arts & culture | chat
12.03.04 | Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, answers questions about her Ms. article, The Unreal World, and discusses representations of women on TV.
Have something you want to add to the dialogue? The blog is now open for additional comments.
Kate: Feminists have often been accused of being prudish in their fight against objectification of women, and many people think feminists have gone too far in denying female sexuality.
But when I watch a show like Lost, it's clear that even a character-driven show like this, which is intelligently written and well-acted, is given the directive to show at least one woman in a bikini each week. How can we as feminists speak out against this form of objectification without sounding like conservative thugs?
Jennifer Pozner: An oldie but a goodie, this question. How to object to sexual objectification of women in the media without coming off as scared of sex? It all about clarification.
All you need to do to diffuse the feminists=prudes argument is to point anyone who believes that to magazines like Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture or Bust, whose articles exploring women's sexuality are usually written from a very empowered, sex-positive, pro-feminist perspective; or, there's the ultra-crunchy women's studies staple Our Bodies, Ourselves, which has been updated many times and focuses on women's sexual pleasure as a basic right. Or, hell, why not send them to Toys In Babeland, a shiny, happy, pro-feminst sex shop that is designed to encourage women to embrace their sexuality in a joyful, open way -- whether they're straight, lesbian or bi, whether they're vanilla or kinky.
Conservatives, anti-feminists like Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia, and mainstream media alike are fond of painting feminists as prudish and anti-sex; they claim we deny women's sexuality when we protest date rape, sexual harassment, images of women in advertising, and the sex trade (as if all those things had equal weight, but that's a tangent I won't take at the moment).
Thing is, pointing out the sexual objectification of women in media, or the victimization of women by violent attackers of sexual harassers, isn't "denying women their sexual agency" or "infantilizing women," as anti-feminist writers claim, and it's not prudish, either -- it's standing up AGAINST victimization and saying that women deserve sexual agency and that no one has the right to exploit or deny that -- not rapists who deny women control over their bodies, not bosses who deny promotions if women won't play a little slap and tickle, and not advertisers profiting off of twisted images of women's bodies to sell shoes and shampoo and La Perla's product-placement panties, as in so many reality TV shows.
So when it comes to a show like Lost, which I agree is intelligently written, we definitely have the right to say to the networks, if we feel so motivated, that the female characters on the show have much more interesting assets than the ones displayed so prominently in their bikinis.
The men on the show sometimes appear without their shirts, but it's usually as part of the action (digging a hole in the sand or carrying wood or whatever), and the men on the show are there to do something, to be something, they are markedly more than glorified good-butt-jeans models. A little too much time is given over to women sauntering around being cute, without nearly as much back story or relevance.
The pilot episode, as good as it was dramatically, was sort of lame in that regard - Jack, the doctor helping save the day, just happens to be stumbled-upon by this beautiful, timid-seeming waif who prettily screws up her resolve and grittily stitches up his wound. Enter, love interest. Kate looks way too beautiful -- no, scratch that -- she looks way too tidy -- to have been on an island in the sweltering sun with no shampoo for over a week. Same goes for the blond, about-to-pop-pregnant Aussie.
The men have started to get a little scraggly; the writers/costumers have allowed for beards, etc., but the women, they still have to be, well. doable. As in -- and forgive me for being crass, but I really believe this is what they're going for -- if the 18-34 yr old male viewers who are advertisers' prime demographic were stranded on the Lost island, would they want to do Kate? Or Claire? Or the valley girl whose back story we haven't really learned yet?
One way to make the point about the sexual objectification of women on the show Lost would be to say to JJ Abrams and ABC that writers who produce some of the best TV on TV are simply allowing themselves to be lazy when it comes to the way they're using the women in their cast. Apply some of those smarts to the costuming, why don't they?
Or, better yet, why don't you write a letter to the editor of Entertainment Weekly, which had Mathew Fox (Jack) and Evangeline Lilly (Kate) on the cover this week. Fox is all scruffy, with stubbly beard and rumpled clothes -- he looks every bit the weathered Indiana Jones type. Meanwhile, Lilly is sidled up against him, wearing the pinkest, frosted lip gloss you've ever seen. I'm sorry, but -- lip gloss? Really? On an abandoned island?
