by Catherine Tan
The harmful, long term effects that media’s portrayal of women is a phenomenon that common people may not fully be aware of. How is the hyper-sexualization and dehumanization of women across many media such as TV shows, movies, magazines, news reports, video games, music videos, and song lyrics, so easily absorbed into the minds of the people that the injustice against women goes unnoted? It is important to analyze this question because media is not often viewed through a critical lens like it should be. It takes an educated person to break through the static that media clouds us with, to see and realize that women are robbed of their potential because of media’s portrayal of women. The stereotype of women in media speaks to the performance of women in media, in who gets to be shown and who does not. Media factors in what parts and attributes of a woman get to be highlighted or undermined. An educated person can think of media through this critical lens while others may be left to perceive the single story that media puts out.
Unless a person has had higher education that has exposes them to the idea women are objects in media, a person might take what media is putting out about women for the truth; that they are there for sexual pleasure, that they are inferior to the male intellectually, and that they should compete against each other’s looks. These statements that media explicitly portray are not at all true yet the people accept them because it is what they are fed from every angle of media.
A young girl who is exposed to this harmful stereotype of women as sexual objects, can be trained to believe that this overly-sexual, dumbed down woman is what society expects of her to become in order to fit into the culture that freely exploits women. This kind of role model for a young girl is extremely detrimental to society because of the way that it stunts the aspirations of young girls, limiting them to the single story of the woman depicted in media. For example, in the film Miss Representation, the split between young boys and girls who wanted to become President of the United States is about even until the age of fifteen when most girls suddenly drop the idea of holding public office (Newsom). At this point in their teen years, girls become aware of their expected roles in society and see themselves in more feminine roles such as that of singers and actresses. Media is at fault for this shift in young girls’ perception of what they are capable of.
Representation in media of women plays a huge role in the dehumanization of women because media has the power to take opportunities away from young girls who do not have leaders to look up to. Marie Wilson’s statement, “You can’t be what you can’t see”, spoke to me because of its simplicity in addressing the issue of a lack of positive, empowering women figures in media. Media does an amazing job of flooding its viewers with derogatory terms and dismissive comments to dehumanize the women that could serve as positive, empowering, feminine figures. Media does not mix femininity and positive power. This lack of representation in media does not give young girls and women the building blocks that men have, to utilize to reach their fullest potential.
Media hyper-sexualizes and dehumanizes women because of how severely underrepresented women are at the corporate level in the media industry according to the staggering statistics from the movie Miss Representation. Without a woman’s perspective, according to Jennifer Newsom, men can dominate the entire field of media, encouraging a single-story of womanhood. The domination of men in the field of media, leads to the indirect domination of multiple other fields because of how forceful an impact media has (Newsom). For example, the area of politics, the industry of engineering, accounting, finance, and law enforcement are all deprived of women because of media’s pushing of women in a hyper-feminine direction. The ads that media put out encourage women to spend more time worrying about their appearance (because they are trained at a young age to value this above all), instead of worrying about their potential jobs in leadership positions. Media focuses the public’s attention to how a woman looks so that women are hyper-sexualized, leading people to believe that a woman’s appearance is all that she has to offer therefore dehumanizing her.
The worry over a woman’s appearance is a dehumanizing pandemic that has been evolving for the worst. Today, social media has exacerbated this issue to a degree that has never been reached. With unlimited, 24/7 access to posts, images, and videos all over the world, younger girls are able to begin to compare their bodies to those of the photo shopped. These young women form a distorted, unattainable without technology, ideal of beauty that they will chase for the rest of their existence. Not every single girl could fall into this beauty vortex but the overwhelming majority do because media presents beauty, not femininity, as a tool to gain respect to be taken seriously. Beauty is also presented as a tool to help find a husband which is a very old-school approach of controlling a woman’s life by shaping her into someone fit for marrying. Media portrays that women belong in the home or waiting on a man through the way that they are portrayed in movies. For example, most Disney movies (that young girls are highly exposed to), depict a fair maiden longing for a prince charming to come along and marry her. Her talents include cooking, cleaning, taking care of the home, and singing. This stereotype of a woman is highly idealized across media, dehumanizing and invalidating those who do not fit into the stereotype.
Although the dehumanization of women through media sounds like something that would not slip past the viewers, it does all the time. Hyper-feminism and hyper-sexualization in media are portrayed in a way that is not blatant, but sugarcoated so that society will accept it. Media shows women as happy when they have material objects and the attention of men and sad when they do not have either. Another way that society lets media demean our idea of women is how forcibly constant media is around us. We cannot escape it. With touch-of-a-screen access like we have today, the normalizing of these ideals occurs resulting in the hyper-sexualization of women.
Not just young girls are sucked into this media vortex but adults are also coerced by the media into believing that a woman is not a woman unless she is hyper-feminine. Sexualized media is perpetuated because the younger generation sees the acceptance of media across their own generation horizontally; then they also see it vertically, in their parents and generations of extended family. The continuation and passing down of the idea that women are inherently less powerful than men normalizes the notion that women are objects for men.
Perceiving media through a critical eye takes a lot of effort. Even if someone is knowledgeable about the issue that women face through misrepresentation in media, it is common to fall into believing the stigma of women. It is engrained in our brains from such an early start and from all around us constantly, that one must be actively aware in order to realize it. Active awareness is the first step in focusing our society to be more productive and realistic in the way that we develop and treat women. If we can teach young generations to see media with a critical eye, they will be less susceptible to falling into the trap that media has set for them. A lack of participation from the public could hurt media’s profit off insecurities of young girls. In teaching the young to not always believe what they see, there may be a decrease in the sales of image-enhancing products such as make-up, hair products, skin products and plastic surgery. There may be more time spent worrying about how to enhance our country by empowering women instead of distracting them. Educated youth may take what media puts out with a grain of salt.
The next step after cultivating awareness of the issue of media’s misrepresentation of women, is to speak up about it. We may be aware of the issue but awareness only takes away part of media’s power over us. Our voices can be heard and change can be made through the power of action against media. Action can be taken by shedding light, spreading awareness to others of their crimes. Media must be held accountable by its viewers. We can boycott their channels, videos and posts. Viewers of media can also hurt media’s profits by not engaging with the idea that a woman’s power is based on her sexual prowess by not buying the body-enhancing products that are put out or the magazines that portray them.
It is possible to right the wrongs against women through media. We do have the power to give women their power and humanity back.
Newsom, Jennifer S, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn W. Dreyfous, Sarah E. Johnson, Jessica Congdon, Eric Holland, Svetlana Cvetko, Caroline Heldman, Condoleezza Rice, Dianne Feinstein, Dolores Huerta, Geena Davis, Gloria Steinem, Jackson Katz, Jane Fonda, Jean Kilbourne, Jennifer L. Pozner, Katie Couric, Lisa Ling, Meenakshi G. Durham, Margaret Cho, Martha M. Lauzen, Nancy Pelosi, Pat Mitchell, Rachel Maddow, and Rosario Dawson. Miss Representation. Sausalito, Calif.: Ro*co Films Educational, 2011.