Throughout this chapter, we will spend time examining advertisements, lyrics, pornography, and other forms of media.  It will be important to think critically about messages that the media sends. Popular media, that which we see on television, in movie theaters, and on magazine stands, is designed to support the goals of advertisers.  Images and messages that are the most attention-grabbing or that appeal to the widest target market of people are those that are most effective in garnering advertisers’ financial investment.  Therefore, mass media is manipulative, masquerading as a reflection of real life but in fact designed to impose narrow definitions of what’s “normal” on those who consume it.   Is a song just a song, or a picture just a picture?  Or do songs and pictures have an impact on how we think and feel about sex?  The impact of these different forms of media is up for debate.

Think about advertisements.  Beyond the simple text and images, an ad makes a statement about what to value.   These messages inform us about what we should look like, what “cool” is, what sex is, what “hot” sex is, and how to fulfill certain roles (i.e. as a woman, a man, or a teenager).


Go to www.genderads.com.  Click through some of the ads.  Look at images under the category of Sexual Violence (in the “Violence” category).  Take a look at ads 29 and 47, and scan through some others.


  1. What were your initial impressions of each advertisement you saw?
  2. In each of the ads you looked at, what is the advertisement supposed to be selling?
  3. What statement is the ad making to boys?  To girls?


Marshall McLuhan is an important educator, philosopher and scholar whose work laid the foundation for media studies.  He coined the phrase “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964).  McLuhan believed that the medium of the message (internet, television, billboards, subway ads) is an important part of how the message is conveyed.  An obvious example of this is cigarette ads in Teen Vogue magazine which convey a clear message to teens about smoking.  By placing ads for cigarettes in a magazine for teenagers (many below the age at which they could legally purchase cigarettes), the message makes smoking seem acceptable—and even cool or popular—among teens.

McLuhan also believed that over a long period of time, a new innovation has unintended consequences that we are unaware of at the beginning of the introduction of the technology.  Consider the internet.  There are clear advantages and disadvantages of the internet, but can you think of issues that are coming up now that were never anticipated?  Some examples include: cyberbullying, vulnerability of children, explosion of internet pornography, dot.com industries, etc.


Think of an invention or innovation that has yet to be invented.  How can this invention benefit society, and what are some of the unanticipated harms?  For example, think about cars that can drive themselves.  While this invention would ideally keep drivers safe and reduce accidents, we can all imagine other complications that could arise.

For McLuhan, the message is not conveyed through the content, but though the change in inter-personal dynamics.  For example, the messages of a newscast are not the actual stories that night, but the change in public attitude towards crime or the creation of a climate of fear.  For McLuhan, the important part of the message is not the obvious message, but the impact the message has on society.  McLuhan warns us that the content of the message often distracts us from seeing the character of the message.  What do you think McLuhan means by character?

It’s not just one ad, or one medium, but a pattern over time that influences the way a culture understands something like sex.  If we can notice and name a pattern as it is occurring, we can change the character of the message or the medium before the effects become rooted in the culture.


For the teacher: Divide students into small groups and assign each group a medium: television, teen magazine, church bulletin, billboard, etc.

Design an advertisement for condoms geared towards teens.  What kind of message would you want to send?  How does your target audience affect your ad?  How does the medium affect your ad?

Activity and Discussion: Objectification

Before we dive into talking about the media, let’s consider objectification.

What is it?

To objectify someone usually means that a person is reduced to an aspect or a function of their body.  We most commonly talk about sexual objectification, in which a person’s value comes only from his or her sex appeal or behavior, and the whole person or their other characteristics are ignored.  For example, a man is valued for his “six pack abs” or a woman is valued or reduced down to only “looking hot,” regardless of the person she is or the other skills she possesses.

Who is objectified?  Who does the objectifying?

By this definition, both men and women can be objectified.  However, in U.S. society women are often objectified more than men.

On the other hand, this discussion about objectification is not about placing blame on individuals.  Instead, we want to discuss how society treats both men and women, and how the sexuality of men and women is symbolized in our culture.

Some obvious examples are in the media.  Magazines often show women (and sometimes men) holding products or wearing clothing.  They are shown in sexually explicit poses and outfits to enhance a products image.  Paris Hilton’s scandalous television ads for Carl’s Jr. cheeseburgers shows her in a bikini washing a car.  She is not depicted as an expert on cheeseburgers, nor does she discuss her product knowledge.  She is not portrayed as a whole person in these ads, she is only viewed as a sex object.

Consider this image of Paris Hilton: http://cache.jalopnik.com/cars/images/paris_bentley.jpg

What kind of effect do you think it has on society?