I know that they still had their purses, but is makeup application what Kate's character would really prioritize while stranded on an island? Perhaps Entertainment Weekly should know that you appreciate their highlighting Lost on the cover, but that you'd have preferred if they'd let Lilly look a little less Maybelline and a little more castaway.
Roni, Chicago: Does Ms. Pozner have an opinion on Lost and how the "fugitive" is a woman? I've missed a few episodes, but I still don't think we know what she did to be a fugitive from the law.
Jennifer Pozner: You're right, Roni, we don't know what she did, or why, or how that will become relevant to her stay on Gilligan's Haunted Island. The thing about Lost creator (and Alias scribe) JJ Abrams and women -- he likes to portray complex female characters who aren't always what they seem.
Except for Sydney, who's just the epitome of classic superhero, his "good" women aren't all good, and his "bad" women are not entirely evil.
Think of the first and second seasons of Alias: Sydney's mother, Irena Derevko, played by the intensely restrained Lena Olin, was never someone we got to totally understand. She was basically pathological: a life-long professional liar, a brutal spy and killer, a devious heartbreaker.
Yet she was also a caring (if hopelessly flawed) mother deeply protective of her daughter's welfare. except, of course, for those times when she shot her, framed her, etc. (Unfortunately, Olin didn't sign on for the third year, so we were left in the dark about the ultimate plan for her character, frustrating some obsessed fans enough to spend thousands of dollars on a Hollywood trade pub ad titled something like "Save Irena" or "Bring Back Lena" or whathaveyou.)
In any case, when I think about Evangeline Lilly's fugitive Kate on Lost, I can only hope that she will be written to be as complex (but hopefully less inscrutable) a character as Syd's mom.
The only episode we've seen so far that deals with Kate's past doesn't tell us much about what she did, but it does give us an important hint into the type of person she is: a farmer she trusted set her up and turned her in for the reward money, but while trying to flee from the marshall there's some sort of car crash that basically leaves her free and the farmer in a near-fatal position.
We see Kate take the time to drag him to safety, only to get caught and handcuffed; had she left him (this guy who was so ready to feed her to the cops for cash) to die, she would have gotten away.
We don't know what she did to end up being a fugitive from justice, and we get the sense that she wants people to think of her as a badass, but we also know from that vignette that she is basically a good person who will do the ethical thing when she can, even to the detriment of her own self-interest.
Best case scenario: subplots involving Kate will give us unpredictable back-story elements about her past and will relate to the way she interacts with fellow castaways in the present and won't focus too heavily on the bizarre love triangle (or square) of interest between she and jerk-boy Sawyer and reluctant leader Jack (and
possibly Sayid, the former Iraqi soldier). Which would be overly predictable and a real underuse of her character.
Aimee Brett Kass, Ramsey, N.J.: I'm really starting to get mad. TV and radio have reported that Dick Ebersol, a corporate executive at NBC, endured the tragedy of losing his 14 year old son, Teddy. I have only heard a cursory reference that the actress, Susan Saint James, ALSO lost her 14 year old son, Teddy.
I could understand the newsworthiness of this story. It is horrible to lose a child, especially under these circumstances.
But the way the media is portraying it, Ebersol is the only significant parent in this boy's life and that the accomplishments and status of Saint James is negligible and not worthy of mentioning. I would have expected BOTH parents being mentioned in news releases.
This, my friends, may be the portent of things to come in the Bush Administration, where even mothers are exalted in theory and minimalized in reality. Thank you.
Jennifer Pozner: Typical. Disgusting, but typical. Media often cut women out of the picture, even when the story is about them. My favorite (as in, most tellingly ludicrous) example of this was the Baltimore Sun's coverage of last April's March for Women's Lives in Washington, DC.
Though it was the largest single political demonstration in DC's history, with more than a million women (and more than a few men) out to support a feminist agenda on health care, reproductive rights, family planning, violence against women, global justice, and more, the Baltimore Sun STILL chose to give the first three quotes of their women's rights protest story to men -- the first to a male leader from the ACLU, and the second and third both to a football coach turned right-wing activist.
