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Women in the Media: You Can't Be What You Can't See

Not everyone is a trailblazer

For better or for worse, most people are not trailblazers.

That doesn't mean that they have no potential. But it does mean that they need role models. They need to see other people, often people like them, succeeding at the type of thing they want to do. They need it for inspiration, leadership, paths to follow, and to help them believe that they can succeed.

They also need other people to have seen people like them succeed, so that they will give them a chance. The owner of an auto-repair shop is more likely to hire a woman if he's seen a woman mechanic before. A couple saving for their retirement is more likely to trust a female financial adviser, if they've seen women talking about financial issues on the news before.

First woman to _____.

First gay person to  _____.

First black person to _____.

First ____ person to _____.

Those firsts are important. Those trailblazers are critical. But the thing that truly makes a difference to each and every member of a marginalized group is when it becomes mainstream for people like them to do something they didn't dare dream was possible.

What happens when women are invisible?

"You can't be what you can't see."  Those are the wise words of Marie Wilson from the White House Project.  When children are seven years old, an equal number of girls and boys say that they want to be President when they grow up. But over time, something happens. Girls watch, observe and listen to what is happening around them. By the time they are fifteen,  a wide gap has emerged between the number of boys who still want to be President and the now much smaller group of girls who want to be President.

Take a look at this video that shares some eye-opening statistics on the gender disparity in the media.


The lack of balance between women's voices and men's voices in the media is the reason why it was such a big deal recently, when all of the by-lines on the front page of the Wall Street Journal were from women.

What happens when women's role is relegated to sex object or commentary on "women's issues"?

Some media outlets do a better job at ensuring that women are fully represented than others. But for many of them, I get the idea that fair representation of women means getting women to talk about what they perceive as "women's issues". There are not yet enough women commenting on politics, finance, business, the economy, sports, and more. In some cases, shockingly, even on things that are considered "women's issues" (e.g. abortion, birth control), some media outlets will call in a cast of male "experts" instead of seeking out women's voices.

The problem most days is not simply that women's voices are absent. The problem is that when they are present, they serve to further perpetuate stereotypes and gender roles.

For example, in the Huffington Post earlier this year, Tara Sophia Mohr wrote about the montage of great movie moments shown at the Oscars:
In the first clip in the montage, Forrest Gump ate from his box of chocolates.

Next, a series of couples gazed lovingly into each other's eyes: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost.

Then came a stream of 25 clips showing male heroes talking to, leading or fighting other men. In the middle were a few women, one screaming in stress about her wedding, one screaming because she was being attacked and one screaming to fake an orgasm.

And with that, the montage ended.

She goes on to deconstruct the montage in more detail and ask whether it really matters, concluding that it does:
Films shape our culture and they shape us. Popular films become part of our cultural fabric, stories that paint a particular picture of what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be white or black. Over time, the images we see in story after story subtly impact our ideas about who we are. Films -- whether realistic or fantastical --teach us underlying ideas about what is possible and what is true.

When women can't see strong, interesting, female protagonists in the stories we watch, it becomes harder for us to see ourselves as the strong, interesting protagonists of our own lives. When girls grow up seeing story after story that tells them they are sex objects, accessories or victims, they will learn that to be a "woman" is to play one of those three roles.

That movie montage may be just one example, but it is emblematic of women's portrayal in the media in general. If you haven't seen it yet, the movie Miss Representation is definitely a must-see to understand how female actors,  journalists, politicians and more are treated in the media.

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

As if that wasn't enough, the recent media commentary on Ashley Judd's "puffy face" showed us all one more time how things work. The difference, however, is that she fought back. Explaining why she chose to address the issue instead of just ignoring it, she wrote:
I choose to address it because the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle. The assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.

She also addressed the fact that the attacks on her, much like the "mommy wars" I've written about here before, came primarily from women. Instead of us supporting each other in our ambitions, whatever they may be, we have nothing better to do than to attack each other's appearance and parenting. Judd wrote:
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.

