“Me Too” and the Image Industries

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.

13 thoughts on ““Me Too” and the Image Industries

  1. I believe that upon reflection, Adam and Eve said something like, “we were too young to appreciate all that we had and if we knew then what we know now, we would have lived our lives differently.” And so it goes with the men who are remorseful today and for the women who wonder about their complicity in what happened to them. NO, I am not blaming the victims, but in reflection, it seems to me that there is more than enough blame to go around.

    I desire to continually correct my behavior and take ownership for my missteps. AA teaches its adherents to turn and ask for forgiveness from those who were hurt. Is there a path for those who have been abused to turn to their abuser and pursue a behavior of reconciliation?


    1. Gene, I do agree that many forms of needed reconciliation should be (to use a secular term) the end game, or put in Christian terms the full work of grace. Yet the first stage is what we’re now seeing — victims claiming their dignity and confronting their abusers. Second stage, which has hardly begun, is when the perps do more than make rhetorical responses for the press and actually begin to acknowledge their guilt and illness, especially to their victims. All of which hopefully will begin to happen and open the way to the full work of grace. Thanks. Blessings for your reconciling ministry.


  2. Apropos of Eugene’s vital comment on your extraordinarily penetrating analysis of sexualization is the following comment by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) a few days ago:

    “In an interview with the BBC, the “Breaking Bad” and “Godzilla” actor said that for the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world to become accepted, “it would take time, it would take a society to forgive them and it would take tremendous contrition on their part. And a knowingness that they have a deeply rooted psychological and emotional problem and it takes years to mend that.”
    “If they were to show us that they put the work in and are truly sorry and making amends and are not defending their actions but asking for forgiveness, then maybe down the road there is room for that, maybe so,” he added. “Then it would be up to us to determine, case by case, whether this person deserves a second chance.” http://variety.com/2017/biz/news/bryan-cranston-weinstein-spacey-sexual-harassment-1202614670/

    Sexualization is a social justice issue par excellence and reminds us that injustice must be confronted not only by pressure groups-e.g. boycotting prurient social images, but also by engaging those producers of the images in creative dialogues. I’m not thinking of an ethics monitor as such but interactions of various kinds in which the artists, advertisers, directors,etc, would foster the distinction between sensationalism and art.
    As an aside, I wonder if Vatican ii’s affirmation of the world hasn’t repressed among Christians that attitude of “world renunciation” so evident in John’s gospel and letters. It seems to me that sexualization is clear indication of “love of the world” gone amok!


    1. I should have noted in my approach to social justice that you emphasized that Lynch advocated exactly the point of collaborative effort: ” 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.”


  3. John, I like what you have to say. The proliferation of sexual images has become a major problem in our society. As a priest who hears confessions on a regular basis, I have found that addiction to pornography is a major problem for many middle aged men. I hear more confessions related to pornography than any other problem. A major difficulty with this is that after viewing for a while it takes a more and more salacious views to get the same rush. The de-humanizing of the women in pornography becomes more severe as the viewer is driven to seek greater stimulation. I think this problem is greatly ignored and should be addressed on a wider basis. Les


  4. The ways of human nature are being depicted as shocking. What period or institution has not had powerful men (motivated by the inherent drive in the male gene) use their power for sex? What period or institution has not had controlling women (motivated by a drive in their genes for power) use their sex?
    Let us hope the human race improves somewhat, as it has in all areas over the ages. It brings a smile, however, to see so many hook into this current media explosion to advance their own ideology.
    The bad aspects of the “Progressivism” my generation mostly generated in the 1960s are what must be countered: self indulgence (a “right” to feel good) and a general dismissal of a unified societal morality ( derided as “patriarchy”). Doing that, while maintaining the good aspects of self expression and freedom, will be difficult.


    1. Bob, thanks for reading my blog and commenting. I agree with most you say, even what you claim to know about genetics (though I am far less sure), and with what you claim about the bad aspects of “progressivism.” Yet I find your casual reference to “patriarchy” (in quotes) to be casually uncritical.


      1. John, I did not mean to seem casual. More causal. What I meant was that the baby seems to have been thrown out with the bath water regarding feminism’s rejection of their definition of “patriarchy.” While increased participation by women and sharing by men is cause for celebration, erasure by our 1960s “progressivism” of family values, including dependence of one spouse on the other and self-sacrifice, has hurt the common good it seems to me, and statistics seem to verify.


      2. Bob, I very much agree with what you say about the 60s and for all the positive things like one form of feminism there are so many bad things especially the throwing out of what you and I would both call Family Values. I do agree that the real problem in our society regarding sexuality is the survival of a good family, not so much, though I support these efforts for equality, concern about homosexuals and so forth. Nonetheless I find your acceptance of thus it has always been with the misuse of sexual power by both women and men, totally inadequate response to the present me to movement. We should be celebrating the fact that along with other truly Progressive efforts this moment is a very serious Pro protest and hopefully successful protests against the misuse of Power by men over women. John


  5. A wonderfully written account of the sexualization of our media. I appreciate your taking on this difficult issue.


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