Media often like to say that the systemic underrepresentation of women as sources and experts in news is due to a lack of female experts to interview. but standing in the midst of the largest gathering of female experts in the history of the country (from humanitarian aid workers to abortion doctors to low-income mothers to economists to UN workers to campus feminists to. you get the drift, right), the Sun still turned to the boys to frame the story, to give their expertise.
They did eventually get around to quoting some women, but the first quote they gave to a woman came well after the men got to frame the story, and she wasn't an expert as the men were, she was just a person attending the march, who said something like, and I'm paraphrasing here, "it's ridiculous that we have to be out here marching again, but it's important, so I came." No real content in that quote, no real expertise.
I think your point about the glorification of mothers in theory, but the derogatory treatment they often get in practice, is quite right. Why don't you write to every outlet you've seen cut Saint James' loss out of the story, and tell them that this son had two parents, both of whom are newsworthy. It strikes me that to some media outlets, the best mothers are dead mothers -- Laci Peterson, media can't get enough of -- or out of control ones, like Felicity Huffman's ADD-drug-addicted reluctant stay-at-home-mom on ABC's Desperate Housewives. But in real life, Saint James isn't given even the respect of being named as the survivor of a dead child.
Marley, Arlington, Va.: I thought Ms. Pozner’s article was very well written and she articulated the frustration my friends and I have share toward “reality television.” But we still we watch. Why are we so weak?
Jennifer Pozner: Thanks, Marley. Glad to know that subjecting myself to hundreds of hours of this crap paid off in the form of being useful to readers like yourself. As for feminist-minded viewers critical of and frustrated with the genre but who still watch, your “Why are we so weak?” question is both an important one, and one of my biggest pet peeves. (Er, the watching is the pet peeve, not the question.)
People watch for a variety of reasons, as I wrote in "The Unreal World," but mostly they watch because, as reality sleeze guru Mike Darnell once told Entertainment Weekly, the formula for every successful reality show, is: "You need a premise that's easy to understand, that's steeped in some social belief, and that earns the reaction of, 'Oh, my god!' or 'What's wrong with you?'"
On a superficial, surface level, people initially tune in to watch reality TV because of the genre’s omnipresent soap opera angst; also driving the drive to tune-in is the semi-superior feeling that an intelligent viewer gets when realizing that no matter how bad your own love life might get, no matter how insecure you might feel about the size of your thighs, it could always be worse -- you could be like the morons duking it out harem-style over some Bachelor guy they’ve known for, like, seventeen seconds, or you could hate yourself so thoroughly that you turn to the Fox network to surgically alter you until you look like a drag queen who for some reason will never, ever be able to change back into street clothes after the lights go out at the Faux-Girls revue.
But despite being drawn to reality TV dating, mating and makeover shows because of a sort of cinematic shadenfraude -- the couch potato’s equivalent of rubbernecking, where we can’t look away from the spectacle of other people’s humiliation, there’s a much more powerful reason why so many people continue to tune in, show after tedious show.
On a more unconscious level, we continue to watch because these shows frame their narratives in ways that both play to and reinforce deeply-ingrained societal stereotypes about women, men, love, beauty, class and race -- including retrograde gender roles, compulsory 1950s-style heterosexuality, dangerous body image ideas, the erasure of the middle class and of the near-total elimination of anything even remotely approximating the racial and ethnic diversity of America, and more.
Another thing we need to understand is the bigger picture behind the success of reality shows. As I illustrate in my multi-media presentation “Bachelor Babes, Bridezillas & Husband-Hunting Harems: Decoding Reality TV’s Twisted Fairy Tales” (if you want to learn more about this and other talks, see Women In Media & News), some of the most highly rated programs of the entire 2003 season were Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor and American Idol, all of which are deeply negative in their treatment of women, as you read in "The Unreal World."
But to understand representations of women in this genre -- and in media in general -- the first thing you need to know is that the purpose of TV programming is not to entertain, engage or inform us -- the purpose is make profits for the tiny handful of mega-merged media corporations that own the vast majority of media outlets and control the bulk of what we are given to watch, see and hear on TV, radio, in movies, video games and more. The key to media profits is advertising, which generates $70 billion in revenue annually, not only from traditional commercials but also product placements within the content of our favorite shows.
