Portrayals of Young Females in Media

When you’re watching a movie or TV show that depicts young female students, What types of movies or TV shows is it? Perhaps the comedy genre of television and film comes to mind. How are college students, more specifically female students usually portrayed in these types of films? Do the images of drunk college kids, frat parties, sorority girls jump to mind when asked this question? And are there differences in how male and female are being depicted in these shows and movies? When I was growing up, the images and thoughts that jumped into my mind when college and young adults were mentioned were the thoughts of wild parties and hyper-sexual young women that struggle with eating disorders, hazing in sororities, etc. When I was younger I had come to think of college and young adulthood as a scary time because that’s all that was presented to me through television shows and movies.

The stereotype that I’ve encountered a lot in these movies are that female students are portrayed as dumb girls, dumb blondes, who would much rather focus on their social lives and their looks rather than hit the books. I feel that the portrayals of this stereotype in the media also reflect the pressure that women face in regards to how they should look, think, and act.

A movie that I feel breaks away from the others is Pitch Perfect. The movie is a comedy about Beca, A college freshman and music lover on her first day at her college campus who reluctantly joins an all girl acapella group on campus named the Barden Bellas. The group goes up against their male rivals in a college competition. This movie is also aimed at young adults who are around the high school and college age. Something I noticed that is very interesting to me is when the RA meets Beca and sometime during their conversation, she hands Beca a rape whistle and states “Don’t blow it unless it’s actually happening.” This statement irks me because sexual assault is a very real thing that that young women have to face and happens on almost every college campus, and to tell Beca to not blow the whistle unless she’s actually getting raped sort of dismisses the other types of assault that female students might encounter and also is throwing shade towards women who come out with rape accusations and are under fire as to if their accusations are valid or not.

Another interesting detail I noticed is that all the women in the group are individually different and they all have their own quirks and that they don’t fit into any “mold”. It is refreshing to see after so many movies portray female college students as either dumb, blonde, pretty, or tall and skinny, focusing only on their superficial traits and not their complexities as human beings. In the beginning of the movie, The two original Barden Bella girls try to recruit women who fit their pretty and bikini body ready mold and in the end, they end up with a new group of women that don’t fit into that stereotype at all!

Like I had stated in the previous paragraph, All the women are portrayed as individuals with different interests and personalities. Much different from other movies where we see female college students portrayed as all the same, beautiful and popular, dumb and blonde. It is also nice to see that the movie is not focused on how intelligent these women are, but more focused on their personalities and interests and how different they all are. One example that comes to my mind is that Beca has a love for music and isn’t much of a person who likes to socialize with others while someone like Stacie is portrayed as one of the only women in the group that has a weird sexual quirk about her. In the movie, I think their rival male singing group is seen in sort of a negative light. Although the male singing group is really good at what they do, they are also portrayed as typical frat boys who are rude and even sexist at times. This movie is different from a lot of other college type movies because for one, it is a movie about two college acapella singing groups in a rivalry, and two, doesn’t really focus at all on things like academics and intelligence.

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In 2001, The movie Legally Blonde premiered. It is about a young woman by the name of Elle Woods, who after getting dumped by her boyfriend, decides that she is going to attend Harvard Law School in an attempt to win him back. As the movie proceeds, Elle learns her purpose and her intentions for attending law school changes as the movie goes on. At the beginning of the movie, Elle is presented as a pretty superficial blonde sorority girl that has a passion for makeup and fashion. As the movie goes on, we get to see little hints into what Elle is really like when the attention isn’t focused on her appearance. One of the primary motivations for Elle to attend law school was to get her ex boyfriend back but as what we see when the movie progresses is that her goals and motivations change when she discovers what her true passions are. In an interview with Reese Witherspoon for FeatsPress found on Cinema.com, The actress, a blonde herself, states that she actually wanted to do this movie because she wanted to “campaign against a lot of prejudices and stereotypes.”

This movie I feel is all about the binaries and contrasts between Elle and the other characters. For example, in one scene Elle is telling her parents that she wants to go to law school and her father responds with “Law school is for people who are boring, ugly, and serious…You button, are none of those.” My interpretation of this exchange is that a person is either one thing or another, You’re either pretty or you’re ugly, You’re boring or you’re fun, Ugly or dumb. This to me means that in that world of his, he sees Elle as pretty and that to him, it means that she should stay pretty and give up the silly idea of attending law school. It seems to me that this sort of perpetuates the idea that a young woman has to pick one or the other, she can’t be both. Why can’t Elle be pretty AND smart/serious? I feel that this sort of puts her into this box where she can’t and shouldn’t strive to be pretty and smart. Warner, her ex boyfriend does the same. He compares Elle to Marilyn Monroe, almost insinuating that because she’s a blonde, she can’t be as smart and as serious as Jackie Kennedy. Is Marilyn dumb because she didn’t have the same upbringing and educational background as Jackie? I see a lot of things wrong with the set up of the pick one or the other type of choice for young women. I think this forces us into little boxes, hindering outward growth and teaches us that we can’t be complex human beings that are beautiful and serious and a multitude of other things that we want to be. Elle goes against these false choices by attending law school, getting in with a near perfect score. This breaks the stereotype of the dumb blonde and we see Elle grow into a more complex character.

