Football and live television are both ways I rarely choose to spend my time. I hate having my watching experience broken up by commercials and football never made a ton of sense to me. This year, however, I broke my rule to hang out with friends. I watched both live television in all its commercial glory and a full game of football for Super Bowl Sunday. I was pleasantly surprised when the game turned out to be interesting, but many of the commercials were awful, and the issue wasn’t production quality. The issue was in the messaging.
Some blogs  and books on gender theology have taught me to be sensitive to issues of objectification and sexualization that many in our culture are often simply not tuned to notice. Even so, I felt surprised at how much I was sensitized to the issue of objectification. Going in, I knew in large part what to expect: at minimum, some very suggestive ads at worst, women would be treated as objects. What I didn’t expect is the Christian reaction to these ads. The more I heard Christians in general talk about the ads this week, the opinion seemed to be that the references to sex were bad, not the objectification done (primarily) to women in the ads. While Christians ought to care about what the ad does to them personally (i.e. tempt them to lust), they are frequently trying so hard to keep a pure mind that they only condemn the potential for a particular sin that an ad represents. The Christian community therefore misses a great opportunity to push against other evils being committed.
There were plenty of incidents of sexualization in the ads, with sex being glorified or normalized in close to a third of the ads. Fiat’s tired “car = sexy woman” trope and Kia’s “hotbots” replace or equate women with objects directly, thereby objectifying them. Carl Junior’s sexy stripping bikini model eating a burger and godaddy.com’s naked woman billboard share in common women’s bodies functioning as a canvas or showcase for the intended product. The use of the women’s bodies is entirely sexual in presentation, thus sexually objectifying the women. Calvin Klein also does this with a male model, so sexual objectification periodically goes both ways (1/52 Super Bowl Commercials), but just because sexism goes both ways doesn’t make it right.
The reality is that women are being harmed by these ads because the ads set up an image in the mind of the viewer that real women are then expected to correspond to. There have been national surveys done that demonstrate that sexualization and objectification is linked to common mental health problems in girls and women, including eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Moreover, psychological studies demonstrate that women who are sexually objectified are actually associated with objects and thus are almost non-human in the minds of viewers. When women are used to sell objects and are substituted for objects, it shouldn’t surprise us that women become synonymous with objects in our minds. We, the church, ought to be about the business of humanizing people as much as we are about the business of condemning an overly sexualized culture.
Jesus, as the final revelation of God, gives us a standard of behavior to follow. Jesus (and the 12 disciples, by extension) had a lot to say to people who cared more about their own holiness than loving others, though a lot of it was subtext. (c.f. Matt 22. 34-39; 1 John4:7-21; Matt 9:9-13, 11:11-19, 12:9-14, 12:33-37, 23:1-36, Mark 2:1-3:6, 7:1-30; 12:38-40; Luke 5:17-6:16, 7:24-50; 11:37-12:3, etc.) Granted, he said to care about both holiness and love, but not one to the exclusion of the other. He said this most succinctly in his pronunciation of woes to the Pharisees in Luke 11: 39-42, “Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people…. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”
Even further, Jesus took the time to humanize and love women, even at the expense of culturally imposed purity laws. A prime example of this is the woman of disrepute who washed Jesus’ feet. There are two ways that this culturally was considered an affront to Jesus’ purity – which was terribly important for religious teachers to observe in his culture –first, a woman touched him in public; and second, she was a sinful woman, which plummeted her purity standing to a place far below Jesus’ sphere of association. Despite Jewish expectations, Jesus permitted her to wash his feet – in a sense humanizing her and reminding the people in the room that women, even sinful women, have worth. He then went further and met her deeper need for forgiveness. Time and again in the life of Jesus we see instances wherein he chose not to condemn, but sought to bring fullness of life to the sinner, outcast or anyone who recognized their need for salvation. He reserved condemnation for those who were trying so hard to be pure that they neglected those who were being oppressed.
It is time that the church stopped merely condemning sex in TV ads and began to fight for the fact that women in these ads are image bearers of God, and as such they ought to be honored and treated as such. If we stand up for the dignity of women, maybe companies would see that there is a significant part of the population in which sexism and sex doesn’t sell. Maybe we would even begin to see a turn in the tides of media.
1. In particular, I have familiarized myself with MissRepresentation and their #notbuyingit Twitter campaign. I really appreciate that Miss Representation’s mission is to stop the misrepresentation of women in media and the #notbuyingit campaign is to convince companies to stop selling products by objectifying women, or selling sexist/objectifying materials.