This piece was originally posted on May 3, 2018 with the Society for Research on Adolescence.
Adolescents learn about themselves, their bodies, and how to be a person in the world in many ways — from each other, from their families and schools, and also from popular culture. While most of these sources of influence can be facilitated intentionally by parents and educators, what happens in popular media cannot be controlled. However, parents and educators and other people supporting the positive development of adolescents can take an active role in helping young people understand and navigate the impact of popular media. To contribute to that process, this blog post examines one aspect of sexism in popular media: sexual objectification.
The American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls released a 2007 report about the impacts of media that sexually objectify women and girls. This report lead to further research in communications, cognitive psychology, human sexuality development, and other interrelated disciplines. Dr. Monique Ward then authored a review of the empirical research on this topic published 1995-2015.
Ward reviewed empirical studies published from 1995 to 2015 that identify effects of exposure to sexually objectifying media, through experimental lab studies or through everyday life. In Ward’s review, she found that exposure to sexually objectifying media can contribute to:
Self objectification: When people perceive or treat themselves as sexual objects. (How do I look? What will others think when they see me? Do I measure up?)
Body dissatisfaction: Endorsement of a cultural body ideal dissonant with how people see themselves, that makes people unhappy about their own bodies (although idealized body standards may vary cross-culturally)
Sexist beliefs: Seeing women as less than human, seeing women as interchangeable, erasing women’s inner lives (e.g., thoughts and feelings), and having negative judgments of sexualized people.,
Tolerance of violence against women: Blaming women for their own sexual victimization. Expressing attitudes that support rape and sexual harassment and actually engaging in sexual or gender-based harassment.
Objectified sexual experiences: Boys exposed to sexually objectifying media are more likely to focus on the body size and shape of girls they want to date and are more anxious about their own appearance. Youth of all genders may be more self-conscious of their body while engaging in sexual activity.
How prevalent is sexual objectification? Ward reported that sexually objectifying portrayals have been found for:
Knowing these potential effects of sexual objectification in media can equip teenagers to better critique and resist the media they consume. Furthermore, teenagers need to be aware that watching a movie or following a television series is not a benign hobby — everything we do shapes our experience of ourselves and others. Sexual objectification is just one of the many ways the impact of sexist media could be considered. There are other forms of sexualization discussed in the APA report, as well as other aspects of sexual scripts, toxic gender norms, and rape culture to consider.
Young people can also use this information to advocate for change. They can choose to support the Hollywood actresses naming their own experiences of sexual assault behind the screens through #MeToo and saying #TimesUp on sexism in the entertainment industry, both on screen and off. They can advocate for educational opportunities to help buffer the effects of pervasive sexism and sexual objectification, such as ways to build media literacy skills and ways to access comprehensive sexual health education that can strengthen their development of embodied sexual agency. They can also choose to support shows with complex, agentic characters like the Black teenage girl scientist-heroes Meg and Shuri in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther, respectively. Youth themselves can make choices about what messages they are exposed to and how they respond to those messages.
Note: The literature on sexual objectification for the most part takes a binary approach to gender, assessing the impact of sexualized media on girls or boys, often within a heterosexual framework. More research is needed to understand the impact of sexual objectification in media for queer youth, trans youth, and youth with non-binary gender identities. Furthermore, a growing body of literature addresses intersections of gender and race, for example, in how feminine and masculine body ideals and physical desirability itself is strongly racialized within the context of American popular culture that idealizes Whiteness.
UVA students standing in front of an image of Thomas Jefferson, holding a sign that reads "200 years of white supremacy."
This piece was originally posted on March 16, 2018 with the Society for Research on Adolescence.
We are watching them mobilize across the country: youth fighting for gun control; youth fighting for a Clean DREAM Act; youth fighting against police brutality and structural racism. Here are ways you can offer support to the adolescent activists in your life — and maybe also help a young person along the pathway to plugging into these social movements for change.