  • This picture sells a product
  • Paris Hilton is paid a lot of money for these ads
  • She has a voice in other areas of her public life
  • It’s her choice to do these ads, no one forced her
  • It’s only Paris that is affected, not anyone else
  • People like it, so it must be ok
  • It’s not hurting anyone


  • This picture affects her entire public persona; no one will take her seriously
  • This picture hurts girls and women because:
    • It encourages an unrealistic body ideal
    • It oversexualizes all women
  • This picture hurts boys and men because:
    • It allows them to think about women only as objects

Now look at this photo.


  • Similar to those we listed for the Paris Hilton ad


  • Consider the influence of adding in a racial component

What do you think?  Why isn’t it ok to look pretty or attractive and have other people appreciate how you look?  Why do girls have to do more work to get ready in the morning?  Why do women have to shave their legs and men don’t?

Sandra Lee Bartky is a philosopher who has written extensively on gender in our society.  She believes that women are objectified more than men and that they have to constantly strive to fulfill a male ideal of feminine beauty.  Even though in reality boys and men may not actually buy into this ideal, society still perpetuates this image.  The sheer quantity of makeup, hair products, nail products, hair removal, and skin care products show that women have to spend a great deal of time on their outer appearance.  Bartky (1990) says that society is constantly sending women the message that a woman’s face is inferior without this artificial enhancement.  Though men have to live up to some standard of hygiene, it is nowhere near as extensive as what women have to deal with.  An unpainted woman’s face is seen as defective, or at least less than ideal.

Although Sandra Bartky focuses on beauty for women, we can tie her arguments into a discussion of sex, because sex and beauty have begun to mean the same thing in U.S. culture today.  Everywhere a teenager looks, girls and women are being objectified.  While real people may be attracted to real women because of their personality, kindness, or even the way they talk, society is sending us messages that tell us to reduce people down to the way they look.

Because they traditionally have had more power in our society, men have set the standard for what is beautiful for females.  The reward for women who try to live up to this ideal is companionship with males.  Women who refuse to do this will be judged negatively and companionship will be withheld.  At extremes, women can be rejected by the male dominated workforce and can be denied a way to make a living.

Where do we see objectification?

Why are women objectified so rampantly in the media?  Why do women participate by buying products and conforming to these male standards of beauty?  Bartky (1990) argues that looking like the desired feminine standard of beauty has become a valued skill for women.  Over time, women feel good about themselves when they are able to fit into this mold.  When that skill is taken away or challenged, it becomes a blow to women’s self esteem.  Women have internalized this male standard of beauty.  Women police themselves and their bodies and help to uphold these standards.  So although other people and the media objectify women, women also objectify themselves!

Why is objectification problematic?

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1995) believes that the term objectification is not clear.  Depending on how you define it, objectification can either be extremely morally wrong, or permissible.  The worst kind of objectification uses other people as a means, not an end.  For her, slavery is a useful example of objectification.  A slave is no longer a person, but a tool to get a job done.  Once a slave becomes a tool, the person who owns the slave stops thinking, “I wonder what X would feel like if I did this?”

Immanuel Kant (who we have discussed in previous chapters) believes that using a person as a means to an end is an atrocious moral offense.  He believes that sex is particularly dangerous because it is so powerful that the urge to satisfy your sexual desire drives out all other thoughts, including those of respect for the person with whom you are having sex.  Kant’s solution to this problem is marriage.  He believes objectification becomes harmless when you restrict sex to two people who are legally—if not morally—bound to mutual respect and regard for the other person.

  • What do you think of this view of sex and marriage?  Does marriage solve the problem of objectification?  What about Sandra Bartky’s view of society and women objectifying themselves?
  • Can objectification be acceptable?

As mentioned above, Martha Nussbaum (1995) believes some types of objectification may be acceptable in certain situations.  She believes that in the context of a loving relationship, it is ok to focus on a person’s specific body part during sexual activity.  She asserts that as long as it is pleasurable for both people in the relationship, then it is not morally wrong.

Consider the following examples and discuss your thoughts on each one.  Which strike you as morally wrong or unacceptable?  What makes some of these examples ok, and others not?

  1. A boyfriend and girlfriend are in bed together after sexual activity.  He tells her she has a sexy body.
  2. A young woman is walking down the street and an older man stares at her breasts as she walks by.  Does you opinion change if it is a young guy who she had a crush on who stares at her breasts?
  3. A young woman is walking down the street and an older man grabs her breasts as she walks by.
  4. A young woman wears a short skirt and a revealing blouse to a party in order to attract a boyfriend.
  5. A guy takes a girl home from a party and they have sex.  He doesn’t ask for her phone number because he just wanted to have sex with someone that night.
  6. A woman who identifies as queer asks her partner to do a striptease for her.
  7. A gay man tells another gay guy that he looks like a porn star.

