Written by Beth Watkins. Media by Stephen Hillrich.
American media has never been kind to women. Whether it’s the bikini-clad woman sensually devouring a Hardee’s burger or the one-dimensional female sidekick/love interest, women have consistently been misrepresented by the media in the U.S. We regularly see women objectified in advertisements, hypersexualized in order to promote products (sex sells, right?). In Hollywood, women are often limited to secondary roles in male-centered storylines. The protagonist roles they do hold are often centered on the goal of finding love or male approval.
This portrayal has dangerous effects on its viewers. The American Psychological Association has concluded that such representation promotes self-objectification in women and girls—since we see ourselves portrayed as objects, we begin to view ourselves as objects. This leads to an increased risk of eating disorders and depression among women, and can even impair cognitive functioning. This portrayal also causes hypersexualization of women, especially among men, impairing men’s abilities to find fulfillment and satisfaction in their relationships with women.
Enter feminism into the equation—a social movement designed to promote the empowerment and equal treatment of all people—and you have a recipe for conflict. Feminism is a force that attempts to unravel the sexist framework of our society, and as a result, has been met with a certain amount of opposition. “Feminist” has become a dirty word—it conjures up images of angry, hairy women who yell at men for holding open doors. Feminism is portrayed as an ideology that uproots the family structure and is incompatible with feminine ideals. A recent popular trend in media has become highlighting voices of celebrities such as Shailene Woodley, who declare that they aren’t feminists because they believe in equal rights for women and men. These trends demonstrate a dangerous misunderstanding of feminism. By framing it in the narrative of the “bra-burning feminist” scheming for superiority over men rather than equality, American culture (often using media) has limited the power of the feminist movement.
In reality, feminism is rather different from the view that our culture provides. In general terms, feminism is simply advocacy for political, social, and economic equality for all people, regardless of gender. It involves recognizing that we still live in a culture flawed by institutional inequalities such as sexism, racism, and heterosexism, and that many groups in our society face unique challenges as a result. It involves not only acknowledging these inequalities, but also actively working to eradicate them.
Considering this definition, why has feminism gained such a negative reputation? Put simply, demonizing feminism has become a defense mechanism. Feminism identifies flaws in both our media and our culture as a whole. It calls the media out for the harmful messages it sends to viewers about women. It interferes with the way companies sell their products. What better way to maintain the status quo than to promote negative views of feminism itself?
But feminism and the media don’t have to be at odds with each other. The media isn’t inherently harmful—it’s simply been used to promote problematic messages about women and other vulnerable groups. In fact, the media can be a powerful tool in fighting for the empowerment of women, rather than against it. In order to achieve gender equality, our culture must undergo a gradual psychological shift—we must reshape the way we think about women’s roles, abilities, and identities. The media is a crucial element of this shift. Imagine what would happen if we saw Leia bringing balance to the Force rather than Luke, or if we saw women in advertisements dressed in business suits rather than bikinis. The media helps shape our perception of our world and the people in it—so if we see women equally represented in the media, we’ll begin to believe that representation is both possible and necessary in reality as well.