting the decisions and intended meanings associated with the findings. Another disadvantage of content analysis is the difficulty of devising a coding scheme that does not include some sort of interpretation on the part of the researcher or coder. For example, during the research, the process of coding the categories was heavily reliant on my interpretation of the content. For example, ‘sexually suggestive dance movements’ can be interpreted differently depending on the person. However, there is a solution to this; the content manual is aimed at resolving this issue by providing coders with clear definitions of what constitutes a content category. Another disadvantage of content analysis is the inability to determine the reasons behind the research findings. For example, the reason why sexual imagery is so prevalent in popular music videos.

To begin the research process and with the aim of determining what forms of sexual imagery are present in music videos, I produced a coding schedule (see Appendix I). According to Bryman (2008) “coding is a crucial stage in the process of doing a content analysis” p.283. This involved compiling a list of content categories to analyse within the theme of sexual imagery. This included categories such as ‘emphasis on body parts’ and ‘sexually suggested dance movements’, which were mainly inspired by the content categories included in the study by Baxter et al (1985).The next step of the research process involved producing a coding manual defining the different content categories (see Appendix II).

With regard to the music videos under analysis, the research aimed to focus on popular contemporary music. To do this I used the ‘official UK top 10 singles chart’, randomly selecting one song from each week of the year 2010. This made a total of 52 songs representative of the year 2010. The sample was then decreased by random selection, to 10 music videos, a much more realistic sample considering the timescale and requirements of the research project. An advantage of random sampling is that “each unit of the population has an equal probability of inclusion in the sample” Bryman (2008:171). This increases the credibility of the sample and enables the findings to be generalized to the wider population (ibid). When conducting the content analysis I easily accessed the music videos online via http://www.youtube.co.uk. The process took around 30-40 minutes as predicted and was fairly straightforward. There were just a few occasions when I paused the video to determine whether content should be coded; this was usually to take a second look to confirm a decision. Reflecting on the process of coding and sampling, I feel that it went very well as no problems were encountered. I enjoyed the process of content analysis.

The results of the content analysis show that high levels of sexual imagery are present in popular music videos. The most common form of sexual imagery portrayed was ‘sexually suggestive non-dance movements’ with 80% of music videos displaying this behaviour. This was followed by ‘provocative clothing’- 70%, ‘sexual suggestive dance movements’ and ‘emphasis on body parts’ which were both present in 60% of videos analysed. Content categories addressing more explicit sexual imagery such as ‘simulating group sex’, ‘use of object in a sexually suggestive manner’ and ‘sadomasochism’ were found in just 10% of music videos analysed. However, ‘sexual bondage’ which could be considered equally as explicit, was found in 20% of music videos and similarly, ‘simulating penetrative sex’ was found in 30% of music videos. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that there is a high prevalence of sexual imagery in popular music videos. In addition, the results reveal interesting figures regarding the various types of sexual imagery and how often they are portrayed.

There are a number of concerns and questions raised regarding the findings of the research. For example, what impact does sexual imagery in music videos have on the sexual socialization of adolescents, their relationships and identity formation? The sexualisation of culture theory has much relevance in this context. According to Coy (2009), the term ‘sexualisation of culture’ describes the “current saturation of erotic imagery, particularly of women, in popular culture” p.373. Examples given include music videos. According to Ward (2003), the media plays a crucial role in the development of sexual knowledge-
“given the lack of alternative sources, coupled with the media’s accessibility openness and appealing nature, it is only reasonable to expect that the media would play an important role in sexual socialization” Brown, Walsh-Childers & Waszak (1990) cited in Ward (2003).

Parents and peers are important sources of knowledge when it comes to sexual information; however, they are not the only sources and possibly not the most influential. The media and television are believed to play a pivotal role in the sexual socialisation of young people (Arnett, 2002). Television programmes such as “The Joys of Teen Sex” (Channel 4) which is specifically designed to educate adolescents about sex, further add to this argument. In addition, Larson & Kubey (1983) found that listening to music and watching television can “deeply involve adolescents” cited in Baxter (1985:334). With the music video being a combination of the two, even greater emotional involvement can occur, in this sense “the music video has potential to contribute to the cultural norms of a relatively impressionable audience” Ibid.

