Sexuality: History and the “Ideal” Female
Through a series of interviews I talked to different people about their various experiences with the media, fashion, and beauty industries and how they believe those affected their view of the world we live in. I started by asking them a few questions surrounding sexuality and our perception of what “sexy” means in society. These conversations lead each one of them to different places and answers yielding intriguing conversations about what it means to be a member of our changing world.
Melissa “Missy” Tucker and I discussed the effects that Barbie dolls had on our imagery of what body image and sexuality means to us in modern times. This conversation focused on the way that girls internalize the Barbie doll image and translate it into a standard of beauty. She cites one of the first times she realized what “sexy” was to the Rockstar Barbie she received as a child. This Barbie was dressed in all leather as opposed to the traditional poofy princess dress of other Barbie dolls she’d had. Barbie’s are automatically an example of beauty to young girls but they take a deeper effect than we think. As children we’re given toys meant to show us how to act in adulthood, that’s why we typically receive play kits for cooking or nursing, and when we receive dolls and other toys we identify that that is what adulthood will be like or should look like. For Barbie dolls they are often associated with unachievable beauty, if Barbie were real she would be incredibly skinny and tall with large hips and breasts.
(Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
It would be unrealistic for the average woman to achieve that body. But this is the main image we give to little girls and tell them that it is beautiful and that we should strive for this perfection. These dolls and childhood toys also contribute to the gender roles that women are meant to fall into. From the moment our conversation jumped off it was about the emphasized femininity we have to display as women. Emphasized femininity is the counterpart to hegemonic masculinity, both are the extremes of gender portrayals. For example, if Barbie is the extreme of female perfection then Thor is the extreme of male perfection. When I asked Missy if she thought of herself as conventionally sexy she said “she can be.”
“I can be with the right makeup, clothes, and hair.”
When Missy and I discussed gender and its role in this world we talked about how beauty is the minimum standard that women are given, we have to be beautiful before we are anything else, we must please men through this emphasized femininity pushed on us. Missy, a history major, brought up the history behind why women in the modern age are more involved in appearance and are more manipulated in the beauty industry. When catalog shopping first began in the twentieth century, it catered towards stay at home women and their abilities to actually look through these advertisements and purchase the products.
(Photo courtesy of History.com)
Stay at home wives were looking for something to do, and with credit recently coming into existence, and they found a new activity with catalogs in being able to spend their husbands money through these advertisements. When the Barbie dolls existence came into play it was a perpetuation on the beauty standards women were already conforming to and creating, Barbie is always done up, she always has nails and long hair and her makeup done. Even if the average women we tell our children that they should be, that this is the ideal of beauty and we should try to follow it in order to be perceived as beautiful. The damage that comes from this is that our worth as women is directly correlated to our ability to display this beauty to others. The assumptions we make about the women around us often involves their looks in connection with their smarts. Women are told that they cannot both portray their sexuality and also their brains. We have to be beautiful, like a Barbie, before we can be smart and talented.
Missy’s other major is theater so naturally we began talking about the way film and performance influences our assumptions on certain people based on their appearance. This is typically called “type-casting” a term used to described how actors give off a perception of personality types based off their looks and are usually cast accordingly. The disappointing aspects of this come from the generalization and misrepresentation of female characters in major storylines. These characters often cater to the male gaze and bring back that idea of emphasized femininity. In this context male gaze encompasses the way we make female characters fulfill the male ego and storyline, therefore becoming the accessory in male stories meant to please men. This stems from our societal standards that men must always end the story with fufillment, women in almost every prominent plot line are either chasing a man or charmed into submission by a man. Some examples Missy and I discussed was Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona who chases a man for the entire story even though he outright rejects, cheats, and lies to her. She is weak and can not resist her male counterpart, she gives up huge portions of her life and personality to chase a man. This Shakespearean standard is often cited for having wonderful roles for women, Julia is a huge resumé boost for female actors. Contrasting this you have Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, who is a strong headed, witty, and feisty woman but who’s main storyline is about a man taming her. One of her major monologues even uses the phrase “taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.” While she has more depth than Julia because she carries her own personality and goals outside men for part of the play, in the end the show is about a man conquering a woman.
Shakespeare might seem too historical to matter in the modern era of feminism however, these are the original basis for almost all of our major stories now. Shakespeare created the ideals for type casting, he specified that Hermia was short while Helena was tall because Helena had to be the more powerful between the two. We base major modern films and plays on his works: She’s The Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, West Side Story, and even Lion King. Women are given specific roles and places and we’ve chosen as a society not to re-evaluate these characters or try to reshape our mindsets. These boxes are heavily used in everyday media and influence the stories we create for the people we meet. Just like the Barbie, we’ve engrained into women that they must satisfy their “type” before they can show their talents or their brains.
Listen to the full interview here: