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Caroline Heldman

“Sexual objectification has become much more acceptable. It has increased in every popular culture domain: film, television, video games.”


Dr. Caroline Heldman has tangled with the best talking heads that cable news has thrown at her. YouTube is filled with instances of the Occidental College professor schooling Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and others on economics, politics and sexual bias. Better yet, watch Heldman's provocative Ted Talk on sexual objectification and see why the author, political consultant and former martial arts instructor is in demand on the lecture circuit.

In advance of her participation in the Thursday, Feb. 28 conference, The State of the American Presidency on the Boise State campus--and sponsored by The Andrus Center for Public Policy--Boise Weekly talked to Heldman, co-author of 2007's Rethinking Madam President, about political bias, sexual politics and media manipulation.

What were your dreams as a young woman growing up in Washington?

I had two competing dreams: One was to race in NASCAR, the other was to run for public office.

Who were your political or NASCAR models?

There wasn't a female president I could look to while growing up but [Rep.] Jolene Unsoeld was someone I met as a teenager and I was inspired to work on her congressional campaign and eventually worked in her office. She was definitely an inspiration.

As for NASCAR, I actually worked in the pits for Pete Musser, a driver I admired a great deal.

Do you have a lead foot?

I don't. I wouldn't say I rejected NASCAR, but I'm not in the racing world because of its environmental damage. I have a classic Camaro, but I try to drive the speed limit.

How do you define sexual objectification?

It's the widespread embrace of treating another human being as a sex object solely for the benefit of others.

Some of us are old enough to remember robust dialogue in the 1960s and 1970s about sexual objectification, but is it your sense that we see less of those conversations?

All of the ills that we both theoretically and empirically identified in the '60s and '70s haven't gone away. In fact, objectification has become much more acceptable. It has increased in every popular culture domain: film, television, video games.

Why do you think it has become more widespread?

If you can convince half the population that their main value is to derive attention through a primary focus on the female body, then you can sell them a lot of products. This is precisely what has happened: Most women are very dissatisfied with their bodies. We used to see 500 images a day in the 1970s, and now we see 5,000. Marketers have to be increasingly salacious or violent in their imagery in order to cut through that clutter. Peddling dissatisfaction sells more products. It's a nasty cycle.

Can you speak to what you call "the male gaze?"

In our culture, men are seen as the great validators. The male gaze refers to that omnipresent validation. Women think they're supposed to be catering to those male eyes whether the male is present or not. Women engage in habitual body monitoring, constantly thinking about how we look in different positions. We spend about an hour a day primping for the attention we'll get in that male gaze.

What are some specific examples of what you would consider media's role in that manipulation?

Something like Entourage--like most shows on HBO that treat women like sexual props. Showtime has quite a few programs that either don't include women or treat them like props. It's all over the place now. It's in children's programming. I just saw a cartoon where a boy stopped to ogle a girl who was working out.

As for film, I honestly haven't found a movie yet where I could say, "This is wonderful." Even a movie like Brave, the Disney film with a female protagonist. That movie still had a heavy focus on the lead character's so-called "proper place." Plus, she's shown in unreasonable proportions and is rather sexualized. If you look at Disney, they're one of the largest promoters of the idea that a girl's primary focus is her body.

Let's talk about your online Ted Talk, The Sexy Lie. Your final 60 seconds of that video were rather profound.

I made a public display of removing my fake eyelashes and my makeup to illustrate the point that even someone who is giving a talk about widespread sexual objectification still has to perform under the rules of presentation. It was my way of bucking those rules.

It was rather powerful and your audience responded with cheers.

I went backstage to find a group of crying teachers. That's what I was aiming for: to create a space where young people can buck the rules.

Let's talk about the Thursday, Feb. 28 Andrus Center conference on the presidency. Where do you think our nation is in bridging the gap between the novelty of a woman president versus the reality of a woman president?

The presidency is a stubborn office for female candidates. It's telling that all of the stars aligned for Hillary Clinton in 2008. She had high name recognition; she had a war chest; she even had an air of inevitability and it still didn't happen.

In my address, I'll focus on the primary barriers that prevent most individuals from holding that office.

Doesn't that include a socio-economic barrier?

Absolutely, with a $100 million entry fee just to be a competitive candidate. That class bias has become more pronounced in recent decades. I'll also be talking about the hyper-masculinization of the office.

Isn't it fair to say that there are elements of President Barack Obama that are hyper-masculine?

Sure. President Obama's use of masculinity and race are pliable performances. The way in which he has to perform his masculinity in order not to be seen as a stereotypical scary black man is very telling about our biases.

Do you sense that our biases are as strong as they were eight or 12 years ago?

I'll be presenting evidence that it's gone up in terms of economic bias. It's equally prohibitive for masculine men. The rhetoric has become much more hyper-masculine. Meanwhile, our perceptions of female leadership have taken a backslide in the past decade, both in politics and in the corporate world.

Where do you find optimism?

Even though the barriers are more persistent, Obama's presidency is meaningful because it is inspiring more people who might think they could hold that office.