Flipping through the channels, I encountered one of those new prime-time game shows trying to emulate the success of “Deal or No Deal” by using a dark, high-tech set, a comedian host, and regular people competing for big money.   After watching only moments of a recent Christmas-themed episode, I wondered aloud what this program was saying about women.
Why is the lead host allowed to be a very average-looking, slightly overweight male in a loose suit, while his six female “assistants” are extremely attractive, thin models in skimpy “elf” costumes with long, wavy hair and high-heeled boots?
In only 10 seconds, what messages did this program deliver about gender roles?

  • Women on television should possess above-average attractiveness.
  • Women should be young and thin.
  • Women should fit into a narrow, Western-defined image of beauty.
  • Women can be purely decorative.  They don’t need to speak or think; their physical beauty may serve as their primary function.
  • Men can succeed with humor alone.
  • Men can hold a position of power regardless of their age or physical attributes.

I promptly turned off the show.
But these images bombard us every day; on television, in film, in magazines, on YouTube, and in music videos.  They are not easily escapable.   From a young age, boys and girls see these images, and their beliefs about gender roles are unconsciously shaped.
How can we develop media literacy?
1. Question the message.   What is the role of women in this film? Why do the women models in this magazine advertisement look dead?  Would women like Rihanna and Katy Perry be as successful if they did not reveal as much skin?  Do men have to do the same?  Why is any film with females as lead characters called a “chick flick,” while a movie with leading men is palatable to all?  Why is there a reality show called Bridalplasty, promoting the idea that women need their bodies surgically fixed in order to be “the perfect bride”?
2. Ask who created the message.  Were women involved in the writing of the film?  According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in 2009 women comprised only 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.    Yet, Katherine Heigl was widely criticized when she dared to question the gender roles in Knocked Up and call the male-written film “a little bit sexist.”    Perhaps if there had been more involvement by women in the writing process, the film would include more diversity of experience in the female roles.
3. Re-write the message.  Ask how the program or ad could be different.  For a fun exercise, have a group of kids re-write a scene from a television show to integrate their unique perspective.  Notice how easy it is to incorporate different views on gender, culture, race, and sexual orientation.
4. Take action.  If you think that a fashion magazine’s advertisements focus too much on women’s sexuality, write a letter to the editor!  Boycott the magazine and tell your friends why.  Advertisers don’t want to sponsor a show that people find offensive.   As SWSG tweeted the other day, a great example of media activism is the recent boycotting of the New Yorker by a reader dismayed at the absence of women writers.    Use your voice to demand the level of female participation you want!
5. Discuss messages frequently with kids.  Encourage active participation in entertainment.   Ask them what they think of women featured in a music video.  How would they change things to create a positive representation of women?  By asking these questions aloud, kids will learn to recognize media stereotypes.
In one study, 69% of girls reported that photos in fashion magazines influenced their idea of the perfect body shape.   With the influence of media so powerful, let’s demand the type of messages we’d like to see for ourselves, and for our girls.