Some academics have drawn upon the uses and gratifications model in an attempt to distinguish what uses adolescents derive from watching music videos with sexual themes. Arnett (2002) looks at the portrayal of sexuality in music videos, presenting a three way model for understanding the uses. The three uses outlined are: entertainment, identity formation and coping. The research demonstrates how adolescents use music videos in these ways and argues that the proposed model leads the way for future research on music videos and young people. Arnett (2002) suggests that research on sex, teenagers and music would benefit from focusing on what the young people themselves have to say regarding the meanings of sexual themes in music. This is possible avenue to explore for dissertation.

To conclude, there have been many concerns raised regarding the sexual content of music videos ever since their emergence in the early 1980s. Some critics argue that the sexual content is gradually worsening to become ‘sexually explicit’ rather than ‘sexually suggestive’ as was the problem in the 1980s and 90s. Sociologists, psychologists and other academics have contributed to this debate, often arguing that the sexual imagery contained in media has a detrimental effect on the viewer. Concerns have also been raised by worried and outraged parents and child activist groups.

The content analysis conducted shows that sexual imagery is a common feature of music videos. According to Arnett (2002), if there is a typical music video, it consists of “one or two men performing while beautifully, scantily clad young women dance and writhe laviciously” p.256. The results support Arnett’s claim although it should be noted that it is not dancers that perform these sexual roles, in contemporary music videos it is almost always the female performer as well. For example, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez have all been the sexual focus of their own music videos. This has further implications considering the idolisation and emulation of celebrities in contemporary culture. Further research to support the findings could look into the effects of sexual content and how the target audience feels about the sexual content of music videos as suggested by Arnett (2002). Another possible avenue of exploration is to discover if adolescents display a preference for music videos with high levels of sexual imagery. There are many possible paths to explore with regards to the sexualisation of young people and the suggestions made can form the basis of a dissertation.

Arnett, J.J. (2002). The Sounds of Sex. In: Brown, J.D., Steele, J.R. & Walsh-Childers, K. Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating media’s influence on adolescent sexuality. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 253-264.
Baxter, R.L., De Riemer, C., Landini, A., Leslie, L & Singletary, M.W. (1985) A Content Analysis of Music Videos. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 29. (3), 333-340.                                                                                                                                                                                                       Bernard, R.H. (2000).Social Research Methods: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches. Sage. London.
Brown, J.D., Walsh-Childers, K. & Waszak, C.S. (1990). Television and adolescent sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health Care. 11, 62-70. Cited in: Ward, L.M. (2003). Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research. Developmental Review, 23, 347-388.
Bryman, A. (2008). Social Research Methods. 3rd ed. United States.