1. Provide Access to Knowledge — the kind they don’t (often) teach in schools
Stephen Russell, Anna Muraco, Aarti Subramaniam, and Carolyn Laub conducted focus groups with student leaders of high school Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) to talk about empowerment, and they asked participants what aspects of their GSA involvement helped them become empowered. The study found that youth talked about “having and using knowledge” as one key aspect of empowerment. Useful types of knowledge included information about their rights as students and how to advocate for their rights within the school system, and facts that they could use to dispel discriminatory homophobic beliefs. In addition, GSA leaders benefited from knowledge about different approaches to organizing and activism, and how to connect the work they were doing together to broader social movements that they are now a part of. (Side note: Emma Gonzalez, one of the Parkland student activists, is President of her school’s GSA.)
2. Foster Critical Consciousness — reflect and act, act and reflect
Knowledge is not always sufficient to motivate action and change. Paulo Freire’s theory of critical consciousnessidentified the dynamic relationship between reflection and action — we need to think critically about the world, take action within the world towards change, think critically about what we learn from those actions, and return to further action, iteratively. Matthew Diemer, Luke Rapa, Catalina Park, and Justin Perry used a survey study of predominantly Black and biracial high school youth to identify three components of critical consciousness:
Critical reflection on perceived inequality involves “critical analysis of socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and gendered constraints on educational and occupational opportunity.”
Critical reflection on egalitarianism means “endorsement of societal equality, or all groups of people treated as equals within society.”
Critical action entails “participation in social and political activities to change perceived inequalities.”
3. Help youth Organize! — build collective power
Youth don’t have to act alone! Critical action — and critical reflection, too — do not and perhaps should not have to be seen as isolated, individualistic processes. Ben Kirshner and Shawn Ginwright identify youth organizing as a powerful developmental context to promote thriving among youth of color, with regard to individual development, community development, and promoting social movements. They define youth organizing as “a form of civic engagement in which young people identify common interests, mobilize their peers, and work collectively to address quality-of-life and human rights issues in their schools and communities.” In other words, it’s about young people connecting with each other and collaborating to leverage power towards achieving the changes that they need for themselves and the people around them to thrive.
Providing youth access to knowledge, fostering critical consciousness, and helping youth organize are ways for adults to support youth activism whether as a parent, teacher, youth group leader, or simply through an informal connection with a certain young person. Youth are leading us towards necessary social change. We have the opportunity not only to applaud them, but also to equip them to become their most fierce and most effective selves.
Tell women that you’re working on it. Not for cookies, but as an FYI. And I don’t mean women in general. I mean some specific women in your life whom you care about. Say to them, this is really impacting me, and I’m committed to learning more. I want you to know that I care about you and I care about doing better.
Support survivors. Queer survivors, trans survivors, male survivors, women and anyone who has been targeted by sexual violence. If you are confident and humble in your ability to not be an asshole, you can possibly be helpful. Maybe you can make yourself available to listen. Maybe you can help with just some of the labor of life. Put some food in someone’s freezer.
ORGANIZE. Connect with other men to build towards shared goals. I want white men especially to organize against white supremacist patriarchal violence. And. . . also I really don’t. I mean, I do. I’m just worried you’re going to mess it up. And you will. But maybe you have to. Please listen, when you do mess it up. And then try again. Please try again. Keep learning and keep trying.
I want you to be successful at this. I even want to help you be successful. All our lives depend on it.
I wrote a fan fiction spin-off of Grace’s story in Babe. I didn’t write it for Grace or for Aziz Ansari — I wrote it for all the people calling those events “normal,” and for all the people recalling their own stories, and for all the people who don’t know how he could have done any better. HE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER. And you can, too. Let’s just consider really specifically what “better” might have sounded like.
G: Why, what nice countertops you have.
A: Want to hop up and take a seat?
G: (Laughs, slides up)
A: Mhmm, this is a good height for me to kiss you. Can I kiss you?
G: Mhmm… (they kiss)
A: How about these clothes, how about we…
G: Mhmm, not yet…
A: I’m going to grab a condom.
G: Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.
A: Oh, ok. Can I keep kissing you? Or, do you want to get down from the countertop?
