Why Representations of Women and Girls Can’t Be Slut-Shamed

Is it slut-shaming to dub Polly Pocket “Polly Prostitute“?

No, it isn’t. But many commenters on the internet think otherwise.

I’m here to tell you why they’re wrong.

About Slut-Shaming 

In recent months, the term “slut-shaming” has gone mainstream. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it is used to describe the condemnation of a woman for her choices regarding her attire and appearance, and/or for acting with sexual agency.

Examples of slut-shaming include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The idea that a woman is wrong to choose dress in a sexually provocative way. E.g., “I can’t believe Morgan is wearing a skirt so short. She’s really asking for it.”
  • The idea that a woman who is on birth control is inherently sexually promiscuous. Key example: Rush Limbaugh’s commentary about Sandra Fluke.
  • The idea that a woman engaged in sexual behavior is wrong for doing so and should be stigmatized.

In other words, when we slut-shame women, we are policing their sexuality—and that’s wrong.

Furthermore, because it’s essentially impossible to shame men for these same behaviors, slut-shaming props up our society’s double standard for men and women. In so doing, it also perpetuates rape culture, in which victim-blaming is the norm. So, all in all, having the vocabulary to identify and call people out when they are policing women’s sexuality is a good thing.

Slut-Shaming and Pop Culture

As a media critic, though, I want to make something clear: Criticizing the media’s representation of women and girls is not the same as slut-shaming. Lately, I’ve been perplexed that so many people seem to think it is.

To wit: When Margot Magowan of Reel Girl wrote an article exploring why toys like Polly Pocket are sexist, and shouldn’t be bought for kids, she felt it necessary to preface her analysis with this plea: “Before you get mad at me for “slut-shaming,” this is a doll marketed to little girls.”

She had to use this preface because lately, we media critics have been accused of slut-shaming fictional characters and toys. And it’s exasperating.

For example, when I wrote about the way Disney’s Consumer Products Division had redesigned and sexualized Merida, the heroine of Brave, some people told me that criticizing Merida for “wanting to dress up and look pretty,” and for “growing up and having a more mature body,” constituted slut-shaming.

Similarly, elsewhere, a commenter wrote about the criticisms of the redesigned Merida:

Isn’t this slut shaming? […] Idg why this character can’t embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body without fear of criticism?[…] I am honestly confused as to where the line is drawn in feminist theory between ‘slut shaming’ and valid criticism of invited objectification of women.

Here’s the thing:  Real women and girls have the right to make individual choices about their appearances and behaviors. They are autonomous human beings who have agency. Slamming them for these choices is slut-shaming.

But fictional characters do not have any agency. They are fictional, designed by corporations who are invested in the sexualization and objectification of females, as the APA has reported. Slamming critics for failing to support fictitious characters’ “choices” is conflating fantasy with reality.

After all, Merida didn’t choose to “embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body.” Those things were invented for her by a corporation that wanted her physique and style to match the other products in its Disney Princess line.

Likewise, Polly Pocket doesn’t choose to dress provocatively. Mattel dictates how she will dress and what options are available to her—because she is a toy.

What might be a reasonable fashion choice for an adult female is not necessarily healthy in a toy meant for girls ages 4 to 8, who look at their toys as a window on the world and its expectations for females in our society.

See the difference?

Unfortunately, as Callie Beusman recently wrote on Jezebel, the term “slut-shaming” has been misused so much lately that it has begun to lose its meaning and its power. She explained:

The proliferation of “slut-shaming” has resulted in an inaccurate conflation of “being critical” and “prudishly or maliciously taking issue with female sexuality.” Not all criticisms of public displays of sexiness are meant to shame, which is something many people seem to have lost sight of.

From what I’ve seen, “slut-shaming” has become watered down to mean “any criticism whatsoever about a female (real or fictional) for her appearance or attire, or for any behavior that can be interpreted as having sexual agency, or for being sexualized.”