In the same interview, Reese was asked about whether or not she was concerned that the movie had any substance to which she replied “I wanted there to be some kind of positive message for women.” “That you can be the way you are, look the way you want, and still achieve your goals if you work at them.” I completely agree with what Reese had said, too many things out there are putting pressure on young women to look and act a certain way. The media, advertisements being the big one contribute big time to what we all see as the standard of beauty for both men and women. Advertisements are everywhere and when they are being shoved in your face everyday, especially that a lot of young girls grow up thinking that this is the norm, it can be really hard to ignore. I feel like this forces young girls to worry about their appearance and throws them into this vicious ugly cycle of worrying about what others may think of them if they don’t fit into these completely unrealistic standards.

Something interesting thing is that, The movie Legally Blonde sets up the Elle Woods character as someone who is just superficial, a dumb blonde sorority girl that is into fashion and shopping, so people expect her to be all about her social circle and her appearance, so it is very shocking to the people around her when she decides to go to law school. Elle takes her LSATs and scores a 179, The highest score a person can get on the LSATs is I think a 180, which means that her score of 179 puts her at the very top of her class. Most people wouldn’t think that someone like Elle would get into law school with a score of 179. This gives the audience the take away that women can be complex, pretty and smart at the same time!

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When doing research on how women are portrayed in television and film, I came across an article, Miss Representation: Women’s portrayal in Mainstream Media written by Amanda Morris, Assistant News Editor for The Wheaton Record of Wheaton College. The article talks about a documentary that examines how the media contributes to the misrepresentation of women, young and old alike, in our society. The article then goes on to talk about how female students on the Wheaton campus feel a lot of pressure to conform to certain standards of beauty and how they feel that they are often defined based on their appearance. After reading this, I agree that a lot of this happens on college campuses but it also happens almost everywhere else too. I feel that Women feel the need to put up a certain front when around others in places like work or school. We are careful to act or look a certain way so people may take them seriously in whichever environment that we are in. Everywhere we go, I think we all feel the need to check up on how we look, whether it be unconsciously act like looking ourselves over when we’re about to talk out the door or just stand in front of a mirror and critique our every blemish.

The documentary itself Miss Representation was written, directed, and produced by actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Miss Representation not only focuses on the way which women are being portrayed in television and film but also how the media is contributing to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power. The documentary features women in leadership positions, like Condoleezza Rice, Margaret Cho, Gloria Steinem, Katie Couric and Geena Davis. It also features interviews with men and women in both education and film, as well as young men and women in high school.

In the film, Actress Jane Fonda States, “The hyper-sexualization that occurs in Hollywood is toxic; there’s no question that it affects all of us, including young girls who are seeking an identity.” What Jane Fonda said is something I completely agree with. The media puts forth this image of what women should look like, what weight they should be at and how they should act. What they put out there for everyone, especially young girls to see is women in things like romantic comedies where the main character is lusting after a guy. Although the main character in these types of films are women, the plot is entirely focused on the male and how to get the male.

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We all have our guilty pleasure shows that we like to watch in our down time, Something like reality TV for example. A guilty pleasure is something you indulge in that you’re all too aware has no redeeming value. I started watching The Bachelor a couple of seasons ago as a seemingly harmless diversion from boring things like homework. However, over time, I realized that by watching shows like The Bachelor made me buy into reality television’s exploitation of women and made me aware that these women are just nothing more than accessories for men. This past season of the show is when I really started to notice something, Why were the self assured, talented and accomplished women eliminated? I also noticed that when women on the show are confident with how they look and how they act, for some reason the other women in the house turn these good qualities into something bad. She’s confident and likes the way she looks? Then she suddenly deemed as cocky and a bitch. It’s really interesting that all these negative things are coming from other women. The Bachelor and other shows like The Bad Girls Club pit women against each other and call it a television show. We never really see television shows with a group of random women supporting each other and are not in competition.

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Because women hating each other and fighting all the time makes for good television right? So it’s no wonder that portrayals of smart, competent, self assured women are nearly non-existent in television and film. I see networks saying all the time that they are just giving the people what they want, but in reality, they are portraying women the way they want.