G: (Slides her feet back to the floor.)
A: (Pulls her hand towards his penis.)
G: (Pulls her hand away.)
A: I want you to touch me. I want to feel your hands on me.
G: (Looks uncomfortable, shakes her head.)
A: Oh, not if you don’t want to. (Puts his fingers in her mouth.) Do you want me to touch you?
G: (Shakes her head again, laughs a little nervously.)
A: Ok! Ok, I hear you. Can I keep kissing you?
G: (Stops moving her hand, moves away from him.)
A: Are you okay? What do you want, what would feel good?
A: Where do you want me to fuck you?
G: Next time.
A: Oh, you mean not tonight?
A: I hope for another night then. What do you want to do tonight? A glass of water, a glass of wine, watch a movie, get an uber?
G: I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you.
A: Oh, of course, it’s only fun if we’re both having fun. I don’t want to force you, and I don’t want you to feel forced. What would help? Do you want me to get you an uber? Do you want to sit with me on the couch?
G: I’ll come sit with you.
A: Can I do something to help? Rub your shoulders, turn on the TV?
G: Yes, please!
A: (After the episode of Seinfeld finishes.) Thanks for staying and cuddling. Can I kiss you again? Or shall I get you an uber?
Not one male Golden Globe winner used a moment on camera to mention #MeToo or #TimesUp or sexual assault or men’s violence against women. So I put together a little list of simple, practical sentences that could slide out of men’s mouths at the next award ceremony… or anytime this year, really.
I trust women.
I believe women.
I stand with survivors.
I will hold perpetrators accountable.
To end sexual violence we must end toxic masculinity.
To end sexual violence we must acknowledge, address, and end white male violence.
I am here to help men have better emotional lives, better friendships, better access to both emotional support and accountability.
I am here to change myself as part of changing our culture.
I withdraw my support for the ideals of toxic masculinity.
I withdraw my support from men who perpetrate sexual violence. I will not be complicit.
I will stop working with toxic violent men.
I will stop working with rapists and abusers.
I will stop producing media that glorifies toxic violent men.
I will stop producing media that glorifies rapists and abusers.
I will support media produced by women and queer people of color, with my money and with my social power.
I will support media that challenges white male dominance, with my money and with my social power.
I will make mistakes and accept critique.
I will work hard to make change. Change in my personal life, change in my work life. Change in ways I can’t possibly imagine. I’m here for it.
The top highlights of my winter vacation stemmed from opportunities to witness changes that are bringing joy to the lives of people I love. A new romance, a new apartment, a new school, a new baby…
Their lives are also complicated. They too have been deeply affected by the dumpster fire year of 2017. They too were breathing in and breathing out and figuring out how to keep fighting for our lives in 2018. They too were dealing with loss and grief and stress and fear and rage.
And they have joy. They have access to that spark. And I got to see it, which made me genuinely happy.
“What you do to put your mind on something that’s not so heavy?” … asked a 30-something physician who had just been describing the bicycle-built-for-two that she and her fiancé ride around their California home.
My dad laughed sarcastically. “Aha,” he exclaimed. “That is the question.”
My mom visited me in June, just a few weeks after the May 13 Nazi flash-mob torch-rally downtown. “But what do you do for pleasure?” she kept asking. Apparently I never provided a satisfactory response.
Pleasure. Fun. Joy.
It wasn’t until tea with an activist co-conspirator on one of my last days in Boston that I was truly convinced of it all. First, as another dear co-conspirator pointed out to me, it’s just different to hear it from folks who are also structuring their lives around activism. The rhetoric of self-care can be so easily coopted to justify complacency. And I do not intend complacency.
More so, I just didn’t know how my brain would hold up upon return to Charlottesville. As a psychology researcher, I know that emotions are real things that are really happening in the brain and body. And not only do I need to give my brain a break, but I also need to give my body ways to build positive associations with this place that has been so structured by racist terrorism. Offering myself some positive associations will not and should not undo the grief, the rage, the reality. It will however help me live my life, and it will also make me more grounded as a community activist.