So, in addition to the cerebral critique I just gave you, there’s also something much simpler motivating the viewership numbers for reality TV programming: IT’S WHAT’S ON. Some of us want to watch these shows because we honestly enjoy the spectacle… others, I would venture to say most of us, would much prefer better crafted fare. But, better crafted fare (Angel, gone. Firefly: gone. Sex and the City, gone. Alias: in trouble…) is being kicked off the primetime roster by ratings-grabbers, leaving fewer options for the discrimination viewer.
In the absence of scripted programming more challenging than ABC’s crapfest According to Jim or Fox’s waste of Andy Richter on Quintuplets, people tune into reality because THAT’S WHAT’S ON. But if more networks took more chances on quality shows like Lost, which brought ABC back from a ratings morass, they’d see that we want well-written, challenging, creative scripts with talented, diverse actors.
Miranda Spencer, Philadelphia: I often wonder, WHY DO PEOPLE WANT TO BE ON THESE HUMILIATING SHOWS? Many more women (and men) audition than are selected, suggesting that huge numbers of people buy into all the retro-myths and crave stardom at any cost to their dignity or control over their lives. So what do you think is the appeal of reality shows … to the participants/victims?
Jennifer Pozner: Great to hear from you. (If I remember correctly, you’ve written some very trenchant stuff about manipulative and misinformative media coverage of reproductive rights issues – what have you been writing lately? I’m sure Ms. readers would like to know.)
You’re absolutely right, millions of people do buy into the retrograde gender/class/race myths producers craft these shows around… there’s a lot of power in those myths, the coded “fairy tale” montages, the notions that all will be well for overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, breaking-out-from-stress-and-lack-of-time-to-prepare-healthy-food modern day Cinderellas if their Prince Charming drives up in his pricey sportscar and whisks her away to happily ever after, removing the daily pressures of living in a hyperconsumeristic, often-socially-disconneted, unsupportive, sexist culture in which women still get paid less than men for the same work, still have to shoulder the majority of child care and elder care responsibilities, and now have to look hot 24-7 while doing it all.
There’s power in the fairy tales, recited to us from our earliest memories, that tell us that all will be well when the prince arrives, bringing love, validation, and financial security. But the thing about fairy tales -- they’re not real. Every Bachelor so far has dumped the woman he’s chosen at the end of the series, whether or not he gave her the on-camera ring.
To me, the question isn’t really about the impact of these shows on the handful of women who are conned into appearing on them (like Joe Millionaire’s female cast, which was told by producers that they were going to be on a show in which sophisticated women were living in Europe and dating a number of men and having adventurous romances, sort of like the reality TV equivalent of Sex and the City) or the handful who just want to be in front of the cameras for the faux (and sometimes real) stardom that the genre is capable of creating.
The real question is not what the impact on the participants, the real concern should be about the narrative messages being sent to the 40 million viewers who tuned into the finale of Joe Millionaire, the millions who watch The Bachelor each week to learn “who will get sent home brokenhearted,” and the millions of kids who watch these shows uncritically, learning that only the most beautiful, least independent women with the lowest-carb diets will be rewarded with love, financial security and the ultimate prize: being selected by some guy -- any guy -- because nothing is as important as male validation.
Question: Isn't it interesting that the one non-"hot" babe on the show is murdered? And shown as the truly bitter bitch who "deserved" to get offed without anyone really caring? What does this say about our value as women? Maybe that once we move beyond the realm of hottie, we no longer have value? Just a thought.
Jennifer Pozner: If you are talking about nosy neighbor Mrs. Huber being killed on a recent episode of Desperate Housewives, I have a lot to say about DH, but I think your critique is a little off the mark. Within the context of that show, the neighbor is a nasty, heartless blackmailer who was basically responsible for prompting a mother and wife on the block to commit suicide.
Tortured, creepy hubby, fresh from finding out the reason behind his wife’s death, goes to confront Mrs. Huber about it, and instead of apologizing or explaining she basically says that suicide is a sin so dead wife’s in hell, and she deserved to be there anyway. Commence crime-of-passion by creepy hubby. To me, what was deeply disturbing about that scene (aside from, well, the man strangling the woman to death) wasn’t even the murder, which was portrayed as unplanned, but the way scenes of the brutal strangulation of the neighbor were cut into and juxtaposed against scenes of Teri Hatcher finally getting naked with her buff love interest.
