Hello, readers! We’re back for part two of our discussion on Miss Representation. Today, we’re sharing the conversation we had about how media representations of women have affected us personally, or how we see it affecting the girls and teens we know.
To read part one, click right here. Part three, where we discuss how we can do better as media for women as an online magazine, will run next Thursday.
Selena: How have the representations of women in the modern media affected your life personally?
If you’re a parent or an-adult-in-the-life of a young girl, how do you think her idea of womanhood and girlhood is influenced by the media she consumes?
Brenay: I am married to a good old boy, so I see a lot of it coming from him, albeit unintentionally. I also see her fighting me in clothing because she wants to wear dresses to look pretty, which comes from the princess culture.
Btw, she’s six.
Hillary: My daughter was a doctor for Halloween when she was 2 and everyone thought she was a boy. When she took her stethoscope to her checkup this year, they asked her if she was a nurse.
April: Some of it is natural, some comes from influence from people around them (parents, siblings, family), and some comes from the media. She watches some of the Disney shows and they’re just awful. I tried to limit it (we don’t even have cable!) but she would watch them at her dad’s house (which is where she was first exposed to Twilight too) and she bought it. She fell for the “girls are clumsy and not smart and all they care about is boys and shopping” line.
There’s a show that just got added to Netflix called Lab Rats. Hal Sparks plays some sort of tech billionaire who built these lifelike “people,” human lab rats, that have special powers. There are two boys and one girl. These “lab rats” are now teens, Hal Sparks gets married (interracial couple, btw), and now has a teenage stepson who discovers the “lab rats” and befriends them. So Hal lets them go to school and live like normal teens. The boys want to experience all sorts of cool things and they’re just amazed out this new world they’re in, outside of the lab. But guess what the girl “lab rat” cares about. All she talks about is getting some boy to ask her to a party. She has super-powers and all she wants to do is find a boyfriend! Ugh.
Anyway, my daughter is 10 and she’s into Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, etc. I make an effort to make sure that she is admiring these people for the work that they produce, not for who they are, because these are not “role models.” Nothing against these kids and young adults but I don’t want her looking up to them and trying to emulate them. But it’s not easy to expose them to more appropriate role models when we’re constantly bombarded with their presence by the media. She likes magazines but it’s hard to find a magazine for young girls that isn’t Tiger Beat, Bop, J-14, and other gossip rags for kids that are covered with headlines like “What does Harry Styles look for in a girl?” and “Which One Directioner is the best kisser?”
So, yeah, girls are surrounded by these messages telling them that their priorities should be their appearance (clothes, makeup), boys, and activities like parties and shopping and texting. As a parent, how do we fight that?
Hillary: My daughter is 4 and loves to pretend to be “a knight in shining armor!” but she’ll ask me to be the princess who needs rescuing because that tends to be the way her stories go. I’ve told her the princess can rescue the knight too, and some days she thinks that’s awesome and on others she looks at me like my head is on backwards. I love that she thinks she can play the hero, but I wish she didn’t think that meant playing the boy’s role. If she wants to play pirates, she’s Jake and I’m Izzy.
The male/female ratio on cartoons bugs the crap out of me, too. Jake’s crew is two boys (and a male parrot) and one girl; Hook’s crew is all men. Sure, the mermaids and a couple female guest villains pop up occasionally, but mostly Izzy’s on her own. Their special abilities are BS too — Jake has a sword; Cubby reads and makes maps; Izzy has a bag of pixie dust that the fairies gave her. She does tend to be the smartest of the bunch, but her role on the crew is to carry around something that was given to her, not to do something herself.
And it get’s even more annoying when she wants to buy branded merch for the kid’s shows. I got her a Yo Gabba Gabba T-shirt at Target ages ago and it wasn’t until she wore it a couple times that I realized that since it was from the boy’s section, they’d left off the female Gabbas. Her Jake lunchbox leaves off Izzy. Media and marketing is combining to say, “We’ll have one or two girls around so that people don’t bitch about us being sexist, but we’ll tell boys that those characters are disposable and not *really* an integral part of the show.”
