Women in the Media

People are complex and have a lot of different qualities about them, but somehow the media tends to categorize and stereotype people. Somehow we end up being defined by our media counterparts. I am 20 year old woman and I have been greatly affected by how the media portrays me. I really do feel like it has shaped the way I see myself and has affected the way others view me. We are surrounded by media messages and it’s impossible to not have them affect real life. From what I get from the media, women are supposed to be quiet, pretty, and passive. We are valued primarily for the way we look and unfortunately this is seen everywhere in the media. I will be using examples from the media that are from different perspectives in order to show how universally women are portrayed the same way. I will use the TV show Two and a Half Men, to represent a male take on how women are portrayed, Twilight to show a female perspective for how women should be, and The Big Bang Theory to show a media source that targets both a male and female audience. I also will talk about a TED talk done by Dr. Caroline Heldman, who is chair of the political department at Occidental College, and use an article about Selena Gomez’s weight gain to show a real life example of how women are affected by this portrayal. It is important to stress that how we are represented in the media affects how we are treated in real life. There are of course exceptions to this. I am not trying to claim that there are absolutely no positive female portrayals in the media or that no one in the world respects women. Recently we have had several positive portrayals of female characters such as Katniss from the Hunger Games or Hermione from Harry Potter. However this is still the exception, and the majority of the way women are shown in the media is pretty much, they are treated as objects who are meant to be pretty and quiet.

The main argument that I plan to make is that women are treated as objects in the media. Its important to understand why that is a problem. Dr. Heldman goes into detail on this subject and makes a simple yet important definition of what being a sex object means. She defines it as “being an object that serves another’s sexual pleasure”. Being treated as an object automatically makes that person subordinate to another, there is not empowerment or equality in this. You are the object of someone else acting upon you. She also points out that we don’t always recognize sexual objectification when we see it, since we have grown up surrounded by it. The sexual availability of a woman has become a defining characteristic, we see half naked women in TV shows, movies, ads and commercials constantly. Attractive scantily clad women are used to promote and sell something. This is often chalked up to a presumed fact that sex sells, but maybe this isn’t true. Heldman makes a very interesting point that in a population that is half female, with the majority of those females being heterosexual, we don’t see nearly as many half naked men on advertisements. We also see sexualized women in advertisements directed towards women. Why? Why would women buy something with another half naked women on it? She isn’t buying into the “sex sells” attitude, she is buying into the dichotomy of objectification and subjectification. Men may be affected by these images for sexual pleasure or to feel powerful (as they are the subjects that act upon the object) but women are affected in a different way. Heldman introduces the idea of self objectification. Its not only men that view women as sex objects, we view ourselves that way too. We place value on ourselves based on the way we look, we compare ourselves to others, and compete with other women. Heldman uses the example of the walking into a room and automatically knowing where you fit in “the pretty girl pecking order”. If we see someone else getting attention for being treated like a sex object, it makes us compare ourselves to her and feel bad. We tend to view ourselves from a third party perspective, and worry about how we look way too much. This gets in the way of enjoying sex, reduces our ability to get along with other women, and lowers our self esteem and GPAs. Since we as women have learned that being pretty is what we should value ourselves for, emphasis on our appearance can take priority over other things such as our careers or education. Similarly we lose some of the enjoyment of sex because we focus on things such as worrying about if the position we are in is flattering or thinking about our physical insecurities instead of just enjoying the activity.

