Miss Representation

It is one thing to read about sex-trafficking; it is quite another to see it up close. I have painfully vivid memories of the first time my international travels brought me face-to-face with sex-trafficking.

Witnessing scantily clad young women walking the dark streets with a steady stream of cars pulling up alongside to pick them up is worse than those recurring nightmares where something awful is happening that you can’t stop, no matter how hard you try. Only this wasn’t a nightmare from which to awake. It was and is actually happening—not just overseas, but in our own communities.

So I was feeling not a little shell-shocked when I walked into the international airport on my way home, only to see an oversized ad picturing a nude female model sprawled out—appropriate parts of her body concealed, but not enough to blunt the sexual force of the image. I had seen such images before, but now they took on a whole new meaning.

The disconnect between what I witnessed on the streets and what I was seeing in the airport was disorienting. Appalling and abusive criminal activity—human rights violations of the most degrading sort—on the one hand. On the other, socially accepted Madison Avenue marketing genius and an enviable modeling career on display that fuels the dreams and aspirations of countless young girls.

Super Bowl XLVII brought on a disturbing sense of déjà vu by juxtaposing similarly conflicting images. Tragically, Super Bowls and sex-trafficking are inextricably linked.

Research demonstrates that sex-trafficking activities surge dramatically in cities hosting major sporting events like the Super Bowl—meaning women and girls against their will are bought and sold repeatedly that night to satisfy men. So I was heartened to read how New Orleans law enforcement had mobilized to prevent these atrocities from happening in their city.

With that battle raging on the streets of New Orleans on behalf of trafficked girls, America sat back, munched on chips and dip, and watched a collection of commercials that devalued, degraded, and objectified women as sexual objects. None was more pointed than the young man exiting a one-night stand who was willing to ditch the girl, but not his favorite T–shirt.

Those commercials and Beyonce’s half-time performance left me flummoxed.

What kind of cultural and moral confusion, not to mention double standard, is behind abhorring the reduction of women and girls to their sexuality on the streets and cheering an audience-riveting performance or being indifferent to ads that sing the same basic song? According to this standard of value, even for Beyonce the clock is ticking and, unless she can pull off the kind of career-longevity that rocker Mick Jagger enjoys, she’ll soon be heading for the sidelines.

These issues took on even sharper focus for me when I recently attended a screening of Miss Representation—a powerful documentary (Oprah Winfrey Network production) that focuses on the media’s portrayal of women and the impact of that portrayal on women and girls—as well as on men and boys.

For an hour and a half, I watched how women are being systematically and relentlessly misdefined by media images that distort and diminish their value as women—not to mention as human beings—images that demand physical “perfection,” focus on sexual attractiveness, and demonize and trivialize smart successful women leaders such as Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. I was especially taken by Katie Couric’s candid comments. In a moment of reflection and self-reproach she lamented that the focus on her short hemlines and sexy legs may have influenced the increasingly provocative attire of other newswomen.

OK, so our culture sexualizes women—what’s new? Realistically, that is not going to change anytime soon. The next anchor woman will have shapely legs, and the Super Bowl commercials and half-time shows will find ever creative ways to tantalize its largely male audience. As much as I loathe these trends, I am more concerned about the church and whether we have the chutzpah to address these issues at a core level, not with criticism, but by completely undermining—pulling up by the roots—the fallen value system that sustains these destructive views of women and the degrading behavior that thrives on such thinking and replacing it with a robust life-giving vision that causes women and girls to thrive.

There are deeper questions we need to be asking.

Does the church’s message for women truly and thoroughly counteract low views of women and girls, or are we part of the problem? Is our message simply about abstinence, modesty, and submission to and dependence on men? (Try delivering that sermon to a young girl who has been freed from her traffickers!) Perhaps most importantly, do we, will we courageously engage?

Many Christian women view the church as irrelevant to their everyday lives. Scores of women have already quit listening to what the church has to say on the subjects of women and our relationships with men. What they’re hearing doesn’t comport with what they know to be true of themselves or with what the realities of life in a fallen world demand of them. All too often the contemporary church is so culture-bound that it tragically fails women (and men).

As powerful as Miss Representation is, it is not radical enough.

God has an image of women and girls too, and it looks nothing like any of the representations we see in the airport, the evening news, the Super Bowl half-time show, or even the church.

Women and girls bear God’s image and as such represent him. They are vice-regents of this planet and thus are central to God’s strategy for establishing his kingdom. God created them to be ezer-warriors in a Blessed Alliance with their brothers, fiercely defending the honor of their Creator in whose image they were created. In God’s representation of women and girls, they are to strive to be more, never less!

To read more about that vision:  Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women

If you have trouble viewing the Miss Representation trailer below, go to http://www.missrepresentation.org/

About carolyncustisjames

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4 Responses to Miss Representation

  1. Right on target Carolyn! I am so frustrated with this topic. It is killing our girls and boys and the church turns a bIind eye. Denominational leaders expressed how great Beyonce's half time show was and as I watched it all I could think of was all the women and girls who had been trafficked to service the attenders of the Superbowl. Beyonce wetted their appetites and there were victims from her gyrating half-time porn show.

    I teach seminars on body image in the media and I can't get many churches willing to let the high schoolers take the seminar because the parents think it too traumatic. But these same kids are seeing these images every day! We need to get our heads out of the sand and teach our children to be critical thinkers about the media and images they are feeding us.

    Thanks for posting this… I was thinking it, but you have a larger audience to say it to! Continue to use your influence and voice to save our girls and boys!


  2. Carolyn says:

    Thanks Dawn. Not only do we need to teach children and adults to be critical thinkers, we need to provide a better alternative—which we have!


  3. As always, Carolyn, you are on target.
    I have seen whole church programs devoted to the the “princess” theme for girls. I ask, when they're grown and unmarried and haven't wed to their “prince,” what then? Or, once wed, when they discover that you cannot be a princess and stay happily married for long, what then?
    But, apart from the pragmatics, isn't this ignoring the first and great commandment? (Which should be the churches role, in part)
    Non-laity (as most women are)have the opportunity to _choose_ personal growth in who we are to become in God's image when we find our lives in Christ.
    So while sex trafficking documentaries, enforcement and such are fine, nothing is so attractive to a confused world as an outstandingly attractive alternative to a shriveled up man-hater or a 'sex-object.' A stick and a wall are okay, but nothing is so effectual as a long-term transformation.


  4. Julie Minter says:

    Totally agree!! until we change our sons at home before they come of age and are so influenced by peers, there's no hope.

    Also, I just started reading “Samson, A Life Well Wasted” by Chip Henderson and on page 15 of his workbook, he refers to Deborah and Barak and (two People counted as one judgeship). It's the little well-placed comments placed harmlessly that chip away at our leadership. Also I read a critique from a Christian man on the web of your “Half the Church” book and it is clear he never read it. I've read it through after having devoured Ruth and others I'm of the opinion, that those who don't get it, do so because they don't want to.


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