It’s a confusing time to be a young woman in America.
Whether or not we want to admit it, much of what we believe about ourselves and our place in society comes from the media. And right now, the media is a minefield of mixed messages when it comes to what we as women are supposed to be.
Be strong, but don’t be bossy. Speak your mind, but don’t be a bitch. Act sexy, but don’t act like a whore. Work hard to get a good job, but don’t be a cold, spinster “career woman.” Be proud of your femininity, but don’t be too “girly” or “high-maintenance.” Strive to be skinny, but don’t lose your womanly curves in the process. You are more than your body, but it is your most powerful asset. You don’t need a man to validate you, but every happy ending involves a Prince Charming.
It’s enough to make even the most confident, well-adjusted woman’s head spin.
Young women have more stress, body image issues, and doubts about their self-worth than ever before. They also have more options when it comes to media consumption than ever before. Is that just an unpleasant coincidence?
You would think that more options would lead to a more balanced depiction of women in the media, but it often seems that more channels, advertisements, and social media outlets are in fact leading to the increased reinforcement of damaging ideas about the female gender.
Sometimes it seems like it’s better to become complete hermits, taking the media and its negative stereotypes completely out of our lives. But eventually we reach a frightening conclusion: For as frustrated as we get with the media, we simply can’t live without it.
The key to developing a healthy sense of self as a young woman in this media-driven society is to remember something that we all-too-often forget: We have a choice. We can choose what media we consume, and we can choose to educate ourselves about the impact the media has on our lives.
Can we avoid negative stereotyping and sexism in the media? Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. But we can choose to focus on positive female role models in literature, television, and film. And we can choose to allow these role models to be the ones we introduce to the young girls in our lives.
There are intelligent, strong, and compelling women making their presence felt in the media. We just have to know where to look.
We can look to television shows like Parks and Recreation and Once Upon a Time, films like Bridesmaids, and books like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. These examples are just a few of the growing instances in the media where women are no longer just a pretty accessory or helpful sidekick on a man’s journey; they are the whole story.
We can’t escape sexism in the media forever. However, we can educate ourselves about the media we consume so that we are able to think critically about the messages we are getting from books, movies, and television. If we allow ourselves to see the damaging views on women presented in the media; we can fight back against those views. And we should fight back. Because it matters.
It matters that women’s sporting events are hardly ever broadcast on network television.
It matters that the women on Fox’s hugely popular Glee are punished (often severely) for being ambitious while many of the male characters never have to answer for their actions.
It matters that many people still think women can’t be as funny as men.
It matters that millions of female readers want a life like Bella Swan’s.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad that Stephenie Meyer made those millions of female readers eager to pick up books. However, this is a case where being critical of the media we consume is a matter of extreme importance. It’s fine for young women to read Twilight; it’s not fine for them to aspire to be nothing more than Bella Swan, a woman whose existence is defined by her relationships with men and who is willing to change everything about herself (and effectively die) for a man who shows signs of abusive behavior towards her.
The Twilight Saga is a book series that demands to be discussed with thought, care, and concern. It’s a great book series for starting a dialogue with young women about their sense of self-worth, but we have to be willing to examine it with a critical eye in order to see its effect on many of its readers. There’s a reason these books are so popular, and that’s why we can’t just write off the media that we see as negative or frivolous. All of the media that we consume matters. All of it.
But for every Bella Swan there is a Katniss Everdeen. We might just have to look a little harder to find her. There seems to be a much greater obsession with highlighting the negative portrayals of women in the media than there is with shining a spotlight on the positive role models that do exist. Thankfully, The Hunger Games seems to be shifting that focus slightly, with more than a few respected media outlets discussing why “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” matter far less than “Team Katniss.” As savvy media consumers, we can only hope this trend continues.
The best way to navigate the minefield of the modern media is to bring along a helpful guide, and that’s what I hope Nerdy Girl Notes can be. I hope we can help each other see the flaws in the media that we consume while taking time to celebrate the things the media gets right.
I love a good discussion, so let’s get one going in the comments or on Twitter (@kak01): Which television shows, films, or books would you want young people (especially young women) to see and be inspired by? Which would you hope they never see or read?