The Myth, The Men and The Media – Why We Need to Revolutionize Our Approach to Women in the Media

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Dolce & Gabbana ad

A Dolce & Gabbana advertisement picturing a woman in a subordinate position.

(WNN) Ireland, Western Europe – Like many of us, I will take the time this Summer to shed my routine and travel to distant and sun saturated cities. Fitting comfortably into the box of a young woman this means that despite my medically healthy height to weight ratio, my mind is telling me that I will not so comfortably fit into the box of “bikini ready.” I will sadly join my fellow females in the annual pilgrimage to calorie counting, crunches and carb cutting. Am I proud of any of this? Of course not. In fact, it creates such a sense of mental hypocrisy that almost, and I mean almost, combats the sense of social pressure to engage in these rituals.

However, I think it is important, if not infinitely necessary, to acknowledge that despite being a proud feminist and someone all too aware of the unrealistic body standards placed on women by the media that I am no more immune to these struggles than anyone else. Does this make me any less passionate about women’s rights or gender equality? Not at all. And this is integral for all women questioning their place in feminism to know. The devastating truth is that I, having just exited my teen years, am almost too old to shed the shackles of body expectation that have been years in the making. Then the questions arise. How have we arrived at such a limited image of female beauty? If the media is portraying female beauty in such a damaging way how else is it misrepresenting women? And what can we do to halt this wave of dangerous media stereotypes?

To answer such complex questions, we enlisted the perspectives of four experts working both within the media and in human rights.

Professor Gigi Durham teaches gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and is the author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. As a dominant force in her field, she has appeared on the BBC, “The Morning Show”, “Dr. Phil” and in the incredible documentary, “Miss Representation”. Ada Alvarez has been campaigning to raise awareness of dating violence for 14 years, which has brought her appearances on Univision, CNN en Español and Al Jazeera. Currently finishing her Ph.D., she has already completed her master’s degree in mass communications specializing in multimedia and investigative journalism. Cameron Conaway is the author of five books and his work has appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Reuters and the Harvard Business Review. In 2011 Conaway spearheaded the Social Justice section at The Good Men Project, where he would eventually serve as the executive editor. Kendl Gordy is a contributing writer on current events and cultural issues with MenCanStopRape.org.

The media’s constant and incomprehensible objectification of women has massive effects on women globally. A survey conducted by REAL magazine found that only 3 percent of U.K. women were happy with their bodies, 73 percent of women think about their size or shape every single day and 84 percent of women who were a healthy weight wished they were slimmer. The female body struggle is well documented but what about the effects that this unrealistic expectation of beauty has on men? Far more important than broadening men’s vision of female beauty-how can we combat the media’s portrayal of acceptable sexual behavior and advances? In any given week, look at the music videos for chart-topping songs and you are bound to find scenes taking place in nightclubs. You will also probably witness the male vocalist or protagonist of the video aggressively pursuing a woman. What’s worse is that the woman in the video usually greets this groping with a smile. While this example is just one from the music industry, anywhere men turn they are receiving the same message – that women actually enjoy unsolicited sexual advances. Meanwhile, women are revolting against these attitudes with the work of organizations such as Everyday Sexism. While women are proudly combating these pervasive and dangerous portrayals men, in general, view these groups as ‘women only.’ Organizations like The Good Men Project and MenCanStopRape.org are making inroads into rectifying this.

After involving men in the conversation, we next have to look at long term strategies. If I feel too old to withstand the social norms endorsed by the media then we must turn to protecting the younger generations. While media reform is the ideal, it seems unlikely when faceless conglomerates shirk liability for the effects they’re having on the world by shouting, “censorship” and “communism” any time someone asks them to be reasonably responsible with what they’re putting into the public domain. Instead, we must make it a priority to teach media literacy to young men, women and children at a time when 80 percent of U.S. ten-year-old girls say they have been on a diet. We must accept that, while in the past, we only worried about the influences of family and school on our youths, today American teenagers engage in approximately 11 hours of media consumption each day. The media is the new parent for our children – teaching them social norms and expectations. We need to be absolute and ruthless in teaching youths to see through the misrepresentations and irresponsible portrayals of women in the media.

On that note, let’s see what our four experts have to say on these issues and what they believe is the way to move forward at this troubling and crucial point in history.

Gigi Durham

What are the most harmful representations of women we see being perpetuated by the media and why should we take them seriously?

The most troubling representation in my view is the persistent linkage of violence to sex. In a recent NARS make-up ad, for example, the image of a seemingly battered woman face-down on the ground was used to sell cosmetics. It was an homage to the film “Splendor in the Grass”, but nonetheless it perpetuated the idea of violence against women as somehow sexy or glamorous. In horror films, just as women are getting undressed or in sexual situations, the killer strikes. In some video games, such as the notorious “hentai” series, points are scored for raping or beating women. Violence against women is a serious worldwide problem, and these media representations aren’t helping to combat it. Another problem I see is the sexualization of children. Increasingly, very young girls are used, especially in advertising, to project adult eroticism and sexuality. Given that one in four girls is sexually abused worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and countless numbers of girls are involved in child prostitution and pornography, it’s appalling to me that the mainstream media are casually using little girls as sex objects.

An advertisment from French Vogue of a young girl depicted in a very adult pose. This image is often used as an example of the sexualization of children in the media.

An advertisment from French Vogue of a young girl depicted in a very adult pose. This image is often used as an example of the sexualization of children in the media.

Have we, thus far, underestimated the impact of the media on young people? Do we need to include media with sources like parents and schools as having the highest influence on our kids?

