upper room daily devotions

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Women, Men, Media, Rape, and Perception

Recently, I've been in a number of conversations about gender with guy friends, congregation members, and colleagues during which I hear that women cry foul too frequently. Men, they say, are just as likely as women to be subjected to negative stereotypes; they are presented with images of the perfect male body that they, like women, can never achieve. I believe that I surprised my male conversation partners by partly agreeing with them. Air brushed photos of male models portray ideals of the male body that the typical man will never have. Media and culture consistently parade before us the hero who can withstand an inhuman beating and then rise, unaffected or (even better) sexily battered, to find victory. Again and again, men are told what strength, manliness, and courage mean, and frequently they have something to do with the ability to beat up, overcome, dominate, or subjugate another. I agree with my conversation partners. Men are subjected to bad images of what it means to be a "real man." And yet. And yet...

Women still face obstacles that men don't. Women make up 51% of the United States and yet they constitute 17% of Congress. There have been 44 US presidents, all of them men. While women are closing the gender gap in highly competitive fields, they are still resoundingly outpaced by men. Only twelve Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. Women are going to medical school and into specialties like General Surgery in increasing numbers, but they have a long way to go to reach parity with their male counterparts. Even in my own field - my own denomination - women make up only 29% of United Methodist clergy. This is just data. None of this speaks directly to attitudes, workplace hostility, or social pressures, other obstacles women face in work and culture. However, this data do point to those things. Women, by choice or by coercion, still have a long way to go to find parity with men in the workplace.

The movie "Miss Representation" takes a hard look at the depictions of women in media. These depictions have consequences. They inform how boys view girls. They affect how girls view themselves. Images are powerful things. They are painted with brush strokes, through camera clicks, on TVs and movie screens, and they are described in words. Images of women in general and depictions of specific women affect how we as a culture view and value women, and they become the lenses through which girls interpret themselves.

In tonight's GOP debate, Herman Cain, despite battling accusations of sexual harassment, did not find it necessary to censor himself when speaking about Nancy Pelosi. He referred to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the most powerful women in the world, as "Princess Nancy." Following up on Cain's inability to self-censor, Todd Kincannon, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, posted a series of other nicknames that could be used to describe Nancy Pelosi. They ranged from "The Botox Bitch" to "The Crabby Cunt from the California Coast." In what universe should this be allowed out of the mouths of people running for office or advising and influencing those in office? And, what does it tell boys and girls about women when they hear people as powerful as Nancy Pelosi referred to in such a dehumanizing manner?

Of course, the big news of the day (the week, actually) is the ever evolving and horrific story of a former Penn State football coach's serial sexual predatory behavior against boys. As horrific as the abuse was, as long lasting as this abuse is and will remain in the lives of these now young men, I can't help but think that it is considered worse because a man abused boys. Sexual assault against women and girls is considered heinous in the country, but not as heinous as assault against men and boys. Why is that? Look at our media. Music videos by both men and women routinely portray women on the receiving end of violence in general and sexual violence in particular. Rape of women and girls? Bad, but, you know, part of our culture. Rape of men and boys? Repugnant. Stomach turning. Deserving of the death penalty. Moreover, religion, including Christianity has been complicit in promulgating the idea that women are subordinate to and therefore less than men.

Wrong. Rape of any kind is repugnant, stomach turning, and evil. Rape leaves life-long scars. It robs people (men and women) of the ability to bond in healthy ways, to enter into intimacy, or to see themselves as beautiful and wonderful beings. Rape does not affect women less. Women are not better made to accept the violence done to them.

I don't want to overstate my position. Men are subjected to idealized images. They are dismissed when they are too handsome. The are ridiculed for being too fat or too short. Men are given a set of acceptable ways to express themselves in society. It's simply that the ill treatment of women, whether overtly or implicitly, is more accepted by society. Implications of violence, especially horrific sexual violence, against women remain within the bounds of acceptability in our culture. This is true despite incredible gains made by women over the past few decades.

It seems to me that this is an issue for our churches. If it is part of our goal to continue Jesus' culture challenging and earth changing ministry, if it is part of our mission to continue his work of healing, lifting up, and reconciling, then we have to look at how our churches and our faith have helped support unhealthy images of women. We must change the messages that our little boys are learning about the value of little girls. We need to teach our boys how to respect girls and how to relate with them in ways that are not relegated to that of potential sex partner. We have to teach our girls that God has given them creativity, joy, intellect, and strength, and that it is part of their lives as faithful beings to cherish those most wonderful and holy parts of themselves.

A core teaching of Christianity is the resurrection of the body. Paul uses quite a bit of ink discussing the importance of real live bodies. New life in Christ is not just in the afterlife. Neither is it wholly concerned with inner life. We are embodied beings. We relate with the world and with one another in only one way - through our bodies. We experience the world through our bodies. Embodiment - incarnation - this is crucial for our faith. Since this is so, it seems that for our churches to be faithful, then they need to spend time better talking about, addressing, caring for, and celebrating bodies. This includes teaching both boys and girls about healthy ways to treat bodies, healthy ways to honor one another, and healthy ways to imagine what it means to be a person with real integrity.

To address this, Queen Anne UMC will be screening "Miss Representation" on November 18 at 7:00 PM (1606 5th Ave W, Seattle, WA). There will be a conversation about the film and the themes it covers. Come join the dialogue. For more information, visit our website at www.qaumc.org.

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