Burton, D. (Ed.) (2000) Research Training for Social Scientists. London: Sage
Coy, M. (2009) Milkshakes, Lady Lumps and Growing Up to Want Boobies: How the Sexualisation of Popular Culture Limits Girls’ Horizons. Child Abuse Review Vol. 18: 372–383 (2009). Published online 9 November 2009 in Wiley InterScience. Found at: http://www.interscience.wiley.com). Last accessed: 25/03/2010.
Cummins, R.G. (2007. Selling Music with Sex: The Content and Effects of Sex in Music Videos on Viewer Enjoyment. Journal of Promotion Management. Vol 13, 1-2. 95-109.
Durkheim (1964 orig 1893) Division of Labour cited in May, T. (2001) Perspectives on social science research. In: Social Research: issues, methods and process. 3rd ed. London. Open University Press. 7-45.
Greeson, L.E., & Williams, R.A. (1986). Social implications of music videos for youth: An analysis of the contents and effects of MTV. Youth and Society, 18, 177-189.
Larson, R. & Kubey, R. (1983). Television and Music: Contrasting media in adolescent life. Youth and Society, 15, 13-31. Cited in: Baxter, R.L., De Riemer, C., Landini, A., Leslie, L & Singletary, M.W. (1985) A Content Analysis of Music Videos. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 29. (3), 333-340.
Levy, S. (1983). Ad naseum: How MTV sells out rock and roll. Rolling Stone, p.30. Cited in: Baxter, R.L., De Riemer, C., Landini, A., Leslie, L & Singletary, M.W. (1985) A Content Analysis of Music Videos. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 29. (3), 333-340.
May, T. (2001) Perspectives on social science research. In: Social Research: issues, methods and process. 3rd ed. London. Open University Press. 7-45.
Papadopolous, L. (2007). Home Office. The Sexualisation of Young People Review. London, Great Britain: HMSO.
Todd, B (2010) Children ‘at risk from pop charts porn’: Top producer Mike Stock blasts his own industry The Mail [online] 11 August 2010. Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1301974/Mike-Stock-Pop-charts-porn-putting-children-risk.html [Accessed 02/11/2010]
Roberts, D.F., Christenson, P.G. & Gentile, D.A.. (1998). The Effects of Violent Media on Children and Adolescents. In: Gentile, D.A. Media Violence and Children: A complete guide for parents and professionals. j: Greenwood Publishing Group. 153-171. Cited in Arnett, J.J. (2002). The Sounds of Sex. In: Brown, J.D., Steele, J.R. & Walsh-Childers, K. Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating media’s influence on adolescent sexuality. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 253-264.
Sherman, B.L. & Dominick, J.R. (1986). Violence and Sex in Music Videos: TV and rock ‘n’ roll. Journal of Communication. 36. (1), 79-83.
Tapper, J., Thorson. E. & Black, D. (1994). Variations in music videos as a fuction of their musical genre. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 38, 103-113. Cited in: Arnett, J.J. (2002). The Sounds of Sex. In: Brown, J.D., Steele, J.R. & Walsh-Childers, K. Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating media’s influence on adolescent sexuality. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 253-264.
Vincent, R.C., Davis, D.K. & Boruszkowski, L.A. (1987). Sexism on MTV: The portrayal of women in rock videos. Journalism Quartly, 64, 750-755 cited in Papadopolous, L. (2007). Home Office. The Sexualisation of Young People Review. London, Great Britain: HMSO.
Ward, L.M. (2003). Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research. Developmental Review, 23, 347-388.
Zhang, Y., Miller, L.E., & Harrison, K. (2008). The Relationship Between Exposure to Sexual Music Videos and Young Adults’ Sexual Attitudes. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 52 (3). 368-386.

