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Gender and Pornography

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5586 words Published: 8th Sep 2017

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Throughout history women have been portrayed as subordinates of men or the “weaker gender.” This essay explores the portrayal of femininity as the weaker gender through the discourse on pornography and femininity portrayed in popular culture. Its purpose is to broaden the understanding of femininity- gender discourse from the perspectives of pornography and femininity portrayed in popular culture. In order words, how does the perception of pornography and the portrayal of femininity in popular culture emphasise the weaker gender perception of femininity? Therefore, the purpose of this essay is clear but the lingering question is how it can be achieved. In this regard, the essay advances four propositions. The first section provides a conceptual understanding of gender and femininity for analytical discourse. The second section critically explores the femininity- gender discourse within a legal structure and questions like is femininity the weaker gender? How and why femininity is portrayed in this regard come up for discussion. This will also be discussed in relation to how femininity gendered roles disadvantages women. The section that follows critically analyses the law on pornography and femininity nexus. The third section critically explores how femininity is depicted in the media. The last is the summary and the conclusion.

What is Gender?

Gender can be defined in many ways. Sociologists contend that gender is a consequence of nature resulting from the effect of hormones, brains or genes of two different sexes.[1] However, this essay will explain Butler’s perspective and views on gender. According to Butler, gender is defined as a social construct formed through constant cultural reinforcement and rigorous regulatory practices.[2] Hence, gender is associated with how an individual takes part in certain manners of conduct. In order words, through everyday practices or actions, laws, dress codes, taboos, pornography and advertisement the conception of “essential” masculinity and femininity is developed. Butler asserts that gender operates from the cultural associations and values that the sexed body takes on.[3] This creates the concept of essentialism. Essentialism is defined as the “characteristics of persons or groups which are largely similar in all human cultures and historical periods, since they are significantly influenced by biological factors.”[4] Through the course of essentialism, gender roles are created in the society and are related to an individual’s sex. Gender essentialism often creates stereotypes in relation to the behavioural pattern that should be exhibited by men and women. The problem with this is that the perceptions of gender is not fixed and changes from culture to culture, society to society as well as generation to generation and within these confines changes and evolves. Therefore, the rationale behind social constructs of masculinity and femininity being associated with a particular biological sex is void. Butler asserts that “taken into its logical limits, the sex-gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders.”[5] For Butler, there is no need for a “doer” behind the deed’ but the “doer” be constructed through the deed.[6]

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In terms of understanding identity, the distinction between gender and sex must be established. Hence, the concept of gender and sex has been used interrelatedly. While sex involves the biological aspects thus distinct and unchangeable, gender is a social construct formulated by the culture in which an individual lives in.[7] Therefore the labels “man” and “woman are biologically and socially different.[8] The importance posited on this distinction is that the biological fact of sex is merely a fact of interest as a result of the cultural importance attached to it.[9] This categorisation usually begins from childbirth and parents are required by the law to specify whether the sex is male or female. The traditional ideology concerning gender and sexuality involves the notion of heteronormativity which relates to the idea of heterosexuality as the natural and normal behaviour in the society.[10] However, sexuality is natural and normative if it if it fits into the context of heterosexuality.


Shea describes femininity as the classified set of attributes, behaviours, mannerism, interests, expectations, roles and appearances that are associated with being female.[11] Under Butler’s view of repeated acts “appropriate” gender-specific roles are formed. Simone Beauvoir contends that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”[12] She further asserts that the concept of femininity is actualised by consistently creating gender through interacting with individuals in a specific social context.[13] Women can be different things; they can be wives, mothers, lesbians, heterosexuals and criminals.[14] However, Butler does not allude that the individual can choose which gender he or she wants to enact but “the script is invariably already determined within a regulatory framework and the individual is given a limited number of costumes in which he or she is obliged to make a particular choice of gender style.”[15] Butler describes this act as “girling the girl”[16] it is important to note that though essential femininity relates to women, men can also exhibit “essential feminine traits” likewise women exhibiting “essential masculine traits”.[17] This alteration of society’s binary gender roles is described as gender nonconformity. Therefore, if a woman does not fit into this premeditated identity formulated by law and society her essence could be “invisible”. [18]

