Empowering Girls & Women through Adverts?

Today I came across another empowering advert for women and girls. It seems that the trend is growing year by year with more and more brands jumping on the bandwagon.

Some people criticise the trend by labelling companies as hypocrite (“they are trying to sell beauty products/wax and raisors to shave our bodies after all!”). But isn’t wonderful to see this type of empowering messages promoted by adverts instead of the usual “fix yourself -be this or that” stuff?

At the very least these adverts diversify the range of images and role models available to girls and from my point of view this could be the start of a gradual change taking place…if we start to reward the companies sending this type of messages instead of criticise them under the hypocrisy label, more and more of them will follow and the entire advertising landscape can gradually transform into something more real and inspiring than the fake beauty images currently surrounding us: it makes perfect sense.

Check out the full playlist of empowering adverts here and let me know what you think!

 

How the Beauty Imperative Influences Our Life

beauty myth

We are constantly surrounded by symbols of beauty – gorgeous tanned women in bikini on the billboards, mysterious smoky-eyed seductresses, mothers that manage to take care of career, household and children, while still looking like goddesses. Female beauty is, as we’ve been taught, something essential. A woman needs to look her best at all times. But it turns out that “her best” is quite a slippery term…

“The Beauty Myth”, published in 1991, is one land-marking book focusing on how the beauty idea influences women’s life. With power come responsibilities, the book says, and these responsibilities – at least for women – mean adhering to certain standards. The “iron maiden”, as Naomi Wolf refers to it, is the impossible standard that punishes women both physically and psychologically for their inability to achieve it.

The ideal of female beauty isn’t new. It has started as early as the ancient times, with the ancient Egyptians using kohl to blacken their lashes and upper lids, and Romans darkening their eyes with burnt matches and fading their freckles with young boys’ urine. In history, beauty has always been a symbol of power and social status. The wealthy Renaissance women had to pluck their hair lines in order to make their foreheads seem higher, and to bleach their hairs to make them blonder. This trend continued up to the 1990s, where the ideal for female beauty was Kate Moss, the symbol of extreme thinness, with a strung-out and emaciated appearance, both in face and body.

We’ve all heard about the Photoshop debates and the unrealistic beauty standards, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Think about how many magazines publish dietary and exercise tips that guarantee you to “lose weight quickly”. How many tabloids compete to be the first to “comment on” (“shaming” is probably a better word) a celebrity’s weight gain. It’s not surprising that the incidence of eating disorders have doubled in the last 15 years.

The problem is not surrounding women with unreal physical standards. The issue is that women believe they’re expected to look like this, because they can. This is how the horrific cycle of self-loathing begins. Every time you open a magazine, you’re urged to lose weight quickly, to dye your hair, to shave your body, to be as feminine as possible. You can’t be beautiful if you have pores or gray hairs. You have wrinkles or freckles? Then you better do something about it. The problem is intensified by the pervasiveness of todays’ media: it’s very difficult to escape all these images, slogans and messages as they are ubiquitous and thus become the very fabric of our constant preoccupation with the way we look. Young girls’ role models are YouTubers like Zoella, whose videos are all about teaching girls how to achieve “that perfect look” through hours of make-up.

So many more girls today suffer from eating disorders, anxiety, depression, self-harm/cutting and trichotillomania. The more girls self-objectify, the more likely is that they will suffer from these issues. The worst problem is that we believe we need to be beautiful in order to be happy, successful and loved. We always fear that all our other qualities – no matter how great – won’t be enough to make us feel worthy in the eyes of others; unless we achieve the standard of beauty which we deem acceptable, we feel that we are falling short, while in reality whom we compete against are only abstract ideals. We will run and starve to death, or binge and purge, to get thinner, but they’ll always be a next magazine cover with a thinner or fairer model. I’ve personally practiced 15 years of this struggle before I started considering that perhaps my perspective was flawed…

The “beauty ideal” has influenced women’s throughout history, regardless of the country or culture. The beauty standards may change according to country-based preferences (although there is evidence that the white/western type of beauty is increasingly held as a standard more globally; an example is offered by some Asian countries – see this article about South Korea – where the western beauty ideal has prompted an alarming growth in the number of girls resorting to cosmetic surgery to “fix” their  Asian features. South Koreans currently have more plastic surgery than in any other country according to 2013 figures, with the craze particularly popular among 19 to 49-year-olds), but still these beauty standards dictate our life and judge who can be happy and who needs to “work more” in order to achieve their dreams.

In a world in which other skills and qualities in a girl are – should we say? – “less regularly” emphasized, beauty has become synonymous with happiness and girls are constantly pushed towards it, and punished if they fail to conform. The question is how can we revert the brainwashing once done and “unlearn” the bits of a beauty-obsessed culture that doesn’t serve us well, while keeping the ones that make us feel empowered. If only we could teach girls (and boys too) that there is nothing inherently wrong in the appreciation of feminine beauty or the grooming practices in themselves, but that, rather, the problems start when we take as imperative what society/media/advertisers tell us in regard to what our beauty ideal should be (particularly if that ideal of beauty become narrower, unrealistic and applied universally) and when we fail to strike a balance with all the other dimensions of our life, self and world, so that our preoccupation with appearance gradually becomes an obsession.

I know that for me and many other women, awareness has only come with age. I am still convinced in the power of awareness and participation, but I wonder what type of experiences can permanently raise young girls’ consciousness of being beauty-bound? And would that consciousness – once raised – be able to eradicate the feeling of unworthiness many young girls are battling with? Or is this – like many seem to contend – just a process that necessarily most girls will need to go through, living it and experiencing it in their own skin before finding themselves “liberated” only at a later stage of maturity?

Third Wave Feminism & Celebrities: Engaging the Masses or Losing Focus?

bey-feminist

“Feminism is flawed, but it offers, at its best, a way to navigate this shifting cultural climate. Feminism has certainly helped me find my voice. Feminism has helped me believe my voice matters, even in this world where there are so many voices demanding to be heard. How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism fall short of our expectations, we decide that the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement.”
Roxane Gay “Bad feminist” (2014)

 

That moment at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards when the queen herself, Beyoncé, dramatically slid across the stage with the word FEMINIST emblazoned in massive letters behind her is undoubtedly unforgettable. With her tight, glittering outfit, perfectly made-up appearance, and her status as both a career woman and a devoted wife and mother, Beyoncé single-handedly and single-mindedly embodied the major characteristics of third wave feminism, bringing the whole package to the viewers everywhere in one gloriously dramatic show of theatrics. In that moment we all knew modern feminism had arrived, right? Most major publications seem to think so, including Times Magazine, and the Twitter hubbub that followed Beyoncé’s performance was largely excited and favourable. Even Taylor Swift, who once avoided feminism as she felt it pit “girls against boys”, jumped on the bandwagon. Seemingly overnight, celebrity third wave feminism became a bona fide phenomenon.

