A group of high-octane women gathered recently in New York City for a panel entitled “Airbrush This!” Exploring the consequences of how females are portrayed in the media today were Elaine Lafferty, editor of Ms. Magazine; Claire Mysko of Girls, Inc.; mommy-wars author Sylvia Hewlett, radio personality and reporter Karen Hunter and writer Catherine Orenstein.
The conversation began with “The Stepford Wives,” the movie in which husbands kill their spouses in order to replace them with “perfect robots. Orenstein described this as a horror film, mirroring “today’s obsession with plastic surgery.” From the frightening town of Stepford, the panelists shifted to reality television shows, especially those involving surgical makeovers like “The Swan” and “I Want a Famous Face.” “It’s through these shows,” explained Orenstein, “that now we all want to be Barbie instead of being ourselves.” Hunter batted back; “It’s just a T.V show!”
When the women moved on to teenage girls today, Orenstein railed against T-shirts bearing masochistic, violent slogans like “Beat me, rape me, but just don’t touch my hair.” The audience, mostly women in their 30s to 50s, included two high schoolers; myself and my friend, Alexandra Ilyashov. (Last year, we had tried to begin a Gender in the Media club at our relatively liberal high school. People came to the first meeting, ate the pizza and left.) We looked at each other. We were directly in the middle of this age range of the T-shirt wearers, even knew people who flaunted these shirts (or similar ones: “I slept with the band,” “My boyfriend’s out of town” and “I did it with Justin [Timberlake]”), but neither of us could understand why girls wore them, or why the rights that our foremothers fought so hard for were being completely ignored. A pretty dramatic step backwards from what we thought the feminist movement had achieved.
The next day, Alexandra and I went out for lunch to discuss the fallout from the evening before. Was our generation full of anti-feminists? Is it true that degrading reality shows, or any show, was “just a T.V show”? What effects are these shows having on our peers? Why, even in a small, open-minded New York City high school was no one interested in becoming, as Mysko called it, “media literate”? We were surprised that Hunter, a woman considered to be a feminist, would refer to these derogatory television shows as unimportant. (And, in response to the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. Hunter said she didn’t believe this would cause any sort of outrage among young women—something Alex and I found shocking). As we carried the food to a table, our conversation moved to the television shows we watch. Alex sheepishly admitted that she loved “Sex and the City,” a show Orenstein was particularly critical of I then divulged the only reality television show that I ever watched; “The Apprentice.” As we exercised our media literacy, we found that even on a show that brings in smart, reputable women, they are reduced to mud-slinging, catty sorority girls, using sex to win tasks (kissing every customer who buys their product). As we threw away our plates and headed back to school, we established that our society is not completely comfortable with strong, successful women.
At our lockers, Alexandra turned and asked, “Why can’t women be independent, strong, feminine and sexy and still be taken seriously? Instead, the media portray us as choosing to be permanently altered to erase our individuality. If we’re able to be ourselves, why do some chose to look like everyone else?”