Let’s talk about Twilight, at first it seems pretty harmless. It had a lot of potential for being a good representation for women. The author is female, the protagonist is female, and the eventual movie had a female director. But instead Twilight might be the most sexist media source that I have found. The fact that it is directed towards young girls and women in a mask of feminism is what makes this book so dangerous. I was in 6th grade when Twilight came out and I remember the phenomenon it caused, every girl I knew was were obsessed with Edward and Jacob. Twilight sends several concerning messages to it’s readers. The protagonist, Bella, is insecure and quiet and sought after by every guy in the book presumingly because she is pretty and unopinionated and that is what Stephenie Meyer tells readers that men fall for. Although Bella is supposed to be smart, nothing in the book suggests she is. She cooks and cleans and doesn’t talk to anyone or have an opinion on anything, besides for judging her peers for trying to be friends with her, as she thinks that they are shallow and too friendly. However she immediately falls in love with Edward, who is described as inhumanly beautiful. Bella has little independence or character development, and relies on Edward for her sole source of happiness.When he briefly leaves her, she becomes suicidal. Edward is controlling and manipulative, he sneaks into her room to watch her sleep before they have ever talked, and admits to wanting to kill her (he is a vampire and wants to drink her blood). This is not romantic, this is creepy. If Bella snuck into Edward’s house to watch him sleep she would be considered a stalker. Having it seem romantic that your boyfriend wants to kill you is beyond concerning considering how many people die from domestic abuse. Twilight completely romanticizes unhealthy relationships, it not only condones controlling behavior, it portrays it as something to be desired. Edward controls who Bella can and can’t be friends with, and enlists his family to spy on her to make sure she is following his orders. He even takes the engine out of her car to make sure she can’t see Jacob and her other friends. During their brief breakup when she becomes suicidal, she only starts to feel better when she starts hanging out with Jacob. She needs a man to be happy, Twilight has a theme that you can be happy if you are desired by men and have a boyfriend.

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Stephanie Meyer implies that the only path to happiness is being a wife and mother, as no female characters in the book series have any other aspirations. When Bella’s life is at risk by becoming pregnant, she decides against abortion, even extremely conservative people out there believe it’s okay for a pregnancy to be terminated if the mother is at risk, but not Meyer.

Bella has no desire to do anything but be with Edward, and is willing to give up her friends, family, and humanity to accomplish this. There are multiple pro-abstinence and anti-abortion messages throughout this book. Edward puts Bella down for wanting to have sex and lectures her about virtue, they never have a discussion about it and she is just made to feel bad for desiring sex. This series promotes the virgin/whore dichotomy and fails to view women as complex beings. And when they eventually do have sex he leaves her bruised and in pain, and when she becomes pregnant as a result, he tries to force her to have an abortion. She doesn’t feel like Edward will allow her to make her own decision about her body, so she is forced to call Edward’s sister Rosalie for help. With Rosalie’s protection she is able to not terminate her pregnancy, which does in spite of the risk to her own life.

Edward and Bella’s relationship is not good, but shockingly it is not the worst one in Twilight. Two side characters, Sam and Emily, have an even more abusive relationship. Sam is werewolf who was dating Emily’s cousin Leah when he fell in love with Emily, and when she rejected him out of concern for her cousin, he morphed into a werewolf and mutilated her face. Then she fell in love with him and they eventually marry in the book series. Nikki Gasely wrote an article “Why Feminism Doesn’t Sparkle” that echoed many of my concerns. But she pointed something out that is way more concerning than anything I have listed. She said that the worst thing about Twilight is that it justifies all of Edward’s and Sam’s actions because they are said to be done out of love. Having your face ripped off is okay if someone loves you. Twilight teaches young girls that to be happy you need a boyfriend and that if they are possessive or controlling it is out of love. She sends the message that to be desired by men you should be passive and unopinionated.

Two and a Half Men portrays women in a negative way as well. This is TV series about men created by men. While there are really aren’t many likable characters at all, the female ones that aren’t just nameless hookups for Charlie are especially disdainful. But first let’s mention Charlie’s hookups. Charlie is supposed to be the cool character, despite being selfish and an alcoholic. He is shown picking up women constantly, and views them as sexual conquests, and for some reason this makes him cool and his brother and nephew look up to him. The fact that Charlie goes through so many women would not be so bad if they were shown as capable, intelligent, independent women who know that Charlie is looking for a one night stand, but instead Charlie convinces them that there is something more going on between them and then kicks them out the next day without any regard to their feelings or worth as people. This show reinforces that women are sex objects and that men must sleep with many women to be manly.

