Guest Post: Modesty or Travesty?
After my post on The Invisible Women, a reader, Rina Goloskov, sent me her master's thesis on this very topic. I asked her to summarize it for a guest post, and I present it here:
Modesty or Travesty? Understanding the Symbolic Annihilation of Women in Orthodox Jewish Media
By: Rina Goloskov
I remember learning about hilchos tznius in tenth grade back in the early ‘90s. It was presented in a very matter-of-fact manner – cover this, don’t behave like that. Kol kevudah bas Melech pnimah. But over the past two decades, tznius has evolved beyond dress and behavioral guidelines; it has transformed into an ultra-Orthodox ideology.
This metamorphosis was catalyzed by 1998 publication of Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk’s book, Oz veHadar Levusha/ Modesty: An Adornment for Life. In his introduction, Rabbi Falk explains that the book was a response to the “moral decay” of the outside world and its “relentless assault of the media on human decency and morality” that was permeating the Jewish community, diminishing Jewish women and girls’ instinctive knowledge of how to dress and behave modestly.
As Emmanuel Bloch observed in his 2018 paper, Immodest Modesty: The Emergence of Halakhic Dress Codes, Rabbi Falk’s book is the first attempt to codify the laws of tznius to such a minute degree – dictating the fabrics, colors, necklines and hemlines that are acceptable for a frum woman’s wardrobe. The book presents the laws of tznius “as the quintessential commandment incumbent upon women” – the female equivalent of the study of Torah for men.
Within a decade of its publication, the dominance of the tznius ideology became most apparent where it was completely invisible: ultra-Orthodox Jewish media. Several Charedi publications in Israel, including Hamodia, Mishpacha, and Yated Ne’eman, either blurred women’s photos or stopped printing their images on their pages altogether. As this practice became commonplace in Israel, American ultra-Orthodox publications followed suit.
When Charedi publishers are asked to explain this practice, they cite a sensitivity to the laws of tznius, as directed by both their rabbinic oversight panels and their readership. According to these publishers and editors, many of their readers would cancel their subscriptions should they publish photos of women. This second rationale – eliminating visual representations of women in Charedi magazines to ensure alignment with the supposed communal modesty ideals and, therefore, maximize the publications’ profits – exemplifies the theory of the symbolic annihilation of women, put forth by Brandeis University sociology professor and author Gaye Tuchman in 1978.
The theory goes like this: media executives aim to develop programming that appeals to the broadest possible audience to maximize profits. To do so, the programming must reflect dominant social values and ideals. The programming they produce contains symbolic representations of American society, not literal portrayals. This representation in the fictional TV world symbolizes the depicted group’s social existence, conveying to the audience that they are “valued and approved.”
So, if being depicted on television means you are valued and approved by your society, then being misrepresented on television – or not represented at all – makes you invisible in your society. Tuchman also explained that mass media not only reflect dominant societal values and attitudes, but they also act as agents of socialization, teaching young children how to behave. The symbolic annihilation of women in the media creates an absence of positive female role models in professional settings, or only depicts women as victims or consumers. This discourages girls from entering the workforce when they reach adulthood, or from reaching their full potential in the workforce, diminishing both their earning capacity and the national economy.
Symbolic Annihilation of Women in Frum Media
How do frum women perceive the impact of their symbolic annihilation in their community’s media outlets on themselves and their children? Do they believe that their erasure from frum media is consistent with the halachos of tznius? I conducted a textual analysis of several threads in frum Facebook groups and discussion boards with hundreds of comments on each thread to find answers to these questions. The core themes that emerged were:
1. Erasing women is a distortion of the laws of tznius
Those who oppose erasing women in often describe it as a distortion of Judaism, of halacha, and of tznius. They believe it is unrelated to Judaism and is veering into religious extremist territory. Many express that they do not believe there is any rabbinic involvement in creating or enforcing this policy. Some of the women expressed more neutral attitudes – they either do not think it is a big deal, or they do not care enough about it to take any action in response. Those who expressed support for erasing women either appear to truly believe that it is consistent with tznius, or they believe that it is simpler for the editors to have a blanket policy against publishing women’s photos than to have to decide which photos are sufficiently modest to publish on a case-by-case basis.