Book Review: Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth.

I produced this book review during my final year at university where I studied Sociology. I submitted this piece of work for a module called ‘Body Politics’ and I got a mark of 75% – one of my highest. I hope this helps people who would like to find out more about the book.

Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women

This book review will focus on The Beauty Myth (1991) by Naomi Wolf and will assess how applicable the text is over two decades on, exploring how it fits and jars with contemporary feminist debates such as the sexual objectification of women (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997, Papadopolous, 2009) and wider debates regarding consumer capitalism and the sexualisation of mass culture.
Naomi Wolf is an author and social critic born in San Francisco, California in 1962 and was raised by her well educated, liberal parents. Having grown up in the 1960s and 70s, Wolf experienced what she perceived to be the failures of second-wave feminism. Wolf attended Yale University graduating with an English Literature degree and later pursued graduate work at Oxford University. After a short period of time in England, she returned to the U.S. to focus on feminist issues. The Beauty Myth (1991) was Wolf’s first publication and distinguished her status as one of the most prominent and visible American feminists of the early 1990s (Schoemaker, 2004). The book’s aim is to challenge dominant explanations regarding women’s preoccupation with beauty by emphasizing the role played by patriarchal structures and mediums of mass culture.
I chose The Beauty Myth (1991) as the subject of this book review as after reading a few pages I felt that I could easily relate to the subject matter which appealed to me because of my own issues with body image and beauty. I hoped that the text would explain some of the truths behind the manipulation of ‘beauty’ which is now so narrowly defined that in realistic terms, it excludes the mass majority of women across the globe.
Wolf (1991) addresses the different dimensions of social life such as work, sex and violence in relation to beauty, drawing on the feminist issues of the late 1980s and early 90s whilst highlighting the often unrecognised limitations accompanying the earlier women’s movement. Wolf (1991) argues that as women’s power and equality has grown stronger in terms of rights, employment and independence, women’s concerns have risen in other, more personal aspects of their lives, particularly in relation to how they feel about their appearance.
Wolf (1991) critiques the role of advertising corporations and other media institutions in upholding ‘the beauty myth’, accusing them of collectively promoting, in American and British mass culture, just one type of woman- she who is beautiful in face and body as defined by their terms. The same popular images of beauty are circulated repeatedly to undermine how women value themselves. This concept of beauty, unobtainable for most, is a misrepresentation of women and what Wolf (1991) refers to in her book title; it is a ‘beauty myth’. For Wolf (1991) ‘the beauty myth’ acts as a political weapon designed to act as a detrimental force against women’s advancement.
The Beauty Myth (1991) was published at a time when women’s success was steadily rising in a variety of arenas such as the pursuit of equal rights and positions of employment. However, at the same time, the appeal of cosmetic surgery was quickly popularized in conjunction with mass culture’s emphasis on youth and the perfect body and the effects of pornography were beginning to grip the sexual confidence of a generation of girls who were better educated, increasingly successful and supposedly more ‘free’ than ever before (Wolf, 1991). At a time when feminism had seemingly waned, with The Beauty Myth (1991), Wolf set out to address the imbalance of female power by exploring the reasons behind women’s subordinate position and their associated affliction with beauty.
In the early 1990s a new generation of feminists were beginning to learn about and evaluate for themselves the achievements and failures of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s (Orr, 1997). Websites began to emerge where women would build online communities, and activist networks. Examples include ‘Riot Grrrl’ and the online women’s magazine ‘Ms’. Modern day versions of feminist activism can be seen in the campaigns of organisations such as ‘Pink Stinks’ who fight for an end to gender stereotyping, and ‘The F Word’ which is an online magazine offering women the opportunity to share their opinions on contemporary feminist issues. This communicative characteristic of third-wave feminism expands the scope for unity amongst a diverse range of women by providing a medium for communication (ibid). Key texts including Wolf (1991) and Rebecca Walker’s “To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism” (1995), had begun to address the shortcomings of the women’s movement and hoped to build momentum for a third-wave feminism by addressing newly emerging themes such as women’s body dissatisfaction, cosmetic surgery, sexual objectification and eating disorders among young women. The Beauty Myth (1991) became popular around the world and Wolf (1991) became the media’s main source for feminist comment making her a visible and prominent figure-head of third-wave feminism (Schoemaker, 2004).
However, Wolf is certainly not popular with everybody; The Beauty Myth (1991) received a significant amount of critical attention in both the U.S. and Britain, with the majority of criticism for her work being centred on the factual and statistical errors which are mostly found in her discussion concerning eating disorders. A study by Schoemaker (2004) compared Wolf’s statistics on eating disorders found in the ‘hunger’ chapter of The Beauty Myth (1991) with “objective and accurate statistics” p99. Results found that 18 out of 23 statistics were inaccurate and over-exaggerated. For example, Wolf’s claim that each year there are 1 million new anorexia and bulimia patients in the U.S. was increased tenfold, with the real figure being closer to 95,000. Schoemaker’s (2004) evidence showed that “on average, an anorexia statistic in any edition of The Beauty Myth should be divided by eight to get near to the real statistic” p100.