Gender Performance

According to Butler, gender is performative. She defines performativity by stating; “gender is in no way a stable identity of locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time [. . .] an identity instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.”[19] She argues that gender and gender roles are social acts that an individual performs in daily life, the hegemonic versions of which underlay prevalent concepts of male as masculine and female as feminine.[20] Zimmerman further contends that a person’s gender is categorised based on how they perform it.[21] Therefore, the way society reacts to gender performances forms gender identification. Men and women in the society are required to comply with specific gender roles according to the sex in which they are categorized. Oakley states that gender roles have an important impact on human lives as numerous reports suggests that “gender are culturally rather than biologically produced”[22] Conclusively, individuals are taught on how they are expected to behave within the society. Traditional stereotypes associated with men described them as protectors, providers, openminded and aggressive whereas women were perceived to be weak, passive and emotional.[23] These stereotypes have shaped the way masculinity is seen as the stronger gender and femininity as the weaker gender. Hence, this essay argues that feminine norms regularly relegates women to subordinate or secondary roles and performing such gendered roles disadvantages women in the society. This aspect of the essay focuses on gendered objectification of women. Objectification described as the act of objectifying an individual is often significantly gendered (mostly towards females) and, vital towards the process of gendering a person and rendering them as lesser human beings.[24] In western society, the pressure on females to perform an ideal expression of femininity is so extreme that it is impossible for a woman to be adequately skinny, beautiful, submissive, sexy and conventional so as to be seen as a good woman.[25] Women tend to be dehumanised even in situations where they perform their gender roles according to hegemonic norms.[26] Ironically, they are being dehumanised for performing their gendered roles. Objectification acts as one basis against which the gender binary criticises women’s gender performance irrespective of appropriate performance of gender norms. They are constantly ridiculed as merely weak tools for emotional and sexual satisfaction of other people.[27] Performing gender tends to objectify women and this objectification goes beyond sexual objectification. Arguably, when a woman performs the role of motherhood, she is required to prioritise the needs of her child over that of herself thereby treating herself as an object through which the physical and emotional desires of the child are sustained. This can be regarded as an extremely gendered experience as society does not require fathers to give the same level of care and treatment a woman gives to a child. This can be considered as demanding because it requires placing a child’s needs ahead of the mother’s. Although, these occasions themselves are episodic, their repetition and reiteration in addition to the background discourse of “the good selfless mother”[28] provides a structure to legitimise the treatment of women as objects that nurture children into adulthood.[29] This can be partially attributed to social customs which dictate that good mothers take care of their wards and their failure to perform motherhood brings about punishments ranging from social alienation to government intervention and loss of parental privileges.[30]

Conclusively, feminist theories of objectification have classified it as a universal problem that mainly affects women. However, they mostly define it based on the constant repetition and reiteration of episodic experiences rather than why it occurs. Wilson contendsthat “By using Butler’s theory of gender performativity to analyse the structure of gender it seems that we can redefine objectification as a systemic occurrence that is significantly gendered and also important to the very process of constituting gendered categories.”[31]


Several definitions of pornography exist from debates surrounding it. Joel Feinberg gives a broad definition of pornography as “sexually explicit writing and pictures designed entirely and plausibly to induce sexual excitement in the reader.”[32] Dworkin and MacKinnon state that “The bigotry and contempt pornography promotes, with the acts of aggression it fosters, diminish opportunities for equality of rights in employment, education, property, public accommodations and public services.”[33] This critique states that pornography is more than just a sexual fantasy but rather recognised discriminatory acts against women with damaging effects.[34] Williams asserts that pornography as a genre proves to be more about gender than sex.[35] Under UK law, there exist no definition of pornography instead it relies on the concept of ‘obscenity’.[36] Hence, pornography is regulated under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and 1964 and Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which establishes the criminality of pornography on “appropriate” pornography and “appropriate” sexual expression.[37] Section 1 of the OPA 1959 states “an article shall be deemed obscene if its effect or the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, tends to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”[38] Therefore, the threshold test drawn from the case R v Hicklin[39] is “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”[40] In regards to this, section 63 of the CJIA 2008 outlaws the possession of an extreme pornographic image. It states that an image is ‘pornographic’ “if it is of such a nature that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal.”[41] Justice Stewart in the case Jacobellis v Ohio[42] commented on obscenity, stating that “I know it when I see it.”[43] Hence, what this depicts is that what may be perceived as obscene to a group may be normal to another. The deductions that can be made from the above Acts, shows that, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 will permit any action that does not violate the law against obscenity. This is rendered problematic as the messages pornography relays should not be protected under free speech, neither should the effect it ultimately has on gendered roles especially on femininity.[44] Hence, this essay contends that any form of pornography is harmful in the society as they send negative messages about gender roles. Scoular opines that “pornography is a political statement of women’s inequality rather than a sexual imagery for pleasure.”[45] However, Dworkin argues that the way pornography is seen to be sexual depictions and representations about sex indisputably emphasizes how the society views femininity.[46]