2. Tznius has transformed from modest dress guidelines to a distinct religious ideology
Discussions about tznius depict it as an ideology that has tremendous influence over how community members conduct their daily lives. The word “tznius” itself takes on an ideographic quality, invoked to justify symbolically annihilating women. Citing tznius also evokes a conditioned response from Orthodox women and girls that their observance of tznius is a requirement for communal inclusion, and failure to comply has both social and financial penalties for them and their families.
3. Frum media publishers are symbolically annihilating women to maximize profits
Regardless of whether they support or oppose erasing women, most commenters acknowledged that the policy is a marketing decision designed to make Charedi publications acceptable to the largest swathe or Orthodox community members as possible. By accommodating even the strictest interpretations of tznius laws – not printing women’s photos or blurring out women’s faces – publishers believe that all Orthodox Jews will be comfortable reading their publications, thereby increasing their profits. This meets Tuchman’s definition of symbolic annihilation: the elimination or misrepresentation of a population in the media for the purpose of appealing to the broadest audience in order to maximize profits. Those who support the practice express that since these are private businesses, it is their prerogative to decide who their target market is and how to appeal to them.
4. Erasing women has dangerous physical and emotional ramifications
Many women believe that erasing women has the opposite effect of its purported intent. They claim that it is disrespectful to women and objectifies women, rather than preserving their modesty and honor, as those who support the practice believe it does. In addition to the extreme measures of gender segregation in the Charedi community, the absence of modest women’s photos in frum publications hypersexualizes women in the eyes of frum men, making the women nothing but creatures available for their sexual satisfaction. Others observe that the practice also dehumanizes men, treating them as lustful animals with no control over their own sexual urges.
Another stated consequence is that frum women and girls are deprived of healthy, modest frum role models. If they do not see women like themselves in frum media, their only role models will be those they see in secular media, which is typically not modest. Those who support erasing women do not consider this an issue, as they maintain that they have many modest role models in real life. Erasing women also impacts female entrepreneurs negatively. Not allowing women to include their photos in display advertising is a form of economic discrimination which gives their male counterparts a competitive advantage
5. There is a need for more vocal responses
Many of the women who object to the practice of erasing women are aware of existing grassroots efforts to combat this practice: Chochmat Nashim and FrumWomenHaveFaces.com. Additionally, many of the women have cancelled their subscriptions to these publications and voiced their objections directly to the publishers. Possible additional methods include coordinating a community-wide female “strike” against publishers who erase women – a month where women do not write articles, buy advertisements, or buy copies of these publications. Another option is to pursue litigation against these publishers, either in a Beit Din (rabbinic court) or a civil court.
Fortunately, the movement against erasing women in frum media and in support of more authentic, less extremist definitions of tznius continues to grow. When the Orthodox Union, the flagship organization of centrist Orthodox Judaism, recently ran a print ad with only men’s names and photos for an event that had both male and female speakers, discussions in numerous online groups prompted swift responses. But greater awareness of this practice and its consequences is needed, as it continues to evolve from exclusion in frum publications to other areas of frum life, attempting to make Orthodox women entirely invisible.
And sometimes, they literally take their lives. In response to literature from an Israeli women’s health clinics refusing to use terms like “breast cancer,” Chochmat Nashim founder Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll recently wrote, “Why then, do we recently – and increasingly – find euphemisms in place body parts when discussing women’s health? Why are health clinics, using vague phrases such as ‘women’s cancer’ or ‘the cancer found among women’?” (Jaskoll, 2019). She recounts a story told to her by a doctor who found evidence of cancer in a patient seeking antibiotics for mastitis, despite her being “far beyond her breastfeeding years” (Jaskoll, 2019). Both the patient and the doctor she had previously seen were Orthodox – never did the doctor offer to conduct a breast exam, and the patient never knew to ask. These things just were not talked about.
It is imperative that Orthodox community members advocate for women’s visibility. To do so, they must counter the narratives claiming that erasing women is consistent with tznius. They must push back against this dangerous extremist ideology, before their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters disappear altogether.
Additional comments by Natan Slifkin:
I want to add that aside from the problems mentioned in this study, another damaging aspect of the new trend of refusing to print pictures of women (which I have heard from several people) is that it makes them feel that their very existence is fundamentally devalued.
In a future post, I plan to discuss why this phenomenon exists, and the justifications that are offered for it (which are stronger than some opponents to this practice believe). You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.