So, what brings me joy? The ocean, my friends, and dancing.
We are relatively landlocked here in Central Virginia, and when I connect with friends I want to have space to hold the heaviness of what we are all living through together. So I’m going to find a dance class. Starting with once a week, more often if I need to. I want a class that happens regularly that I can put into my schedule and plan around. Something for fun – I don’t want to be practicing towards a performance or anything with pressure. I just want to move and experiment and not take myself so seriously (for an hour).
For my body, for my brain, for myself, for my work. With hope.
What do you do for fun? What will bring you pleasure this year, how will you find joy?
Write blog posts: about what’s happening in my life, and what’s happening in my community.
Befriend my own anger.
Turn more to sadness instead of anger in relation to a person I love who loves me.
Turn more to anger instead of civility in relation to person who intends harm.
Spend time each day cultivating awareness of my own healing processes.
Learn to feel loved while saying no and setting boundaries.
Learn to feel loved while saying yes and accepting help.
Struggle. Fight. Love. Care. Connect. Defend our communities and build the much much much better world we all deserve to live in.
Set goals, navigate priorities, and select strategies.
Keep my apartment clean enough that I invite friends over for tea.
Accept that the stakes are high and morale is low and this Year will continue to ask more from us than we maybe knew we had in us and that means we need to nurture vulnerability and honesty and care and attention and belonging in ways that many of us, myself included, never knew we had in us either.
Here I am. I am alive and loved and still in the struggle. Thank you for being it with me.
Please don’t use “Charlottesville” as a stand-alone word to refer to the white supremacist terrorist attacks of August 11-12.
As in, “ever since Charlottesville,” or “when Charlottesville happened.”
1. You are using the name of an entire city as a euphemism when what you really mean is “THAT WEEKEND WE ALL WATCHED ACTUAL NAZIS ATTACK AND KILL PEOPLE.” Yeah. That weekend. Say what you mean. Say “the Nazi terrorist mob in Charlottesville” or “when Nazis attacked Charlottesville” or “the largest most violent white supremacist rally in a long time.”
2. When you refer to this terrorism simply by using the name of our city, you are telling yourself that it’s just about Charlottesville… but it’s not. It’s also about you. Most of the Nazis who attacked Charlottesville came from other cities, other states. Which ones live near you? Do you know? Do you know which Nazi groups are organizing in your city, in your state? Do you know which of your neighbors came here to attack my neighbors?
3. We’ve been fighting in Charlottesville on a regular basis since the first torch rally on May 13 and long before then too — there have been Nazis with guns and threats and direct confrontations and it still continues every week. When you say “Charlottesville” and really mean “August 11-12” what you are telling me is that you were paying attention when we were all up in the news coverage for a few days, and *you* had a strong reaction to that and got all up in your feelings (which you definitely should, yes, valid, terrifying, infuriating, yes, all those feelings) — AND THEN YOU MOVED ON AND WENT BACK TO NORMAL LIFE. What you’re telling me is that you stopped paying attention to the ongoing struggle in Charlottesville.
Don’t stop. Don’t stop paying attention. Pay attention to Charlottesville. Pay attention to your neighbors too. Even as you are paying attention to the US imperialist neglect of climate crisis damage in Puerto Rico and the St. Louis rebellion in response to police murders of Black people and the threat of a second major Nazi attack aiming for Charlotte, North Carolina. This is all interconnected. The fascist terror continues. The resistance continues, too. #Charlottesville continues.
My beloved Jews, here is my love letter to you this New Year.
I am a WhitequeerfemmeJew in Charlottesville. Although many friends in Boston and NYC thought I had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, by now I hope you’ve heard of Charlottesville. We’re in the mountains of Central Virginia, a small city of 50,000 people, founded by the racist rapist colonizer Thomas Jefferson, with the University of Virginia two miles from downtown.
