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).]