If you’ve spent a significant amount of time on the internet, you have probably heard the term clickbait thrown around a few times. The Oxford Dictionary describes clickbait as “content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.” Many websites do this of course, because who doesn’t want to encourage visitors to view their web page? You probably even clicked on this article because the title grabbed your attention.
However, clickbait is usually a term used negatively, in most cases, to refer to headlines that purposely withhold information that should be included in the title, or ones that purposefully deceive the reader. If it sounds something along the lines of “You’ll Never Believe What Happened When We…” or “This Person did [blank]. You’ll Never Guess Why.” This is sensationalist click bait that tries to grab your attention for 15 seconds until you remember you were doing something important.
Clickbait is not a new advertising tactic that originated with the rise of the internet. You can trace sensationalist journalism all the way back to the 19th century with “yellow journalism”. This type of journalism was based on crude and exaggerated headlines to attract attention. In a similar way that websites today compete for page views, newspapers were competing for circulation numbers.
Although every now and then you find some attention-grabbing headlines that are backed up by good content. Buzzfeed and Upworthy tend to do this for articles that are positive or uplifting. There is also a lot of awful clickbait out there. One really terrible pattern I’ve noticed is the use of women’s bodies to generate clicks. Even the Huffington Post – known for it’s liberal slant — has been called out for it. It’s well known that advertisers have a history unnecessarily sexualizing the female form to draw attention to their product, and clickbait heavily abuses this trope. Some clickbait headlines don’t even necessarily sexualize women, but reflect misogyny in other ways.
The attention garnered through this type of advertising, relies on the “shocking” headline and suggestive images to get its clicks. The images and headlines will often be something about a woman’s appearance, whether negative or positive, that will cater to male clickers. These clickbait trends are not only very common, but also very sexist. They use graphics women’s bodies to either titillate men or make women feel insecure. Some even attempt to excite the schadenfreude by shaming certain bodies, so we’ll click to “see how bad they are”.
Here are some of the most common sexist clickbait trends:
The Obvious Sexualization of Women’s Bodies
The whole point of these articles, from the get-go, are about the appearance of a woman. These are usually lists that judge female bodies in some way (sexiest bodies, biggest boobs, best butts, etc.) The titles present images of either half naked women or a close-up of a specific part of a woman’s body. Women’s bodies are treated as public commodities. It’s acceptable for the internet community to scrutinize over their every feature; a consequence of the male gaze. The target audience is horny men who view these articles to take pleasure in objectifying these women.
Compared to other types of clickbait this trope is over the top and doesn’t even hide what it’s doing, which brings us to the next sexist trend:
Sexualization for No Apparent Reason
There are some clickbait articles that feature scantily-clad women in their graphics for no apparent reason, other than to get clicks. These are articles that are not, necessarily, about ranking women at all, and have little to no relevance to sex or bodies. The headline may be only slightly related to the accompanying graphic, but it’s usually pretty clear that the image was selected because it features a scantily clad woman.
These kinds of posts and the sexist lists mentioned above are usually shallow and poorly written. Their raison d’etre is simply to bring hits to a web page, and the women are tools in this process. This is a symptom of the way our society sexually objectifies women and even young girls. Sexual Objectification Theory hypothesizes that women’s body parts are often turned into objects whose main value is their use for others.
It’s why even women in politics are objectified and we have ads like these:
There is much pressure on women to maintain a youthful appearance and the cosmetic industry thrives on it. Fortunately for them, there’s plenty of clickbait that targets the internalized anxiety many women have about their aging body. These types of articles either promise us a way to prolong the inevitable (aging), or they feature a list of women who have a conventionally beautiful appearance past the age of 40. The latter is a goal most women are expected to achieve.
Some articles draw attention by promising to display pictures of celebrity women who haven’t aged well. They try to get clicks on the basis of “See, some women are even worse at measuring up to patriarchal standards of beauty than you.” Either way this kind of clickbait reinforces the ageist idea that youth equals beauty.
“Look at His Wife”
This next trend doesn’t even typically feature a woman in the image, but is still harmful. The “Look at His Wife” trope is exactly what it sounds like. It usually pictures a male celebrity with some kind of vague description about his wife, who apparently you need to see. Some of them talk about the attractiveness of the man and imply that his wife is “out of his league.” Because our society is quite hetero-centric, these articles are assumed to be aimed at women. It seems they try to get clicks out of women who have insecurities about their own looks, and desire to be with conventiontionally attractive men themselves. There are also lists of simply “hot” or “beautiful” celebrity wives. All of them still posits a woman’s value in position to a man’s and emphasize her physical appearance. The man is defined by his career or his skills, while the woman is defined by what the occupation of her husband is i.e. NFL Player’s wife, [Insert Famous Actor]’s wife.
Shaming Women For Their Bodies or Actions
This trope is arguably the most terrible because it blatantly calls for the clickers to mock the women in the pictures. Teenage girls are often faced with hate on the internet, and lists like “25 Pictures Girls Post Online That Prove they’re A Hot Mess” seems to pander to their haters. Then we have articles like “The Worst of Walmart.” The clickbait image is of women who are shopping while wearing clothes that are deemed “unflattering” or whose bodies are judged as undesirable by society’s standards. This kind of clickbait doesn’t invoke admiration like the “Sexiest Bodies” lists, but inspire hate. This is transparent misogyny. Headlines like “Hot NFL Wardrobe Malfunctions” encourage us to both mock and objectify women at the same time, making it twice as harmful. When pictures are posted to the internet they are there forever. We have to remember there are real human beings in these “hot mess” photos. These kind of article are more harassment than hilarious.
You’ll Never Believe What She Looks like Now
I saved this one for last because it’s definitely the most pervasive example:
The list goes on. Whether it’s positive or negative, this type of article collects clicks by promising a dramatic transformation of the woman in the picture. Often these are child stars who simply hit puberty, but sometimes it’s just a celeb who’s turned 42 and doesn’t and realistically cannot look like they’re in their 20’s anymore; which is supposed to shock us. The latter ties into the third trend I mentioned. It’s a Catch 22 for women and age. Women are stereotyped for aging badly yet they are expected to look youthful and smooth their whole lives! Men, who are said to “age better”, are set to a lower standard when it comes to aging. This intersection of sexism and ageism shows that most of these tropes are interconnected and they all come down to a woman’s looks.
This last trend exemplifies how obsessed our society is with women and girls appearance at any age. This obsession has been linked to harmful effects such as depression and eating disorders in women. On the internet people are bombarded with an overwhelmingly large amount of content. A lot of this content reinforces the notion that a woman’s main value comes from the way she looks. Much of the clickbait out there reduces a woman’s value to just mere hits on a webpage.
There is nothing wrong with websites wanting to get page views. Feminist websites like Fembot are maintained by getting support from visitors like you. However, there is something extremely wrong with pointless articles that rely on misogyny to get attention. If you ever feel tempted to check out that sexist clickbait link, catch up on the latest feminist news instead. Even watching a cute cat video is probably a better use of your time. One thing is for sure; these trends need to end.