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For the purposes of this essay, four elements of subordination of femininity will be discussed. These are; hierarchy, the dynamic of dominance and submission, violence and objectification. Foucault’s concept of ‘texts’ of pornography and society can be used in explaining the concept of hierarchy.[47] Men tend to define feminine sexuality through images and writings.[48] Fiedler states that “pornography is produced mainly by men for men, using women’s bodies as objects for male pleasure.”[49] Men through pornography tend to portray the female gender role as inferior and how it should be performed. Such characterisation has an adverse effect on feminine roles in the society as traditional social norms usually associates masculinity with certain traits (dominance, power, superiority) while femininity with (submissiveness, weakness, inferiority).[50] According to Dworkin “Pornography is the material means of sexualizing inequality and that is why pornography is a central practice in the subordination of women.”[51] Pornography is initially presented as a sexual imagery for erotic satisfaction, but in-depth assessment depicts that it is rather a political statement portraying feminine inequality. Scoular supports by asserting that, pornography is a powerful depiction of feminine subordination and inequality, societal degradation and emphasising the ‘phallocentric hierarchical power’ of men over women.”[52]

Inequality is sexualized; the relationship between masculinity and femininity is that of dominance and submission, which is constantly played out during sexual intercourse, which defines sex as a man being possessive or domineering and a woman submitting to a man.[53] MacKinnon believes that pornography is an ideal representation which displays masculine dominance and feminine submission, and describes it as a political campaign by the strong against the weak (males against females) that legitimizes, sexualizes and permits abuse against women.[54] Masculine dominance and feminine submission also exist in ‘soft-core’ pornography for example Vogue Magazine or Calvin Klein commercials where women are depicted as being desperate to be taken and used by men.[55] It is noteworthy that the dominant and submissive representation is not limited to only heterosexual pornography but also lesbian pornography. Arguably, some women prefer to play the submissive role, however, this is due to the mentality instilled by the sexist power structures that they are meant to enjoy these acts[56]. Deckha contends that females who claim to enjoy performing a submissive role do so because they have been brainwashed into believing that it is required of them to do so.[57] The argument as regards to lesbian pornography is that, even with the absence of men, this still represents the patriarchal power structure through the representation of the ‘butch’ lesbian controlling the ‘femme’ lesbian.[58] As explained earlier, there is a possibility that without the influence of the sexist power structure, these individuals might have different opinions as to what they actually prefer. Therefore, the constant repetition and reiteration of these constructed identities of masculine dominance and feminine submission tends to be classified as the ‘norm’ in the society.

According to Dworkin, not only does pornography cause violence against women, it is violence.[59] Violence towards women either in physical or psychological form tends to be the norm in modern society. Men believe that they can commit these acts, either as a means of enjoyment or an assertion of masculine dominance. Feminists believe that images of women being bound, tortured, raped, degraded or murdered for sexual stimulation and satisfaction creates a psychological link between sexuality and violence, and teaches men that women are ‘easy targets’, ‘masochistic’, ‘hypersexual’, and a sexual plaything, who derive pleasure from being pushed around, and that violence in itself is a sexual turn-on. Such portrayal teaches women to feel passive and helpless and to assent to victimization.[60] Reports from a research conducted in America on the commonness of verbal or physical aggression in pornographic contents show that of the 304 scenes studied, 88.2% included physical aggression and 48.7% of scenes contained verbal aggression with the perpetrators usually the male and the female being the victims.[61] Because of the way femininity is portrayed, people tend not to be interested in the fact that women are actually hurt even in violent pornography. Cole compares this by stating that “just as behind a façade of marital bliss there could be a battered wife, likewise, behind the appearance of consent and pleasure in pornography, there could be rape and violation.”[62]

Furthermore, numerous debates have emanated concerning if there is any correlation between pornography and sexual violence. In the case of Coutts[63], Jane Longhurst died during asphyxial sex with a man that had a tendency for extreme pornography involving rape, necrophilia and asphyxiation. After this incident, the CJIA 2008 was implemented to ban the possession of extreme pornographic materials.[64] From this, it can be perceived that this act was created because pornographic contents could influence people to commit sexual abuse. Barry emphasises that pornography can significantly influence human behaviour and numerous behavioural scientists support this position as witnessed in their dealing with sex offenders.[65] MacKinnon also opines by stating that the subscribers of violent pornography are also interested in practicing it.[66] Andrei Chikatilo, who was a Russian killer, responsible for the murder of over 53 women and children blamed pornography to be the cause of his suicidal behaviour[67]. The evidence above depicts that, there is a strong link between violence and men who watch pornography.

