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The Infantilization of Women in Mainstream Media and Society

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

By: Tavisha Sood

Throughout history, women’s physical appearance has been under dispute, constantly being altered, reshaped, redesigned and rethought for the benefit of the patriarchal society and the male gaze. Over time, the slow and steady infantilization of women, in particular of their physical appearance has become not only more and more apparent but also extremely problematic. Infantilization has been used and is still being used to limit opportunities for women for it upholds the male power structures that dominate society and its working. Women’s portrayal in media and the infantilization of femininity has led to a stereotype of women being vulnerable, weak and childlike: thus, undermining them as adults and altering their position in relation to power in society.

The infantilization of women is not an ideology that is new to the 21st century. The Greek influence over Western societies to this day is very prevalent and so we look back towards the attitudes and ideals held by the Ancient Greek Societies. The Greek culture has evolved over a thousand years and still to this day pervades modern society through political systems and procedures such as democracy, art and history, architecture etc. However, another influence that has carried on throughout the years, is the underlying belief the Greek held; ‘That the core of manhood was dominance and masculinity’. The Greek’s, contrary to popular belief did not deem it culturally appropriate for two grown men to have sexual relationships. However, what they did endorse was Pederasty: sexual activity involving a man and a boy/youth. Since young boys were seen to be on the same level as grown women, emotionally, physically and mentally, the Greek society saw no wrong with the sexual relationship between a grown man (who was dominant) and his partner (a young boy or a woman) who was submissive. The comparison of women to younger boys was rooted in the belief that women were weaker and less developed. It was this demeaning view of women which has pervaded society throughout centuries and contributed towards the infantilization of women.

A women’s physique in this day and age is steeped in the infantilization of femininity, with one of the seminal examples being that of the adornment of a hairless body. The association of femininity with docility and dependence relays the infantilization of women and the hair removal plays on this conception of women as childish and/or immature. The idea of a hairless body being feminine is inherently infantilizing since it imitates the body of a pre-pubescent girl and directly ties femininity to physical appearance. Body hair is a marker that polices the very difference between a woman and a girl, much like periods would. Any woman would know the core body change we face, as we mature and hit puberty, is the growth of body hair in parts of our body where we would’ve been naked before. Whether it’s the hair growth in your underarms, your pubic area or even your face, it is one of the main body markers which highlight your transition into womanhood. Therefore, when society makes this same body marker ‘ugly’ or ‘anti feminine’ it automatically marks womanhood ‘ugly’; it rejects womanhood and embraces girlhood. It reiterates the message of how women who radiate and imitate the body of a pre-pubescent child is one that is feminine and acceptable and those that show signs of ageing are simply undesirable. Research [Susan R Seem and M. Diane Clark titled ‘Healthy women, healthy men, and healthy adults: An evaluation of Gender Role Stereotypes in the Twenty-First Century] into the views of the general population concerning what constitutes a healthy man or woman, or a healthy adult with sex unspecified has repeatedly revealed that many people do not attribute several of the traits of a healthy adult to a supposedly healthy adult woman. The hairless body connotes perfect femininity all while exacerbating the fear of adult female sexuality. Quoting Christine Hope in “Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture’ she perfectly sums up how ‘the absence of body hair is signified as feminine, and hairiness as masculine’ and how in this ‘cultural system the smooth female body doesn’t mean “womanly”, it means “Childlike”’. Even starker is the realization when you compare how society inextricably links masculinity to adulthood.

The portrayal of women in mainstream media has also exacerbated and contributed to this infantilization of women. Since the 1970’s there has been a steady increase in women and femininity being tied inextricably to fragility and infantility. In magazines, women are often depicted in poses and or clothing’s that reaffirm the stereotypic beliefs of women being vulnerable, weak and childlike. In magazines such as Vogue, women are posed in infantilizing poses such as absent gazes, head cants, knee bends and childish smiles. This goes beyond western society and pervades into Asian societies as we see Korean magazines follow the same pattern.

The infantilization of women has not been limited to just physical appearance and instead pervades how society addresses women day to day. Infantilizing language is often used against women in the professional workplace where women are called ‘Young Lady’, “Girl” or even “Missy”. The use of these childlike nicknames reinforces the internalized bias about what women are capable of – and how much they should/can be taken seriously.