Wolf (1991) also has a tendency to make sweeping generalisations with regards to how women feel about themselves, sex, men and the pursuit of beauty. Concentrating solely on Caucasian women from the U.S. and across Europe, Wolf (1991) neglects ‘race’ and cultural factors, failing to detail the possible differences in how women from different parts of the world may think and feel about feminist issues. Wolf (1991) also shows little respect for the role agency plays in a female’s life or the fact that some women may enjoy beautifying themselves, attracting the attention of males and possibly even exploiting this ability to their own advantage.
Feminist pioneer Betty Friedan described Wolf’s (1991) book as “obsolete rehash” misrepresenting “the relationship between femininity and beauty” and failing to address the political obstacles in Women’s path (Mitchell & Haribson, 1991:36). Other critics have attacked Wolf (1991) for expressing her concepts too simplistically with no real backbone or remedy for what is detailed within the book (Orr, 1997).
In Wolf’s preceding publication Fire with Fire (1994), the concept of “power feminism”p38, is developed. In this book Wolf (1994) encourages women to become more political, to take control of their lives and to stop viewing themselves and each other as victims of male dominance. Once again Wolf (1991) faced much criticism for her ideas, but this time accusations revolved around her having made a complete reversal on the concepts expressed in her first book.
Wolf’s main argument within The Beauty Myth (1991) is that throughout different periods of history, women’s emancipation has been delayed due to the conveniently timed development of ideologies relating to beauty and body image. Wolf claims that these beauty ideals are socially constructed and examines the role and impact of this construction in relation to women’s lived experiences. Women’s coerced pursuit to maintain a certain standard of beauty is seen as a form of social control which has replaced previous ideologies such as the ‘perfect housewife’ which was famously critiqued by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963). According to Friedan (1963), women’s magazines and increasingly powerful advertising corporations during the 1950s, played a key role in manipulating women’s “lack of identity…and purpose…into dollars”.
Wolf (1991) updates this argument in relation to the hold ‘the beauty myth’ has over women in contemporary society claiming that the promotion of beauty products has replaced that of household products with modern magazines focusing on “beautywork rather than housework” p66. Wolf (1991) argues that chipping away at women’s self-confidence aids consumer capitalism by encouraging women to purchase a variety of supposed ‘remedies’ for things to specifically improve their appearance and desirability for the attention of men.
Many of the themes discussed within The Beauty Myth (1991) relating to how women experience sex, relationships, pornography and cultural capitalism in relation to the pursuit of beauty, remain particularly relevant as they continue to be dominant themes within contemporary society.
Wolf (1991) likens women’s continuous struggle to fit today’s narrow, force-fed definition of beauty as similar to the confinements of the medieval torture instrument the iron maiden, which is used throughout the book as a metaphor to describe women’s entrapment by ‘the beauty myth’. To support this argument, Wolf (1991) explores the different areas of social life. Within her chapter on sex, Wolf (1991) argues that images of women in advertising, television, magazines and pornography, all adhering to ‘the beauty myth’, exist to undermine women’s sense of sexual self-worth by pairing women’s sex appeal and satisfaction with specific beauty standards.
In the 1980s Andrea Dworkin presented a feminist discussion of pornography in her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Wolf (1991) reworks parts of Dworkin’s argument claiming that the presence of sexualised images of women in mass culture and the popularity of ‘beauty pornography’ can damage women’s sexual confidence, separating young girls and women from their own sexuality by teaching them to “desire is to be desired” p157, before they learn to explore their sexuality in terms of how it makes them feel. For women, female sexuality has been taken from them at an early age and is in the hands of men, “keeping women’s eyes lowered to their own bodies, glancing up only to check the reflections in the eyes of men” p155. The emphasis on the appearance of females within society also encourages them to become wary and competitive towards each other, diminishing the potential for collective action (ibid).
In 1997,Frederickson & Roberts developed their theory of sexual objectification. They contended that girls and women are socialized to “internalize an observers perspective as a primary view of their physical selves” p173. This can  lead to emotions of shame and anxiety as well as frequent body monitoring in terms of dieting and/or exercise and