And this is a real problem. When we’re applying the term “slut-shaming” to criticisms of fictional females that are sexualized, essentially reduced to sex objects by the corporations behind them, we’re using it incorrectly. And by using the term incorrectly, we’re robbing it of its meaning.

So, the next time you’re reading an article criticizing girls’ popular culture, or representations of women in pop culture, remember: Criticizing the appearance of a fictional character is very different than criticizing the appearance of a real person. It’s not slut-shaming to push back against, say, the sexualization of products intended for young girls.

In fact, it’s something I’d like to see more of.

——

The author would like to thank her colleagues Margot Magowan, Lori Day, and Peggy Orenstein for their recent chat about this topic.

—-

Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Did you enjoy this post? Please follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at the top left of your screen. Thanks.

 

25 Comments on “Why Representations of Women and Girls Can’t Be Slut-Shamed

  1. Thank you for this! Nails it. I have gotten so tired of this term. We can’t criticize the way the media or pop culture portray women (or expect women to behave) any more without being accused of “slut shaming.” Ugh.

    • Yes, that’s it in a nutshell! And if we let fear of “slut-shaming” the media silence us, we’re conceding all of the power to the media and the marketers, who have far too much power as it is. They need to be held accountable for promoting the sexual objectification of women, not given carte blanche because we think MAYBE the characters they have invented “really wanted” to do X, Y, or Z.

  2. This is a really interesting post, and I completely agree that criticizing Polly Pocket or Merida dolls is NOT slut shaming.

    I do wonder, though, if it’s possible to slut shame a fictional character. As an English major, I’ve read a lot of books and their accompanying criticism. I have often found myself disagreeing with interpretations of literature because the biases in the treatment of the characters mirror societal biases toward the people they represent.

    One example in particular (which is complicated because the character was based on a real person, but I still think it’s valid because most of the people consuming the media were not familiar with the real person) is the character of Ginger in the movie Casino. I wrote a paper arguing that she was being judged unfairly because people were placing her on the mother-whore dichotomy and judging her as a “bad mother” when she was coerced into playing a role she very specifically said she didn’t want. My reading of the film was VERY different from the other (mostly male) students in my film class, and I think they were slut shaming Ginger’s character.

    I know it’s not the same as toys, and I think media made for children should be judged by age-appropriate standards, but I do feel like you can slut shame a fictional character and that doing so has real impacts on society.

  3. Balancing Jane, I get what you are saying and how characters like Skyler in “Breaking Bad” were maligned for sexist reasons. Fantasy and reality are connected in an endless loop. I have thought about this so much, and that’s why I love this post from Rebecca because she makes a really important point here:

    “But fictional characters do not have any agency. They are fictional, designed by corporations who are invested in the sexualization and objectification of females, as the APA has reported. Slamming critics for failing to support fictitious characters’ “choices” is conflating fantasy with reality.

    After all, Merida didn’t choose to “embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body.” Those things were invented for her by a corporation that wanted her physique and style to match the other products in its Disney Princess line.

    Likewise, Polly Pocket doesn’t choose to dress provocatively. Mattel dictates how she will dress and what options are available to her—because she is a toy.”

    • Yes, it’s a fine distinction I’m trying to get at. Here’s how I see it: *Characters* can indeed be slut-shamed (“Hester Prynne should never have opened her legs for Rev. Dimmesdale! The slut!”), but *representations*–how media creators design and depict women– can’t really be (“Mattel keeps making dolls that look like prostitutes! WTF!”).

      If anyone cares to think through a way to communicate this more clearly, I’m all ears! Perhaps a diagram might be useful. Is anyone here visually inclined?

      • Additional examples:

        “Game of Thrones keeps using naked women as wallpaper. That’s exploitative!” = not slut-shaming.

        “OMG. Those women on Game of Thrones have no self-respect. Why don’t they put some clothes on??” = slut-shaming.

        “Orange is the New Black is getting away with murder since it is distributed online and doesn’t have to conform to broadcasting standards. It’s really problematic that they’re producing scenes that are so graphic for shock value.” = not slut-shaming.