Stephens: I do not have children, but many of my friends are becoming parents and most of them have at least one girl. These are my friends I knew from back in my churchgoing days and it’s interesting to see the way the girls (and boys) are being raised as far as gender roles. The evangelical media and subculture tends to impose even stricter gender roles and ideals than the larger culture in my opinion. Some friends threw a birthday party for their 2-year-old girl and it was totally princess themed. All the girls dressed up as princesses and they hired an actress as a princess to read a story. Now, I admit part of me found it really adorable, but the message was so much, “If you’re a little girl, you like ‘girly’ things.” This is a really dominant message in a very large swath of evangelical Christian media. I remember the dissonance I felt growing up between hearing messages from the church and the larger culture and this was pre-Internet, Facebook etc. I can’t imagine how girls growing up in the Christian church feel today. On the other hand, there’s been a great deal of talk in the liberal side of the Christian blogosphere about strict gender roles and media both religious and not, so things are changing, albeit very slowly.
April: WONDER WOMAN IS A PRINCESS! (Sorry, I’m not yelling, I just get really excited when I get the chance to remind people that she is a princess!)
Stephens: You bring up a very valid point.
Linotte: I really can’t say since my niece is only a year old and my other sisters and I are very conscious about how gendering affects how boys and girls see the world. When I give gifts and the like, I try not to gender toys too much, but I’ve noticed that other people do, particularly with my niece and her brother who are twins, and it is one thing I am very conscious of.
Also, the princess/girl pirate/boy thing that Disney is really perpetuating is very problematic.
April: Ooh that reminds me of something else. Last year, when The Avengers was all over the place, my 4-year-old granddaughter decided she wanted to be Hulk for Halloween then changed her mind and said she wanted to be Captain America. Well the Captain America costume came with a mask (obviously) which meant that her face and hair would be covered. Knowing that my grandbaby was going to be mistaken for a boy the entire time, my daughter threw a white tutu on top of the costume. It wasn’t so much an act of conformity to gender norms but sort of a middle finger to everyone who just couldn’t deal with a little girl being Captain America. As in, “Fine, NOW it’s a girl’s costume. Happy? Now step aside, we have some candy to collect.”
April: Also, I’m going to be really honest and admit that it’s been a struggle to accept the fact that my youngest daughter is what people would consider a “girly girl.” She likes the color pink, she likes dressing up, she likes makeup and jewelry and kittens and horses. I, on the other hand, have always been what people would consider a “tomboy.” (Labels should be another topic. I hate them but they’re convenient.) I’ve been a boxer and a roller girl and Wonder Woman is my hero. So I don’t know how much of it comes from her natural personality and how much of it comes from media and societal gender norms. But sometimes it is hard to let go of how I imagined she would be (a mini-me) and who she is and not only allowing her to be herself but nurturing and encouraging those choices as well.
Linotte, that’s one of the reasons I hate buying birthday gifts for other kids! I always have to call the parents and ask. Ooh, “pinkifying” toys is another issue. Like why does there have to be a special Nerf gun or bow & arrow set for girls that comes in pink? I need to find that graphic that went semi-viral recently that was a photo of a toy catalog from like 1978 that was so gender neutral compared to a recent catalog where everything was all pink for girls and blue for boys.
Hillary: My daughter was a doctor for Halloween when she was 2 and everyone thought she was a boy. When she took her stethoscope to her checkup this year, they asked her if she was a nurse.