All appears well, at first glance, with this large-scale embrace of a word that, in years prior, was polarizing at best. True to its message that one can love men, be freely sexual, and celebrate one’s femininity (reclaiming it as a source of personal power), third wave feminism has been key to banishing the old negative stereotypes associated with the “other F word”. And to its credit, one is no longer automatically presumed, by most, to be a lesbian, a “man hater”, or a prude, if one self-identifies as a feminist.

Despite the gleaming surface and celebrity endorsements, however, third wave feminism has been experiencing some serious criticism, even all-out backlash. Third wave feminism is not, in fact, new. Nor is its celebrity cachet; indeed, third wave feminism is not currently doing anything truly revolutionary in terms of feminism’s perception in popular culture (even if Twitter and the news media seem to think it is). The Spice Girls were conveying roughly the same message to the masses that Beyoncé is twenty years ago, back when third wave feminism was just getting started. In fact, this last wave feminism has been bound together with celebrities and popular culture more or less since its inception.

The issue – according to “celebrity” third wave feminism’s detractors – is that feminism is not, at base, about popular culture, or even popular perception, but that it’s about systemic change and that this, arguably, may be where modern feminism is failing, raising the question of whether celebrities taking up the cause is helping the movement, or hindering it via distraction and glossy misrepresentation. These detractors are not without a point: throughout the western world over the last decade, women’s rights have either not made significant gains or, in some regions, have moved backwards. In the United States, for example, state politicians have enacted more than 200 restrictions over the last four years that make it harder for women to obtain safe, legal abortion care. To put that in perspective, that’s more restrictions in just four years than were enacted over the whole of the previous decade. (1) Likewise, in the UK, anti-abortion lobbyists have grown more aggressive, waging what the UK Times calls a “stealth war” on abortion rights. (2)

In United States, there has also been increasing pressure in many states to limit access to birth control. Already in some states, such as Arizona, a woman’s boss has the power to deny her insurance coverage for birth control if she is taking it for contraceptive reasons. (3) Goals like “securing the right to an abortion”, and “making it acceptable for women to delay or space their children with birth control, or even to not have children at all”, were the causes of second wave feminists. (4) How is it that third wave feminism has the word “feminism” appearing everywhere in popular culture, while the actual sum of women’s rights stagnates or erodes? Even the glass ceiling—something second wave feminists were relying on their daughters to break, building upon the gains the second wavers had made for women in the workplace over the span of their careers—remains securely in place.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal/Gallup survey, half of all female managers named reasons related to their gender as what is holding them back at work, including: “male chauvinism, attitudes toward a female boss, slow advancement for women, and the simple fact of being a woman.” Likewise, 61% of the women executives reported having been mistaken for a secretary at a business meeting; 25% said they had been thwarted on their way up the ladder by male attitudes toward women, and 70% believed they are paid less than men of equal ability. (5)

All of this begs the question: have we in the third wave allowed feminism to lose its focus? In an effort to make feminism more welcoming and inclusive, are we watering down what it really means?

Yes, we probably have and are, but to blame celebrity involvement alone for this would be terribly short-sighted. The real problem with third wave feminism likely lies within the movement itself, and how, in its efforts to be “all-inclusive” (breaking down barriers created by race and gender orientation), it has sadly and ironically become splintered and full of exclusive sects. Many third wave feminists report finding themselves shut down or unwelcome in conversations if their sexual orientation or race doesn’t match the mainstream. Thus, feminists who happen to be people of colour and gay feel unwelcomed among feminists who are heterosexual white (and viceversa), or if they happen to be cisgendered among transgendered individuals (and viceversa). But these divisions exist not in the ideals helded up by feminism; they are simply created by people’s different perspectives: some class/group of people feel more oppressed than others and wrongly excluded from the conversation, while some other class/group of people feel guilty and far too privileged than others. These feeling create barriers and barriers that painfully obstruct communication and progress. In forums and articles across the web, I read about different experiences  and contrasting points of view: some white — along with male feminists—feel accused of “derailing” conversations, not checking their “privilege” enough, and generally taking the focus off the people who — by their own estimation—really matter in that conversation, because they are the ones who are really oppressed. Take, for example, the experience of Generation-Y feminist and writer Devon Murphy:

“For as long as I can remember, I have been a feminist and proud of it. You could say I fell in love early, and like one who had found a high school sweetheart, I barely turned my head to see what other options were available. But now that I’m in my mid-20s, things seem a lot murkier. While I will always consider myself a feminist at heart, it’s no longer the simple movement I signed up for as a child. It isn’t just peace signs, birth control pills and that extra 30 cents on the dollar. What I once saw as a solid rock of ideals turned out to be a prism. And the more light that shines on it, the more the idea splinters into areas I can’t reach or even begin to understand. This is both exciting and difficult. I’m not sure where I fit in anymore, since, as it turns out, I was born into the white, upper-middle class section of feminists. We’re not always the most popular, and some say we have the least to be angry about.” (6)

Meanwhile, writer Liz Henry of The Broad Side laments the fact that, while the LGBTQ movement has conquered both pop cultural exposure and the dismantling of “state-sanctioned and federal government-endorsed homophobia”, feminists “have yet to decide if Sheryl Sandberg is the anti-Christ or the power unicorn the movement deserves; if women of color “stir the pot” or have a damn point. Or about the future of feminism in and of itself.” (7) Henry raises a valid question: If we’re wholly occupied attacking other women’s right to be feminists, and alternately building up and tearing down our own idols, how do we go about, as a unified whole, defending women’s rights within the political systems of our nations?Within this environment, it’s all but impossible to ascertain whether celebrity endorsement is harming the message of feminism or whether, conversely, it’s the last bit of glue holding the splintered third wave of the movement together, a beacon of hope and inspiration to young girls regardless of their race, class, or orientation.

Perhaps we should all relax and accept for ourselves the “Bad Feminist”‘s label  the adorable and witty Roxane Gay (2014) embraces in her book. But before we can effectively criticise the message that celebrity third wave feminism is spreading, we have to agree—if not unanimously, at least relatively cohesively—on what the right and proper message of feminism actually is. Before we can properly call ourselves feminists, we have to act on it. After all, no amount of celebrity exposure and pop cultural dissemination can step in and cause change for us. 😉

  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/laws-courts-shrinking-access-to-abortion/2014/10/10/efd0aef4-4f25-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html
  2. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/thunderer/article4363365.ece
  3. http://www.ibtimes.com/arizona-birth-control-bill-banning-use-contraception-employers-back-spotlight-798937
  4. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/historical/Third-Wave-Feminism.html
  5. http://www.feminist.org/research/business/ewb_glass.html
  6. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/06/24/modern-feminism_n_3471768.html
  7. http://www.the-broad-side.com/the-jezebelification-of-feminism-liz-henry
  8. Roxane Gay (2014) Bad Feminist. Harper Perennial

Media’s Perfection through a Young Woman’s Eyes

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by Dusty Rose (USA, age 25)

I live in Los Angeles, self-proclaimed “Entertainment capital of the world.” Every waking morning the denizens of this overcrowded mini-state are inundated with images. Billboards on the work commute or daily walk, magazines in the grocery stores, banner ads in the email sidebar or website of choice, commercials and trailers for every conceivable product, film, and TV series.