Like, the violence was supposed to be sexy (reminded me of Jackson Katz’ film, Tough Guise, by the Media Education Foundation – Katz analyzes the ways media depictions of violence against women are packaged to be sexually stimulating to male viewers – creepy stuff).
Constance Holmes, Seattle: I am fed up with depictions of women on TV. I want to recommend that feminist Orgs get on board with the Cable TV a la carte movement.
Please check out this web site. You can go to it type in your zip code and be able to link up with addresses of your congress people and the FCC to demand Cable TV a la carte. The media Cartel is run by a bunch of old men. They are aiming their content at males 18-34.
There is no reason why women should be forced to take these channels and subsidize them. On Basic Cable most channels are aimed at men. The few token channels like Oxygen that are aimed at women have few viewers because they suck. I am not going to sit through tit and ass advertising to watch anything and beauty industry beer commercials are all over these "women's channels"
This is a free country. Corporate America should not be able to tell us what channels we must subscribe to and therefore subsidize with our cable bill payments. Please get on board the a la carte movement. We need our rights as consumers to reject this schlock.
Jennifer Pozner: Constance, glad to see women like you are getting involved in various reform efforts around structural issues that problematize media content, leading to the kind of dumbed-down programming that advertisers believe will best attract the young, rich, white male viewers they covet, from reality TV shows like the ones I described in "The Unreal World," to red-blooded, beer-ad-hawking broadcast football games. Structural reform is so important, and cable is just one of the many issues being taken on in the media democracy community.
Other links to the cable a la carte issue that you may want to check out include:
Anyone interested in reforming cable TV policy should monitor the important work of the Grassroots Cable Coalition, which is working for better service and more accountability to consumers, workers and local communities. Based on United Nations language declaring communication a basic human right, they are taking on media monolith ComCast and pursing not just consumer and worker rights but also open access to new technologies, responsible business standards for the ways cable companies interact with local communities, etc. Check out their press release here.
The coalition is comprised of a group of progressive organizers and media reform advocates in Philadelphia, including:
Philadelphia Community Access Coalition
Coalition of Labor Union Women -- Philadelphia
Kensington Welfare Rights Union
Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group
Jobs With Justice -- Philadelphia
Communications Workers of America
Cinnamon, Chicago: Are there any "reality" tv shows that are feminist-friendly, or pro-woman? The PBS history-based series? Starting Over? Amish in the City?
I love writing letters to congressional members at the state and national level. Does writing a letter directed at a TV show work? If so who should we send the letters to?
Jennifer Pozner: Feminist reality TV shows? Sadly, no. Every reality TV show I’ve seen -- and I’ve seen WAY WAY too many of them, as I’ve been studying them as backlash text ever since the first episode of the first The Bachelor series premier -- has been anti-woman in some way, either subtly (like some episodes of Survivor), or blatantly, like the shows I mention in "The Unreal World."
Sexism is their bread and butter, because you can always draw a lowest common denominator audience to a program if you center it around attractive, desperate, conventional women with prominent cleavage weeping on cue over some guy who may or may not love them.
I haven’t seen The Amazing Race, but someone recently told me they thought it was better on gender than others -- I can’t judge. I had problems with Amish and Starting Over is total emotional exploitation and a bit of product placement all wrapped up in therapeutic language. The historical series on PBS is interesting, but I haven’t seen enough of it to answer whether I’d say it is pro-woman or not -- it depends on whether they are showing the gender stereotypes in order to expose them or reinforce them.
Letters are *always* good. Keep them respectful, concise, and timely. Check out my article, “How To Write a Protest Letter,” from Bitch magazine. And, you can send your letters to some of the media outlets listed here.
Finally, there’s Alliance for Community Media's legislative action center, where you can then use their “media” section, type in any zip code, and get a listing of most print and electronic media in that area. [*Update: the action center has been temporarily disabled.] Note: Other ways to get detailed contact information for journalists and outlets include resources such as the News Media Yellow Book and Bacons Media Source.
