No matter where I stand, she’s looking at me. From any angle in this huge, bustling metropolis, I can see her clearly, and she returns the gaze with unmoving, unseeing eyes. She overlooks the swarm of humanity bustling below her in Times Square, and even as I appreciate the fact that I am standing in this landmark location, I can’t escape her gaze.
What does she look like? Well, she is alluring and sensual, in most of the advertisements very scantily clad and in her every form she is a picture of the image she is supposed to project, rather than an accurate reflection of herself. It is ironic that one of the bylines below her on the advertisement is “the real you is sexy,” because it is painfully obvious that we are not supposed to focus on the woman herself as a human being who thinks, feels, aspires and dreams, but rather on what the advertiser pushes us to see as the extent of the real her: her body.
Who is she? Well, she goes by lots of names or titles, rather. For instance, “popular cultural symbol,” “object of demeaning advertising,” “societal idol,” etc., etc. She represents a mindset, a cultural way of viewing her gender that says a lot more than just what is written in the ad.
Looking up at her, I have a sneaky feeling that this woman has some questions of her own for us, ones that might go something like this: “Why, instead of being used as a marketing tool for lingerie and swimsuits, am I not photographed in business clothes or surrounded by my children or in any other professional and relational context that honors my mind and soul as well as my body? How do you bridge the disconnect between applauding the fact that there are women in the presidential race and the fact that I am still trapped up here? What about my sisters in the 'gentlemen’s clubs' and in the billboards used to advertise them?”
Hmm, those are good ones, girl.
Of course, I’m sure our woman would be the last to deny the incredible strides made in gender equality since the women’s movements of the previous century, but in the same breath I think what she’s asking is for us to honor them by setting the standards high enough (again, literally) to reach all the way up to her, the pinnacle of our culture’s deeply rooted worship of objectification.
The truth is, the applause in our voice when we talk about how far we have come in our treatment of woman congratulates only a partial truth. Yes, really amazing progress has been made, but Miss Swimsuit and Miss Lingerie are confused as to why we seem to be able to laud ourselves for our progressive view and treatment of women in America and still be so dissociated from the obvious message of the woman in the ad.
Or maybe we’re not dissociated from it, maybe we're just desensitized; after all, from music videos to TV commercials to billboards, our culture just can’t seem to get enough of objectification. And unless you’re blind, you’re forced to participate just by looking, whether you agree with what you see or not.
Our society blatantly celebrates the demeaning of women while in the same breath affirming gender equality as an ideal to live by. I left from my visit to New York feeling the weight of this dichotomy for perhaps the first time in my life. Yes, the woman in the ad had made quite the impression on me, but I don’t think it was the one that the advertisers were hoping for.