I have lived my life so swamped by these images that I have learned to tune them out for the most part, which only prompts bigger, flashier, more attention-grabbing ones to take their place as advertisers realize we’re becoming inured to their attempts.

The few times I actually stop and look at what is being sold, I realize that it is always Perfection of some kind. If they are not directly showing you how YOU could be Perfect, they are showing you actors and actresses who set a standard for “Perfect” that few can reach naturally.

I remember growing up hating myself all the time. Before I knew the diagnosis label Trichotillomania, I was pulling out my eyebrows and eyelashes from anxiety, and would spend hours meticulously tweezing my knees because it calmed me down. When I hit puberty, skin-picking was added to the mix. The pulling and picking eased my anxiety, but directly fueled a raging self-hatred. Several passages in my old journals spew vitriolic sentences about how “Princesses don’t have scabbed and scarred faces” and “Princesses don’t have gaps in their eyelashes.” I never actually referenced Disney princesses in this, but rather the idea of Perfection that I saw everywhere and was embodied in the term “Princess.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t me, and I belonged “in the garbage with the trash.”

As I have grown, I have struggled and continue to struggle with overcoming my self-hatred. I don’t wear makeup unless I completely lose an eyebrow, and then it’s just a little eyebrow pencil. I feel shame some days, but prefer not to hide behind a mask like there’s something terrible that I must hide about my appearance.

I have also made many friends, and at least three were actively bulimic when I was with them. It was when their fingers were down their throats that I most raged at the images everywhere, the worshipped model of Perfection that made them think they were “less than.” I hated the pain my friends were in, and wished with all my heart they would see themselves as beautiful, even as I could not see myself as anything more than garbage.

If I could change one thing about how the media presents women, it would be to strip away the concept of perfection. Not that women don’t go around all day without makeup, many do. But do they wake up in Perfect eyeshadow? Do they swim with gloriously thick mascara? Is every blemish properly concealed to avoid the horrifying truth of nature? Must every single woman walk around looking like she just spent half the day in a high-end salon? And, in the vein of stripping away “Perfection” as it is known, I would add in a boatload of women in various sizes and shapes as actresses in main and supporting roles, whose role in the film is NOT to be fixed, degraded, or made fun of. I would have some struggle with their appearance, reflecting our own struggles, and I would have some rejoice in their reflections to give us some hope that we, too, can enjoy ourselves in any shape and size.

Maybe one day the standard for Perfect will be different, or maybe we will outgrow the need for Perfect. Until that day, the best thing we can do is build each other up in the places where we are constantly torn down.

LetMeBME Project: An Outsider Perspective

website screeshot letmebme

by JL Field (Canada)

I can vividly remember the first time an image in the media truly impacted my self-image; it was back around the turn of the millennium, when I was enduring that awkward, spotty, slightly pudgy preteen experience so many of us go through. I desperately wanted to emerge from that chrysalis, to find my adult being, to establish a sense of personal power over myself and surroundings.

I opened a fashion magazine, and I saw her: Incredibly thin—I can still remember the bone-white elegance of her frail wrists to this day—immaculately airbrushed skin, face with barely a hint of visible makeup (as was popular at the time), and simple, millennium-sleek powder-blue jacket and plain white tank. She had brown hair and eyes, just like me. I wanted to be her; I don’t know why. Something in her cold grace called to me, became my personal idea of perfect, the measure against which I compared myself for years to come.

“Perfect” is a word you’ll hear echoed a lot by the various participants in the LetMeBMe project, a revolutionary new initiative launched by Media Savvy Girls. This worldwide video project has gotten underway by asking women from many diverse backgrounds to share—in 45 seconds or less—what they would like to see changed in the media’s portrayal of women. This question is to be the first in a series of three, aimed at shedding light on the unique needs, values, and voices of women around the world. LetMeBme was initially developed for girls and women alone, but after receiving many comments from men and boys, the creator of the project realized how important it was to include their voices too. As the recent UN “He4She” campaign so aptly put it, “Gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue.”

The format of the LetMeBMe project will be, I feel, a large part of its success; it is brilliant in its brevity and simplicity, easily digestible by the social media generation while remaining personal, poignant, and powerful.

The answers to question one really struck a chord with me. So many different women and men —over 100 have already contributed to the video project, which shows strong signs of going viral—from so many different countries echoed similar statements, a sad comment on how obviously flawed the media’s current portrayal of women really is. The majority of contributors speaking cited the need for a rapid and thorough end to the unrealistic expectations of physical perfection and the limiting, idealized stereotypes regarding female roles and behaviour. Instead – say these people- we need more realistic, multifaceted depictions of women as complex, flawed people whose beauty is found in the inner strength that allows them to carry on despite adversity, not in their superficial blessings and the unrealistically perfect lives that are always shown to accompany them.

I couldn’t agree more. Nobody has ever given me an “opt out” choice for any of the tragedies or hardships in my life because I look a certain way or because my body is a certain shape, and I think when I realized that—when I realized how irrelevant many of these superficial qualities the media so wholly focusses on in women are to the actual story of life—I realized the phenomenal lie we as women are told by the media on a daily basis.

How we look is not who we are. You are not actually likely to be any more successful or happy because you are a size 4, a certain height, or look younger than you actually are— trust me! No such qualities, no matter how much they match my old concept of “perfect”, have helped me overcome a single struggle that I have faced; instead, my brain, my tenacity, and above all, my positive and enduringly generous attitude, have carried me through.

By telling young women anything else, we are rendering them ill-equipped to deal with the struggles their lives will actually present them with, giving them the wrong tools to deal with the challenges that the world will, almost certainly, throw at them.

A message countering that lie in this medium has, if you ask me, been a long time coming. While the occasional video project empowering women has made quite a splash on mainstream media during the last decade or so, too many of those have been the buzz-grabbing brain-children of corporations (think Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign). While such campaign’s as Dove’s are not entirely without merit, they not only inherently involve a certain level of hypocrisy (“You’re beautiful the way you are—but buy this product to make your flat hair look more radiant”), they verge on being all-out patronizing to women, such as the by-now infamous “Patches” series, in which Dove evidently went out of its way to find women insecure and naive enough to believe that wearing an empty patch would “make them look more beautiful.” When the women were told the patches were fakes, Dove was on hand to film their reactions, as if making a fool out of “real women” on national television would help the self-esteems of women everywhere.

