Films directed at young girls (age 15-22) in high school and college perpetuate the idea that females must constantly adhere to unfair beauty standards in order to achieve or maintain self- satisfaction and self-respect. Gaining the approval of one’s peer puts young girls into a position where they are forced to compete against one another for attention and these films suggest the best approach is compromising one’s values and altering the outer appearance. This puts the focus on the female physique and subsequent popularity rather than other qualities such as intelligence or kindness.
In young audiences, popularity is used as a scale to gauge how well liked and respected an individual is within their student body. The idea of fitting in and being well-liked in school is important to all adolescents, but girls are particularly pressured to maintain an image of perfection. This idea of perfection is a coveted thing and to be the most perfect means to be the most popular and the most powerful. Girls that hold this popular status establish a collective identity and as a united force, they decide who is “cool” enough to be included whereas those who fail to conform to their ideals of cool are readily excluded from the group. Together, they reign as a sort of authority and act as the tastemakers for the younger girls to follow. Popularity is important because it provides an individual with security and the promise of envy from one’s female peers. This also leads females to betray one another to get ahead in status and reject others that stray from the fundamental structures of popularity (Brown, 2005). An aggressive competition is unleashed among young girls and they race toward popularity in order obtain that sense of personal power or leadership, acceptance, as well as social currency (followers, friends). They create a presence where people are both terrified and jealous of them and subsequently, become paranoid of friends trying to displace them. This type of dark nature is best depicted in the two films, “Mean Girls” and “The House Bunny.”
Figure 1: The authoritative and manipulative Plastics from “Mean Girls”
A course text that resonated with me throughout the term was John Berger’s “Way of Seeing” because he describes advertisements’ pull on prospective consumers. He points out that glamour is dependent on one’s looks and is based off of envy; publicity manipulates us to think that buying into a certain image will enrich or transform one’s life for the better. Thus, publicity invites us into a dream, an intimate goal that we set for ourselves, yet excludes us. In this case, the dream is status and acceptance but can only be enjoyed by a few individuals. And yet, the elite circle of women who seem to have it all, don’t. They are faced with the same pressure to uphold a specific image just as everyone else is.
Figure 2: Cher and Dionne from “Clueless”
One pattern that I found to be particularly interesting was the seeking of approval from one’s peers; the girls are expected to compete for attention from both their male and female cohorts. This type of social construct requires these young women to base their worth off of others judgements; this competition and reliance on other’s opinions suggest that in order for girls to gain a level of respect or worthiness, they must conform to a certain image. In “Mean Girls”, the popular girls set a dress code, emphasizes the need to constantly lose weight and practice self-hate while gathering around a mirror saying “I hate my calves” or “I’ve got man shoulders”. In “Clueless,” Tai exclaims to her friends, “It’s my hips isn’t it?” when the boy she likes shows disinterest; the first conclusion she comes to is, of course, her body. In “The House Bunny,” Shelley reminds the girls that, “feeling good on the inside starts with looking good on the outside,” which fuels an unhealthy obsession with image in order to be accepted by society.
Figure 3: The girls learn how be beautiful with makeup in “The House Bunny”
This concept of low self-esteem being associated with unrealistic beauty standards perpetuates the acceptance of body dissatisfaction as a normal aspect of life. Women are then encouraged to fix the parts of their body that make them feel most insecure in order to achieve personal happiness. Also, discrimination based off of the female appearance in the workplace establishes the association between one’s body image and level of status. If an adult woman’s weight or outfit can significantly impact their chances of employment, a determinant of success and respect in society, then the importance of image must also be associated to the social status of an adolescent girl in high school or college (YWCA, 2008).
Women physically have the choice to overcome beauty standards but social constructs oppress women psychologically, leading women to constantly alter their appearance in order to please their peers. They are constantly led to believe that something needs to be improved which inevitably leads to body dissatisfaction among young women, where having larger thighs or the inability to afford designer items are viewed as personal failures (Jeffreys, 2005).
Figure 4: The before and after of the makeover in “The House Bunny”
This is interesting because psychological factors drive the motivation to pursue one’s physical transformation. This need for acceptance and respect from one’s cohorts is largely based off perceived beauty standards that heavily rely on superficial and materialistic values such as clothes, makeup, speech, etc.
Another learning moment for me came from the “The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 world: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media” article from the first week of the term. It noted that women are continuously stripped of their individual traits and marked as a homogenous identity. In the article’s context, women in Islam who wear hijabs are labeled as backward, oppressed, exotic, and even terrorists in the media; the Muslim female identity is much more than a hijab yet we let the few represent the whole. This stereotyping happens to all women across cultures. The mass media influences how we define ours and others’ identities; we praise one identity and vilify the other.
Jeffreys points out that men are the dominant figures in Western culture and the biological differences between the two sexes make the men the “default” which makes women the “other”. Thus, women must act different from the men, creating a gender binary. Women are expected to be delicate, beautiful, and supplementary to the male. With these established gender roles of men being dominant and women being the other, women lose self-control and are put in a position where they must appease another individual or by following the ridiculous perceptions of beauty in order to regain a sense of power, voice, and self-worth.
Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing (Vol. 1). Penguin UK.
Beauty At Any Cost. YWCA USA, Aug 2008. Web. 23 Jul. 2015
Brown, L. M. (2005). Girlfighting: Betrayal and rejection among girls. NYU Press.
Jeffreys, S. (2005). Beauty and misogyny: Harmful cultural practices in the West. New York: Routledge.
Watt, D. (2012). The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 World: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 4 (1), 32-43