Fredrickson and Roberts define objectification as ”being treated as a body (or collection of body parts) valued predominantly for its use to (or consumption by) others.”[68] MacKinnon asserts that pornography tends to objectify women, exploit their sexuality for men’s pleasure, and portrays sex roles in which women are inferior, violated or subject to physical abuse.[69] Dworkin describes sexual objectification as occurring “when a human being, through social means, is made less than human, turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold.”[70] Women tend to be inhumanely objectified and displayed as objects for the sexual satisfaction of men. For example, both men and women magazines are based around eroticised images of women viewing them as sexual objects basically used to satisfy or provoke the desires and attention of readers. The editor of a UK magazine Esquire stated in an article that women were objectified in various publications (both male and female) stating that “we provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars. It is ornamental.”[71] By using pictures of women primed for sexual pleasure amongst advertisement of fine cars and good scotch portrays women as commodities that can be easily bought. Arguably, a reason why people fail to link acts associated with pornography is because such acts are seen as ordinary in the society. Society tends to define the images portrayed by pornography as normal and ordinary, therefore, if pornography is seen as the ordinary, it cannot be harmful to women. In recent times, concerns have been raised about the objectification of women in society. Clare Short a former Labour M.P introduced a piece of draft legislation advocating for the ban of Page 3 of The Sun newspaper which Caroline Lucas had criticised “for normalising the notion that women’s primary function is to titillate men.”[72]Therefore, this raises awareness of the backward, damaging and hypocritical media treatment of female bodies and the society becoming more sympathetic of the plight of women’s objectification.[73]

Gender essentialism also exists in objectification. Collins believes that black femininity is differently represented from white femininity.[74] Black women are mostly presented to be “breeders, raped for pleasure and profit of their owners” in interracial pornography which is a recreation of the colonial slavery a period when black women were used as sex objects for the pleasure of white men.[75] This also reflects the hierarchical system of race as Walker states, “that where white women are depicted in pornography as objects, black women as depicted as animals.”[76] The portrayal of black women as animals reiterates their lesser status in the society. Therefore, whilst white women face gender objectification as gendered oppression, black women deal with both racial and gendered oppression. A critique against obscenity laws in the UK, is the inability to protect women from the violence and objectification which pornography portrays but rather focuses on what is regarded as “prurient interests.”[77] Conclusively, the way masculinity is portrayed in pornography influences male attitudes towards the treatment of women as the weaker gender. Jensen highlights that “the sexual violence and cruelty that characterizes much pornography, and to the evident pleasure that men take in viewing this material, evidence that there are serious problems with our understandings of what it is to ‘be a man’ today.”[78] Additionally, the similarity between the portrayal of masculinity in reality and in pornography is that to be classified as a real man, one is supposed to be aggressive, dominating and controlling. Green asserts that in gay pornography, where there is a female absence, there is a contention that one of the men performs the role which patriarchal sexuality assigns to women; ‘the role of receptivity’, ‘passivity’, ‘subordination’. This confirms that, we can have ‘women’ without having any females.[79]” The portrayal of masculinity in pornography has an influence on how men view women in society. Hence, it can be concluded that pornography certainly plays an important role in the construction of femininity as weak.

Popular Culture

James Rosenau defines media as “a label that is presently in vogue to account for peoples, activities, norms ideas, goods, services, and currencies that are decreasingly confined to a particular geographic space and its local and established practices.”[80] The mass media is one of the most universal and powerful vices influencing how men and women are viewed in the society. Intertwined through our everyday lives, the media integrates messages into human consciousness at every opportunity. Different forms of media convey images of the sexes, which disseminates biased, stereotypical, and limiting perceptions.[81] Hence, this essay argues that all forms of media sends negative subliminal and stereotypical messages about female gender roles in the society and the portrayal of an ‘ideal’ woman as shown in the media is harmful. In recent years, the representation of femininity in the media has constantly exploited women merely portraying them as trophies to be won or objects to be shown off. It has also established a standard of beauty that women are compared to either by men or by the women themselves. Swami asserts that “In patriarchal societies, the roles and privileges accorded to women are inferior to those assigned to men, and as such, sexism plays a central role in the continuing oppression of women.”[82] Reiterating the ‘beauty ideals are oppressive’ (BIO) hypothesis, the existent patriarchal structures and attitudes influences the relationship that exists between “sexist attitudes and the endorsement of beauty ideals and practices.”[83]

Craft asserts that physical features such as attractiveness and thinness are the requirements for women in news media rather than intellectual capabilities expected from their male counterparts. (Craft, 1988; Sanders & Rock, 1988).

The media creates an imagery of two that of women that exist namely the good women and the bad women. A good woman is supposed to be respectful and mainly focused on taking care of her home. Subordinate to the male gender, they are usually represented in films as victims, supportive wives and helpers. Though, women who defy the traditional roles are represented positively, this is done either by making their alienating career lives like Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” whose career engagement in family matters was well portrayed while her career as an attorney was alienated. or feminizing careerwomen so as to align them with the traditional aspect of femininity. The producer of the show “Cagney and Lacey” Barney Rosenzweig complained, “These women aren’t soft enough. These women aren’t feminine enough” regarding the characters of the actresses thereby illustrating the media’s bias towards favouring traditional femininity. Faludi asserts that for female gender to be considered as successful, it is necessary to portray the traditional stereotypes of femininity and maintain an identity dependent on the male gender who


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