When I went back to school I wanted to study correlation rates between sexual stereotypes and rape. I believed very strongly, I still believe very strongly, that mass media’s portrayals of women means something for how women experience the world.
Sexual stereotypes, for those who have not devoted themselves to that particular mix of feminism and sociology, are hegemonic interpretations of different groups in terms of sexual practices. Put simply, sexual stereotypes are like regular stereotypes, only they emphasize sexuality. For example, the Black female stereotype of the Jezebel portrays a supposed type of Black woman who is so promiscuous as to be unrapeable. [An aside: Patricia Hill Collins outlines Black sexual stereotypes as well as their roots and consequences in her book, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, & the New Racism. Really, this is a fantastic book that everyone should read.] Sexual stereotypes are born out of that space that gender, sexual orientation, race/color/ethnicity, class, and (non)disability occupy, and they reflect the way that dominant groups understand & control society.
A couple semesters ago I did a research project in which I analyzed season 11 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, concentrating on the way that the characters in the show were represented. I have found both feminist and sociological literature that argues that L&O: SVU helps to dislodge rape myths. Rape myths reflect the controlling nature of a patriarchal society that places the entire onus of sexuality on women and includes such gems as, “if you weren’t a virgin you can’t be raped,” “why did you go out with him if you didn’t want to have sex,” “you shouldn’t have been drinking,” and on and on.
It should come as no surprise that I found an abundance of stereotypes in season 11 of L&O:SVU, but rather than finding a wealth of sexual stereotypes, I simply found flat-out racial stereotypes. Latinas only presented as janitorial staff or in the context of drug-running/gang activity. Black women as prostitutes or refugees from Africa.
I think about these things sometimes, and at times I feel very heavy. It is difficult to explain to people I know and people I meet what sociology is. What gender studies is. What it is that I’m interested in. It is strange to see the uncomfortable looks people give me, especially when they’ve just finished an unsolicited tirade about how fruity (and therefore awful) California is (seriously, it is not okay to launch into some xenophobic, heterosexist rant. Ever. Keep it inside, people!), and especially when that is their response when I tell them what I’m majoring in.
But, it seems to me that this burden I feel is a direct result of my social location. There is so much pressure on women to be pleasant, by which I mean, quiet, brainless, well behaved, attractive—all the qualities of an award winning show dog.
Now, I feel myself coming unmoored from pleasant. The tendrils of stability and convenience are rolling themselves up. I feel unsettled, and on the verge of a great adventure. Heading for territory well traveled but not often charted.
I know there are others out there who have traveled, are traveling, will travel this same path. Still, I hope that you will come with me, so that we might be companions in this lifelong journey.