        “What is up with all those women having sex with each other on OITNB? They’re so nasty!” = slut-shaming

        “Disney had no business redesigning Merida to have a curvier figure, smoother hair, and to wear makeup when she was specifically designed to buck stereotypical princess beauty standards.” = not slut-shaming.

        “Holy cow. Merida needs to go home and wash that makeup off her face. I hope Elinor sends her to her room for tarting up like that!” = slut-shaming.

        • Yes! I think that’s a clear distinction. The *characters* on the screen have personalities and motivations and (while they are still written so they might not technically have agency) their actions, dress, and behavior are part of a larger narrative.

          A toy doesn’t have any of that. And I think it’s an especially egregious representation to take the character’s personality and motivation away to make the toy fit the narrow industry standards (as they did with the Merida doll).

          This is a really interesting conversation. Thanks!

      • I think this is a really important distinction. It goes into how individual characters are dressed, too. There’s a difference between a female character wearing a short skirt because she’s a fashion-conscious young woman on a date, and a character who supposedly doesn’t give much thought to her appearance wearing the same skirt to school. Again, in neither case is it okay to criticise the *character*, and in both cases you can make the argument for exploitation (especially if the former woman gets the whole camera-scrolling-up-the-leg treatment), but in one example, it’s in-character, while in the other it’s not.

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  5. I believe in slut shaming men as well as women. Why do you think it’s not possible to slut shame men? I wrote a post on my blog a little while ago where I criticized several men wearing unnecessarily sexual clothing in public. (One of them was me in high school.)

    Slutty women in the real world are just as much of a problem as fictional characters. They still sexually frustrate men, and sexual frustration even if it doesn’t result in rape may result in pornography addiction or unhealthy and irresponsible sexual activity. It’s bad for society. Sluts are a disease, and they deserve harsh criticism.

    • I don’t buy that “slutty” women cause “pornography addiction” or “unhealthy and irresponsible sexual activity”. But even if they did what right do you to demand men (or women only indulge in sexual activity you deem “responsible”. My sex life is not your property. If I want to do something sexual that doesn’t tend to lead to world utopia and the best of all possible worlds I will, given consent. The same thing goes for job choices, canoeing and any other activity that might or might not be good for “society”.

      What frustrates men far more is women who play games with them or denigrate them or simply treat them as inferior. Which is most of them. Such women can be “sluts”, “prudes” or anything in between.

    • Part of being an adult means taking responsibility for your own feelings.
      There is nothing a women could possibly do which makes you entitled to sex. Sexual frustration is your problem.
      It also seems slightly hypocritical to dismiss women as ‘sluts’, while at the same time wanting to have sex with them.

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  7. “But fictional characters do not have any agency. They are fictional, designed by corporations who are invested in the sexualization and objectification of females, as the APA has reported. Slamming critics for failing to support fictitious characters’ “choices” is conflating fantasy with reality.”

    This made me chuckle. And it is too true!

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  10. I don’t care if a woman/girl destroys herself in private (as long as she doesn’t come and make me the next victim of her Herpes-ridden body), but what she does in public is everyone’s business. Men are biologically attracted to the female body, and it is a feminist delusion to think you can just ignore this.

    Sexy women encourage men to have sex, and sex is dangerous. Therefore, slut-shaming is justified.

    https://agalltyr.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/slut-shaming-should-be-directly-proportional-to-fame/

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  12. Pingback: How to Talk to Kids About Sexy Dolls Without Slut Shaming -

  13. I dont understand 8) like this is a thought out blog but what the hell r we suppose to do? Cover them up completely to the point they’re not allowed to show some skin? I really don’t get this at all. I get its sexual objectification but I really don’t see the problem with characters showing off skin or dressing that way unless it’s not all characters or they’re fully developed like a human being.

    • There’s a big range of possibilities between sexualized dolls and dolls that are “covered up completely.” Try to imagine a middle ground. It’s not that hard! Go Go Sports Girls and Lottie Dolls have both navigated this brilliantly.

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