This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Jaji Crocker received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University, and is now pursuing a dual degree at Claremont Graduate University, studying for her PhD in English and MA in Religion. Her research interests and approach are innately interdisciplinary as she explores the evolution of the ethics buttressing and changing religious philosophies and practices in North America and the Middle East, as well as the evolution of the theological imagination and feminist influences in post WWII American literature. Jaji continues to write fiction and teach creative writing.
Last week, a program graced the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) entitled “Miss Representation.” The piece discussed the damaging influence of the media on the psyches and behaviors of girls and women in North America, pointing to the media’s hypersexualized representation of women, emphasizing women’s bodies and clothing rather than their intellect and voice. The message being, a woman’s message – the words she speaks – doesn’t matter; it is trivial and cute and even, sometimes, dangerous.
While I found the documentary interesting, and while it certainly discusses unfortunate portrayals of women in the U.S., I think the stance taken is reductive and distracting from the more complex problem: women’s inferior social location within a patriarchal society. The media is only onetool patriarchal society utilizes to advance men and marginalize and diminish women, and is definitely not the only culprit responsible for girls’ and women’s low self-esteem, body image issues, and skewed views of themselves and their peers. I understand a two-hour documentary can only do so much. But to limit the scope of the problem further reduces women’s issues (albeit, unintentionally), compressing them into a deceivingly manageable problem – the media – thus distorting the complexity of the necessary solutions. In other words, the message becomes: improve the media’s portrayal of women and women’s issues go away.
This message, of course, is ridiculous. Even the phrasing of the problem is problematic. The terminology “women’s issues” implies that the problem is solely a woman’s problem, rather than a societal problem. The problem is patriarchy. And shrinking the patriarchal problem to the media’s portrayal of women is damaging to the feminist agenda and to the women suffering from patriarchy in North America, women who may or may not interact significantly with the media. What about those women who don’t really watch television or go to the movies or read celebrity rags? What about those women living in rural North America who don’t have the same access to media or whose cultures/traditions refrain from media usage or whose parents limit media exposure? What about younger girls, two and three years old? Does patriarchy not affect these girls and women because they don’t watch hours of “Gossip Girl” every night? Of course, patriarchy affects these girls and women, for patriarchy is not only channeled through the media. Every aspect of North American society has been influenced or shaped by patriarchy; patriarchy is not a “neat” problem.
Furthermore, the often negative and demeaning portrayal of women on T.V., in movies, and in magazines is not the only portrayal of women by the media. To its credit, “Miss Representation” points this out, discussing the influx of strong, powerful women on T.V. and in positions of power in politics and business over the past twenty years, in particular. It also points out the adverse truth that these positive, affirming, powerful portrayals of women are few and far between compared with the highly sexualized, mocking, non-intellectual portrayals of women. Fair enough. However there is a profound difference, which “Miss Representation” does not make, between Disney’s monochromatic, narrow illustration of young princesses (whose main goal in life is to find a prince) and an attractive female anchorwoman choosing to express her sense of style with a tight dress and heels. The former can be seen as a brainwashing device, the latter should only be viewed as a grown woman’s right to dress how she wants to dress without her male co-anchor and the public treating her like eye-candy, focusing solely on her wardrobe instead of her message. A female anchor should be able to wear a skirt and Hillary Clinton should be able to wear her pantsuits without media commentary focusing on their attire. Sure, Hillary Clinton discussed her views on the national debt crisis, but who cares when she’s wearing white after Labor Day?! The nerve.
Here is the crux of the issue we must remember: the media’s main goal is to sell its audience a product, whether that product is a new soda, a T.V. show, or a president. It is one thing to criticize a sexist politician or columnist for calling Hillary Clinton a “bitch” instead of headstrong and authoritative; it is another to insist Coca Cola stop using women in bikinis to sell its products. The first issue requires the columnist to become aware of his patriarchal, sexist representation of Clinton, and to change his perspective so that he can view a strong, assertive woman in a position of power in the same light he views a strong assertive man in a position of power; the second issue requires conversations. Whether those conversations occur between parents and children (“Honey, Coke only uses women in bikinis to sell their products because sex sells. What do you think about that?”), between peers in high school (“That Coke add with the bikini chicks is so hot.” “Totally hot! Though also pretty unrealistic and stupid. Who could possibly let themselves be that impressionable?”), or between the public and the advertising execs (“I’m a father of a sixteen-year-old young woman and I don’t appreciate Coke’s portrayal of highly sexualized teenage girls, so I’m not going to buy Coke products.”), etc., the conversations are our responsibility.
We can point the finger of blame at the media all we want – “Baaaad little media! Shame on you! Go to your room!” – but that’s only assigning blame to the purveyor, and letting the consumer off the hook. As consumers, we must communicate with one another, with our children in particular, to establish a safe dialogue about the media: its role in our society, its shortcomings, and also how we benefit from it. Furthermore, as North Americans, we must dialogue with one another, with our children in particular, about every aspect of our patriarchal society, not just oneaspect we select as scapegoat for the rest. Our children deserve comprehensive conversations about the way of the world and about how to change the future way for the better.