Let Them See

I want our daughters to look out into society and see that they can be anything they want to be. I want them to see women in roles that include President, teacher, mother, lawyer, scientist, construction worker, astronaut, activist, engineer, doctor, farmer and more. I want them to see women expressing opinions, calling the shots, giving expert advice, and standing up for what they believe in. I want them to see women doing all of those things, without people commenting first and foremost on their bodies, their clothing, and their make-up. I want our daughters to believe that they can be anything they want to be, not just because we've told them that, but because they see that mirrored back to them in society.

I want all girls to believe that they have a chance to be whatever they want to be. Not just those girls with the trailblazer gene.

This is the third in a series of four posts looking critically at the way society, corporations and media influence the role girls and women are expected to play in society. The posts are written by me (Annie @ PhD in Parenting) and are generously sponsored by Pigtail Pals.

Image credit: JD Hancock on flickr.
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Reader Comments (19)

YES. We need to see women in leadership roles, whether it's leading countries, corporations, or police forces. We need women's voices in the media & popular culture like TV & movies. We need to see it, our daughters need to see it & so do our *sons*. As the mother of a little boy, I'm not off the hook when it comes to providing books with strong female characters & variations on the typical gender roles. I want him to grow up thinking a woman can be prime minister too.

April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I have seen so much praise of Ashley Judd on feminist websites for daring to confront the comments about her puffy face. What I don't see is the recognition of the fact that Judd while marginalized by gender certainly had ample race and thin privilege. They way they talked about her and the roles that she has been offered are vastly different from the Viola Davis' or Gabourey Sidibhe for that matter. Judd had not problem capitalizing on all of her privilege without comment I might add. When is there going to be recognition for that? There is more to gender than White women.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRenee Martin

She definitely has lots of privilege. Beyond white and thin privilege, she also has rich privilege. Even if she never gets another role again, I'm sure she'll be financially secure for the rest of her days. I don't think she was daring in confronting the comments, but I do think it is about time that someone did. If even the most privileged people within a marginalized group take this shit lying down (and even participate in it), it makes it that much harder to change things.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Annie, you worked hard on this...I love it. Great post, great points, and so true, the media heavily influences us, many studies show this.

Perfect. Thank you Annie. I'm all misty over here. ;)

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCandace

i repeat this to my daughter and my son all the time.
as a parent you are as responsible to have your sons understand this as your daughters. make sure they learn to *see* and value.
you can not be what you can not see.
responsibility on so many levels.
equality, kindness, moral decisions.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterangela

Wise words and another brilliantly written article. I completely agree, we need many more strong female role-models, both as fictional characters and in real-life, women who are brave enough to "be what they can not see". All women are created equal, but maybe the difference is that some are braver than others.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterToni

I just found your blog a few weeks ago and I've been skimming through your posts. Thanks for sharing your perspective. This post is timely for me. Remember the discussions of Lego marketing strict gender role toys? My eight year old daughter told me yesterday that sometimes she wishes she was a boy because she likes to play with her brother's boy legos....but I'm not to tell anyone in her class because she would be ashamed. She hasn't even seen the new girly lego sets, but she definitely has been given the message that she isn't supposed to enjoy the boy ones. A message she did not get from us. I did tell her that years ago lego sets weren't for boys or girls, just for kids, and that I'd like to play with the boy ones too if I was young. I also said we'd get her some for her birthday. Your post was just another reminder of how we have to have meta-discussions with our kids all the time to keep up a commentary about the messages they get from the culture that they find themselves immersed in so that they can choose if and how they want to partake in those messages. Thanks!

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

Thank you so much for this post. It really made me think. I sub-conciously expose myself to media which generally portrays women well (Have no tv so I'm sure that helps!)I'm training to be a doctor so I guess that's a non-traditional role for a woman, although where in Ireland where I live female doctors will soon become the majority. I do feel bad though in knowing that I'll be part of the reason that the statistic for female consultants, surgeons etc is low. I don't want a job that high-powered. I don't think that I could do that and have the quality of life that I want and raise a family. I wonder how differently I would feel if I saw women doing it, I guess someone has to be the one that does it with no footsteps to follow in, I wish those brave souls luck!