The Nazis chose Charlottesville. There have been Nazis (with guns) in Charlottesville since long before I got here, harassing Black politicians and intimidating anti-racist protesters and also planning amongst themselves. The friendly liberal White folks who populate this space know who they are — will talk about them and roll their eyes and make fun of them — but it has taken persistent, daring, fierce leadership by anti-fascist and anarchist people of color (primarily women and femmes) to teach Charlottesville how to fight Nazis. Everything I share with you in this piece, I learned from them. Except for the Jewish parts — those I learned from you! And our powers combined, we can do this. I believe that we will win. But first, we have to fight.
1. Trust Black and indigenous liberation leadership.
Find anti-fascist Black and indigenous people who have been doing the work from so many directions to address systems of colonization and anti-Blackness in this country. Believe them when they tell you what to do. Support them with everything you’ve got. One of the most serious mistakes I made this summer was falling into that Whiteness trap of Thinking I Know Best — assuming that I can talk to other White people to figure out what the hell is going on and what my role in all of it is. Here’s a great way to make sure you’re talking through things with and asking questions of and offering support to and really getting to know people who aren’t just White Jews: make Friends. That’s right, I capitalized Friends. People I eat with, drink with, dance with, call, text, visit, hug, appreciate, and ask many questions on a regular basis. It’s irreplaceable. Make friends with anti-fascists who have been confronting, disrupting, and undermining Nazis for years or even decades. You may also hear them called “antifa.” Everything I know from fighting Nazis this summer, I learned from local anti-fascist, anarchist, and anti-racist leadership. This includes Jews of color! There are Black Jews and Latinx Jews and other Jews who face very specific threats to existence and presence in this country. Trust them; build trust with them.
2. Center Black lives.
Jews should be fighting Nazis. And — at the same time — we White-presenting White-privileged Jews need to understand that we are fighting Nazis in the US within the very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism. I have been face to face with Nazis and yes I see the swastikas and I see the anti-semitic signs and I hear the taunts and I respect the fear of the synagogue in downtown Charlottesville — AND please believe me when I say that they are coming for Black people first. It is Black people who the Nazis are seeking out, Black neighborhoods that are being targeted, anti-Black terrorism that is being perpetrated. So. Jews need to be fighting Nazis in this moment. And. At the same time. If we are fighting Nazis expecting them to look like German anti-Semitic prototypes, we will be betraying ourselves and our comrades of color. We need to fight Nazis in the US within the context of US anti-Black racism. We need to be anti-fascist and anti-racist with every breath, with every step. Our anti-fascism must affirm that Black Lives Matter and must support the Movement for Black Lives.
3. No platform for White Supremacy.
Antifa refer to this tactic as “no platforming.” Remember that “freedom of speech” may restrict (somewhat) the actions of the government, but it does not restrict our actions as individuals. The goal of no platforming is to stop the spread of Nazi propaganda. I remember the Hebrew School lessons about how much the German Nazis used media — speeches, posters, propaganda — to fuel anti-Semitism and normalize the escalation of state violence. Do not allow Nazis to make speeches. Do not allow Nazis to have press conferences, radio interviews, and rallies. No dialogue with White Supremacy. No platform.
4. Know your Nazis.
No platforming does NOT mean hide your head in the sand and ignore them. Quite the opposite. We must know who they are. As Charlottesville organizershave already instructed: “Do the research to identify Nazis in your community. Find out who’s doing alt-right or white supremacist agitating, find out where they work, and learn as much as you can about their connections to politicians or police in your town. Use this information to block them from gaining social and political control.”
5. Love each other and protect each other.
After Richard Spencer’s first Charlottesville terrorist torch rally in May, local anarchist people of color hosted a community vigil and had us chant together Assata Shakur’s prayer: “It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Loving each other and protecting each other have been core values of the resistance in Charlottesville: community care and community defense. Do folks need food, groceries, a ride, housing? We have to pay attention to and prioritize the most marginalized among us. No one is too much; no one is disposable. These needs are valid. The need for protection is also valid. Community defense — physical defense — is part of this love. We must protect each other from the White Supremacist violence of Nazis and from state violence. Consider bringing a nonviolent direct action training to your community or congregation. And know that antifa saved lives through community defense in Charlottesville on August 12. Saved. Lives. We must protect each other; we must defend our communities.
