Since moving to Chicago and becoming politically active, I realize some of my readers may have grown to see me as “Pastor Stephen’s daughter-gone-rogue”—the tattooed city girl with multiple facial piercings who sure seems like a liberal and might even be a feminist.
Well, I’ll let you know up front. That’s all true.
In the words of Rebecca West, an author from the early 1900s, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
It may seem I’ve changed dramatically since living in Hillsboro, and I suppose that may be the case. For what it’s worth, though, I still see myself as the opinionated and impassioned Abi Humber you may have known, only now I have found appropriate outlets for that all that fire and energy.
More and more, one of the things I’ve found infuriating is the western myth that a woman’s value rests solely in her beauty and youth. This belief is most largely communicated through the media—movies, TV shows, radio programs, music, music videos, newspapers, magazines, etc.— that we are exposed to on a nearly constant basis.
My interest in this topic was initially piqued more than two years ago in my Intro to Media Studies class, where I first learned about female misrepresentation in the media. We dug deeper into similar issues last year in my Gender and Justice class, and in this semester’s Contemporary Feminism and Rhetorical Theory classes, it seems my knowledge is beginning to come full circle and make a significant impact on my life.
My inspiration for this particular column has come from the 2012 documentary “Miss Representation.” For any fact-checking purposes or your continued reflection on this column, I would highly recommend renting the video and considering your own opinion on the topic.
The film essentially outlines the ways in which our mainstream media disadvantage American women, whether by under-representing them or misrepresenting them. This creates expectations that are impossible for women to meet and, ultimately, discourages women from feeling empowered and obtaining roles as influential leaders.
Starting in early childhood, girls begin to receive the message that what really matters about them is how they look; that the basic measure of their value lies in their physical appearances.
From these same messages, boys also learn that beauty is what is most important about girls. Compared to the emphasis put on our bodies, the media puts little to no emphasis on our brains.
Even greatly influential female intellectuals find themselves as the recipients of criticism regarding their looks alone.
“Gosh, Hilary Clinton is looking really old.”
“Katie Couric’s legs are incredible!” “
“Did Nancy Pelosi get a face lift? If not, she really should….”
And what do these statements reveal? That no matter what a woman has to say, what she has done, or the plans she has for her community, what matters most is what she looks like and whether we find it acceptable.
What does this teach our young girls about striving for intellectual success? If the media is derogatory toward and limiting to some of the most powerful women in the country, how can we expect any woman in America to be taken seriously? How can girls feel empowered to pursue positions of authority within our society when they see such discouraging portrayals of what it’s like to be a powerful female?
This intense gender bias extends far from politics into Hollywood, where things are just as bad. It is here that the hyper-sexualization of women is most prevalent. Female movie and television characters are nearly always sexually appealing, serving mainly as body props in movies that are centered around men’s lives and what men do. This is especially true for summer blockbuster films, rap music videos and reality television shows.
Hyper-sexualization is nothing but toxic. When our media sends the message that women exist to be objectified, we must realize young women are likely to embrace that “truth” as their path to power.
“If Kim Kardashian became successful because she made a sex tape, why can’t I?”
Reality television, in particular, is a prominent perpetrator of this view. According to Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, “Reality television is the contemporary cultural backlash against women’s rights.”
Within this realm and in shows like “Real Housewives,” women exist to be decorative, catty and in constant opposition to each other. While these women vie for ultimate power over each other, they simultaneously exist within a paradox.
Other reality shows like “The Bachelor” pit women in competition with each other, but then leave it up to the man to arbitrate whether a woman’s body is attractive and desirable enough to merit his affections, which puts the woman in an incredibly disempowered position,
“Please, pick me! Pick me! Pick me! Can’t you see how pretty I am?”
Is this the true scope of the female existence? To exist as eye candy but ultimately face rejection for failing to live up to physical expectations? Or, to dare to venture into the world of politics, only to be dolled up like cocktail waitresses and criticized for the number of wrinkles on their faces rather than the quality of their policies?
Surely this isn’t the case in every situation, because many of us are personally acquainted with women who have achieved great success. The truth is, women can become empowered in a score of ways that don’t center around their sexuality, but that’s not what’s being portrayed in the media.
When the media choose to focus on the way women look rather than what they have done or have to say, the entire female experience is trivialized, making them seem less powerful and capable.
I’d rather not end a column without first relaying concrete ways in which we, as individuals, can combat this societal sickness, but I’m still in the throes of figuring it all out. I’ve got a few things in mind, but I’m saving them for a future follow-up column, so keep an eye out.
It is impossible for me to fully express the nuances of my opinions in this space, so please, if you’d like to discuss this further, I invite you to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.