Media Literacy Strategies for Gender Equity

by Peter Davison
Organizations like MediaWatch and other feminist groups have been working for a long time to challenge sexist images in the media. I hope to build on this work and share some of the media literacy strategies and ideas I have found to be effective in working with teens specifically to end attitudes of sexism and the practise of violence.
Historically, stories and beliefs were passed on through the family, religion, tribe or the community. But in these modern times children, aged from two to eleven, watch an average of 17.7 hours of TV per week in Canada. By the end of High School, the average student will have spent 15,000 hours watching TV and only 11,000 hours in the classroom. More than in any previous generation, the media has taken the lead as the dominant agent for the communication of values and has become the first curriculum in the lives of young people.
A recent article from Adbusters magazine alludes to the repercussions of this unchecked phenomenon. The authors, Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes, in writing about consumerism note that, "Corporate advertising is likely the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race, yet its stunning impact remains curiously ignored...".
I think educators are all to familiar with this impact. Anti-social behaviour, poor self esteem and hopeless futures for young people are ever present realities in our schools. Many, though not all, of the stories produced by the media are based on sexism that become the lies that bind both women and men to a limited potential. From this perspective I join those who advocate mandatory media literacy education at all levels in our education system.
In this discussion I want to focus on how the critical thinking skills of media literacy can be part of gender equity work. My personal interest as a profeminist man and educator is to unpack how dominant masculinity is learned and how the media contributes to the years of training it takes to turn boys into violent men. By exposing the impact of sexism in the media as a particularly pervasive infotoxin I hope to help challenge and reduce at least one of the root causes of violence.
Detractors of media literacy cry censorship. To the contrary, the investigation of who produces media and what stories are told can begin to loosen the tightening grip of the cultural cartels like Disney and Time/Warner. In our increasingly technologized age stories are being told by a handful of media corporations, owned by men, who have something to sell us. The challenge is to democratize the media and move from passive consumption to active participation.
What can happen with a group of teens? As a background to the discussion of the influence and motivation of media I use references to television because the research on this medium is more abundant. But in the classroom, especially at the introductory level, magazine ads are a compact way to open up 4 of the following key concepts of media literacy.

1. Media Messages are an Artificial Construct.

All of us are affected on some level by the media's unreality as the lines between fantasy and reality are becoming blurred with every slick new production gimmick. As consumers we have been trained to let TV think for us, so opening a discussion about tricks that are geared to maintain our viewing attention require a couple of examples to prompt our thinking.
I shared one of my pet peeves about TV's artificiality in a recent workshop by recalling how cars explode every time they have an accident on TV, but do not do so in reality. One of the teens attending told us how she believed this was truth and after the car her parent was driving flipped onto it's roof, she ran down the road leaving her mother trapped. This is consistent with the experiences of emergency personnel who report that their most difficult task when arriving at an accident scene is to deal with victims trapped in the car because the victims panic in fear of an explosion.
Twenty five years of research on the effects of TV has concluded that the more television we watch the more we perceive the real world to be like that of television. It takes no great leap of imagination to correlate that study to the effects of other media messages. The more media images we take in the more we believe them to be the norm. Deconstructing media images is about reclaiming what is true for us and discerning what is fiction.
To illustrate this in magazines I share the front cover of Esquire Magazine, featuring a famous actress in a low cut red dress with the text, "What Michelle Pfeiffer needs"--open the cover fold--"is absolutely nothing." This myth would be true except for a $1525 bill submitted by the artist who "touched up" the photograph to remove her imperfections. Another example comes from Mirabella magazine and takes cosmetic perjury to a new level by featuring a cover model made from a computer generated composite. The best eyes from one model were added to the best "bee sting" lips of another etc.--to create a completely unattainable female object of beauty.
Maybe you're born with it, maybe you're not--but regardless there are lots of magazine manuals on how to be a successful stereotype and sex object. As author Mary Pipher succinctly puts the dilemma in her bestseller Reviving Ophelia, "The prospect for women is to live authentic lives or to play out culturally scripted roles." The price of keeping up to the culturally scripted roles, as defined by the media and models, is well studied. Low self esteem and anorexia/bulimia are common effects and teens girls tell me about their friends that stay with an abusive boyfriend because its better than not having a boyfriend and being uncool. Dismantling the rules of this script can be about empowerment and acceptance.
The roles for boys are also culturally scripted. When I ask young men what they like about being guys they answer, "don't have periods or pregnancy," "not scared of snakes," "physically stronger," in short, a definitive list suggesting that what it means to be male is really to be not female. The implications of this are devastating for young men who find their self worth in the crucible of fear of being feminine. It can lead to misogynist attitudes, homophobia, competition and isolation from fear of each other and our "feminine" emotional selves. Dismantling the rules of this script may also begin to dissolve the links between masculinity and violence.
To move from the opening question of "how" to the deeper analysis of "why," I use a mix and match game. Six ads for women (ads with men can be used as well) are displayed with all the words blocked out, isolating the image of the model. The trick is to match the ad with the product being sold. Teens earnestly try to match up the ads, and actually recognize some of them, but it doesn't take long before we realize it can't be done. What is really for sale is a sexualized and stereotyped ideal. If we buy product X then we will be like that stereotyped model and be successfully cool. This activity offers a bridge into how gender analysis can be used in media literacy.