Moretta: My daughter came from Ethiopia when she was four, having no exposure to anything. When she got to the U.S., she literally wore ONLY pink for a year and loved all things girly. What I found was that she had the princess gene already, but what troubles me is that there is a whole industry that knows exactly how to target the princess market, and the people behind it are soulless monsters. Everything is pink, sparkles and is cuddly, but it’s the worst kind of pandering. I remember one time letting her rent a Barbie video and it was about Barbie and friends going to Paris, which was pink, becoming a junior fashion designer, and working with fashion fairies called “flairies.” One of the highlights of the film for my daughter was the marriage of a pink poodle to a white cocker spaniel. The pink poodle wore a tutu and a pink tiara. At that point, I realized these people were diabolical pushers of girly mediocrity. It’s fine for my daughter to like girly stuff, but it’s not fine for her to be pandered to, if that makes any sense.
April: It makes perfect sense. If that’s what they like, that’s fine. But don’t push it on them and tell them, “You are a girl and this is what you’re supposed to like.”
Selena: I think I want to be Captain Tutu America this year for Halloween.
April: I’ve got pictures somewhere on Facebook. She was Princess Captain America (because, you know, royalty can also be in the military) and my daughter was Draculaura from Monster High.
Moretta: I LOVE Monster High, actually. I feel like it is such a step forward from Barbie, and I don’t know why.
April: That’s another example. I prefer MH over Barbie and Bratz but I still feel like we can do better than skinny long-legged dolls who are into boys and shopping. But they are pretty cool and I like the characters.
Zahra: I noticed that little girls are being targeted more and more with Disney Princess merchandise. I do buy my nieces “girly” things that they love but I try to steer them away from the princess idea when I can. I don’t care what colors they like but I don’t like how the idea of being a princess is the Best Thing Ever because princesses by definition don’t actually do anything.
Hannah: Growing up I really loved Missy Elliott. She dressed and sang about what she wanted, she wasn’t the common representation of the female body (thin, half naked, simpering, etc) she was powerful and funny and gave zero fucks. I think she was kind of the first person I saw and realized how women are normally portrayed in media.
Selena: Do they still make specialty Barbies with cool careers?
Selena: That’s one thing I think Barbie always got right. She may be terrible for body image, but at least she got to be an astronaut. I was afraid after “math is hard!’ Barbie, she’d been relegated to the pink’d career paths.
Moretta: Zahra:, have you seen the Sesame Street segment where Sonya Sotomayor advises one of the Muppets that princess isn’t a career choice?
Hannah: My heart exploded into glitter when I saw this.
Hannah: MY EYES ARE CRYING RAINBOWS.
April: And Missy Elliott (along with several others) came along at a time when most Black women were reduced to just being scantily clad dancers and body parts used for decoration in videos by male rappers.
Hannah: She was rocking the track suits and just like, so confident and fierce. I had very little exposure to hip hop, R&B or any music beyond top 40 charts so seeing her was like…whoa.
Opifex: Coming back to Hiliary’s point about the one or two female characters, I was at an animation film festival a few years back and there was a panel about children’s media and the panelists got into talking about ideas that child test audiences had rejected out of hand. Most of it was funny, like the kids who couldn’t figure out why a character called Plastic Man could change his shape at will, or telling a character designer that real superheroes did not have to tie their capes around their necks. But then they got to the fact that a female character had been switched from being a male protaganist’s friend to a cousin, because the kids didn’t believe that a boy would have girl friends and I died a little.
Sara H.: My daughter is 9 and my son will be 6 in a week, and I’ve made a concerted effort towards getting them to examine gendered topics.
The main thing, is that I’ve always told them that there are no “boy things” and “girl things,” just things (like toys, topics of interest, etc.) that maybe one gender more commonly likes, but that doesn’t mean you HAVE to like a certain thing just because you’re a certain gender.
My daughter gets some pushback at school because she’s really into Pokemon and Minecraft, and while most of the boys think that’s awesome and are happy to talk to her about it, a lot of the girls (from what she’s told me) get a bit confused because they’re into more “girly” things.
I’ve told her that there’s nothing wrong with liking what she likes, just as there’s nothing wrong with liking princesses and Justin Bieber.
My son, meanwhile, has worn nail polish to school because his sister was painting her nails and he wanted in on the action. He told me that “everyone” asked him about it, especially the girls, and he said that kids asked, “And your mom LET you?” He said, “My mom is the one who painted them.” They asked him why, and he answered, “Because I asked her to.”
