Are female bodies displayed and objectified in pop culture more than male bodies? If so, how much?
I’ve been watching So You Think You Can Dance, the mixed-style dance competition show, since about Season 4. I’m a fan: yes, the show is often cheesy and very gender-normative, but it’s fun, and much of the dancing is quite good, and some of it is very good indeed. Plus it’s interesting to watch dancers work in dance styles outside the ones they’re trained in, and to see their dancing grow (or not, as is sometimes the case) as a result.
But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing on the show that bugs me, and I’ve decided to start documenting it — partly just to see if I’m really right or if this is just confirmation bias, and partly because if I am right, I think it’s worth documenting. The trend is this: In choreographed performances, there’s significantly more female skin shown than male skin. Whether the dancers are partnered in male-female couples (as they typically are), or are dancing in group routines, the men and women either show roughly the same amount of skin, or the women show more skin than the men. It is very, very rare for the women to be more covered up than the men.
Here’s why this matters. A big part of sexist culture is the sexual objectification of female bodies. Insert standard rant: Women are routinely expected to be ornamental and to fit conventional standards of attractiveness: we’re often valued only when we fit these standards, and are dismissed when we don’t (while at the same time, in a no-win game, we get slut-shamed and trivialized when we do). Beauty and attractiveness isn’t just more important for women than it is for men — the standards are far more stringent. Women’s bodies are put on display in popular culture more than men’s, and this display is often objectifying, with the bodies being dehumanized (e.g., shown without faces), treated as interchangeable, treated as things to be owned or acquired, treated as tools of other people’s purposes without regard to our own agency, etc. And all of this often shows up in sexual ways: women’s sexuality in particular is often treated as more important than anything else we might have to offer, while at the same time is dehumanized, treated as interchangeable, treated as something to be owned or acquired, treated with disregard to our agency, more carefully watched and judged than men’s, more stringently controlled than men’s, etc. Standard rant over.
But it can be hard to critique all of this without seeming prudish, anti-nudity, or anti-sex. And it can be especially hard to critique this in dance, which by its nature is all about showcasing bodies and the beautiful, amazing things they can do. The art form is inherently physical, sensual, often sexual. So it’s hard to say, “Look, they’re displaying female bodies in an objectifying way,” without drawing the response, “Um…. they’re displaying everyone’s bodies. That’s sort of the point.”
Which is why I’m focusing here, not on whether women’s bodies are being displayed or even sexualized, but on whether women’s bodies are being displayed and/or sexualized more than men’s. If everyone’s bodies are displayed in much the same way, then I’m wrong, and in this instance my observation is just confirmation bias. But if women’s bodies are displayed and/or sexualized more than men’s, then I have a point.
And yes, I realize SYTYDC is just one small part of both the dance world and the pop culture world: this analysis isn’t intended, by itself, to be proof of the sexual objectification of women. This phenomenon has been amply and thoroughly documented elsewhere. This is just the example of it I happen to be looking at right now. (I also realize that this analysis is very much based on a gender binary: the show itself is super-gender-binary oriented, so that’s unfortunately inevitable, and that’s actually part of what I’m documenting here as well.)
So, with all that being said: Here is my data on nudity parity and the lack thereof in So You Think You Can Dance, Season 11 (the current season). I’m starting with Episode 6, since this is the first episode with most of the choreography and costuming chosen by the Fox network and its employees. (Until now, we’ve just had auditions, with costumes self-selected by the dancers: there are interesting nudity parity issues to be observed there as well, but with self-selection, the issue of whose perspective is being expressed is more complicated, as is the sex-positive feminist question of women choosing to display our own bodies and our own sexuality in a sexist and objectifying world. With routines choreographed and costumed by the network, I think we can fairly see the patterns as reflecting the viewpoint of the corporation, to the degree that a corporation can have a viewpoint.) And I’m doing this several days after this episode first aired because I was away for much of last week visiting family. I’ll try to be more prompt in the future, but I make no promises.