Personally, I feel that treating women as though they need a corporation to enlighten them, to enable them to see themselves as they really are or to measure their own potential, is an inherently flawed approach anyway—and that’s why the LetMeBMe project is so inspirational. LetMeBMe puts all of the power in the hands of women themselves, with a complete and truly refreshing absence of agenda. It simply lets us speak. More importantly, I find the inclusive nature of the project – the fact that men and boys are not excluded from the conversation – absolutely crucial in these days and time. As a contribution to the empowerment of women and girls everywhere, this raw, individual emphasis on the female voice is long overdue and truly invaluable.

What Men Really Think about Women in the Media?

Finally!  It was about time that we open the conversation to men!  Today we have almost reached the 50+ mark for male contributions (!!): these men and boys speak from all over the world and the majority of their voices seem to allineate perfectly with women and girls’ concerns.

So what do they think? Check this short promo first

and then move on the full playlist at

It is all very exciting and I cannot wait to see more contributions coming in, so please keep sending in and keep sharing!!

<3

Launching LetMeBME: A Worldwide Video Project

What would happen if I start asking women and girls around the world to answer 3 simple questions? This is the first short film produced from a selection of the first contributions received 😉

Eventually I would like to invite contributions from the men/boys, to see what is their view on question 1: I think it’s paramount to include all views and allow the project to be as inclusive and agenda-free as possible.

The project website www.letmebme.org is still under construction and I am looking for sponsors to effectively power the website with in-built video-uploading technology: this will bring the project to the next level as contributors will be able to directly share their uploaded videos through YouTube/Vimeo and other video sharing links. For now everyone interested in sharing their thoughts can send their short video via email to letmebme@mediasavvygirls.org or via tweet/facebook with the hashtag #letmeBME; our editor will upload all new contributions on a monthly basis.

In this era of social media and advanced video technology there is not excuse for not joining in and letting our voices be heard!

The Big Tween Market Machine: Why Pre-adolescents are Marketers’ Dream

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“What do you call a consumer who wants to buy everything you have, doesn’t care what it costs and is less than five feet tall? A marketer’s dream? Nope. You call them kids.” 

AdRelevance Intelligence Report, 2000

While marketing to children is nothing new – having first been introduced in the 1960s – the aggressive marketing to those on the cusp of adolescence (ages 9-14) is a phenomenon that has arisen much more recently, in direct synchronicity with the “internet age” and the rise of new media (1990s-present). This demographic, the so-called “tween” group (for “in between”), was in fact entirely developed by and for marketers, and took on economic significance before it took on cultural significance (1).  It would not be a hyperbolism to suggest that tween culture was, in fact, entirely manufactured by the marketing machine. To understand the aggressive and pervasive nature of tween marketing, it’s important to first understand why this arbitrary distinction was created. Why “tweens”? What tweens have to offer to marketers that is so important vs. what children and teenagers already provide as consumers? Why has this market exploded the way it has in the last decade? The answer boils down to the fact that tweens, being in a transitory period, face a great degree of sudden vulnerability. And, at the same time, they retain full access to parental funds. This juxtaposition of susceptibility to influence and spending power is more prevalent among tweens than it is among teens or children.

Tweens’ Influence on Household Spending

Tweens are too young to legally earn their own money in order to attain what they want, so retain a child’s relatively unquestioned reliance on (and thus access to) their parent’s funds. According to BusinessWeek magazine, “Of the reported US$ 51 billion spent by tweens themselves, an additional $170 billion was spent by parents and family members directly for them” in the United States annually (2).  In the UK, we have 11 million people aged 15 and under, with a remarkable total expenditure of £12 billion from children up to 18, money often coming from own pocket money (alas parent’s pockets!) and part-time jobs (2b). This does not merely represent an access to more money on the part of tweens, but also a far greater lack of discretion about what they will spend it on. Teens, by contrast, who have begun to earn and control their own funds, have more awareness of the fact that money is finite and needs to be prioritized around what they really want, introducing a level of agency and choosiness about what they buy which is the precursor to adult spending habits. At the same time, tweens have just enough independence to exert power over household spending decisions owing to a shift in family dynamics which took place during the 1990s, and is known to play a key role in modern marketing strategy.(3) This shift saw a large number of tweens living in households where both parents work and in single-parent households (in 1994, one in four households in the United States with children was headed by a single parent, up from one in eight in 1970 [Miller, 1994]), and led to far more responsibility being placed upon tweens and teens (e.g. grocery shopping duties, which fully one-third of tweens have), giving them greater purchasing power and more independence. (Cuneo, 1989; McLaughlin, 1991; Miller, 1994; Rickard, 1994)(3) Tweens have been shown to have more “discretionary purchasing power than younger children or older adolescents, to shop at least three times a week, and to save 30% of their spending money for higher ticket items.” (McLaughlin, 1991) This access and right to adult funds and influence over what is done with them combined with tweens’ unique psychological vulnerabilities make them extremely appealing to marketers, and has been a strong factor in the developing pervasiveness of marketing directed at them.

The Role of Peer Pressure in Marketing to Tweens

As mentioned earlier, tweens are in a unique phase of psychosocial vulnerability. Most children in this age group are going through a fundamental change in their place in the social hierarchy around them, moving from schools where they were the oldest, most respected, “coolest” kids, to environments that are new, alien, and place them as the youngest and most vulnerable members. They have to “start over” socially at exactly the same time as their own bodies are developing in sudden, often troubling ways. The tween years are a period of intense change: mental, physical, emotional, and social. This breeds an incredibly intense pressure to “fit in”. Most surveys conducted on the priorities of tweens note fitting in on the top of, or very near the top of, the list. Naturally, this creates a deep need to have what their peers have and look how their peers look — a marketer’s haven for creating trends around brands. Teens, by contrast, are increasingly rebellious and eager to carve out individual identities, meaning that mainstream pop culture (and therefore the marketing therein) is something many teens grow to define themselves against, rather than by, an obvious challenge to marketers (for whom mainstream appeal is the goal, as it brings with it maximum profit potential). The pop idols and Disney shows that were the height of cool when they were twelve are the epitome of “lame” by 15 or 16 — hence why many pop stars (e.g. Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus) are aggressively marketed to smitten tweens while often being almost universally loathed by older teens. Research confirms the fact that tweens place even more emphasis on brand names than do older adolescents (Cuneo, 1989; Fitzgerald, 1992; Koester May, 1985; McLaughlin, 1991; Simpson, 1994). They are particularly concerned with having the “cool” brands when it comes to clothing and other matters of appearance. They much more strongly associate conformity with the need for acceptance, approval, and harmonious relationships with others (Batra, Kahle, Rose, Shoham, 1994).(3) Today’s tweens are also the most “wired” generation in history (heavily using the internet and mobile devices), meaning this peer pressure travels with them everywhere they go, and thus so does the potential to market to it. Tweens are also far more likely to click on things like banner ads than other age groups and are more susceptible to viral marketing tactics that promote the spread of a message from one user to another. Marketing to tweens via interactive social venues like chat rooms, forums, and e-mail have been noted to be especially effective.(4) Due to this, the prevalence of online marketing (both obvious and subtly worked into interactive media) has risen sharply over the last decade.