I asked him if it bothered him, getting so many questions about it, and he said no, not really, but I could tell that he was confused about why anyone would care so much. He’s also asked me if “when I’m a grown-up, can I wear make-up?” and I said, “When you’re a grown-up, I’m not making the rules for you anymore, so you can do what you want, but it’s fine with me if you want to wear make-up. Some boys wear make-up.”
And it’s not that it’s been a serious interest — he was just wondering if it was an option because he’s one of those kids that likes to suck up as much information about the world as possible.
So I find that my kids are really open to discussing these things, but the trouble comes when they are at school and equipping them with the social tools to respond to the kids who AREN’T having these discussions at home.
Savannah: I keep looking for things for my niece to watch that have positive lady characters who are visibly disabled or are mentioned as disabled. (And gender non-conforming and racially and ethnically diverse and so on). But it’s been difficult. But I do have a little story?
When she was two, my niece “cripped” the little mermaid. instead of going after some prince, she had Ariel lose her tail in a shark attack, and she got a prosthetic tail and became the fastest, most kick ass mermaid ever. (It’s like she made Ariel a disabled rainbow dash if you listened to Ariel’s post prosthetic behavior.) It was super adorable to hear her tell me this story— she took a story that was about giving things up for a man, and made it about being a bad-ass with disabilities.
And another niece story: My niece loves Star Wars. When she goes to the playground, she plays Princess Leia, and she makes her mom play Luke Skywalker. But instead of Luke being the hero, Princess Leia is — she fights bad guys and protects Luke from getting killed or losing his other hand. It’s super adorable and kind of awesome how she flipped that around. She took something that gets overlooked in favor the the slave bikini crap — that Princess Leia is a bad-ass. She doesn’t need men, though she might want them around. And she’s way more hard core than her brother. She made a princess Leia that saves other people — and only needs saved as much as any other character in her narrative world, maybe a little less.
So I think we are doing *something* right, even in the face of her not having the best role models out there.
April: 25 Movies by Female Directors Every Aspiring Filmmaker Should See
Hannah: I will always love her.
Linotte: There’s a lot less girl empowerment now than when I or my cousins were growing up, it seems. A lot of it lasted until the early 2000s with Sailor Moon and Cardcaptors and then came the Disney princesses.
IDK — the whole princess vs pirate thing is very problematic to me because pirates do things, including pillaging, and princesses are portrayed as being defenseless and waiting for the knight or prince to come to their rescue, without whom they are screwed if a villain gets to them. Zeta Tau Alpha’s magazine Themis mentioned the hero/princess dichotomy as being a component of domestic violence and rape culture, and it’s scary to see this portrayed in mainstream media.
Hannah: Linotte, I almost feel like Twilight is a continuation of it. We’re too old to be princesses now so we lust after vampires.
Hannah: I read Twilight in high school, magically now that I’m a few years older 50 Shades comes out. they’re timing this shit for my generation.
Linotte: I never lusted after vampires. I always lusted after Sir Percy Blakeney. SO.
Hannah: YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN
It’s just a substitution. Prince Charming too boring? We’ll make him dangerous and sparkly and sensitive.
April: I bought Twilight for my oldest when it first came out. At the same time, I also bought her Speak. (Coincidentally, Kristen Stewart was in the movie version of both books.) Speak is clearly the better of the two.
Hannah: When I read Speak I had no idea what it was about until the Oprah episode part. I was like…ooohh…fuck.
April: “We’ll make him dangerous and sparkly and sensitive.” And he’ll be so obsessed with the thought of draining your blood until you’re dead that he will skip class just to stay away from you so he won’t, you know, kill you. But it’s totally cool if he skips class anyway because it’s like his 97th time as a senior. Yeah, you’re 16 and the dude is like 108 but whatevs. That’s not creepy either.