Activity:  Magazines and Objectification

Use magazines to find examples of men and women being objectified.

  1.  What images do you consider to be objectified images of men and women?  Why do you think these people are being objectified (or why not)?
  2. How many images of men are found versus how many images of women?
  3. What do the women look like?  Why do you think the women look this way?
  4.  Should models be banned from print ads?  What can be done about the way people are objectified in the media?  Should anything be done?

Hip Hop Music and Culture:

Hip Hop music and culture is all around us.  It is a central part of American culture with a global impact.  Thus, Hip Hop is more than music.  Often referred to as rap, Hip Hop is an expressive musical and cultural art form that influences youth around the world.  However, Hip Hop was not always a popular culture phenomenon—its infectious sound can be traced back to the late 1600s in West Africa.

West African storytellers, called “griots,” passed down their cultural history, traditions, and customs through spoken-word set to the rhythmic beat of the African drum.  The griots’ art of storytelling has influenced almost every genre of music, including spirituals, big band, jazz, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues, although the most obvious connection is to Hip Hop.  Today, Hip Hop artists continue this tradition, as they tell their stories in lyrical form set to heart thumping beats.

What we know as Hip Hop today was born in the early 1970s in the South Bronx of New York City with the arrival of a Jamaican-born deejay named Kool Herc.  By isolating the percussion sections of songs, a popular Jamaican technique known as “Dub Music,” Kool Herc laid the foundation for the Hip Hop movement.  Later, deejays collaborated with MCs (Master of Ceremonies), or rappers, to add rhythmic vocals to the music.  MCs became the urban storytellers, and deejays provided the epic soundtrack.

The substance of Hip Hop’s early message grew out of the crime and gang infested streets of New York City.  At its gritty core, Hip Hop reflected the frustration of communities left virtually bankrupt when many jobs went overseas.  That economic downturn caused the degradation of living standards and funding for schools, including music programs.  Thus, Hip Hop exploded in the urban streets as an outlet for inner city tales of crime, gang violence, poverty, drug abuse, lost educational opportunities, and racism.  Hip Hop historians and early artists suggest that Hip Hop music and culture are comprised of seven elements: a) graffiti art, b) rap, c) fashion, d) break-dancing, e) slang, f) urban knowledge, and g) entrepreneurship.  Together, these powerful ingredients serve to validate Hip Hop as not just music, but a cultural movement that expresses the concerns, pleasures, and social ills of youth everywhere.

Unfortunately, the griot art of storytelling was not the only tradition embedded in Hip Hop.  Although, women have played a critical role within Hip Hop since its inception as deejays, rappers, and dancers, it is a surprisingly misogynistic culture.  Men still dominate the music with lyrical content that promotes sexism, promiscuity, and the degradation of the female body.  Contemporary rap music is especially sexually explicit and racially charged.  Black women consistently appear in rap videos wearing reveling clothing and are commonly referred to as “freaks” and “videos hos.”  Arnett (2002) describes rap videos as“one or more men performing while beautiful, scantily clad young women dance and writhe lasciviously” (p. 256).  He goes on to state, “The women are mostly just props, not characters, not even people really” (p. 256).  The sexual imagery of Hip Hop videos and song lyrics exploits women, especially Black women, as they appear in demeaning roles throughout rap’s “booty videos” and songs.  For example, popular songs such as “Donk” (Soulja Boy 2007), “Lollipop” (Lil Wayne, 2008), “Bedrock” (Young Money, 2009), “Baby by Me” (50-Cent featuring Ne-yo, 2009), “Back to the Crib” (Juelz Santana featuring Chris Brown, 2010), and “My Chick is Bad” (Ludacris featuring Nicki Minaj, 2010) show the male dominance of the Hip Hop industry and depict women of color as sexually aggressive and willing subjects who possess a body type that is pleasing to men.

While not all Hip Hop music is so women-hating, the overwhelming prevalence of such imagery illustrates widespread issues in society at-large.  (Note: The fact that music and music video often express sexuality does not in-and-of-itself make the industry woman-hating.  It is the manner in which sexuality is conveyed, with women as objects to please men, that defines the genre as often misogynistic.)  Despite some forward movement, gender inequalities still exist.  Various entertainment industries, including porn, video games, and wrestling, portray women as sexual objects.  In short, Hip Hop takes its cue from longstanding gender stereotypes that place women in subordinate positions to their male counterparts.  Even when female rappers emerged, like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, and Nicki Minaj, much of their lyrical content caters to the sexual male fantasy.  Although sexism is but one of Hip Hop’s many elements, it is unfortunately its most pervasive.  Examining Hip Hop videos and lyrics reveals the ways in which Hip Hop can be at once uplifting and powerful, and yet sexist and oppressive.

