by Sydney McCabe
It is established and accepted fact that history is written by the victors. But what about today? Through whose perspective do we hear the narrative of today? In MissRepresentation, a documentary about the crippling effects media’s portrayal of the female has on today’s generation, historians, media literacy specialists, and high school students alike come to the conclusion that it is the voice of the media tycoons we hear ringing in our ears, dictating what the story of today is. And the message they espouse is not positive, especially towards women and girls. Young girls, and arguably more importantly young boys, are being imbued with impossible (and limiting) constructions of what it means to be female, how women should act, and how men should treat women. As commentators in the documentary remark, we are for the first time finding ourselves in the situation where the media depicts societal norms, rather than vice-versa. The problem becomes, how do we get a full picture of the modern world when we place the power of what we hear and see in the hands of a few, typically white, upper class, heterosexual men appealing to the 18-24 male demographic? If the media is only going to portray this one-sided, highly fantasized (mis)representation, it becomes the responsibility of the viewers to become educated on what it is they aren’t seeing. The aim of this paper is to investigate an effective way of changing the dialogue of the media, or at least how to best educate the masses on the information they aren’t receiving.
Although in an ideal universe the burden of this discovery would not be on the individual but on the media itself, this is (of course) not an ideal world and such responsibility falls on the shoulders of the general public. Perhaps an effective first step would be to introduce elementary texts on issues of social importance in middle and high school curricula. In Sweden, every teenager was given a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Achiche’s We Should All Be Feminists, in response to the United Kingdom government’s decision to “drop feminism from the politics A-level” instruction (Flood). Adiche’s text, although not perfect, offers a valuable starting point for discussion. We Should All Be Feminists is effective in identifying the everyday subtleties of sexism: “We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons. All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books telling women what to do, what to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer guides for men about pleasing women” (Adiche 24). Adiche does great work in pointing to the arbitrary differences in socialization of young boys and girls, calling on her audience to question why the common practices are the practices at all. By encouraging student to identify examples of this practice in their own lives, they will be equipped with the tools to identify these tendencies in the media and contemporary culture. The most important step to take in revolutionizing the way society perceives media and the effect media has on the next generation is to pinpoint what is construction and what is actually fact. Adiche’s text is a good introduction to thinking about how the media and our socialization has shaped our perception of gender rules and norms.
By introducing these topics at an adolescent age, the next generation of students will be more apt at understanding a wide range of media as it is presented to them which may aid in the restructuring of future media to make it more honest and accurate. There is an abundance of media available that has powerful messages when accurately interpreted – media such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade. There is a level to Beyoncé’s visual album that requires a degree of cultural awareness. Images in Lemonade relate to a history of oppression and violence geared toward black people in America and without a knowledge of this context, those images begin to lose part of their power. One such example is the scene in which flashes images of mothers holding pictures of their sons who were killed as a result of police brutality or other racial injustices throughout the past few years. However, an awareness of these events is necessary for an understanding of Beyoncé’s true, heart wrenching message – and this awareness might not come from mainstream media. Students who are taught at a young age to question what they see and what they are being told are more likely to do further research into issues such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, rather than to accept the reporting of major news outlets as “the full picture”. This is integral for reorganizing our society and continuing to promote intellectual and important dialogue. In order to fully form an opinion, people need all the unbiased, factual information. Only then can society engage in the meaningful dialogue it so desperately needs – the dialogue Beyoncé is trying to start. This generation’s students who learn to accurately interpret the powerful media of the present will then have a better arsenal of information to shape their own presentations of future dialogues. The actions of today’s media moguls are arguably a result of their own socialization and how media was presented to them in their youth. By addressing the problem of media ignorance in today’s generation, society has a better chance of preventing the manipulation of the messages we receive tomorrow.
Contemporary political life is also hindered by misunderstanding of history and so the power of correct interpretation would also benefit political life. The White House, although powerful, by the characteristics of liberal democracy, does not have a monopoly on media. In February, Donald Trump, during a press release about Black History Month, referenced Frederick Douglass in a somewhat flippant manner, calling him “an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more” (Merica). This comment, although largely unsettling in light of Fredrick Douglass’s unbelievable suffering and immeasurable contributions to United States’ history, was ignored to a large degree by major media outlets. It only stands to conclude that the underwhelming outrage over the event was due in large part to an educational flaw that prevented people from understanding the gravity of Douglass’s life and contributions. In one of his most famous speeches, “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July?”, Douglass points to the hypocrisy that characterizes American history, whereby the “freedom” of some was won at the cost of the enslavement of many (Douglass). This is a pointed message, even today, about the irony of perpetuating injustice against more than half the United States’ and world’s population (females make up roughly 52% of the world population) for the benefit of the other remaining roughly 48%. Douglass’ 1852 argument is still relevant today and can be used academically in a powerful challenge against sexism in the media – but only if people know about it. Society must promote a culture of curiosity and questioning whereby students (and citizens) are encouraged to do independent research into the information they hear on television, through news articles, etc. in order to fully counteract the assault on freedom of information perpetrated by today’s media.
In addition to improving media and political literacy, taking on responsibility for contemporary and historical texts of importance will also enhance the next generation’s cultural literacy. Arguably the best example of education improving cultural awareness about systemic oppression comes from Women’s and Gender Studies scholar, Peggy McIntosh. In White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, McIntosh, acknowledging that “[her own] schooling gave [her] no training in seeing [herself] as an oppressor,” endeavors to identify a list of ways she and other white people benefit daily from white privilege (McIntosh). Later, in her closing remarks, McIntosh comes to a similar conclusion made by the producers of Miss Representation, that people in power aim to maintain the status quo in order to not only keep systems of power operating, but to keep the masses oblivious to them as well. On this, McIntosh comments, “It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly enculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups who have most of it already” (McIntosh). Exposure to texts and ideas like those of Peggy McIntosh calls readers to question how they are both benefitted and oppressed in their daily lives by the systems being described. Acknowledging how these systems operate in one’s own life inevitably leads to the question, “What, then, can I do to change this system?” Becoming more aware of the difference between what is natural and necessary and what is societal construction leads students to question what can and should be changed about the culture they live in.
The ultimate hope is that by encouraging a policy of contemporary and historical responsibility for texts not presented to the masses through major outlets, society will once again begin to dictate for itself the story of today and perhaps even rally against the danger of the single story which Adiche warns against in her famous Ted Talk by the same name. The documentary MissRepresentation is proof that society is aware they are being duped – we know we are only being privileged to part of the story. But the question still remains of what we are going to do about it. Taking responsibility for the vast and diverse arsenal of information we have been given by generations of artists, philosophers, dreamers, oppressed and liberated alike, seems like a powerful first step.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. Anchor Books, 2012.
Beyoncé. Lemonade. Parkwood Entertainment, 2016.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July?.” 4 July 1852. Rochester, New York.
Flood, Allison. “Every Sixteen-Year-Old in Sweden to receive copy of We Should All Be Feminists.” The Guardian, 4 December 2015. Web.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Wellesley University Press, 1988.
Merica, Dan. “Trump: Frederick Douglass ‘is being recognized more and more’.” CNN Politics. CNN, 2 February 2017. Web.