Hannah: DON’T MIND THAT HE WATCHES YOU SLEEP. IT’S ROMANTIC.
April: IT’S TOTALLY NORMAL. IT JUST MEANS THAT HE LOVES YOU.
No wonder so many women fell for that 50 Shades bullshit. Twilight totally groomed them.
Hannah: That book needs to die in a fire. Such a shitty terrible representation of BSDM culture it’s fucking insulting.
Linotte: I do think, though, that a lot of writers and show runners on TV are seeing these concerns brought up in social media and are working, in their way, to address these concerns. Look at Elementary and Nikita, for example, and even Hannibal.
And also, a lot of foreign TV, like British TV, for example, is more open to showing more complex characters and as a result, more complex women and all kinds of women. With Netflix and Amazon Instant, a lot of this has become accessible to more American audiences. There are American audiences who want smarter TV, and savvier writers, producers, showrunners, and actors know this. I think we are starting to see a backlash against the hyper-sexualized women portrayed on TV because there have been so many changes made in how TV is viewed in the last year or so and the networks are FINALLY starting to catch on.
Hannah: …I’m saving up for a Ravenstag tattoo.
I have never seen such smart, beautifully done TV in my life. I have never had such conflicting feelings about wanting to dry hump a man fully dressed in a 3-piece suit.
Linotte: And I’m not saying that British and French TV shows don’t have their problems, because they do (AHEM, MOFFAT, AHEM!). But I think that the fact that they aren’t so reliant on advertisers and aren’t so obsessed with the almighty dollar gives people a lot more creative freedom, and this freedom allows for writers not to be stuck using the same old tropes now and again.
Hannah: Bryan Fuller talks about how they had to basically wait until the financial talks were over to sneak the second season [of Hannibal] in at NBC.
Linotte: And there were cable channels like FX who basically made it clear that they were itching to pick it up if NBC didn’t renew it. A lot of the TV blogs said NBC not renewing it would be the stupidest move ever on their part.
And there’s also something to be said that Gillian Anderson, who has found a more fulfilling acting career in Britain, was willing to make a return to American TV for that show.
Hannah: Gillian Anderson is flawless in that show.
Stephens: I can’t watch that show for a number of reasons but I love looking at screencaps of her because she is so amazing.
Sara H.: Gillian Anderson is flawless always. *swoon*
Hannah: The cannibal dads meme is probably the best thing ever
Trulybst: My daughter is 3 and loves anything. She wears tutus and plays knights. I think because we don’t have TV and I don’t get magazines in the house, she is not overexposed. But I find I do judge women on appearance before I listen to what they have to say. So I worry about my daughter when she gets to middle school, or has to start choosing her own style.
Sara H.: Oh! Another thing: Noticed on my son’s Avengers shirt (picturing the versions from the movie) that he wore today that Black Widow isn’t on there. Captain America’s head is HUGE and Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor are about the same size, a little smaller than CA, and then waaaaay offf in the distance is Hawkeye. No Black Widow.
And, to make it worse, the boy didn’t even know who I was talking about when I said, “They didn’t put Black Widow on your shirt!”
Trulybst: In the cartoon she was a bad guy…
Hillary: Yeah, but she was a good guy (er, gal) in the movie.
Sara H.: Right, in the movie, she helps, so one would think that she’d at least be in the background like Hawkeye.
I said, “You know, red hair, black suit?”
My daughter said, “Catwoman?”
And I had to resist the urge to nerd-scold my children with NOT EVEN THE RIGHT UNIVERSE, GAWL.
Savannah: In the movie SHE is the one who gathers them together, she keeps her cool when Banner goes hulk, and is instrumental in saving the day. The boys would be fucking lost without her, but the art and merch ignores her. Ugh. I love science bros as much as the next nerd but not to the exclusion of black widow.
Stephens: Seriously all I wanted was a Black Widow origin movie or at least get the Budapest backstory with her and Hawkeye, but no. Instead we get Ant Man and she’s a co-star in Captain America 2. Le sigh.