The Impact of Puberty: Body Image and Gender Roles

No discussion of tweens could be complete without examining the role of puberty; the rapid changes taking place in tweens’ bodies throws how these young people relate to one another into chaos, thrusting gender roles into sudden and stark relief and raising big questions about sex, dating, marriage, and the possibility of having children. Little girls and boys who were simply playmates a year or two prior suddenly find they have to redefine their peer roles around their emerging sexuality. This creates a deep need in tweens to understand themselves as gendered persons, and tween marketing capitalizes on this by offering strongly gendered media that plays into tweens’ heightened body awareness and subsequent concerns about their appearance. While this newfound awareness is hard on the self-esteem of both genders, it has been found to be significantly harder on girls (owing in large part to an intense perceived pressure to be thin), with research conducted throughout the United States, Korea, and Australia showing that the body dissatisfaction which arises in girls during puberty “is associated with lower levels of self-esteem and increased likelihood of depression among early adolescent girls.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 303.) The earlier a girl physically matures, the worse this impact tends to be, and the more likely serious consequences (such as eating disorders) become.(5) As self esteem is a “central component of personality and identity” and is centrally tied to one’s “confidence in one’s ability to think and to cope with the challenges of life and confidence in one’s right to be happy” (Clancy and Dollinger, 1993)(6), young girls’ desire to identify with themselves in a positive way (and thereby achieve greater agency and success) makes the consumption of images of beautiful, thin young women incredibly appealing—something tween television programming and advertising media taps into (and profits from) frequently. To assess this phenomenon, Ashton Lee Gerding, a humanities student, and Nancy Signorielli, professor of communication at the University of Delaware, analysed 49 episodes of 40 distinct American tween television programs that aired in 2011 on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Nickelodeon and the Turner Cartoon Network. They catalogued and examined more than 200 characters in terms of their attractiveness, gender-related behaviour and personality characteristics such as bravery or ability to handle technology (7): “Tween viewers are undergoing an important developmental stage and actively seek cues about gender,” said Gerding. “Television programming can play an important role in that development, so we examined tween television programming. Overall, girls were portrayed as more attractive, more concerned about their appearance, and received more comments about their appearance than male characters. However, female and male characters were equally likely to be handy with technology and exhibit bravery. This sends the message that girls and boys can participate in and do the same things, but that girls should be attractive and work to maintain this attractiveness”. “Tween television programs may help to shape the way kids think about the roles that are available for them. Therefore, we advise parents to watch these programs with their kids and talk with their tweens about their roles in society. We also advocate for media literacy programs that could mitigate some of the potential negative effects of these programs.”

Tips for Parents: How to Moderate the Impact of Tween Marketing

Marketing is an inevitable part of the world most of us live in, so parents cannot hope to entirely shield their tweens from the impact of marketing on their developing adolescence. Parents can, however, give their tweens tools to help them cope with the barrage, and parents should never undervalue their role in this area. No matter how pervasive the media and marketing have become, tweens still cite their parents as their biggest influence when it comes to important decisions, even in “private” areas like sexuality. Parents can, absolutely, make a strong difference in how teens interpret and deal with the media and the marketing that is so aggressively aimed toward them. Prof. Agnes Nairn and Ed Mayo with the help of UK charity Care for the Family completed a “pester power” online survey and published a pamphlet Pester-power: Families surviving the Consumer Society (2007) which include a comprehensive summary of “survival tips” adopted by parents against the current marketing pressure. The booklet can be downloaded from this link: http://goo.gl/Q34ME9 (10). In this blogpost I want to include some suggestions provided by the Media Awareness Network, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and Susan Linn (psychologist and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood)(8), which should help parents navigate the murky waters of children commercialisation:

  • Start young. Children are influenced by marketing from a very young age.
  • Limit children’s exposure to advertising on television and on the Internet. Don’t allow them to have televisions or Internet-enabled computers in their rooms, and limit TV time to one or two hours per day.
  • Talk to your kids about how advertising works and what advertisers are trying to accomplish. Explain that advertising is a multi-billion dollar business whose goal is to get people to buy things, and that they are very good at it.
  • Encourage kids to think critically about marketing messages. You can start as small as you like: last year a Grade 6 math class in Thunder Bay, Ontario debunked a “fun fact” on a package of Smarties, which claimed that Canadians eat enough Smarties each year to circle the earth 350 times. They found that in order for the claim to be true, either the earth would have to be a lot smaller, or each Smartie would have to be 3.5 metres in diameter.
  • Help kids to understand the strategies used by advertisers. Talk with kids about specific ads: “How do you feel about the people in the ad? Do you want to be like them? Why or why not? Does the ad make you feel uncool for not owning the product, or that you’ll feel good about yourself if you buy the product? What are some other ways you could get those feelings, without buying the product? Has the ad used any ambiguous words or impressive-sounding facts and figures to make the product sound better than it is? At the end, did the announcer say anything like ‘some assembly required’ or ‘batteries not included’?”
  • Explain about product placement: if characters in a movie or TV show are using a particular brand, the advertiser probably paid a lot of money for it to be there.
  • Discuss how your kids can be smart, responsible consumers by knowing what is good for them and what is not, what is good for the environment and what is not, and what is good value for money.
  • Educate children about nutrition using your country’s Food Guide. Discuss whether eating only things you see on TV makes for a healthy, balanced diet. Make a distinction between “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods.
  • Before going grocery shopping, decide exactly what you plan to buy, including snacks and treats. Having a list that you and your kids have discussed ahead of time makes it easier to avoid impulse purchases and set limits in the store.
  • Monitor your own media habits and buying habits, and change them if necessary. Children pick up early on what is important to their parents.
  • Most importantly, make sure TV, Internet, and video games “screen time” is well balanced with family time, active/creative play, playing outdoors, reading, and other activities without marketing attached!
Main references:
1. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=bgsu1119390228&disposition=inline
2. http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2005-10-11/marketing-and-tweens2b. www.tgisurveys.com/tgi/Youth2006.PDF  and Youthscape Report: Attitudes, Behaviour and Spending Habits of UK Kids & Teens, Q4: 2013 https://www.marketresearch.com/Swapit-v3893/Youthscape-Attitudes-Behaviour-Spending-Habits-8261648/
3.  http://42051.faithweb.com/Tween%20consumes%20catalog%20clothing%20purchase%20behavior.html
4.  http://www.cdc.gov/youthcampaign/research/PDF/LitReview.pdf
5. http://www.brighthubeducation.com/teaching-methods-tips/3320-development-in-early-adolescence-puberty-and-low-self-esteem/
6.  http://www.drwrite.com/research/sample2.shtml
7.http://www.science20.com/news_articles/tween_programming_is_disney_promoting_stereotypes_or_creating_what_kids_want_to_watch-134661
8. http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/en/news/newsandfeatures/pages/target-market-children-as-consumers.aspx
9. http://www.slideshare.net/gerdavandamme/whitepaper-digital-marketing-to-generation-spongebob
10. http://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/301-08-ppinf02-pester-power-booklet-10-september-2008.pdf

					

The Impact of the Media on Children Sexual Identities

Children using smartphones

This blog post continues the discussion of academic literature around the topis of media and children gendered and sexual identities (see the first part in my previous article on sexualisation).