Discussion: Ho’s and Freak

  • Who talks about women in Hip Hop’s “booty videos” as hos and freaks?
  • Is this common language?
  • Where does it come from and why does it fit the subjects?
  • Who talks about these individuals as victims?
  • Who sees them as entrepreneurs, girls who want to make money and get famous?
  • Who sees them as sexually empowered?

See if you can create an argument for each label (one for “hos” and one for “freaks”).   Now examine your argument.  How far you could go with it?  Which arguments hold true and why?

If you chose to condemn the women in these videos, is there a problem with focusing on the women rather than the industry?  Why or why not?   Is there a free will question at stake here?

Activity: Hip Hop Messages

  1. Create a blog or post videos to your Facebook page and discuss with your friends the sexual messages of rap videos and how women are depicted.
  2. Examine online rap magazine sites like Vibe, XXL, and The Source for images of women.  How are women shown in these magazines?  Are these magazines “booty videos” in print?
  3. Examine Young Money’s video “Bedrock.”  Are women used a “props” as suggested by Arnett? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha80ZaecGkQ   In the song “My Chick Bad” by Ludacris, explore what he means by his chick being “bad.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqHliQijgvA

Answer these questions about those videos

  1. How are white women and Black women treated differently in the video?
  2. Did you see a woman who looked sexually empowered?  What did she look like?  What was she doing?
  3. Did you see a woman who you thought was degraded by her appearance and/or the way she was depicted?  What did she look like?  What was she doing?

Activity:  Videos Today and Yesterday

Compare and contrast the themes, messages, and illustrative language of early rap and today’s rap (e.g., social justice, equality, depiction of women, etc.).  Do you agree that these characteristics have changed over the years?  Why or why not?  And if you think they have changed, in what ways?

Suggested early rap songs to research: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash (1982), “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (1989), “Self Destruction” by Stop The Violence Movement (1989), and “UNITY” by Queen Latifah (1993).

Activity: Anything Positive?

Activity: Write Your Own Rap—Can You Make it Sex Positive?

Can you write a rap for either girls or boys that might be sex positive and not exploitative?  Can you make it inclusive?   We’ll start you out…

“ Listen up…..”

I’m in love with hip hop
And she’s/he’s in love with me
The way it should be


Arnett, J. J. (2002). The sounds of sex: Sex in teens. music and music videos.  In J.D. Brown, J.R. Steele, & K. Walsh-Childers (Eds.), Sexual teens, sexual media (pp. 253-264).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bartky, S. L. (1990). Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Bridges, C., Maraj, O., Lindley, S., & Davidson, D. (2010).  My chick is bad [Recorded by Ludacris featuring N. Minaj].  On Battle of the sexes [CD].  DTP & Def Jam.

Carter, D. et al. (2009).  BedRock [Recorded by Young Money].  On We are young money [CD].  Young Money, Cash Money, & Universal Motown.

Chase, C., Fletcher, E., Glover, M., & Robinson, S. (1982).  The message [Recorded by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five].  On The message [CD].  Sugar Hills Records.

Chuck, D., Sadler, E., Shocklee, H., & Shocklee, K. (1989).  Fight the power [Recorded by Public Enemy]. On Fear of a black planet [CD].  Tamla.

Federman, M. (2004). What is the meaning of the medium is the message? Retrieved July 10, 2011 from http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/ MeaningTheMediumistheMessage.pdf.

James, L., Brown, C., Dean, E. (2009).  Back to the crib [Recorded by J. Sanata featuring C. Brown].  On Born to lose, built to win [CD].  Skull Gagne & Def Jam.

Latifah, Q., & Gist, K. (1993).  U.N.I.T.Y. [Recorded by Q. Latifah].  On Black Reign [CD].  Motown Records.

Ne-Yo & 50 Cent (2009).  Baby by me [Recorded by 50 Cent featuring Ne-Yo].  On Before I self destruct [CD].

Nussbaum, M. C. (1995).  Objectification.  Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4), 249-291.

Stop the Violence Movement (1989).  Self destruction.  On Self Destruction.  Jive.

Way, D. (2007).  Donk [Recorded by Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em. On souljaboytellem.com [CD]. Collipark/Interscope

Wayne, L. (2008).  Lollipop.  On Tha Carter III [CD].  Deezle & Jim Jonsin.

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