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Westernization: A Women’s Rights Paradox

Francesca Bessey |
July 24, 2013 | 6:36 p.m. PDT

Senior Opinion Editor

Editor's Note: "Outsider Perspective" is a series of pieces on Francesca's experiences as an intern with a conflict management organization in Bujumbura, Burundi.

Our media portrays the most sexist parts of Western culture (Francesca Bessey, Neon Tommy)
Our media portrays the most sexist parts of Western culture (Francesca Bessey, Neon Tommy)
Often, when I gripe about Western cultural imperialism, people respond with something I hold very dear:

Women’s rights.

“But you’re a feminist! Don’t you think Westernization is good for women?”

Well, yes and no.

While Western culture tends to be one of the better options for those of us women who live in the West, it has become increasingly apparent to me in my travels abroad that the spread of Western culture doesn't always work in women's favor.


Because the aspects of our culture that most readily disseminate across the globe are those represented in popular media. And in Western popular media, sexism is unfortunately alive and well.

I recently came across an article in a Burundi-based magazine titled “Infidelité masculine : quelques raisons à la baise” (“Masculine Infidelity: Some Explanations”), which was basically an unapologetic list of excuses for men to cheat on their wives and girlfriends. The number one reason? Women turn “all of their attention” to their babies after they’re born, thus “abandoning” their husbands, who then have to “search elsewhere to satisfy their needs.”

Disappointing, to say the least. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, right? In developing countries, where women are often still treated like second class citizens, articles like this are bound to crop up every once in a while.

Except the attitude behind this article isn’t confined to Burundi—or the developing world for that matter.

Just for kicks, I ran a few Google searches to see what popular Western media had to say about men who cheat on their partners.

What I found: a Cosmopolitan article that proposes regularly telling your man he’s “hot” as a magic bullet solution to maintain his interest, a Woman’s Day piece asserting that marriage is difficult for men because they’ve “’given up’ the right to have sex with anyone they like, and—my favorite—a Yahoo Voices guide to keeping a guy from cheating that includes strategies such as keeping your nails manicured, making him breakfast, “stop nagging” and being nice to his mom.

The most redeeming tract I found was on askmen.com, primarily because it was the only article that actually said that cheating was cowardly and disrespectful. It was also the only article written for male readers. Those written for women seemed to seek to establish a precedent that cheating was somehow an acceptable form of male behavior.

Unfortunately, this is just a small sampling of the unsavory content we export on a daily basis. As discussed at length in the 2011 documentary, “Miss Representation,” Western media, and American media in particular, portray women in a highly derogatory manner.

Advertising, in particular, commodifies women’s bodies as a means of selling a product, and often reinforces the very gender roles that restrict women’s access in developing countries to education and decision-making positions.

Home cleaning products, for example, continue to be marketed almost exclusively to women, even though Western society has supposedly moved beyond the idea that keeping house is exclusively a woman’s job.

And even though women have been drinking beer for as long as people have been brewing it, commercials still present it as a man’s drink, preferably consumed while ogling a woman.

Most telling of all may be the fact that, in our “advanced and egalitarian” society, women hold only three percent of clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising. Even the people making the media have to strive to find women who aren’t, in some capacity, under the authority of a man.

And while the West may boast plenty of strong, independent and esteemed ladies who are in positions of power, that’s not what the rest of the world sees. They see Western women in the roles they are typically relegated to in our movies, music and magazines: the romantic interest, sex object or victim of some misfortune in a story otherwise dominated by men.

Like this trailer, for instance. It may be funny as hell, but its creators were literally unable to diversify the female characters beyond the different adjectives in front of the word “girlfriend.”

Granted, this trailer and a handful of magazine articles do not speak for all media. There are, fortunately, plenty of realistically positive portrayals of women and femininity to be found in the West.

But not enough. Because we still live in a society that asks artists why they create “strong female characters”—as if they didn’t exist in real life. And we’re still publishing articles in supposedly women-friendly magazines that perpetuate rape culture by suggesting that there is ever a phase in a man’s life where he has “the right to have sex with anyone” he likes.

So, before we start branding ourselves as the saviors of all women everywhere, maybe we should start giving women a little more help. Maybe we should realize that people are almost always going to pay more attention to a movie star than they are to a United Nations briefing and that those of us who make media have a much bigger responsibility than we might have originally thought.

When presented with the little girl in the developing world in need of a role model, we have two options: offer her one, or give her more of the same garbage that makes millions of our own young women grow up with eating disorders or self-esteem issues.

So if you’re among those privileged enough to be faced with such a choice, consider this: a media-hungry world is watching. What would you have them see?


Reach Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; follow her here.



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