Give a little, take a little: The duality of gender progress in America

When it comes to gender progress, America has a severe case of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. We say one thing and do another. Every day brings about another reminder.

Today, I received the latest issue of Complex magazine, which supposedly focuses on style, pop culture, music, etc. for young men. (I have no idea why I am receiving this magazine, and, based on a quick search, I am not alone.) The magazine always features two covers on the same issue, one with a female celeb and one with a male celeb. This, on the surface, seems good, it seems like we should applaud their gender-equal approach.

But the good stops there.

Complex magazine covers

The women on these covers are habitually more exposed and sexualized than the men. Covers of the men routinely focus on the face, and covers of the women focus on the typically scantily-clad body. A search for their covers confirms this trend.

Complex’s approach connects to a larger trend in America to champion progress for gender equality, while simultaneously undermining said progress.

When news broke of a 23-year-old woman being brutally gang raped on a bus in India in December 2012, outrage was rampant. Right after the rape became public, and especially after the death of the victim, protests took place around the world.

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi released this statement, “As we honor the memory of this brave young woman, we also recommit ourselves to changing attitudes and ending all forms of gender-based violence, which plagues every country in the world.”

Yet in the U.S., when two teenagers were found guilty in 2013 for what became known as the “Steubenville High School rape” case, CNN‘s sympathetic coverage focused on how the verdict impacted these “star athletes,” how their “promising futures” were over, and how their lives had fallen apart, without even so much as a whisper of the victim’s life.  America condemns rape and “gender-based violence,” yet prominent voices sympathize with convicted perpetrators.

This duality extends more broadly into other areas of gender.

We champion the success of Marissa Mayor, CEO of Yahoo!, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in the tech industry. Yet, in that same industry, one of the biggest tradeshows, CES, includes a company, HyperDrive, who literally features painted, almost naked women up on pedestals to sell hard drives.

HyperDrive booth at CES

Also in the tech industry, we have a number of programs that encourage young girls to get more active in computer programming, such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and more. Yet the first presentation at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 startup conference was for an app called “Titstare,” an “app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.” The presentation was a joke, but that does not mitigate its message: Brogramming is alive and well.

And finally, though the list could go on, we have President Obama. Obama was heralded by some as the “first feminist president.” Obama routinely attributed his success to the prominent women in his life, from his strong grandmother to his supportive wife, and he often referenced his two daughters as part of his motivation to lead. Yet even this supposedly fiercely feminist president has not lived up to his title. At an event earlier this year to benefit the Democratic National Committee, Obama was introducing California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, and he said she is “brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough,” and then he added, “she also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.”

This post doesn’t offer the solution to America’s complicated relationship with gender and progress. Rather, I aim to point out these inconsistencies to continuously show how the status quo is being reinforced and to show that the patriarchy is not dead. Campaigns by Everyday Sexism, the Women’s Media Center (e.g., Name It. Change It.), Miss Representation, and more also aim to point out these everyday acts in an attempt to bring awareness to just how far we have come, and how far we have left to go.

I firmly believe that awareness is necessary before meaningful action. And my action when it comes to Complex magazine, to HyperDrive, and to other organizations such as these, is I’m #NotBuyingIt.

Update: I called Complex subscription services and was told the publishers were sending me a complimentary copy of the magazine as a courtesy. I told them to please stop extending this courtesy.

Recent Ph.D. grad of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. I am currently an adjunct in the Communication Department at Seattle University, and in the fall of 2014 I start as an Asst. Prof. at the University of Oklahoma. My main focus is political communication, gender, and news media. My dissertation examined how women and men political candidates communicate different presentations of self via their Twitter feeds depending on the sex of their opponent, and what the effects are of gendered communication on candidate evaluation.

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Posted in gender, pop culture

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