The illustrations in “Sex Week at Yale: The Magazine” feature no fewer than 20 women wearing underwear, lingerie or less. One of these women is the cover girl, naked but for Yale panties and hoop earrings. Four are playboy bunnies — one sitting in the palm of a giant male hand — two are Yale students-turned-vixens seducing fully-clothed men in libraries, one is a porn star, one is a model in a pornographic magazine being perused by the Sex Week magazine’s male editor.
The magazine shows just four comparable images of men, three of which are accompanied by an equally or more explicitly sexualized female.
Eroticism and fantasy should have their place in Sex Week, but not when they embody antifeminist stereotypes. The magazine purports to open discussion and liberate young people; why, then, must it fall into the same tired representations of sexual identities that bombard us daily from every cranny of the media?
Unfortunately, my question answers itself. The Sex Week magazine is guilty of imitating ingrained cultural symbols, but not of creating them. Our senses are constantly attacked with images of over-sexed women tempting more reasonable men. I’m thinking, for example, about the latest issue of Vanity Fair, which shows style icon and guest editor Tom Ford nuzzling a naked Keira Knightley while a naked Scarlett Johansson languishes by his thigh. I’m also thinking about most advertisements, a lot of movies and pretty much every music video I’ve ever seen.
It should be obvious that this is a negative stereotype, one that our generation ought to reject instead of mimic. Depictions of women as sex objects or as creatures out of control of their bodies and bodily desires promote a skewed worldview in which women exist to distract men and lure them away from serious, more important tasks. Worse, though the objectified female is shrouded in vice, she is also sexy — and that’s a good thing. As if it were a badge of honor, girls at Yale are all too happy to take their clothes off for the positive attention that accompanies this damaging stereotype.
To clarify, I do not argue that depictions of naked people, male or female, are inherently wrong or antifeminist. The problem in this case is the inequality of representation in the Sex Week magazine, which condones a culture in which women are valued primarily for their sex appeal, while men may be valued more for, among other virtues, their intellectual ability.
The implication of this inequality is, of course, that women are not as intelligent or dependable as men. An image that is feminine is also one that is flighty, silly, distracting and, cliche though it may be, tempting. To shed the negative connotations of the feminine image, women in serious (read: male-dominated) careers adopt sexless, even masculine personas. Women in politics, for example, seem to become most successful when they avoid any kind of gendered behavior or appearance; men’s images, on the other hand, don’t seem to suffer for involvement in sex scandals or hunting mishaps.
We’ve come a long way from the 1960s, when social change for women was desperately warranted and sought. But let’s not forget that improvements in women’s rights have come in waves of fervor — the first culminating with enfranchisement in 1920, the second spanning the 1960s and ’70s with the sexual revolution — only to be followed by complacency and backlash. An employer today can be sued for discrimination based on gender, but at the same time, it is generally acceptable, even among forward-thinking young people, to bandy the word “feminist” about as if it were a bad thing.
The Sex Week magazine was an opportunity for Yale students — bright, open-minded and amply funded — to explore a variety of issues regarding sex and gender in our lives. It needn’t have been a feminist platform, but it might have considered more seriously the visual message that it sent.
We mustn’t allow ambivalence toward the idea of feminism to eclipse the movement’s still important and not-yet-realized goal of equality and mutual respect. If we continue to live according to hackneyed and destructive models of sexual and social relationships, then we will make no progress. But if we make a conscious effort now to combat our culture’s subtle and insidious sexual stereotypes, then generations to come will not have to.
Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.