Is it slut-shaming to dub Polly Pocket “Polly Prostitute“?
No, it isn’t. But many commenters on the internet think otherwise.
I’m here to tell you why they’re wrong.
In recent months, the term “slut-shaming” has gone mainstream. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it is used to describe the condemnation of a woman for her choices regarding her attire and appearance, and/or for acting with sexual agency.
Examples of slut-shaming include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The idea that a woman is wrong to choose dress in a sexually provocative way. E.g., “I can’t believe Morgan is wearing a skirt so short. She’s really asking for it.”
- The idea that a woman who is on birth control is inherently sexually promiscuous. Key example: Rush Limbaugh’s commentary about Sandra Fluke.
- The idea that a woman engaged in sexual behavior is wrong for doing so and should be stigmatized.
In other words, when we slut-shame women, we are policing their sexuality—and that’s wrong.
Furthermore, because it’s essentially impossible to shame men for these same behaviors, slut-shaming props up our society’s double standard for men and women. In so doing, it also perpetuates rape culture, in which victim-blaming is the norm. So, all in all, having the vocabulary to identify and call people out when they are policing women’s sexuality is a good thing.
Slut-Shaming and Pop Culture
As a media critic, though, I want to make something clear: Criticizing the media’s representation of women and girls is not the same as slut-shaming. Lately, I’ve been perplexed that so many people seem to think it is.
To wit: When Margot Magowan of Reel Girl wrote an article exploring why toys like Polly Pocket are sexist, and shouldn’t be bought for kids, she felt it necessary to preface her analysis with this plea: “Before you get mad at me for “slut-shaming,” this is a doll marketed to little girls.”
She had to use this preface because lately, we media critics have been accused of slut-shaming fictional characters and toys. And it’s exasperating.
For example, when I wrote about the way Disney’s Consumer Products Division had redesigned and sexualized Merida, the heroine of Brave, some people told me that criticizing Merida for “wanting to dress up and look pretty,” and for “growing up and having a more mature body,” constituted slut-shaming.
Similarly, elsewhere, a commenter wrote about the criticisms of the redesigned Merida:
Isn’t this slut shaming? [...] Idg why this character can’t embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body without fear of criticism?[...] I am honestly confused as to where the line is drawn in feminist theory between ‘slut shaming’ and valid criticism of invited objectification of women.
Here’s the thing: Real women and girls have the right to make individual choices about their appearances and behaviors. They are autonomous human beings who have agency. Slamming them for these choices is slut-shaming.
But fictional characters do not have any agency. They are fictional, designed by corporations who are invested in the sexualization and objectification of females, as the APA has reported. Slamming critics for failing to support fictitious characters’ “choices” is conflating fantasy with reality.
After all, Merida didn’t choose to “embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body.” Those things were invented for her by a corporation that wanted her physique and style to match the other products in its Disney Princess line.
Likewise, Polly Pocket doesn’t choose to dress provocatively. Mattel dictates how she will dress and what options are available to her—because she is a toy.
What might be a reasonable fashion choice for an adult female is not necessarily healthy in a toy meant for girls ages 4 to 8, who look at their toys as a window on the world and its expectations for females in our society.
See the difference?
Unfortunately, as Callie Beusman recently wrote on Jezebel, the term “slut-shaming” has been misused so much lately that it has begun to lose its meaning and its power. She explained:
The proliferation of “slut-shaming” has resulted in an inaccurate conflation of “being critical” and “prudishly or maliciously taking issue with female sexuality.” Not all criticisms of public displays of sexiness are meant to shame, which is something many people seem to have lost sight of.
From what I’ve seen, “slut-shaming” has become watered down to mean ”any criticism whatsoever about a female (real or fictional) for her appearance or attire, or for any behavior that can be interpreted as having sexual agency, or for being sexualized.”
And this is a real problem. When we’re applying the term “slut-shaming” to criticisms of fictional females that are sexualized, essentially reduced to sex objects by the corporations behind them, we’re using it incorrectly. And by using the term incorrectly, we’re robbing it of its meaning.
So, the next time you’re reading an article criticizing girls’ popular culture, or representations of women in pop culture, remember: Criticizing the appearance of a fictional character is very different than criticizing the appearance of a real person. It’s not slut-shaming to push back against, say, the sexualization of products intended for young girls.
In fact, it’s something I’d like to see more of.
The author would like to thank her colleagues Margot Magowan, Lori Day, Peggy Orenstein, and Melissa Wardy for their recent chat about this topic.
Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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