The rapid development of the internet and mobile technology has brought with it the entrance of the media into our everyday lives in ways that we could not have imagined prior to the 1990s; children born from the mid-1980s onward have experienced a level of media exposure throughout their developmental years that was hitherto unheard of. This trend only continues to grow—and fast.  A study recently conducted by the family advocacy organization Common Sense Media found that 38% of children under the age of 2 have used a mobile device for playing games, watching videos or other media-related purposes. As recently as the year 2011, only 10% had.(1) In the UK, three quarters of 5-15 year olds have internet access at home and 71% have a TV set in their rooms, followed by 62% with a gaming console as well, and 54% own their own mobile phones (Ofcom, 2007). All in all, a great many young people have 24-hour independent access to media.

Of course, wherever the media goes, sex soon follows. Sex sells, after all, and in a world of increasing visual and auditory clutter, it’s one of the few tools left by which a piece of media can woo our fleeting attention. In a previous article, we both debunked some of the common misconceptions surrounding early exposure to sexualised media (such as the idea that it necessarily leads to higher rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion) and introduced the concept of agency; namely, the deeper debate between whether this exposure is removing some of the traditional negative stigma from female sexuality and encouraging the free expression of desire and choice, or whether it is encouraging sexual behaviour in such a way that young people are getting more and more willing to open themselves up to (or perpetrate) exploitation. In essence, are we dealing with the liberal encouragement of pleasure, or the destruction of natural innocence in favour of danger?

Proving either stance is fraught with obvious difficulty; while some studies have been able to show, for example, that teens who watch more than two hours of television per day are 30% more likely to have sex, regardless of parental attitudes, (parental disapproval was actually shown to more than double this likelihood) (2) assessing how much agency these teens wield on a case-by-case basis is challenging, if not impossible.

To illustrate, teens who watch more than two hours of television per day may well do so because they are having social difficulties at school, have few friends, and thus, are quicker to leap into bed with other teens when the opportunity arises. Such teens would seem to be acting for acceptance or under the influence of peer pressure, rather than acting simply because the media told them to. Similarly, teens with strict parents are much more likely to suffer from poor self-esteem (and therefore an even greater craving for acceptance) (3), which could explain why the rates get even higher for those teens whose parents have very strict attitudes about sex.

While one might still argue the wisdom of those teens’ choices, if the above were true, the young people in question would still be acting with agency, regardless of the media’s influence. So how, then, lacking hard statistical data, do we measure the effect of children’s sexualisation on agency, on later pleasure experienced as young adults, or possible exposure to danger? In other words, the contextual factors at play make very difficult to make a fair assessment of media influences, as how can researchers isolate media effects from all the other (cultural, social, economic) influences in children’s lives?

One possible avenue of assessment is the observation of those so-called Millennials, particularly the young women who were so aggressively marketed to during the “Girl Power” decade that was the 1990s, and who are now adults. Indeed ‘girl power’ has become now a well-established and very successful marketing tool and a branding of girlhood (Klein 2000).  When I think back to the mid-90s, I invariably remember a time when one could not turn on the television set or surf the internet without being bombarded by images of all-girl music groups strutting proudly in crop tops, brassieres, mini-dresses, and enormous platform shoes. Many of the fans of these groups, particularly the Spice Girls, were as young as five years of age, or younger, a fact which inspired a great deal of concern at the time. In 1994, for instance, Mary Pipher in her book Reviving Ophelia– selling 1.6 million copies – decried our media-saturated culture for “poisoning” young girls.(4)

Today, those little girls are all grown up, and form both a demographic that retains the attention of marketers and the backbone of “third wave” feminism. Those who work closely with both media and young women (see for instance Kathleen Rowe Karlyn from Genders.org) have noticed an interesting trend:

“As a teacher and researcher of film studies and television and the mother of three daughters in early adulthood, I’ve been following the emergence of girl culture since the mid-nineties.  Recently I spoke to a large group of academics and other professionals who work with girls about the ways such media icons as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess and the Spice Girls challenge familiar representations of femininity by affirming female friendship, agency and physical power. Part of that pleasure involves reclaiming the right not only to the term “girl” but to “girly pleasures” trivialized by the culture at large, such as shopping and dressing up…  In a punchy and knowledgeable survey of girl culture in Spin magazine, Ann Powers describes how girls aggressively flaunt traits formerly viewed as demeaning by both feminists and misogynists: prettiness, ‘brattiness’, and sexual flamboyance.  And so, while retaining the critique of beauty culture and sexual abuse from the Second Wave, young women have complicated the older feminist critique of the male gaze as a weapon to put women in their place, and instead exploit the spotlight as a source of power and energy. Thus girls do not see a contradiction between female power and assertive sexuality” (4)

If the above is true, it would seem the end result of the sexualisation of media consumed by children in the mid-1990s is one of power, agency, and primarily, the introduction of pleasure, rather than danger.

But of course, one cannot take the above to be true without acknowledging that the media does, in fact, have the power to influence young people’s attitudes about sexuality, in which case, the opposite of what is described above could as easily be considered true. And, if you have kept up with popular culture at all since the decline of the Spice Girls and their ilk, you have no doubt witnessed a masquerade of “girl power” with the return of troubling levels of misogyny and sexual exploitation. If I compare the current times with the 1980’s in which I grown up as a teenager, it seems evident that the situation has dramatically worsened (just consider the popular hyper-sexualisation of female characters currently characterising media and toy’s industries or the increasingly narrow beauty standards promoted by media and adverts).

In the early 2000s – at the same time as Paris Hilton and other similarly vapid but “pretty” socialites began to become adored by little girls – rap and hip hop rose to greater musical prominence, tugging misogyny along with their videos and lyrics. Rap heavyweight Eminem, for instance, infamous for his lyrics depicting threats of violence on girls and women (including his own mother), has enjoyed nearly a staggering 20 years of culture relevance. Eminem’s eighth album, released just last year (2013), casually builds on his existing reputation for misogyny, the rhythm is catchy but the other day I ‘ve actually decided to pay attention to one of the songs, I could not understand so I googled it and found out what it actually says: here we go (brace yourself!)