2 Media Messages are Representations

Media as an expression of popular culture reflects the implicit and explicit ideological messages about who is important, and what stories are told or not told, by those who hold the dominant views. On television, stories of men outnumber women 3 to 1 and women are portrayed as victims of violence 50% more than men. A Martian doing research on the dominant species of Earth need only tune into shows like Baywatch to gather primary information about patriarchy in action. Media pins its messages on stereotypes as quick representations that splash a minimal sense of completeness about the characters because it is a quick way to build the plot and hook the audience or to pitch an ad.
At this point it is useful to open up the teen's experience of sex role stereotyping. To do this I use an activity from Healthy Relationships: A Violence-Prevention Curriculum developed by Men For Change.
The following list, from one Grade 9 class, illustrates how observant teens are concerning scripted roles. Stereotypes for men include: macho, tough, stand up for self, in control, don't cry, sexually aggressive, strong, muscular, be a leader and burp. Stereotypes for women include: polite, fragile, nice, kind, don't spit, shave legs, passive, pretty, skinny, can't be smarter than guys, confused, loyal and depend on a guy.
Who controls this monopoly on our collective identities as women and men is very political. To quote Kathleen Shannon, founder of the women's production Studio D that made films such as Adam's World and the Burning Times trilogy at the National Film Board, "True oppression is when someone else defines you."

3 Media Messages have an Economic Purpose

The merchants of consumerism and advertisers spend $150 billion per year to pay very close attention to the hopes and fears of teens and adults. The consumer, both male and female, is constantly defined as inadequate against the ideal script of the sex role stereotype noted above. We are trained to feel that our 2000 body parts fail in comparison to computer generated cover models and we can only fill this void in our being with products that compensate for not being "born with it."
At this stage I introduce the formula for an effective ad as another framework to use in critical thinking. 1. Create a problem by tapping an insecurity about fitting into the stereotype and 2. Sell the product as the solution to this "problem."
The marketing of addictions is a great place to see how this formula manipulates our insecurities about fitting into the stereotype. Cigarette ads for women are sold as "slims" to appeal to body weight concerns or the paradox of equating women's liberation--You've come a long way baby!--with addiction. Cigarettes for men promote being cool, independent and in control. This myth can be exposed through asking teens what the truth is about smoking, or by reading the obituary of the actor, Wayne McLaren, who portrayed the Marlboro man in ads. He died at age 51 from lung cancer.
Even just one of the 100,000 alcohol ads the average child will see before they reach legal drinking age is good for a long discussion. One I use from the infamous Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition features a woman in a swimsuit and a glass of booze. The text reads, "We all know that the same guys that don't drink us are the same guys who protest the swimsuit issue." Challenging this message within the framework of gender analysis reveals homophobia and stud options for becoming cool.
In the media battle to gain brand loyalty the collateral damage is the self esteem of young people. How does this affects their own sense of personal power, identity and their future dreams? With every step towards deconstructing a media message the consumer begins to assert control over the product, rather than vice versa. The politics of choice enters back into our decisions as we realize there is more to drink on a hot day than just Coke or Pepsi.
I tell a story heard on CBC's Morningside that illustrates the revelation of choice. It's about the origins of the practice of women in North America shaving their body hair. As the story goes, an executive with the Wilkinson Sword company noticed a new fashion style in the May 1915 edition of Harper's Bazaar magazine. The model was wearing a new evening gown that featured exposed shoulders as well as some under arm hair. He calculated that the sales of razor blades would double if the company could convince women to shave. In two years women's hair shaving had become fashionable based on the advertising pitch that body hair was unattractive and unfeminine. When this background is exposed, the unwritten beauty myth about women's body hair suddenly becomes an informed choice.

4 Media Messages Reinforce Structures of Social Power

I use an ad for Escape cologne that pictures a naked male model towering over a naked women looking up at him and pressed against his chest. Who is in control and how is this shown? Ad couples are invariably portrayed as sexually voracious, but messages also confirm who has power. If the ad producers printed the same message rotating it 90 degrees to the right how does the message of power change? (The woman appears to be "coming onto" the man) Notably, while this product is consumed by men the ad itself appeared in Mademoiselle magazine. The message is for women; expectations of male power and control are normal and desirable.
Although deconstructing media messages reveals important links between sexism, thought control and maintaining the male-dominant status quo, the ultimate radical act is to make our own media. This could mean making parody magazine ads like those published in Adbusters Quarterly or producing a video like students did in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. The teens involved in the project researched, wrote and acted in an 8 minute video entitled No Means No that speaks creatively about how sex role stereotypes can lead to sexual assault. Ultimately, what more can be done than to give young people the power to make their own stories come alive?
In conclusion, media literacy is a teachable skill that can bridge the gap between the classroom and the culture. It is about a new awakening that stimulates critical thinking skills, labels sexism and fosters attitudes in support of gender equity, puts personal choice back into our self esteem and exposes the truth about the corporate dependency on consumerism.
At the dawn of the 500 channel universe we can anticipate an increased daily diet of culturally scripted stereotypes, but I believe men and women can work as allies against sexism and violence in the media. For me the real promise of using media literacy in the quest for gender equity is to empower us all with a lifetime of skills that can create authentic people and lasting relationships.
A student in a recent workshop summarized it best. Johanna, age 15, said, "I think that in order to understand things in our society we have to be able to understand what the media motives are. Then we can really more concentrate on who we are instead of what other people want us to be."