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRona

Thanks for these points Annie. I work in http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/" rel="nofollow"> child protection and sometimes the tough side of life makes me forget how special it can be. I hope my little girl grows up to see the kind of world in which she can make a difference and felt proud to be a woman.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchild protection

The role of http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/" rel="nofollow"> safeguarding children and raising a family is often seen as being the only thing a woman can do but they can add so much more to the world. Here's to a better future for all of us thanks to blogs like this which let us share our views.

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersafeguarding children

Re: the 17 per cent of Congress thing in the trailer -- that will never cange until we make it worth it for women, and especially mothers, to do politics.

The way politics are practised in most of the Western world means gruelling 16-hour days, being away from your family for long stretches, PLUS the sexism, personal attacks, etc.

Really, who wants to do that? Most women with kids look at the time commitments and say "not worth it."

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCin

I'd agree that the sexism/personal attacks that comes from both sides must be a deterrent to many women who'd like to be in politics.

I don't think though that the way politics works at the level of Congress is going to necessarily change though to make it more attractive to women.

I agree with the point of the original article. I think there are some things that are very hard to break into for women. There was an article in our local paper about lack of women physicians in leadership roles at our local medical school/teaching hospital. Even women physicians tend to choose specialties/career paths that are somewhat more family friendly, rather than doing things like surgery or anesthesiology. A couple women physicians I know had partners who were willing to stay at home for a few years when the children are little.

April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Since the issue of Congress is being discussed, it's worth mentioning that in many nations (particularly developing nations) the levels of women in representative assemblies is higher than the US because they have a quota system established. Americans hate quota systems, but they have been effective at making that first crack in the glass ceiling. (I"m not proposing anything, just observing.)

I've been making some serious career decisions lately, including a new job that amounts to a significant promotion in an area where there aren't many women. There are drawbacks, but one thing I keep thinking to myself is, How is it ever going to change if we all walk away? I have the chance of sitting at the table, of being the woman there, and I'm going to take it - for myself, certainly, but also to represent, and for my sons to see.

April 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

My husband and I are planning to talk to our girls about Missrepresentation and decide if we can actually show it to them. I am grateful to women like you (would be grateful to men too) who consistently insert these topics into the mainstream conversation. It's important. I have anger weighted down by sorrow in the way so much of communication, aspiration and aspersion has come down to this hairy mess of impossible physical expectations and wide-sweeping assertions that certain people can't do things or that they shouldn't.

You wake me up and you give me hope. Thank you for the push to not stop believing that what's accepted is bunk and that it's up to us to change it.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

[...] “Women in the Media: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See” from PhD in Parenting: I want our daughters to look out into society and see that they can be anything they want to be. I want them to see women in roles that include President, teacher, mother, lawyer, scientist, construction worker, astronaut, activist, engineer, doctor, farmer and more. I want them to see women expressing opinions, calling the shots, giving expert advice, and standing up for what they believe in. I want them to see women doing all of those things, without people commenting first and foremost on their bodies, their clothing, and their make-up. I want our daughters to believe that they can be anything they want to be, not just because we’ve told them that, but because they see that mirrored back to them in society. [...]

[...] Women in the Media: You Can't Be What You Can't See [...]

[...] daughter whom I will tell that she can be whatever she wants to be.  But, as eloquently described here,  I don’t think that is enough. She has to see examples. If one day she shows an affinity [...]

As an educator, I taught writing for many years to middle school students. And it didn't surprise me when I heard about the OpEd Project and other studies that found that women were vastly underrepresented in the media and particularly as thought leaders in traditional media. Girls need to be taught to "own" their opinions: State them boldly, with evidence and authority. How many times as a teacher did I ask a girl a question only to have her say, "I don't know?? I'm not sure."

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Smock

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