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The other women on the show are all pretty awful. Alan’s ex wife Judith is shrewd and selfish, and his next ex wife Kandi is much younger, dumb and also selfish. Alan is not much better than Charlie as he is always chasing women as well, except he has less success. He specifically seems to like Kandi primarily because she is hot then for any other reason, and yet he is somehow the victim in their breakup, despite her leaving him to pursue her career. His next girlfriend is a porn star who is with him because she doesn’t think she has any other options. Charlie and Alan’s mother Evelyn is emotionally unstable, vain, and selfish. Their housekeeper is low class and a drug user, and their neighbor Rose is a stalker. There are no positive portrayal of women on this show. I found this mediasource interesting because I think it is a good example of how women are portrayed unintentionally. This is a show about men, and I think it is a good example of unintentional sexism. The show is supposed to be funny and it’s not really supposed to have any political messages or to be taken seriously, but considering the popularity of the show it has an effect on real life. Two and a Half Men reinforce a lot of stereotypes and send some really negative messages about how women are and how they should be treated.

The Big Bang Theory is a show that I personally enjoy, but it very sexist. The pretense of it is that there is a group of nerdy men who obsess about their hot neighbor, Penny, who is never even given a last name. Penny is the typical dumb blonde stereotype and is the object of admiration by all the men (except Sheldon) because she is hot. Later the show adds in stronger female characters, Bernadette and Amy Farrah Fowler, but Penny is still the one who is admired by all the characters, even though she is the least successful. Amy Farrah Fowler is smart but she socially awkward and not considered attractive or likeable, and Bernadette is still shown as homely and both Amy and Bernadette continually look up to Penny and seek out her advice. The men on the show seem to judge their self worth based on their success with women, and value the women they are with based on their attractiveness. In the episode “The Love Car Displacement” Howard makes a comment to his girlfriend Bernadette that he is surprised by how attractive her ex-boyfriend was, and that he didn’t think he would have to worry about competing with other men over someone like Bernadette. Apparently just because she isn’t as conventionally pretty as other women Howard thinks that an attractive man wouldn’t be interested in her. Bernadette is a successful women, she has a phd in microbiology and is a pretty likable character, but Howard doesn’t think any attractive man would be interested based on her looks.

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All the media examples I have used have women being valued for how they look and being there to advance a male characters story line or be the object of a male characters affection. Penny is there for Leonard and his friends to pine after, Bella has no purpose but to be with Edward, and the majority of the women in Two and a Half men are there for Charlie to hook up with and then leave. All of the women are beautiful, and the prettier they are the more desirable they are. There isn’t much focus on their character development or anything else that has to do with their personality. Its unfortunate that the media values women based on the way they look at not for who they are or what they accomplish. Its not just TV characters and book characters that value women based on how pretty they are, it translates into real life as well. A popular singer Selena Gomez was recently criticized for gaining an estimated ten pounds. I read an article titled “Update: Selena Gomez Responds to “Disgusting” Weight Critic.” by Julie Ricevuto that talks about how Selena Gomez, who is a pretty small girl, has been criticized over her weight. What makes this article so relevant is that it has a quote from Abigail Breslin explaining that criticizing already slim celebrities for gaining weight sends a dangerous message to the public, especially young girls who look are trying to figure out their own changing bodies. In the case of Selena Gomez since her weight gain was minor this is especially dangerous because having headlines calling someone who is a healthy weight fat sends a message to the public  that being healthy is not as important as being stick skinny or that not being a size zero means you’re fat. Saying that Selena Gomez is fat when she is still slim sends the message of extreme skinniness being very important to the reader, and as Heldman told us earlier women compare themselves to each other, and if a girl thinks that a slim girl is fat they will hold themselves to that same standard and want to be skinnier even if they are already a healthy weight. Beyond that Selena is a singer, she is not a barbie doll and it’s insane to me that her weight should be mentioned at all. Women are so sexualized that a women gaining weight and becoming “less attractive” is somehow a headline. Nowhere in the article did it say that her weight gain would affect her singing ability or acting talent, or her charitable work. Nowhere did it say that her weight gain would affect anything that has to do with her as a person. Its sad that her weight has turned into a defining characteristic of hers.  