6. Honor a diversity of tactics.
Again, individuals willing to get physically confrontational saved lives in Charlottesville. We must stop the Nazis. The use of physical confrontation caused some mainstream media outlets to proclaim a false equivalency, which we must refute and refuse. I want to learn more about the legacy of ready to take.
7. Form local coalitions.
Jews should be fighting Nazis, but we do not need to be fighting Nazis alone. Coalition-building is really hard. Maybe folks from Solidarity Cville will write publicly one day about what we did and what we failed to do this summer… coalition conflict led to many hours of me crying on my couch alone… which is not necessarily the most strategic move, in retrospect. Other people were hurt much more than I was. Check out the St. Paul’s Principles of Unity. Make friends with each other. Always have food at meetings. Don’t assume you always need a meeting in order to get things done. Center Black lives. Honor the emotional labor of women and femmes. Mess up, be accountable, reconnect, and try again. We are in this together.
8. Demand organizational leadership.
We need courageous Jewish leadership to spearhead a Jewish response to the rising reality of Nazi violence and the threat of American fascism. I called six national Jewish organizations in July, begging for help fighting Nazis in Charlottesville. I got mixed responses; no one seemed to know whose responsibility it was to lead this work. Shout out to T’ruah and If Not Now for your statements of solidarity, and for showing up on August 12. We need many different forms of leadership in this moment. We also need the core Jewish movements themselves — looking at you, URJ and USCJ — to declare resistance to White Supremacy, paving the way for congregational rabbis to do the same. National leadership supports local leadership, and vice versa.
9. Mobilize rapid response.
Support communities facing crisis. When you’re called for help, take it seriously and figure out how to give it. Having better prepared national Jewish leadership will help with this — particularly by having one (or several) Jewish organizations committed to sending people, educational materials, and money to communities under attack. And by “communities” I mean not just Jewish communities — Black predominantly Christian communities, Muslim communities, and entire city communities like Charlottesville. The best way to help is to go there in person. Send money, declare solidarity, signal boost. Build up the skills and resources within your congregation or, even better, within your local coalition so that you are ready to go when needed.
10. Refuse to normalize.
This. Is. Not. Normal. Never let it be normal. I am not trying to “get back to normal” after August 12. Also? Refuse to normalize White Supremacy in retrospect. Don’t romanticize the Obama era, when deportations and police brutality and mass incarceration continued to escalate. That all wasn’t normal either, and it was never okay. Don’t normalize fascism and don’t normalize racism, even the parts that have been here all along.
What does this have to do with the High Holidays?
I call on Jewish leadership — clergy and lay leaders — to apply the ten steps above to the traditions of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days of Awe. Use the High Holidays to prepare for a year of fighting Nazis.
Our resistance must start with repentance. Only through acknowledgement and accountability can we strive for reparations. With rituals such as tashlictand al chet, we can reflect on how we even got to this place, what our own complicity in White Supremacy has been, and how we have or have not been showing up for people whose bodies are on the line.
And then comes actual interpersonal apologies and accountability. This time, I need you all to get specific. Who have you harmed, through racism, sexism, or unjust criticism? Who have you turned away in their moment of need? We need each other. We must bind together even as we challenge each other to do way better. We need honest conversations that build closeness and community. We are in it together. Get involved.
Finally, to truly show up for each other and persist in resistance, we must embrace a sweet new year. Fighting Nazis makes me sick. I remember when I started feeling sick in May, after just a few weeks of shouting at Nazis in the streets. Physically ill and shaking and angry and scared. We are confronting rather than avoiding the grossness of the world. So seek out moments of sweetness, be all-out affectionate with your comrades and community members, and wish each other joy in whatever ways feel possible.
Because we must fight. We don’t fight for fun; we don’t fight for joy. We fight for love and freedom and liberation. We fight because we are Jews. Jews fight Nazis.