Linda Burns, Oak Park, IL: Do assertive women on reality shows -- and I'm thinking chiefly of The Apprentice here but it applies to other shows as well -- perpetuate the "bitch" stereotype of women or are they breaking it down? In other words, are reality shows making assertive women more acceptable (even if it's through a hyperbolic parody) or are they continuing the demonization of them?
Jennifer Pozner: Linda, let’s not forget that the people who show up on reality TV shows are cast for type – they are chosen to appear specifically in order to behave in just the ways they eventually are shown behaving, and producers do whatever they need to do (cut them off from the rest of the world, ply them with alcohol, ask them manipulative questions aimed at getting them to cry or slander other contestants, etc.) to get that desired behavior out of them. Producers want bitchy women, so they cast women who they believe are “difficult,” and then they edit out much of their normal behavior and focus entirely on their overreactions, manipulations, etc.
They want women who think they’re intelligent but, generally, aren’t very … so that, as with the women on The Apprentice, you have a slate of women who think that the best way (sometimes, the only way) to succeed in the business world is to flash their bellybuttons to sell lemonade, drop their skirts to sell M&Ms (I swear, that actually happened last night!) and interact with one another as if they are in a drunken sorority rather than a professional team. Not at all a reflection of reality in the professional world, but maybe a reflection of reality for Miss America pageant investor Donald Trump (who, you may remember, once tried to take the crown away from a winner because she’s put on a few pounds).
The Apprentice is a real bait and switch -- you think you’re watching a show about how to succeed in corporate America, but what you’re really watching is Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizing, Trump-franchise-pushing, product-placement-funded skewed and sexist vision of reality, in which women are basically playthings and men are basically powerhouses, with only few exceptions (one exception being his right-hand-gal, Carolyn, who takes on the role of being harsher to the women than anyone on the show).
If Trump or the other producers of the show wanted to actually show competent businesswomen engaging in a professional competition, they could easily have found women from any number of fields who know how to manage, fundraise, advertise, sell, create, produce, design and organize … all without flashing their belly buttons. But that’s not what they wanted, so that is not who they selected.
In the end, I don’t think these women are making assertiveness more acceptable, I think they are attempting to make a case for brattiness and micro-minis as a professional woman’s main assets. Which, after all, has always been the image of women Donald Trump has pursued and perpetuated.
Lost in New York: I admit it: I miss Sex and the City. I don’t miss the shoes. I miss hearing women talk about their lives with other women. I miss seeing women support one another. What shows do you suggest for those of us who miss watching friends (not “Friends”)?
Jennifer Pozner: Man, it’s sad how long I had to scratch my head and think about any positive network alternatives. The preponderance of bottom-feeding reality TV shows, coupled with the laziness of the expanded Law & Order/CSI franchises have limited the number of scripted shows on the roster any more. With so few actual character-driven sitcoms and dramas to choose from anymore, the search for shows with quality relationships and non-exploitative storylines is tougher than ever.
Mid-80s through mid/late 90s, I would have said that shows like Roseanne,Ellen, Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Living Single, Grace Under Fire, and several others would have been excellent options for viewers wanting to see women’s friendships portrayed as supportive and crucial to a healthy, functional life.
Not that these had the punch and audacity of a show like Sex and the City, but many of them had something just as or more important: Murphy Brown had professional women demonstrating women’s intellectual strength and professional abilities; Roseanne dealt with working class issues (and also a variety of women’s issues, including dating violence, lesbian rights, body image, low-income women’s work struggles, etc.) better than any show I’d ever seen; Ellen turned a simple friends ensemble into a platform for increasing LGBT visibility (well, L visibility, at least).
Living Single had a cast of African American women with a variety of personality types supporting one another in much the same way as the Friends cast did, but because the show was targeted to audiences of color it was overlooked as a show about friends supporting each other, and was just thought of as yet another black show -- critics often discount black shows as all the same, but there’s just as much difference there as with shows with predominately white casts.
That was then, though. They’re all gone. In the mid-90s through a year or two ago, I would have said that you could have turned to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, both high concept action/fantasy shows that nevertheless were driven by well-fleshed-out female characters and the strong, sidekick, best friend and/or life-partner type relationships between them, as well as their relationships with well-fleshed-out male characters who were written to be respectful and supportive of the main female leads. Alas, gone now.
