By Christine Cupaiuolo
The messages about boys and girls that kids see in toy stores, TV shows, movies, games, apps, and virtual worlds play a powerful role in framing their sense of what’s “acceptable” and what isn’t. Last week the Geena Davis Foundation made the news because they received a big grant from Google supporting their work examining gender bias in kids’ media. Google is concerned that if young girls don’t see themselves portrayed as scientists, doctors, or computer engineers in the popular media, they will be less likely to pursue those careers when they grow up.
Last month we launched a series of lesson plans designed to teach students from elementary school through high school how to think critically about gender-related media messages. We got inspiration from Jennifer Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” which examines how stereotypes of girls and women on TV affect attitudes and behaviors in real life and online.
Pozner leads media literacy workshops at schools around the country. She talks below about the importance of media literacy in schools and what educators can do to help teens resist these stereotypes and become better media critics. Like what you read? Find out more about how to bring Pozner to your school.
Common Sense Media: What are some of the worst stereotypes of women in the media—I’m thinking reality TV must be at the top of the list?
Jennifer Pozner: Reality TV has advanced a very specific set of stereotypes, including the idea that women are catty, vindictive, and not to be trusted -- especially not by other women.
In addition, on shows from “The Apprentice” to “Wife Swap,” women are portrayed as incompetent in the workplace; they're either not professional or not as intelligent or savvy as men. … There's not really a role for women in the public sphere unless they're willing to be maligned or considered less than their male competitors.
CSM: And yet outside of reality TV, girls and women are accomplishing more than ever before. Are they hearing any messages about being more than a wife, like scientists, computer programmers, and other professions?
JP: The last 12 years of this genre have served as classic backlash entertainment. Women were making major advances in politics and in the workplace. And yet as women were running for president and vice president, becoming more powerful as CEOs, and redefining relationships and delaying marriage, reality TV producers tailored narratives around outdated ideas of what a woman’s “place” really is.
CSM: How does this play out in real life or in online spaces? How do girls who watch these shows translate this into how they seem themselves or others?
JP: The year after “Reality Bites Back,” was published, the Girls Scouts released a survey that showed girls who watch reality TV are more likely than non-viewers to believe that it is inherently in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another. And they are also more likely to accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their lives. To me, that is the most damning finding of that survey, but it is also what I predicted could be a likely result from more than a decade of misogynistic narratives in reality television.
CSM: How does the sexualization of girls and women on reality TV affect how girls present themselves?
It’s harder to resist social pressure to mirror that behavior. Online, girls are mirroring the poses women are asked to do on “America's Next Top Model,” and posting pictures from “ANTM” as “thin-spiration” images on pro-anorexia sites. There are so many young women who never post a picture to Facebook without digitally altering it -- without photoshopping out the flaws they see in themselves -- that recently the Keep It Real challenge encouraged girls and women to post non-Photoshopped images of themselves for one day.
I don’t worry as much about sexting as many inflammatory media reports do; young people have always flirted and been sexual with one another, and in some sense technology is another means of expressing that. But where sexting and other forms of sexually charged online communication can become extremely problematic for girls is when they are pressured to perform certain kinds of sexuality that they're not ready for, or that is not for their own pleasure or based on their own interest. Or when they’re pressured or bullied into providing explicit photos that are circulated online and used to humiliate them.
CSM: How do you encourage teens to be media critics instead of merely consumers?
JP: In my media literacy workshops and lectures, I tell them to banish the phrase “mindless entertainment” from their vocabulary. We are encouraged by advertisers and by the networks that are supported by them to quote-unquote “turn our brains off” when we turn on the TV or when we go to the movies. We’re told not to think too much.
How many times do you have the experience of saying, “That was kind of sexist,” and hearing in response, “Oh, don't think too much, it's just a show.” That's the problem. In fact, we can't think too much about reality TV. We need to think critically at every stage of our engagement with media, in every form --newspapers, magazines, reality TV, scripted television shows, music, video games. We need to approach all forms of media with our critical faculties engaged, even while we’re having fun being entertained.
What that means in terms of being active is to constantly ask questions: Who's creating this narrative? Who benefits from this narrative? Who profits from it -- socially, financially, politically? Who's excluded from this narrative -- consider gender, race, class status, sexual orientation, age, and more -- and which groups of people are not allowed to be represented? Why is this story being told, and not a different kind of story? All of those kinds of questions can help boys and girls deconstruct the media in their lives.
Looking for materials for your classroom? Check out these resources: