Compulsory Heterosexuality

Paper People is a short Australian documentary film by young aspiring film maker Francis Haddid. It centres on teenager Jessica Barlow’s advocacy to change the way magazines portray women. Barlow started The Brainwash Project to provide alternative stories about girlhood that aren’t reflected by mainstream commercial media. Barlow was inspired by American Julia Bluhm, who petitioned Seventeen Magazine to stop photoshopping pictures of women. Consequently, Barlow led a campaign to get Cleo Magazine to stop using digitally altered images of young women. She met with the editor Gemma Crisp in Sydney, showing her the 20,000 signatures she’d collected. Barlow reports that the meeting was strange and she wasn’t sure that Crisp was listening to everything Barlow had to say.

Yesterday Barlow reported that Cleo has responded to her campaign by taking the following action, in Barlow’s words:

    • They’ll publish their photoshopping policy within the front pages of every issue.
    • This month’s edition includes a six-page spread on the issues of digitally altering images, magazines and body image – including an article from me about the petition.
    • Cleo have confirmed that their policy is to never slim down or alter girls’ physical appearance in the photos they personally shoot for the mag.
    • They’re considering a disclaimer on externally sourced altered cover images, and are asking readers to email if you wish to see them do it.
  • The outcome of Barlow’s campaign is positive, but the results are mixed. Cleo will still use digitally altered images and they are not committing to portraying a diverse range of femininities in their magazine. As Barlow says in the documentary, a better outcome would include magazines publishing images of women of all body shapes and sizes, from different skin colours as well as women who aren’t able-bodied. (As a sociologist, I would also add the inclusion of women who act out gender in different and non-conformist ways, as well as other non-cis-women, including transsexual and intersex women.)

Bluhm’s campaign had a similar outcome to Barlow’s. Magazine editors want to be seen to be doing something about photoshopping when they are faced with public campaigns, but they refuse to commit to making radical changes. This is because in the current market, they presume advertisers don’t want to portray women outside of the ideal they’ve created (white, thin, able-bodied). The presumption is that readers want whatever images advertising sells them.

Barlow notes that these magazines continue to force particular views of heterosexuality on women that affect their self-esteem as well as their relationship with men. In the documentary, she pulls out some excellent examples of the typical sex and relationship articles and advice columns, which are focused on making men out to be wildly different creatures to women. Magazines are invested in constructing men’s desire and emotional lives as mysteries for women to decipher and tend to. Women are meant to accommodate their bodies, emotions and sexuality to suit this hegemonic ideal of masculinity. Barlow argues this is detrimental to both men and women.

In sociology, we can see Barlow’s argument through a prism of compulsory heterosexuality – the idea that women are routinely conditioned to direct their desire towards heterosexual men in very specific ways. We can also understand Barlow’s point through the concept of heteronormativity – this concept describes the ways in which society presumes that heterosexuality is “natural” and “normal.”

Sociology takes a critical look at all the ways in which we are continually educated about how to enact “proper” heterosexuality since the day we are born. Sociology shows that there is a tremendous amount of work, social sanctions and informal policing that social institutions put into shaping how people achieve heterosexuality. This includes the institution of family, education, religion and the media. Magazines are a good example of this: the amount of money, words and images invested in teaching women and men how to read, consume and act out heterosexuality illuminates the heavy social conditioning that underpins heterosexuality. This is not to say that heterosexuality is any more or less a social construction than any other form of sexuality. What it means is that as a dominant expression of sexual desire, heterosexuality is manufactured to appear as if it is effortless and innate, even though all signs point otherwise.

A fundamental element of this dominant heterosexuality is heavily entwined with commercial advertising. Dominant representations of heterosexuality in the media are focused on making women feel undesirable to men without the help of external agents: beauty products, “expert” advice about “good” sex, dieting, body modification, and so on.

Barlow argues that men as well as women need to be invested in seeking change in commercial magazines. While she is not a sociologist, and her campaign does not go as far as she or anyone else might want, Barlow’s aims, as discussed in the documentary are an excellent example of grassroots feminism.

Read more about Jessica’s Brainwash Blog.