The subtle hint when men ‘girlify’ women in high power situations is to put across a very simple message: that they do not belong here and nor is their power/status equal to that of their male peers. Through the use of condescending nicknames such as ‘young lady’, we see men try and imitate the power dynamic that exists between parent and a child; it places the woman under his power, flipping the dynamic to his favour. Men use the word ‘Girl’ and ‘Princess’ to paint powerful women to be ‘powerless’ and ‘childish’ and we see how this is often aimed at women who are perhaps too ‘outspoken’ or ‘ambitious’ for our society. A Prevalent example is where we saw Steve Kreig refer to his 33-year-old female political opponent as ‘a little girl who can always run home to mommy and daddy’ in a means to paint her ‘powerless’. His comment, made to subvert any claim of authority she had, also branded the congresswoman as someone who doesn’t deserve her position. Painted as a whiny child, this comment now has the domino effect of society perceiving her dominance for arrogance and her demand for accountability as a tantrum. This subtle misreading of her actions is how society starts to paint every ambitious woman as bitchy, letting women know that unless they are docile or childlike, they aren’t the ideal mould of a feminine woman. This message directly translates into how the constant infantilization of women and in particular femininity has reminded women how their worth is dictated and tied to this submissive, meek mould that is femininity. This infantilization of women is damaging since it steeps into society’s implicit biases which flow into behaviours such as men talking over or talking down to women, mansplaining, ignoring our voices or quite simply talking over women.

But it isn’t just the infantilization of womanhood that is problematic, it is also the sexualisation of girlhood that adds to the growing problem. In a fashion spread titled ‘Lolita is a Come Back Kid’ in the New York Times magazine, women were dressed up in a ‘baby-doll style’ with extremely small dresses and hair arranged in bow ties and barrettes. This sexualisation of girlhood while womanhood is simultaneously deemed undesirable shows how the societies perception of femininity and women is starting to be indissolubly linked to infantilization. Victoria Secret has been constantly criticised for blurring the line between girlhood and womanhood with their fashion shows. Their underwear shows are usually strewn with giant teddies who are accessorized with wings and glitter to portray the innocent, childlike fantasy of women being youthful and untouched. The pornographic aesthetic of Victoria Secret is an important example of how women are forced into the ideology that unless their appearance and attitude don’t match that of girlhood, their femininity is blacklisted and questioned.

So, what are the effects of this? Lazarsfeld and Merton (1984) have argued how the media can have a “narcotizing” effect on individuals who then become victims of false wants. Thinking logically, when young girls are constantly sexualised and women are infantilized, this portrayal of women will naturally create a false perception of how youth and submissiveness are traits to look for in a sex partner; it invites men to start viewing young girls to be sexually desirable and sexually available. We know this to be true due to media priming: where an individual, when exposed repeatedly to a particular idea, is conditioned to make decisions they would not have normally. In a study by Sharon Lamb titled “Sexualized innocence: effects of magazine ads portraying adult women as sexy little girls”, she argues how this constant sexualisation of girlhood consequently leads the viewers to be desensitized to the victimization of girls. Expanding on my point before about how infantilization language towards women leads to men not believing women, this has real-life dangerous repercussions for women who are victims of sexual assault who are then either not believed or victim shamed. Studies have shown how media exposure that consists of sexually objectified women lead to the participants being more accepting of rape myths, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence. While there hasn’t been research into the link of infantilizing of womanhood and its effect on the viewers, we can see a pattern forming in how twisted and bias media exposure has had very adverse effects on its viewers.

The infantilization of womanhood and femininity has been going on for years and the way media continues to portray women, it doesn’t seem like it is going to change anytime soon. The negative implications of this will only be exacerbated unless we begin to recognise these patterns and actively work to dismantle the patriarchal society which rests on the male gaze. We need to draw a distinction between womanhood and girlhood and unlike femininity to infantile ideas.

Sources for Further Reading

- The infantilization of Western culture - Simon Gottschalk.

- ‘Language as a social reality: The effects of the infantilization of women’ - Chelsea R. Huot.

- ‘Sexualized innocence: effects of magazine ads portraying adult women as sexy little girls’ – Sharon Lamb.

- the infantilization of adult professional women - Jill filipovic.

- The infantilization of women in the west - Brianna da Silva;

- ‘Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture’ - Christine Hope.

- ‘Shave your legs or lose your femininity – the choice is yours’ - Madeline Gallegos.

- ‘A close shave: The taboo on female body hair’ - Anneke Smelik.

- ‘Desensitization of infantilization.’ - Carlson, C. (2010).

- ‘The portrayal of women’s images in magazine advertisements: Goffman’s gender analysis revisited.’ - Kang, M. (1997).

- ‘Gender stereotypes depicted by western and Korean advertising models in Korean adolescent girls’ magazines.’ - Nam, K., Lee, G., & Hwang, J. (2011).


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