Twenty years on from The Beauty Myth, concerns regarding the effects of sexually objectifying media are popular once more. In 2010, the British Government commissioned a report conducted by psychologist Linda Papadopoulos looking into “the sexualisation of young people” (2010). Research found that young women are learning that being attractive is what is most important in society “and the only way to be attractive is to be submissive and overtly sexual” p51. Papadopoulos (2010) argues that ideal images of beauty portrayed in the media are misleading and “limiting” ibid. Wolf (1991) claims that within the media there are very few roles models for young girls and women which encourages then to turn to the most available source which magazines, television and the bombardment of images which emphasize beauty over any other achievement . Women who are successful solely on the basis of their talent or academic achievements are rarely celebrated.
The rise of ‘raunch culture’ has been addressed by feminist author Ariel Levy in the book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005), in which Wolf’s (1991) arguments regarding sex and culture are updated and developed. Levy (2005) claims that women now purposefully value themselves as sex objects for men. Women are embracing occupations such as lap dancing, stripping and glamour modelling with the view that it empowers them and enables them to express their sexuality, which they believe puts them on par with men on some level. However, this form of ‘feisty feminism’ and the rise of ‘raunch culture’ is not necessarily indicative of women’s changing attitudes, it can be superficial as women are often neglectful or unaware of the wider implications felt and experienced by women in similar circumstances. Levy (2005), alike Wolf (1991), argues that it does not matter how successful, accomplished or talented a women is because culture keeps reminding her that her core value depends on her beauty and perceived sex appeal.
In contrast, Taylor (2006) argues that rather than limiting and undermining women’s capacity for intelligence, status and power, the growth in ‘raunch culture’ represents for her, ‘the ultimate feminist ideal’. She argues that women are finally free to express their sexuality and if women want to wear thongs, pose provocatively in magazines or support the Playboy brand by wearing their logo, it is their right to do so. Taylor (2006) argues that Levy (2005) and a variety of feminist websites such as ‘The F Word’, tend to make women feel bad about themselves instead of celebrating their sexuality and femininity.
However, Levy (2005:198) actually points out the fact that she is “happy” for women who enjoy beauty treatments, dress scantily clad, undergo breast enlargement- whatever they choose freely. Simultaneously she emphasizes that there are a large number of women who do feel trapped by mass culture’s emphasis of sex and ‘raunch’ in relation to beauty and that these women are who she speaks to. Wolf (1991) also avoids disputing a women’s right to feel beautiful or to enjoy the attention it brings. She does not attack women who are unattractive for desiring to be beautiful. Instead, Wolf (1991) raises concerns about women who feel powerless, compelled to wear makeup or to lose those extra few pounds purposefully, to fit the beauty mould that has been constructed around them.
In The Beauty Myth, Wolf discusses the stereotypical views of feminists perpetuated by mass media. This includes the notion that feminists are unattractive, overweight and bitter towards prettier, sexier women often with the intentions of sending them on a guilt trip for wanting to look nice. In criticising Wolf (1991), Cranston (1991) labels her a “bully…of American women who try to make themselves look pretty” p36. He continues to point to her attractive appearance as the reason for why she feels she is positioned to… as opposed to her academic talent.
Although Wolf has been heavily criticized for certain aspects of her work, it is easy to see why the arguments she presented remain popular. As an international best seller Wolf’s (1991) ideas have reached many women. Wolf’s place as a prominent third-wave feminist is deserved and the concepts she expressed early in the women’s movement opened the doors for many to follow her path. Wolf’s style of writing is very accessible and twenty years on, a lot of her analyses remain applicable to contemporary research and debates surrounding body image.
I enjoyed reading The Beauty Myth (1991) as I found myself relating to a lot of what Wolf (1991) was writing about throughout the book and believe this to be the key factor in the text’s popularity. Whilst reading the book, I found myself feeling anger towards the mediums of mass culture, particularly advertising and magazines for adhering to ‘the beauty myth’ and failing to embrace women of all shapes and sizes. Reading the book gave me a boost of self-confidence and my already dismissive attitude towards beauty advertising has deepened. The text has influenced the way I view myself and other women by highlighting how mass culture and patriarchal structures of society are able to affect how we view ourselves so deeply. Wolf (1991) woke up my inner-feminist, however after reflecting on the book and Wolf’s style, I now recognise her tendency to over-exaggerate in order to get her point across and her manipulation of figures relating to eating disorders in the U.S. is disappointing as she has some great arguments and need not exaggerate as the problem of eating disorders is bad enough.

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Levy, A. (2005). Feminist Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture. Simon & Schuster. United Kingdom.
Mitchell, E. & Haribson, G. (1991). The Bad Side of Looking Good. Time. Vol 137 (9). P68-71.
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Wolf, N. (1991). The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. Vintage Books, Great Britain.
Wolf, N. (1994). Fire with Fire: The new female power and how to use it. New York. Fawcett Combine.
Wolf, N. (2011). A Wrinkle in Time: Twenty years after the beauty myth. Washington Post. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/a-wrinkle-in-time-twenty-years-after-the-beauty-myth-naomi-wolf-addresses-the-aging-myth/2011/05/11/AGiEhvCH_story.html Last Accessed 23/01/2012.