Why is it that the media imposes certain standards for people to try to fit into, Why does it send the message that young women have to look and act a certain way for people to accept them? Why is embracing individual differences not celebrated instead? In my ideal world, All women should be accepted as who they are and their individual differences are celebrated, that these imposed standards of beauty doesn’t exist and women themselves are the ones who get to decide who they want to be.

Works Cited:

Legally blonde [Motion picture]. (2001). United States.

Pitch perfect [Motion picture]. (2012). United States: Universal Home Entertainment.

Morris, A. (2012, December 7). ‘Miss Representation’: Women’s Portrayal in Mainstream Media.

Miss representation [Motion picture]. (2012). United States.

Fleiss, M. (2002). The Bachelor [Television series]. Los Angeles : ABC Television Studios. 

Murray, J. (2006). The Bad Girls Club [Television series]. Los Angeles : Oxygen Network.

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5 thoughts on “Portrayals of Young Females in Media

  1. Hi Kelly,
    I really enjoyed reading your final draft. All three of the movies that you chose to support your arguments were represented well in this piece and your point of view and thesis were made very clear. Do you feel like movies like Pitch Perfect and Legally Blonde have made a big enough impact to help girls see that college is more than just partying? I like your use of reality tv as well. This is where I think a lot of damage to the female image is coming from. It’s a shame that behavior portrayed on these shows is considered entertainment and our culture just eats it up. Great job on your essay. Have a great summer!

  2. I appreciate that you’ve decided to do your essay on how young women are portrayed in media. Too often have I seen in movies, directed by men and shot with a male point of view, where women are decorations, sex objects, etc. In portraying women in this way on a mass level, the exposure creates the subconscious indoctrination in many other young women that what they are seeing is what is to be expected; this view completely snuffs out the fact that what it actually is to be female is entirely subjective to the individual. There are no actual gender binaries enforced within our culture that actually have a real or empirical exclusivity to one gender or another apart from chromosomal biological defaults.
    With that said, I think that it’s interesting that you’ve chosen Pitch Perfect to be a representation for a type of media that portrays women in a diverse way; on a surface level, I never really thought much of the film (I kind of saw it as a glorified karaoke club), but now that you mention it, it did a very good job of representing a diverse representation of backgrounds and cultures that women can come from. However, I also noticed some of the jokes they used that were kind of culturally insensitive and seemed to try and excuse itself because of its representation. For example, the character, Fat Amy, is making a bunch of tired and, seemingly insensitive lesbian jokes regarding her inappropriate fixation of trying to identify the sexual orientation of the character Cynthia Rose-Adams.

  3. Hi Kelly!
    Your post regarding the portrayals of young females in the media was done exceptionally well. I liked the examples you provided because the fit your topic really well. For example, the films Pitch Perfect and Legally Blonde both break away from the typical patterns young females face because in Pitch Perfect the females aren’t just portrayed as the typical dumb blondes, or pretty party girls, but instead on all the different traits they obtain as well as personalities. On the other hand, Legally Blonde goes to show women that whether they are preppy, pretty, or even don’t seem cut out for a job such as a lawyer, they can achieve such goals if they set their mind to it and truly want to accomplish it. Moreover, as unfortunate as it is to think about, I also concur with you in regards to women putting up a front and acting a different way depending on whether they’re at work, school, etc. It’s also tough to wrap my head around the fact that many people crave violence and fighting on television such as represented in the show Bad Girls Club as you mentioned because this shouldn’t be something people look forward too. Overall, great job pointing out lots of details, being informative, using good references, and examples. Good job!

  4. I really loved reading your piece. I did something kind of similar, so it was fun seeing the sources you decided to use. You did a great job at using a lot of well rounded and relevant sources. When looking through all the papers and deciding the ones I wanted to read, yours stood out to me the most because I am really into the artifacts you used. I am a religious watcher of the Bachelor(ette) and I had never thought about it in terms of how it exploits women. You brought up such a valid point that when one of the girls is confident or outspoken, they are made out to be monsters and you can tell they show broadcasts them to make them look worse than they probably are. Also, the fan and show favorites are typically the little, soft spoken girl that is willing to move anywhere for love. Thank you for bringing up this point, it is really great. Overall, really great paper!!

  5. Your post is very interesting. And got me thinking about parallel examples for how men are portrayed in media. The first example I could think of was the American Pie movies. It has been many years since I’ve seen them, but the things that I remember were very similar to how you have said woman are portrayed. Hyper-sexualized, dumb, not caring about anything other than looks and social lives. It really is an interesting phenomenon. And I wonder where many of these things started showing up as an important thing to be portrayed? Why would media think these are the things that we need to see? Anyway, good job on the post!

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