Media Hypersexuality: Imaginary or Symbolic?

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


September 25, 2011

Media Hypersexuality: Imaginary or Symbolic?

The contemporary problem of hypersexualized images in the media manifests itself for women in the experience of feeling lacking with respect to media depictions of the ideal female body. This results in a whole host of problems: low self-esteem, self-loathing, eating disorders and so on.

Feminist bloggers have addressed themselves to these problems by considering it as an issue of the male gaze – a concept borrowed from Jacques Lacan – where images of women are on display for a male audience and to arouse male pleasure. I’ve slightly complicated this reading with the notion of the ideal gazer – every image of a submissive, sexually-available woman supposes a dominant, active-initiator-of-sex attitude that men are expected to have. These images have a normative and interpellative effect on men. The moment that we recognize ourselves as the addressee of these images is the moment of our inclusion in the sexist universe, whether we want to be there or not.

Is it not the case that this function of teaching men how to desire a woman is the primary purpose of these images? Even if we choose to focus on the negative repercussions for women, it cannot be denied that these all begin from the belief that the interpellation of men has been successful. Why would a woman feel pressure to live up to these ideals if not for the belief that men really want a woman like that? This has the structure of the Lacan’s subject supposed to believe. The ideal gazer is none other than the Big Other, the male desire for the ideal woman/the female desire to be this ideal woman follows the Lacanian principle “desire is the desire of the Other.”

The pressures on women to present themselves as conventionally attractive and sexy image continue to rise despite the substantial gains of gender equality in the last several decades. During this time, feminists have developed a set of discursive strategies for combatting sexism in society, a tradition that feminist bloggers on the internet continue to develop and deploy today.

The focus of these strategies tends to be on what in Lacanian psychoanalysis is called the Symbolic order, which is associated with the unconscious, language, regulation of desires, but important for this context, language, law and social norms. The Symbolic is the second of Lacan’s three registers: Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real.

Feminism of the 50s and 60s was concerned with and criticized the social roles of Mother and Wife that were heavily promoted in the media after WWII to encourage women to return to the home and allow GIs to return to their traditional role as breadwinner of the family. Feminists of that era felt that these roles were infantilizing and limiting, and that women were equally capable of intellectual and economic success, and strongly resisted the desire of society to confine them to the home. In Lacanian terms, this refers to alienation in the symbolic order, where I feel a dislocation, an estrangement, a lack of fit between me and the place that is allotted to me within society.

Today, this criticism is extended and applied to media depictions of women, which are said to promote a new role or duty for women to be objects of male sexual pleasure. But there is a problem here. In the Lacanian view, media images are the register of the Imaginary order (of which the famous Mirror Stage is a part), and the symptoms that women experience are consequences of alienation in the Imaginary, where I feel an estrangement between me and images of me. The fact that this new phenomenon is of a different register is confirmed again by the simple fact that women feel that they exceed the social roles allotted to them as Wife or Mother, but feel precisely the opposite with respect to Imaginary representations, that they are less than, lacking or inferior to.

For a lengthy piece for the Christian Science Monitor magazine entitled “Little girls or little women? The Disney princess effect,” the famous feminist historian Stephanie Coontz remarks on this shift from the Symbolic to the Imaginary in the following way:

“For young women, what has replaced the feminine mystique is the hottie mystique,” Ms. Coontz says. “Girls no longer feel that there is anything they must not do or cannot do because they’re female, but they hold increasingly strong beliefs that if you are going to attempt these other things, you need to look and be sexually hot.”

Naomi Wolf made a similar point 20 years before in the now classic The Beauty Myth: “The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weight upon us.”

The way Coontz states it, it’s clear that the problem is not about a limiting social role where women are confined to the status of sexual object for a man. This claim is difficult to sustain when you consider that many, if not most of these images are of women who are extremely successful. When we see an image in the media of a beautiful woman, it’s generally not understood to be depicting a man’s hot wife or girlfriend. Overwhelming these are images of popular musicians, actors, sportswomen and other entertainers who have gained success, power, fame, wealth and prestige. That means that the ideal gazer for whom they are displayed is posited more as a consumer of entertainment, not so much as a potential husband.

What brought about this transition in society? What changed so that the focus of feminist activist is no longer on the demands of Betty Friedan’s society? I claim the crucial catalyst was the countercultural movements of the 60s and 70s, of which the feminism of that era was closely allied and involved with. They rejected the various symbolic social roles as oppressive and conformist, and upheld an essentially Imaginary conception of being that idealized liberated, aestheticized self-creation as a form of freedom.

(I support this claim by linking together two different theses: Chris Campbell’s conception of consumerism as “modern autonomous imaginative hedonism” in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism ; and Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool which documents the intertwining of counterculture and advertising.)

These movements were largely successful at combatting symbolic roles for women, but the corresponding gains for men came much slower, leading to today’s situation where women feel the full force of media pressure to live up to the impossible image that men don’t experience nearly as much. As a man, even if you don’t have ripped abs and the chiseled jaw of an aftershave model, you can still achieve some level of self-esteem by working hard, being a good father and husband and so on, because these ideals are still operative to some extent.

The countercultural critique of society was that symbolic roles are limiting and oppressive and they were successful in undermining them, a process that Žižek terms the decline of symbolic efficiency. In it’s place, they invented new, much more ambitious, expansive visions of what life is about, and these quickly became impossible standards that we cannot ever hope to achieve. They thought that the register of the Imaginary is a space of diversity, transgressive rejection of mainstream values, self-creation and self-determination where everyone would be free to be themselves, but in the context of contemporary media dynamics, it ends up as an extremely unequal, winner-takes-all attention economy filled with competition and envy.

Liberation so conceived is not a liberation at all. Instead, it throws us into the gears of an accelerated capitalist-consumerist machine and as political philosopher Jodi Dean tells us, simultaneously undermines the collective political identities that would unify us against the predations of capital.