Snatch the bitch out her car through the window, she screamin/ I body slam her onto the cement, until the concrete gave and created a sinkhole / Bury this stink ho in it, then paid to have the street re-paved,” and: “I got 99 problems and the bitch ain’t one / She’s all 99 of them I need a machine gun / I take em all out I hope you hear this song / And go into a cardiac arrest, have a heart attack / And just drop dead and I’mma throw a fucking party after this.

Eminem is far from being alone in his troubling attitudes towards women: there are plenty of other singers – both males and females -willing to subscribe to this type of messages for the sake of profitable entertainment. As usual, sex sells and will continue to sell and music producers seem to play this card more and more. So, little girls today grow up watching their former Disney idols, such as Miley Cyrus, grind against singers like Robin Thicke, responsible for singing the notoriously problematic Blurred Lines, a song which blatantly tells a “good girl” that he “knows she wants it,” really. And then, of course, we have endless popular hip hop songs reducing women to “bitches” and “hoes” who, despite this obvious disrespect, willingly dance in the background of these singers’ videos, providing visual stimulation and nothing more than that. Many parents (including myself) wonder whether their daughters will see the transformation of Miley (or Britney and the like before her) as the natural passage from innocent girl to “real woman”.

Seen from this perspective, this appears mostly certainly as a culture of danger, particularly for women – as it encourages them to be available for exploitation and to accept violence – but also for young men, as it teaches them to see women and girls consistently in a devalued, sexualised way (with far less attention granted to their personality, charm, intellect, talents, etc..). By tying the concept of masculinity to being willing and able to ‘possess’ or use young women for sexual pleasure, young men who decline to join this trend are forced to put themselves at risk of bullying and isolation.

Prof. Rosalind Gill – a feminist and cultural theorist – suggests that “for young women today in post-feminist cultures, the display of a certain kind of sexual knowledge, sexual practice and sexual agency has become normative – indeed, a ‘technology of sexiness’ has replaced ‘innocence’ and ‘virtue’ as the commodity that young women are required to offer in the heterosexual marketplace” (7).

Braidotti (2006) conceptualizes a paradoxical “simultaneous displacement and refixing” of binary oppositions (e.g. masculine/feminine) as “one of the most problematic aspects of contemporary political culture” (9). She argues how the present culture produces, pushes and encompasses simultaneously opposite effects — degrees of gender equality with growing segregation of the sexes, resulting in gender trouble on the one hand and polarized sexual difference on the other.

How, then, are children today responding to and processing the danger aspect of this equation, which has become so prevalent in our post-millennial world? An interesting body of work has been produced by Prof. Emma Renold of Cardiff University and her associates – a research offering rich insight into how children navigate their sexual and gender identities in relation to the media and the sexualisation thereof.

Renold’s research revealed that girls feel a much greater pressure to conform to popular ideals of bodily attractiveness than boys feel, to the point of giving up “active” hobbies and sports to maintain a feminine shape. Girls also expressed a greater dissatisfaction with “dating culture,” with research showing that:

For some boys, simply having a girlfriend, any girl was enough to secure social status and popularity. In contrast, many girls highlighted the ways in which their status as girlfriends objectified them, particularly when girls attractiveness was rated and ranked. Many girls also resented how they were passed around and fought over by boys who wanted to claim them as theirs.” (5)

And yet, at the same time, girls found it more difficult to resist the pressure to be part of this dating culture than boys did. (5)

Likewise, girls who were deeply invested in “being girlfriends” were more likely to accept harassment and abuse, including keeping “nasty” text messages due to being “in love” and, true to the theory that male acceptance is hinging too heavily on female exploitation, young boys who were “positioned low down the gendered and sexual peer group hierarchies were also described as the same boys who would engage in harassing behaviour such as repeatedly asking girls out, or sending abusive texts to girls who refused to go out with them, or ended the relationship”.  Both genders reported instances of being “forced” via harassment by peers to engage in dating-related and/or sexual behaviour, such as being pushed and bullied into kissing.(5)

However, while the impacts of the “danger”aspect of the sexualization of the media can arguably be seen enacted in the above,it was also found that children are hardly passive observers shaped by the media without any awareness or agency of their own. In fact,

Many children offered powerful critical commentaries from nudity on MTV to air-brushed images of models in magazines. Many girls also drew a clear boundary between what their favourite celebrities would say, wear or do and their own lives. (5)

This important – and encouraging – aspect was also confirmed by the girls in my own research.

Renold’s research suggested that, if anything, rather than becoming more sexual in manner and dress due to the current attitudes toward female sexuality portrayed by the media, many young girls today so actively fear being labeled a “slut” that they prefer to cover up, and are once again moving away from being able to equivocate female power with aggressive sexuality. Many felt uncomfortable with the amount and the nature of sexuality expressed in music and music videos.

Children were also shown to be quite critical of sexual and gender norms, expressing the desire to fight issues such as sexism, but often not being sure how they could safely and effectively do so. Many children wished they could more freely express their concerns about issues to do with gender and sexuality in the context of their present lives, rather than in the context of their futures. Both boys and girls expressed the need for sex and relationship education that deals specifically with domestic and intimate partner violence “both within their communities and in their own and older relationship cultures,” showing that both genders are concerned about the levels of sexual violence they have witnessed.

In sum, children were witnessed to be practically crying out for a voice of their own, for better access to information and education regarding sexuality and gender issues, and for a meaningful way in which they could safely challenge entrenched gender and sexual norms while still in their formative years. Ergo, we can safely conclude that many children do not fall into these roles nor succumb to the pressures of the media due to passivity or lack of agency, but rather due to a perceived lack of viable alternatives.

In my own research what impressed me was the variety of roles these young girls would experiment with; phrases like “oh yes, but I do that only when I feel girly” were very common and often represent the “identity play” girls would constantly engage in. I love the term “contingent and ambiguous practices of identity” in Gonick et al.’s article (8) and I agree with their suggestion that:

“In posing the question “what comes after girl power?” we suggest that girls’ agency and resistance needs to be theorized as articulated and evidenced within the logic of the production of gender, the body, and sexual, racial, cultural (etc.) differences. This presents a complex, embodied equation of gendered subjectivity that is less about balances of agency (girl power) and compliance (girl victims) than it is about contingent and ambiguous practices of identity” (8).

