steven ivory

Steven Ivory

*There’s currently a Geico Insurance commercial  running in which a man loses his wife to a pig–the animal whisks her away on the back of his jet ski, no less–because the pig has better insurance.  You would think it’d take more than insurance to lure a woman into the arms of a pig.

Yes, I know it’s meant to be a joke.  Who in his right mind  believes a pig can drive a jet ski?  Or that a thinking, cosmopolitan woman would actually run off with a pig?

But would you believe a sensible and attractive woman would fall for a guy just because he drove a shiny new car? Or simply because he commandeered  an ice chest stocked with a particular brand of beer?  Or throw herself at his feet because she found his particular  fragrance (a cheap one, at that) utterly irresistible?

Or simply because he was well dressed? Had a great body? Money?  Fame? Stop me when I say something that resembles reality. Or perhaps I hit  that  chord  a couple lines ago.

My point is that this is how women have been portrayed in popular culture and media forever–marginalized and objectified–and no one seems to have a problem with it.  Still.  After decades  of protests and demands and bra burning; after all the very real progress and all the  “leaning in” that modern women have been encouraged to do,  this still goes on.

It’s the 21st century, and companies pay brilliant young minds millions of dollars to come up with ingenious advertising campaigns. Yet, after the smoke clears, they come up with what advertisers have always come up with–a “sexy”  young woman standing next to a  car. Or a scantily clad woman seductively eating fast food.  Which are we supposed to want, the  burger or sex?

I’m all for quirk and wow-wee, but where is the ingenuity or art in using a  gender as a demeaning  prop?  This is how women are used all the time.  Still.

One could counter that popular culture submits men to the same treatment.  It’s true.   However,  for every man making a fool of himself in  the media, there  is the proud reality of ten men in social positions of dignity, power and leadership. The disparity continues to astound.

At the risk of being accused of blaming the victim,  it often seems that women in general don’t have a problem with the deluge.   Perhaps they, like so many boys and men, have been fed the images and attitudes for so  long, both subtly and blatantly, in magazines,  music, TV, film and online,  that they are numb.

Or  maybe their only solace is to glimpse this chauvinistic ridiculousness and rightly know  that this stuff has absolutely nothing to do with them.

Others–mainly men, but not only men—-just don’t get it at all.  Which would explain why everyone didn’t find loathsome, creepy irony in the in-depth TV coverage of Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Berry’s daughter,  BOOKENDED by commercials where women  are, as usual, portrayed as reward for men who sip the right liquor, drive the right automobile or shave with the right razor.  Women as the prize. The difference between the commercials and Ariel Castro is that his objectification  was literal.  He didn’t bother with  products  he hoped would make him more attractive to a woman.  He simply went out and snatched himself  three women.

The  purveyors of such commercials–and magazine covers and music lyrics and whatnot—-contend their harmlessness.  However, somebody is believing this shit, because on the day those three women and little girl were rescued in Cleveland,  many other women were missing, too.

Indeed, type “Missing woman” into your Internet search engine and up will come reports on  women and girls of all ages who have been missing for days, weeks, months and years, under all sorts of imagined circumstances. And those are just the white women, mostly.  Statistics show that girls and women of color—along with the nation’s poor and boys and men–disappear without nearly the attention from law enforcement and media.

So sad and pervasive is the trend of missing girls, that  for mothers across the country, the grim discovery of Castro’s heinous house of horrors actually represented a glimmer of light:  “I was hoping MY girl might be in there, too.”

Quite simply, we live in a society where routinely, women are stolen; taken as methodically from their lives as a thief steals a bike from outside a  Starbucks.

And when women and girls aren’t being abducted, they’re being sexually assaulted. In the military there were 26,000 assaults in 2012 alone.  Those  were just the ones reported. Insult to assault: forty-one year-old Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinki, appointed chief of the Air Force’s  Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, was himself arrested for sexual assault. This is surreal.

To be sure,  the wholesale mistreatment of women is a lot to hang on  some TV commercials.  However, anyone who doesn’t believe the media doesn’t in some way perpetuate-—and desensitize us all to–society’s systematic, sexist attitudes toward women and girls, is actually making my point.

Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love  (Simon & Schuster),  has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via[email protected].