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Sexy: it’s far less than equalizing

January 31, 2013

Published here on January 22, 2013

Saudi Arabia is doing more for women’s rights than America Ferrera is.

Last October, Stewart Theater was host to Ferrera’s speech on valuing diversity. A three-month-old flier advertising this speech still hangs in Talley’s food court. Lest you think this column is as outdated as Talley’s bulletin boards, I’ll point out that I only saw it last week.

I missed the expired date completely, as I was preoccupied with the glamour shot of Ferrera, who is an American actress most noted for her role as Betty Suarez in ABC’s Ugly Betty. She was donning that “come hither” expression with her mouth half open and chin pointed downward. “She’s hot,” I thought, and I found diversity and equality were far from mind.

Sociology talks at length of “roles,” which are expected behaviors from people with certain traits. Specifically, gender roles are what cause us to paint women with traits such as “cooking” or “accommodating,” instead of “lawn-mowing” or “aggressive,” which usually apply to men. Society dictates what these gender roles are and reinforces them through institutions such as education, religion and family. These unequal roles are what the women’s rights movement is trying to change.

As the picture and byline to the left of this column illustrate, I am not a woman. Knowing this, your subconscious mind is telling you to write off what I’m saying. Don’t. You’d be judging me based solely on my gender, an error I’m trying to keep you from making.

But let’s get back to the face on the poster. The photograph did nothing to establish Ferrera as anything other than a sex object, a role that women’s rights activists are trying to change.

Perhaps my background in public relations caused me to focus too much on image. I don’t know who chose the headshot, but regardless, Ferrera’s not the only woman to fall into the sociological role she’s trying so hard to eradicate. Look no further than female talk show hosts who play the role of the flirty-girl flawlessly as they gush over their male interviewees. P!nk, while interviewing the cast of Ocean’s Eleven, bit her bottom lip and told Matt Damon, “I think you’re incredibly sexy.” Even Oprah, referring to Brad Pitt’s role as “death” in Meet Joe Black giggled that, “It’s a very good-looking death. If death has to come for you, you’d like it to be in that package.”

Meanwhile, earlier this month the Shura Council — Saudi Arabia’s closest thing to Parliament — grew by 30 members, all of them women. It doesn’t offset the female population’s inability to drive, but it’s a step forward, a statement to the rest of the Arab world acknowledging women’s increasing importance. Saudi Arabia isn’t calling for equality one minute and playing a flirtatious little girl the next.

One thing I’d like to make clear: this is not a Todd Akin-esque column arguing that women are responsible for their inequality. I’m arguing that that there is a disconnect between what certain women like Ferrera are saying and what they are doing when they play the role of sex object. When she’s supposed to be sexy, she should be sexy! But doing so while discussing gender equality is equivalent to a man performing a strip tease. Look at Ferrera’s IMDB or Wikipedia profile — she looks classy and intelligent, and that’s the image she should have donned.

A News & Observer column sums it up perfectly. The author, Ruth Marcus (who is a woman), is addressing clothing, but I think the point can be broadened to image in general. “Women, especially women who are in public life, have it a lot harder than men when it comes to clothes,” Marcus argues. “If you want to be taken seriously, dress the part. That doesn’t mean frumpy or mannish, it just means appropriately for the occasion.”

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