There’s actually very good research to support the fact that the media are highly influential among children and youth. The media influences adults, too — there would be no advertising if that weren’t true! But adults are more capable of critiquing and distancing themselves from media effects. For example, the media has been identified as a key factor in body dissatisfaction and eating disorders (Benowitz-Fredericks, et al, 2012). Research also indicates that the media are the leading source of sex education in the United States today (Strasburger, Wilson & Jordan, 2014). A 2006 study of more than 1,000 adolescents found that exposure to sexual media resulted in earlier sexual activity. I could list more studies, but the empirical evidence is very strong that the media influence young people to a significant degree. We absolutely need to think of the media as important socializing agents, and we also need to think of how to increase media literacy among young people. I firmly believe we need to teach critical approaches to the media in schools as part of the K-12 curriculum — it’s as important as math and reading in today’s media-saturated environment!

Ada Alvarez

As a woman working in the media, do you see a lack of diversity within the industry both within fictional portrayals in film and television and behind the scenes? If so, why do you think this is?

We need to see more women behind the scenes and if they are there some people like it that way so we need to make visible the women that are already there and make more new people come. More than lack of diversity I see prejudice and stereotypes repeated frequently. We need to end this. Even though we are more fierce in putting our voice out into the world than ever we still need more women in positions of power ensuring that we define how we portray ourselves and we are not just obeying what others think we are.

Do you think that the often damaging portrayal of women in the media is a problem that the industry needs to own and rectify or do we, as a society, need to take responsibility and educate ourselves and our children in seeing beyond these misrepresentations?

Firstly, I believe we need to educate society to understand why it is a problem and make sure it doesn’t affect our values. When more people unite in the vision that when we unite as a team with common purpose we can push the media to change and they would come to understand that what they are doing doesn’t sell anymore.

Cameron Conaway

Given your extensive work for human rights, and in particular, your work with The Good Men Project, why do you think it is that men, in general, aren’t more vocal in the fight for gender equality? And why haven’t they recognized that the objectification of women in the media not only harms women but harms men’s attitudes toward women?

First, I want to say that many men are vocal and do realize. Second, there is not a single answer to such a complex issue. Below are the first thoughts that came to me based on my years of travel and research. Why aren’t they more vocal? Privilege. We all have privilege to some extent but men, particularly white men, have for so long been living at the pinnacle of privilege that many are blinded to the world around them. Patriarchal culture continues to push the bootstrapping narrative that only feeds into their blindness by providing a “tough” story to rationalize their power, a power that has been bolstered by systemic prejudice, discrimination and oppression. Why haven’t they recognized? Because the status quo has been quite good to them and when the status quo is good why think about disrupting it?

When we consider chivalry as a sign of masculinity why is it that men standing up for women’s rights is somehow considered to fall outside our vision of masculinity? How do we educate men and boys that embracing the fight for gender parity is not a sign of weakness but a civic responsibility?

Chivalry has long been and continues to be glorified as physical actions such as holding the car door or carrying a woman to safety. It’s this physicality that men have historically used (and been taught to use) to separate themselves from each other and certainly from women. While the wording is right to tap into the traditional man’s psyche—‘fighting’ for women’s rights—it’s ultimately viewed as a new abstraction that leads many men to ask how they can do that. We as a society must radically redefine what strength means and particularly stop the cultural machine that forces boys and men to believe that their value is directly related to their physical prowess and their ability to suppress emotion. This isn’t a boys and men problem; it’s a deep-rooted problem of the village. Consider that we’re still raising them to believe crying is weakness. The fight for gender parity will not be seen as a sense of civic responsibility until we dismantle the harmful gender boxes and begin to raise boys and men with an expanded sense of strength and self.

Kendl Gordy

We know that young women’s body image and self-worth can be adversely affected by the ideal of female beauty portrayed in the media but what effects do you think these representations have on young men and boys? Do you think young men are developing unrealistic expectations of women?

Not only has the media’s portrayal of women applied an immense amount of pressure on women to achieve physical goals that are often unrealistic but it has also caused young men to believe that the physique of these women is the epitome of beauty. Social media has only enhanced this viewpoint and as a result, young men have developed expectations that could also be categorized as fantasies when it comes to a woman’s image. Young men and boys often believe that there are only two true definitions of beauty: the extremely thin model and the curvy video vixen. This ideal is constantly drilled into our youth and subconsciously causes them to disregard and disrespect women who do not fit the mainstream definition of what a beautiful woman should look like.

Has the media’s objectification of women, especially in music videos and movies/TV that are targeted at young men, led them to believe that uninvited touching and sexual advances are actually welcome, or even enjoyed?

Music videos, movies and the media in general have contributed to the problem by promoting the idea that women are constantly seeking sexual advances. Women have repeatedly expressed their disgust with constantly being catcalled and harassed as they walk down the street and the media exacerbates the problem by continuously objectifying them. Music videos and movies consistently portray women as accepting of these sexual advances, which naturally causes these young men to believe that women not only tolerate these advances but look forward to them as well.

Additional Reports:

Women’s Media Center – The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2014 (pdf)

The New York Sociologist, Vol. 5, 2010 – The Objectification of Women in Mass Media: Female Self- Image in Misogynist Culture (pdf)

As a self-taught artist and writer from Waterford, Ireland WNN Social Media and Journalistic Outreach Intern Sarah Honan is dedicated to improving the lives of women throughout the globe. Her debut art exhibit, Blink. focuses on drawing attention to the growing list of American ‘Jane Does’ who have died under dubious circumstances as they became “Women with No Names.” Her work on the project attracted international attention. Over the course of a year BLINK. has now been viewed tens of thousands of times in over 125 countries. Working predominantly on issues of gender identity and the representation of women in the media Sarah combines artistic illustration with the written word to make impact. Through her work she hopes to encourage women in six different global regions to engage openly in a dialogue concerning gender inequalities in modern society.

Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began in 2005 as a solo blogger’s project. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.

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