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Women have more value than just how they look, and they are not objects for men to sleep with in order to feel manly. Appearance should not define you as a person. How did something as fleeting as looks become so important? The media has somehow completely objectified women and even with the recent progress that is being made, this portrayal of women being nothing but a pretty face is still inexcusably common. There is no doubt that the media affects real life, and I know that even though I can talk about this subject and understand the problem, part of me will always place a large amount of importance on my physical appearance even though I know I shouldn’t. Hopefully in the near future the media will start to portray women as people and not just as an object to serve a man, and hopefully women will realize their own value and refuse to continue being portrayed as anything less than a complete person.

Learning Moments

One significant learning moment I had from this term was during the first reading “The urgency of visual media in our post 9/11 world:reading images of muslim women in the print news media”. Prior to reading this article I had no idea that the news would use images that had nothing to do with the actual story. The example they use of Maclean’s Magazine using an unrelated picture taken of Turkish Muslim women observing Ashura, a day of mourning, at a Mosque, and had nothing to do with the article. That combined with the headline “why the future belongs to Islam” promotes fear of muslims and out of context visual information. If one was not educated about Islam they might make a judgement on the religion based on that magazine cover, which was pretty fear invoking. The article explains that when see an image it “exploits what is already in our heads, the cultural lore we have stored up as a result of our education and experiences” (33). That is a really interesting concept to me, that we don’t see something for what it is and instead allow our own pre existing ideas on the subject to affect how we see something. After reading this article I am going to be much more skeptical of the images I see in news sources and not assume that they are accurate or relevant.

Another learning moment I had was from the reading “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad”. The article was about how there were no accurate or positive portrayals of dads in the media, as they are usually shown as dumb and bothersome. One thing that really stood out to me when reading this article was the author said ““Until very recently, a guy who wanted to stay at home or be earnest about fatherhood could not see his image reflected on TV, which essentially meant he did not exist.” I found this really interesting and still continue to reflect on this statement. If something is not shown in the media does it not exist? Its a little scary how much the media really affects us, and scary to think media portrayals take precedence over real life. I dont think that statement was true, but it has truth to it. There are amazing dads out there and it’s sad the media doesn’t usually capture that, just like there are strong intelligent women out there and the media doesn’t usually value that either. What I learned from this is that the media needs to step it up and creators of movies and TV shows should really try to accurately portray people and not rely on stereotypes.

 

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3 thoughts on “Women in the Media

  1. Hi Vanessa!
    I liked how you incorporated how women are viewed and expected to act from both the male and female perspective. It’s so interesting to think about how many female characters like Penny lack a last name and how they’re continuously seen as sexual objects in which men intend to “hit it and quit it”. That just shows how much disregard for women in the media. Great post! 🙂

  2. Hi Vanessa
    I thought your post was very enlightening. I read and saw the movie Twilight and I had not noticed that the female characters within this story have no other aspect to themselves other than being a wife or a girlfriend. I thought that this is interesting because this movie was targeted to young girls and for them to see that their only purpose in life is to find someone who loves them and have a family with that person will perpetuate the stereotype that women ‘belong in the kitchen’. I liked that you also used two popular TV shows: The Big Bang Theory and 2 and a Half Men, which was created by the same man, Chuck Lorre, and highlighted how sexist these two shows are towards women. These shows present women as the object of pleasure for a man, and if they are smarter than a man then they must be unattractive or antisocial. This notion is something that needs to be stopped, and I’m glad that you chose the display of sexism in popular media as your topic.

  3. Vanessa-
    I loved reading your post. You pointed out many underlying messages and meanings that I had really never noticed before. What really got me was your analysis of Twilight. The Twilight Series was an obsession of mine in high school like most girls, and now that I am older I know that they aren’t all that great, and the storyline isn’t romantic so much as it is creepy. The issues you pointed out with the story are things that I didn’t notice because my teenage brain didn’t look at it that closely. The fact that Meyer is essentially sending out a message that a woman’s only purpose in life is to obey her husband and have children is rather disturbing, especially seeing as how Bella has no life outside of the Cullens to speak of, and really no desire to make anything of herself after she is married. I am so glad I read your paper, and honestly my mouth was hanging open through the majority of it! Great job!

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