I have been a student at Vassar for less than a year, and I am already noticing how my outlook on the world has changed during my time here. After about six months of being on campus, my brain has been trained to have an acute awareness of racism, sexism and other prejudices in the media and in everyday life, partly without my active involvement. While previously I understood these issues and felt uncomfortable or distressed in their presence, the things that provoked my attention had to be pretty overt and deliberate. Now, I find myself detecting offenses and wrongdoings that are much more hidden or even unintentional with both media and everyday occurrences alike.
In my “Approaches to Media Studies” class this semester, our midterm project involved picking a “media artifact” (such as a movie, book, or photo) and analyzing it using a perspective we had read about in our textbook. These perspectives included queer, feminist, cultural, psychoanalytic analyses and more. When I was presented with this assignment, the James Bond movies immediately came to mind. Having an older brother meant that when I was little, once in a while, we had to watch James Bond or Star Wars instead of my preferred movie Princess Diaries. Although I did not want to admit that I enjoyed watching Goldfinger or Tomorrow Never Dies, I eventually came to like the James Bond series very much.
Having watched many of the Bond movies while I was under the age of about 10 or 11 years old, I took zero notice of the misogyny present in every film. Even when I saw the most recent Bond movie, Skyfall, which came out in 2012, for the first time, the rampant sexualization and belittlement of the female characters unfortunately went wholly unnoticed. However, when this assignment came up, it only took a few seconds to decide that the James Bond movies would be perfect, thanks to their being a breeding ground for sexist behaviors and images. I chose to analyze Skyfall because it doesn’t have the excuse of earlier Bond movies of being outdated or old-fashioned. Some of the aspects that really stood out to me include how most female characters act as sexual for Bond, and that the skills and careers of these females are often questioned and doubted. I was also pleasantly surprised when I was reminded that James Bond’s boss, M, is a woman. By the end of the movie, though, she dies and is replaced by a man instead.
Magazines and similar media are another area in which I have recently found it more and more difficult to ignore the offensive or sexist messages. I don’t get any magazines sent to me at school, but I subscribe to at least five or six that I read when I am home over breaks. Most of these are health and fitness or fashion related, which foster many hazardous messages about a woman’s appearance or career.
While some publications do a good job of centering discussions of exercise and healthy eating around simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle and wellbeing, they cannot avoid veering to topics of working out to get a bikini body, using products to look younger or other tactics to help with pleasing a guy in bed. Previously, I didn’t find these types of articles to be questionable, but now I can’t manage to brush their harmful messages aside. The one magazine I know of that manages to avoid topics that critique a woman more than helping her is Darling Magazine. They are committed to refraining from retouching photos and feature topics such as ovarian and breast cancer prevention and learning a foreign language.
I also find myself picking up on sexist or heteronormative inclinations in my personal everyday life. Most students and faculty at Vassar are very aware of this issue and have adapted, but in my hometown or other places outside of campus, people are not so like-minded. More often than not, people do not purposefully say something sexist, but end up doing so just because these tendencies are engrained into their mentality. When I am among friends from high school over breaks, I am often shocked at how some people speak about feminism, sex, race and religion. I guess this used to go under the radar before, but being at Vassar has made me much more sensitive to being careful and especially mindful with these issues.
The only problem with becoming more conscious with sexism and heteronormativity in our lives is sometimes seeing an issue that isn’t really there. For example, this past week I went to the lecture about modern civil rights with New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and he discussed the connection between black men in prison and single black mothers. My mind immediately went to think about heteronormativity and I mentioned this thought to my friend after the lecture. She noticed this too but explained that the link isn’t the same in non-heterosexual relationships. Despite the possibility of becoming oversensitive, I am thankful that Vassar has already increased my awareness of these issues so much, as I think that is the first step toward trying to eliminating them and grow as a student.
—Sarah Sandler ’16 is a student at Vassar College.