Prof. Gauntlett (10) highlights the wide range of contradictory messages about gender and identities presented in today’s media as a positive factor, able to effectively widening the options available to young people’s in their own construction of identity:

“The contradictions are important (…) because the multiple messages contribute to the perception of an open realm of possibilities. In contrast with the past – or the modern popular view of the past – we no longer get singular, straightforward messages about ideal types of male and female identities (although certain groups of features are clearly promoted as more desirable than others). Instead, popular culture offers a range of stars, icons and characters from whom we can acceptably borrow bits and pieces of their public persona for use in our own. In addition, of course – and slightly contradictorily – individuals are encouraged to ‘be yourself’, and to be creative – within limits – about the presentation of self. This opens the possibilities for gender trouble, as discussed above. Today, nothing about identity is clear-cut, and the contradictory messages of popular culture make the ‘ideal’ model for the self even more indistinct – which is probably a good thing”.(10)

Regardless of one’s personal opinions on the level of pleasure vs. danger brought about by the media’s purported “sexualisation” of childhood, it should be agreed upon that children deserve a voice and a choice in these matters, one that is not drowned out exclusively by adult concerns or clouded by moral judgments. I personally believe that one effective way to foster agency in young people is to ensure that it is given to them before they have succumbed to the pressure to be “sexy” within the narrow parameters presented as acceptable by our heteronormative society. This can be effectively achieved through a more active discussion of gender practices and media content within the family to start with, and with much deeper and wide-ranging inclusion of media and marketing literacy, along with the discussion of topics relating to gender and sexuality, in the school curriculum, compared to what we have now.

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Main references:
1. http://mashable.com/2013/10/28/children-under-2-mobile-media-study/
2. http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20060403/media-messages-harm-child-teen-health
3. http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/strict-parenting
4. http://www.genders.org/g38/g38_rowe_karlyn.html
5. Renold, E (2005), Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities, Routledge.
6. Klein, N. (2000). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Vintage Canada
7. Gill, R. (2007). Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2: p.72.
8. Gonick, M ,Renold E., Ringrose J., Weems L. (2009) Rethinking Agency and Resistance: What Comes After Girl Power? Girlhood Studies Vol. 2 (2), 1–9, Berghahn Journals.
9. Braidotti, R. (2006). Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.
10. Gauntlett, D. (2007). Media, Gender and Identity, Routledge.

Gender differences are fun and sexy, indeed!

boy_girl_courtesy of raymond poort

Image courtesy of Raymon Poort

The most interesting and lively conversations I had about gender stereotypes and gender differences are definetly the ones with men and women whose way of thinking was practically opposite to mine. I am re-posting a comment to one of my reader here as my conversation with this reader has reminded me of all my past assumptions and believes about gender and it is somewhat amusing for me to see how my position regarding these issues has changed so drastically throughout the years.

The last twenty years of neuro-scientific research have highly disproved that there is actually much difference between male and female in term of how our brains are wired from birth. Lise Eliot (Pink Brain, Blue Brain) made a powerful example of this in her comparison of graphs (see page 12) regarding psychological /attitudinal gender differences compared to physical gender difference such height. While the difference in height is significant and cannot be denied, the difference in psychological and attitudinal characteristics are remarkably minimal and their distribution tend to overlap at all points of the curves: this means you can probably predict with reasonable degree of confidence on the basis on gender that a man will be taller than a woman, but in terms of psychological and attitudinal characteristics we cannot predict with confidence any of them on the basis of gender.


But what has been discovered by neuro-scientists in hundred and hundred of studies is something even more significant: it’s called ‘neuro-plasticity’. It means that while in previous years scientists thought that our brain characteristic (or ‘wiring’) was somehow fixed, now it is evident that the brain (its neurons and all its nervous pathways and connections, so-called ‘wiring’) develops and grows in response to the enviroinment, with the creation of new neurons and new pathways depending on the activities that we do, our thoughts, emotions, habits in response to our enviroinment. This means that our education, the messages we get from parents and society, the toys we play with and all other enviroinmental influences will mold and shape our brain from the day we born. This is why the brain differences between the two sexes are incredibly minimal at birth, to become something noticeable once adulthood is reached.


The trouble is GENDER DIFFERENCES ARE SEXY (to borrow again from Lise Eliot). How boring would be to think that we are not this explosive encounter and exciting clash of ‘Mars and Venus’? Our brain is naturally inclined to form categories and opposites. We love dichotomies and contrasts. Media and marketing thrive on this desire of men and women to be different, like being from different planets (see the incredible success of the 1992′s book “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” of John Gray – which conclusions are much more based on what people experience, feel and see in their relatioships and every day life, rather than on solid scientific evidences). After all, the marketing of any product is based on something called ‘segmentation’… dividing a big mass of consumers into well defined categories and niches of people with similar characteristics (in this sense, marketers LOVE stereotypes!). To be honest I was one of the most firmly convinced individual about gender differences until just a few years ago (funnily enough). Coming from Italy, I’ve been brought up in a society and culture with strong patriarchal values, further reinforced by a even stronger religious values based on Catholicism. Naturally then, I’ve always been tempted to believe in BIG, undeniable, innate differences between men and women’s psychology: afterall, this was my direct experience of relatioships with most boys and men in my life! (How can someone ever deny such an obvious difference I thought? How can someone deny my own experience of things?)

But when I DID stop and look at the real scientific evidence out there, I had to question my believes and I gradually started to appreciate the differences between men and women (/boys and girls) as something which is acquired and grow through many years of “molding” our brain and behaviour under social and enviroinmental expectations. Reflecting on how we become like we are is a fascinating phenomenon and I know these discoveries are positive in terms of making girls and boys (the women and men of tomorrow) much more close and similar than what has been in the past.

THIS WILL BRING MORE UNDERSTANDING AND LESS POLARISATION. It will also bring more freedom for each individual to grow their feminine and masculine sides at their own leisure (all the more so as scientist have also proved that individuals with a good mix of masculine and feminine attributes/attitudes – so-called androgynous – are generally advantaged in both their social and emotional life). But this does not mean that the ‘sexiness of difference’ will disappear in our relationships (oh no! we don’t want that!), because that ‘sexy tension’ will always exist: it is between our individual characteristics, feminine or masculines or a mix of them. So that a masculine type (either men or woman) will be always attracted by a feminine type (either man or woman) and a feminine type will be always attracted by a masculine type: so that, in truth, to beat gender stereotypes is only to leave every boy and girl (alas every man and woman) free to follow their natural inclinations towards femininity/masculinity and express their individuality without ‘gender molding’ constantly applied to them. 


I am also convinced that the emphasis should not be so much on censorship, or an array of strict regulations and limitations applied to businesses, marketing and media productions (with exceptions of course, as I would gladly see Photoshop manipulations disappear from advertising practice) : after all, the profit interests at the basis of the system would make very unlikely a drastic change of direction, at least in the immediate future. I propose that the emphasis should be much more on making young girls and boys more critical towards media and marketing messages: by changing the way our boys and girls react to the environment we will allow them to be sophisticated and independent consumers, who will be able to shape the economic and ideological fabric of tomorrow ‘s world through their informed demand or rejection for certain products /media /marketing practices, their patterns of consumption. In other words, by educating children on concepts such as ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘objectification’, ‘sexism’ or ‘sexualisation’ we will be able to eventually affect the system from the inside out.

Additional reading:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2273972/Men-Mars-Women-Venus-Actually-planet.html