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american pie and the objectification of women

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I’m watching a movie with friends. We’re swaddled in doonas and darkness; popcorn hot in our hands and its scent rich in our noses. The classic Universal Pictures song blasts the room and light bursts from the screen. American Pie opens with the image of a teenage boy masturbating to the sexual moans of a woman he hears through his T.V. In a room full of men, I start to feel a little uncomfortable. But that’s nothing on what I’m feeling several scenes in, having endured a fanfare of women pressed into too-tight bikinis being ogled and degraded by the male protagonists; I’m starting to get upset.

In this room, my voicing discomfort will likely see me typecast me as a too serious buzz kill, a radical feminist who’s ruining the good time. But there is valid reason to be upset by what’s happening on-screen, and what’s more, to be highly disturbed that most people would dismiss this upset as sensationalist.

Psychological research suggests that exposure to movies which portray women as tools for sexual pleasure, possession and domination (such as in American Pie) may contribute to sexual objectification, harassment and violence in real life. This occurs in two ways. Firstly, exposure to such portrayals can influence how men perceive women and sex. And secondly, it contributes to the conditioning of all viewers to expect and condone sexual harassment and violence at large.

Vaes et al. (2011) found that sexualisation prompts people to focus on a subject’s appearance rather than their personality. Studies by Hefflick & Goldenburg (2009) show that when encouraged to focus on a woman’s appearance like this, people disassociate them from ‘human qualities’, such as ‘warmth, morality and competence’. As such qualities are considered necessary for personhood (Loughnan & Haslam, 2007), this disassociation indicates that objectification is taking place, whereby human subjects are perceived by others as objects to be looked at and used (Hefflick & Goldenburg, 2009). Cikara et al. (2011) relate this to sexually objectifying imagery, and found that viewing it encourages men with sexist attitudes to objectify women. This is particularly troubling considering a study conducted by Rudman & Mescher (2012), which showed a strong relationship between sexual objectification of women and propensity to sexual aggression and rape.

Studying responses to more explicit sexual media, including X and R rated films, yields even more disturbing results.  Depictions of sexual violence, or scenes wherein women are sexually dominated, degraded or treated like objects have been shown to increase male viewers’ acceptance of sexual and interpersonal violence and rape myths (Bauserman, 2010). Similarly, a number of correlational studies have pointed to a seeming relationship between exposure to such media and sexual violence (Bauserman, 2010).

We cannot conclude from these studies that sexual violence and harassment are caused by exposure to representations of sex and sexuality in mass media. These problems are highly complex, and born from a large number of factors. And further, it is alarmist to say that watching one scene of a movie will permanently affect your perception of women.

However, it is also naïve to dismiss the influence of film altogether. Such portrayals do affect our beliefs regarding the acceptability of sexual harassment and violence. Mass media such as movies help construct the environment in which we are raised and live. Not only do we adopt the messages sent by media through exposure, but we actively turn to it as a resource to learn sexual norms, with many Australian youths turning to mass media rather than schooling or family for information about sex (Flood 2007).

This influence is worrisome considering that content analyses of mass media reveal recurring themes of objectification, domination and possession of, and violence towards, women in sexual representations (Bufkin & Eschholz, 2012). The increasing visibility of these representations (Bufkin & Eschholz, 2012) works to normalise sexual harassment and violence, so that we laugh at a young girl being raped by a ghost in Scary Movie II, or roll our eyes at people who say something sexist during American Pie. The more normal it seems, the more we expect and condone sexual harassment and violence, and we live the consequence of this every day.

American Pie is just a movie, I know. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of one stitch in the fabric of a culture in which sexual objectification, harassment and violence are both common and condoned. There are probably much healthier ways to learn about and express sexuality than by watching Finch trying to woo Stifler’s mum.

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4 thoughts on “american pie and the objectification of women

  1. In no way do I mean to validate the sexual messages given by AP. But it also needs to be seen in a wider picture: if you compare the AP movies to the sex comedies of the 80s for example (PORKY’S, ANIMAL HOUSE, POLICE ACADEMY, etc.) you will see that progress was made, mainly in terms of the depth given to the female characters. Still a long way to go, but AP was a step forward in many ways.

  2. Pingback: 4 Teenage Girl Tropes Spreading Dangerous Stereotypes in the Media - Women Life Now

  3. When I look back at my life from a greater distance I realise I was taught misogyny. It comes from religion and the Patriarchy first and takes the form of socialisation. It’s the reason why boys are taught not to cry because that’s what girls do… Translation = to compare a boy with a girl is to degrade the boy. Girls are inferior.

    The lessons continued throughout life but I get most angry when I think back to my art college days and one particular art history lesson.

    In one class we were taught to appreciate the artistic merit of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie ‘Psycho’.

    I remember the lecturer in this lesson seemed to be worshiping at some invisible altar whilst describing the making of the famous shower scene sequence. I’ve thought about this a lot… It’s troubled me for years but I couldn’t articulate ‘why’. Now I can.

    The famous shower scene in ‘Psycho’ marks perhaps Western culture’s first milestone in fetishising violence against women.

    The male lecturer also mentioned, with a glint of admiration in his eye for the director’s attention to detail the deliberate change in colour of the underwear the female protagonist wore.

    Before having sex she wore white underwear, after having sex she wore black. The misogynistic component was overlooked and irrelevant.

    But now things are worse. Many television dramas and movies today are devoted to the subject of women falling prey to serial killers. We see them stalked, humiliated, tortured, raped and murdered on a daily basis.

    Disturbingly, it seems as if that’s what the public wants to see – to see more rapes and murders.

    When Game Of Thrones was made for TV extra rape sequences were added that weren’t in the original book.

    I get angry too at the women conspirators. They collude without a second thought to the walls of cultural repression they are helping to build.

    I want to go up to Gillian Anderson and ask her why she participated in the BBC drama ‘The Fall’ which fetishises and glamourises rape.

    I would like to ask ‘feminist’ Annie Lennox why she allowed a song of hers to appear on the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ movie soundtrack.

    I’d like to ask Isabelle Huppert why she participated in the Paul Verhoeven movie ‘Elle’, which rotates on a toxic and dangerous false premise: that all women secretly desire to be raped.

    It feels like women are under attack, and they are.

    Women already have the Beauty Myth to contend with – a beauty ideal which can never be attained and is akin to being trapped on a hamster wheel,… But the sexism and misogyny in today’s media is another layer, another weapon.

    Violence against women in the media amounts to Cultural Intimidation. Pure and simple.

  4. I think it’s important that American Pie actually has scenes of sexual misconduct, and boys see that and think it’s ok, they are not taught to see that woman as a person.
    I.e. the “funny” scene where Stifler says “look guys, pussy shark!” Then swims underwater and grabs all the girls’ vaginas.
    Or when Nadia is secretly filmed so a boy can jerk off to her and then SHE loses her education!

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