Our news media, thankfully, continue to focus on revelations of sexual abuse (mainly of women) by predators with power (mostly men). I admire the victims and the vulnerable who keep coming forward in the “Me Too” movement and I hope those who see this as a watershed moment in the struggle against abuse and for women’s dignity are right. Yet in current commentary, I’ve found little discussion about the role of our “image industries” in the history of recent sexual abuse.
What follows are just a few comments about those industries, mostly things we already know but need to emphasize. I ask readers to add their reflections below as well as links to related and perhaps more substantial discussion.
The first obvious thing – at least obvious to those of my generation – is the continually increasing sexualization of our media at least since the 1950s. And by “our media” I mean not only cinema and TV, but advertising and fashion, magazine and news photography, and now the internet. And by sexualization I mean primarily the sexualization of women’s bodies in both pose and action. (Who knew that TV’s growing number of women detectives would need not just pretty faces but deep revealing cleavages in order to do their increasingly violent deeds!)
I hope I’m not naïve about the long history of both pornography and the sexual depiction of female beauty. I remember a male guide in the ruins of Pompei who asked only the men in the group to enter one room decorated with remnants of ancient Roman pornography. It was the early 1960s when his pseudo-modesty for the women was already becoming laughable.
Yet I also remember, and it is more to my point, a recent visit to Viet Nam with an American Catholic Sister who had grown up near Saigon. What struck both of us was the omnipresent westernization of the scantily and sexily clad Vietnamese models on billboards and in shop windows. (It is an ironic victory for the West that even communist economies now make immense profits from media sexualization. What the military could not do, the market quickly accomplished.)
It’s not surprising that the upsurge of “me too” accusations began primarily in our media – in news (Fox) and entertainment (from Cosby to Weinstein to the latest headline) – and has spread thence to politics and beyond.
As I say, all this is obvious, and perhaps not even much noticed by younger folks raised entirely within this pervasive media regime. (Here, again, I would invite comment and links about the impact of this sexualization on succeeding “generations” of young adults, adolescents, and children.)
As an aside: while I much admire and support the media women who initiated the “Me Too” movement, I nonetheless wonder about their active participation in this broader sexualization – by the roles they play, the fashions they sport, the notoriety and popularity (and wealth) they have attained. I am NOT blaming the victim, but I am asking for women’s reflections about women’s participation in the “sexualization” of our media.
Nor I hope am I being a prude – one of the capital sins of contemporary culture. Sexual liberation or the sexual revolution has not been some one simple thing. Many of us (myself included) have benefitted immensely from greater cultural and religious acceptance of the good and beauty of human sexuality, even as most of us (myself included) have had more than a few stumbles and sins along the way to real liberation.
My concern about the sexualization of our media (with its strangely simultaneous trivialization of sex and spread of sexual abuse) is not a call for moral crusades to clean up our media – though such crusades are probably one inevitable consequence of our (hopefully) watershed moment, and may well prove helpful in a variety of ways. Rather it is above all a call for serious public discussion, spurred by the reports of abuse, to diagnose the deeper imaginative and economic diseases of our media regime.
Clearly the prime movers of the sexualization process have been the commercial masters of our media. Sex sells, and profits are huge. Weinstein’s fat ugly face provides (at least for me) an apt image for the economic disease ravaging our media. (I expect to see many such faces in any update of Dante’s Inferno.)
Yet I am here more concerned with the even deeper imaginative diseases metastasizing through our media. Which brings me to my second obvious point – that the sexualization of media is but one aspect of the broader and in the end far more destructive process of sensationalizing. One could also speak of the pervasive “fantasizing” and “infantilizing” of media images and “creative” imaginations.
If sex sells, excitement and intensity and shock are what make it sell. And the pervasive emphasis on excitement and intensity in all our media — enhanced by technical “improvements” for faster pace, mind-blowing visuals, and spirit-deadening sound – is needed to “re-capture” the diminishing attention and sensibility of audiences, viewers, even readers. (Years ago, reggae artist Jimmy Cliff lamented: “Poor slave, they took the shackles from your body; poor slave, they put the shackles on your mind.”) The media came to “shock and awe” long before the military, even as militarization has always depended on media fantasy to maintain popular support.
My mentor William Lynch, SJ, analyzed the imaginative diseases of our media in his still important 1959 book The Image Industries. The book was in part a response to the Catholic Church’s “Legion of Decency” campaign which as early as 1933 sought to counter the sexualization of our media. That campaign, as I experienced it, attained an apogee of sorts in the 1950s, but Lynch was concerned that, however well-intentioned, it distracted from the larger problem in image industries. The commercial masters could (and on occasion did) easily “clean up” this or that objectionable scene while leaving untouched the remaining 90 minutes of infantilizing junk that was then becoming standard (and increasingly profitable) fare for the dream factory. Lynch called for the collaborative work of artists and critics, schools and churches, in the development of a critical public sensibility which would demand better. A call still much needed.
Many good critical essays and books have been written over the years about the sensationalizing of our media and the infantilizing of our imaginations. Many good films and TV productions have themselves sought to counter the spread of these diseases. There have been, to note but one especially relevant example, many good films and programs about romance and sexual experience, some quite “explicit,” yet artistically and humanly so. And the same for films about war and violence, crime and punishment. Indeed many good films and programs have deliberately mocked the sensationalizing and infantilizing process, helping us to laugh at our own seductions and hoot the phony and fantastic from the stage of our spirits.
Yet it’s been mostly been band-aids. Nothing yet has significantly impeded the manic metastasizing of our media diseases, much less led to real healing and transformation.
Enough. I am simply writing a reminder about what we all know, but has so far gotten too little attention in “Me Too” news and commentary.
Perhaps this “Me Too” moment might provide occasion for real change in our image industries. I hope, but am not hopeful. Let me know (below) what you think.