Americana, Conservatism, and the Objectification of Women’s Bodies

I’ve been wrestling with an unsettling theory lately. My research this semester—on evangelical soft patriarchy, gender discourse and negotiation of roles, and the history of familism in conservative America—began my theory. Recent publicity for the soon to come Miss Representation premier pushed it further along. I’ll come out with it (in a long, run-on sentence, of course): I’m convinced that the objectification of women’s bodies (as hyper-sexualized, over-sensual objects of male desire) employed ultimately for marketing, advertising, and consumption-driven purposes via diverse forms of media are the result of a conservative familism gone awry. Traditional Protestant-evangelical discourse plays a role in reducing the woman to the domestic sphere. In the divine order of things, the argument goes, women belong in the home. Gender essentialists point to physiological evidences of men and women’s differences, concluding that God designed male and female bodies for different tasks. Consider briefly Stu Weber’s essentialist (evangelical) prescription:

What do you see, after all, when you look at the vehicle of a man’s physical body? What was it made for? Check it out. In contrast, what does a woman’s body tell you that a woman was made for? Every twenty-eight days or so her body tells her she was made for giving life and sustenance. Her breasts remind her that she was made for giving life and nurturing life. What does a man’s body tell you? Not a thing! Why? Because the purpose for a man is out on the horizon. A man was made to be a provisionary, a wagon scout, out there in front, looking ahead. The purpose isn’t inside [the home or kitchen, God forbid!]. . . . We must find that purpose outside of ourselves.

In stating woman’s physiological purpose as the giving of sustenance Weber not-so-subtly connotes that a woman’s body is meant for reproduction; she’s to make other bodies. She must submit her body to the body of her husband, and in doing so bodies will grow and pass through her, to be raised and nurtured in the domestic sphere. To varying degrees, women are stripped of intellectual purpose, subjective volition, and self-autonomy. She is to submit, and receive, and give forth, and be a good sport of it while she sets herself to these tasks.

Contemporary media, then, is the logical evolution of patriarchal objectification of the woman, minus the Victorian propriety. The objectification of women’s bodies is simply patriarchal familism applied at the secular level.   In its hyper-sexualization of the female body, secular society upholds essentialist patriarchal ideals: women cannot think, theorize, write, speak publically, or be public leaders of men. Add to this formula the secular exaltation of sex-qua-recreation (i.e., sex not intended for procreation), and: Voila! The objectified American woman. Her substance is hardly mind, and mostly body. (And it’s sure nice-looking.) This body is meant to penetrate, and use, and exploit. In fact, it’s our favorite national commodity. So I’ll restate my prior contention: the objectification of the female body is an evolved, altogether secularized conservative familism. It’s a bastardized form of Christian patriarchy.

[Citation note: The above quote comes from Stu Webber’s 1993 book, Tender Warrior: God’s Intention for a Man (Portland, OR: Multnomah), 212. I originally discovered the quote via John P. Bartkowski’s 2001 study, Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).]

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3 thoughts on “Americana, Conservatism, and the Objectification of Women’s Bodies

  1. I have a couple of thoughts:

    1) Causally, I wonder if the hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies is the result of conservative Christian patriarchy or if Christian patriarchy doesn’t seem to easily incorporate this hyper-sexualization from another source, be it cultural or what have you. In other words, are women relegated to the domestic sphere in Protestantism because of Protestantism or because it represents some norm that naturalized easily into Protestant rhetoric. I’m thinking here of the long standing historical distinctions between men and women that have often tended to see women as inferior, as property or objects.

    2) What about the 60s and 70s? Religion was being resisted, the death of God was celebrated, and free love and sexualization were everywhere. I suppose one might argue that reaction to a thing is linked explicitly to the thing itself, but up unto this point in the twentieth century, weren’t mainliners somewhat more influential than evangelicals? And I wonder about the reaction to this period by evangelicals in the late 70s and into the 80s. I think that some would say that women in the 60s were celebrating their own sexuality in ways that were previously “forbidden” and that, in some ways, contributed to rampant hyper-sexualization. Look at advertising from the 50s compared to ads in the 60s and 70s. In other words, perhaps some of the hyper-sexualization wasn’t so oppressive or so domestic. Granted, men seem to have written all the rules, and thus I would agree with you that it ultimately leads to the continued insistence on the inferiority of women, which is implicit still in certain comments on gay and lesbian culture or in the resurfacing of . But I wonder if the popular evangelical rhetoric, particularly in the later years of the twentieth century, wasn’t an attempt to re-domesticate the “liberated”–though certainly still objectified–women of the 60s. Contemporarily, feminist thought is taking shape, divorce rates and single parenthood are on the rise, and women continue to make their way with more prevalence into the workforce. How much of recent familial rhetoric is reactionary?

    Anyway, just a couple knee-jerk reactions.

    Hope things are going well for you.

    1. Great thoughts, Matt.

      My thinking on the subject has been mostly along the lines of what you wrote here: “I suppose one might argue that reaction to a thing is linked explicitly to the thing itself.” Without the Foucaultian problematization of power I simply don’t have an argument. Power disseminates itself through discourse, and much of the time discourse is reactionary. On your first point: I’m not really interested in what is purely Protestantism in contrast to what some other form of “cultural” influence has on Protestant gender discourse. These can be studied together and perhaps separating them out leaves us with an impartial picture. On your second point: mainliners were more publicly influential than evangelicals, but mainliners also carried on traditional familist ideologies in many ways. I see current generalization (of liberal mainliners as egalitarian and conservative Protestants as patriarchal) as a fairly recent characterization. Fantastic point on women’s contributions to their own sexualization. I agree, and don’t think this detracts from my thesis; power is not relegated from the top-down. It is negotiated, bought and sold, manufactured. At this point I interpret the evolution of advertising through the second half of the century as evidence of a shift from sexual conservatism to an open sexuality. So while media was stripped of its sexual propriety and moral traditionalism, perhaps its familist origins remained (and remains) through the reduction of woman to body. I think you’re exactly right in that post-60s evangelical discourse is tantamount to reactionary re-domestication of women. Evangelicals even developed their own television studios, radio programs, and cinema, with one of the unspoken reasons being to instruct women in what true biblical womanhood should look like (and it’s not the modern liberated woman!).

      So, yes, I may be limiting the origins of women’s objectification in the media to conservative evangelicalism, when in reality there are many other socio-cultural ideological strands that must be woven into the argument. But I think Protestant familism plays a central role. For now, a place to start the search for support for my provocation might be to begin analyzing early television shows that have to do with the family, juxtaposing this research with the rise of advertising and its evolution. And for now I can hypothesize that the (admittedly very broad) trajectory that I’ve traced would be evident.

      1. Great responses, Travis!

        I think tracing it through television would be super interesting, perhaps even juxtaposing such an analysis with a close reading of the film Pleasantville, which seems to draw specifically on this tension between the nostalgia for the purity of the 50s and the perceived liberation of the late twentieth century. Can’t wait to see some more of your work in this area.

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