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If one thing’s become crystal clear in the past few months, it’s that the media has a sexism problem. Whether it’s the movies we’re watching or the cast and crew creating them, mainstream culture seems ready to admit that certain social norms around gender need to change in order to create safe and functional work environments.
While efforts like the Time’s Up initiative are zeroing in on taking legal action against perpetrators of workplace harassment, there’s still one pretty major question at play—how does a culture become so desensitized to half the population’s experiences in the first place?
The Hollywood Headless Project, spearheaded by comedian Marcia Belsky, has at least one suggestion for your consideration: advertising.
Belsky has been highlighting sexist ads since 2016, both via her personal Twitter and a single-topic Tumblr she calls the Hollywood Headless Project. Often, Belsky points out, a whole woman doesn’t make it into an ad. She’s cropped down to a pair of boobs, or a set of legs, or—as the account’s title suggests—a headless body for viewers to project their fantasy identity onto. Movie posters are rampant with this kind of imagery, but so are car commercials, book covers, and pretty much anything else that’s been sold in America for the past 100 years. It might just make sense, Belsky suggests, that if you constantly portray women as unknowable, provocative parts, the culture might forget that the same thing can’t (and shouldn’t) be done in real life.
It might sound like abstract social justice theory when it’s written out, but it only takes seeing a couple advertisements in a row to understand Belsky’s point:
You VS the half car/ half vagina he told you not to worry about pic.twitter.com/EOtQu28V09— Marcia Belsky (@MarciaBelsky) March 12, 2018
Headless Women of Children's Cartoons 😢 pic.twitter.com/WO9eUay7xW— HeadlessWomenHlywood (@HlywoodHeadless) January 27, 2017
Hmmm I’m sure he didn’t choose this but Jason Priestley must be imprisoned pic.twitter.com/VwAMTVl5IX— Marcia Belsky (@MarciaBelsky) March 12, 2018
You get the picture.
Hollywood admittedly has a long way to go in its efforts toward gender equality, but depicting women as entire, living people could be one place to start. In Belsky’s words, “Damnit Hollywood! We want heads!”
Christine Friar is a writer and editor in New York who focuses on streaming entertainment and internet culture. Her work has appeared in the Awl, the Fader, New York Magazine, Paper Magazine, Vogue, Elle, and more.