Even two years ago, I would have said you could turn to Alias for regular doses of great storylines between friends, because during the first two seasons Jennifer Garner’s character was shown relying on, being supported by and having fun with her best friends Francie and Will, and her boyfriend, Vaughn. But then they killed off Francie, Will left the show, and Vaughn married someone else thinking Sydney was dead -- some ridiculous, obnoxious decision was made in the third season to turn Sydney into a weeping sadsack with no real friends, no love life, no one to really confide in, and no life outside spy world.
So the show, which formerly countered the 007-style action and X-Files sci-fi weirdness of the Alias universe with scenes in which Sydney was a real woman with real feelings and desires and conflicts, was replaced by Sydney-as-sadsack. What a let down. Let’s hope JJ Abrams takes the reins again, and rewrites Sydney back to where she should have been… and that he isn’t too busy on Lost that we lose out on his vision for a well rounded female spy.
So, now, what’s left for you? You can try the Gilmore Girls, which is cheesy and schlocky (no substitute for Sex/City) but does portray women as smart, competent, and relying on one another’s friendship and support. The best bet would be Girlfriends. Like Living Single, it’s been overlooked because it’s on a lesser network and because it’s an African American cast -- but this show has many of the elements Sex and the City did -- independent women supporting one another, different character types, and witty banter -- and, it goes pretty far for a network show in terms of sexual innuendo about women being in control of their own sexuality. It has class stereotypes, certainly, but it also has one thing Sex never did – women of color in self-defined roles. Check it out.
Question: I read in the Ms. Newsletter, “On television, fat people are the new gay people on TV.” The quote is from Slate. What’s your opinion for why body weight is such a fixation? The Swan and Extreme Makeover disgust me.
Jennifer Pozner: They disgust me, too. The reality TV genre is created to meet advertisers’ needs -- not viewers’ interests -- and that by nature is deeply threatening to women. For decades, feminist scholars like Jean Kilbourne (in films like Killing Us Softly and a number of others), media critics like Laura Flanders and myself, and authors like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) have argued that sexist advertising images infantilize grown women and sexualize young girls, trigger a range of eating disorders, make fun of or encourage sexual assault, and reinforce racist and class stereotypes.
In the world of advertising everything women have -- our bodies, our minds, our fears, our dreams -- are all traded, mutilated and sold back to us for profit. Studies have shown that the more advertising we watch, the worse women feel about our bodies, about ourselves. This psychological exploitation becomes so much more insidious when woven directly into content, as it happening in reality TV. It’s the same old story, though: rather than readdress the question of why body image ideals are so screwed up in the culture, I’d suggest you visit www.JeanKilbourne.com for her books and films or go back and dust off The Beauty Myth – (Wolf’s last book before falling off the deep end…).
And, for positive alternative images for young women, visit Teen Voices magazine; New Moon magazine for girls; or, for the older set, Bitch.
Joe Hanc, Chicago: Athletes are role models and granted an authority that other people don't share. We're interested in their opinion on non-sport topics, even when they're not qualified. What kind of media campaign would it take to put women athletes on par with men?
Jennifer Pozner: Do everything you can to support Title IX, legislation that provides for women’s equity in education and sports. The Bush administration is trying to roll it back. Conservatives have been attacking it for many years. I wrote about Title IX and attacks on it several years back – to read more, see “Rally Round the Boys: PBS’s National Desk enlists in the ‘Gender Wars.’”
Groups that deal with Title IX and women in sports include: National Women's Law Center; Women's Sports Foundation; and
Gender Equity in Sports.
Rob M., New York: New York Times columnists like Virginia Heffernan and Frank Rich have praised the break-out hit of the year, Desperate Housewives, for its complex, literary portrayals of women and its poignant parody of repressive representations of women in earlier eras. I enjoy its dark storylines and the female actors are all wonderful. But some women I know are uncomfortable with the show. They know it's mocking traditional gender roles, to some extent, but it also seems to be perpetuating modern-day stereotypes. All the women fit a very particular body image and all of them are still defined by their relationships (or "getting over" relationships) with men. I can't argue with that, but I still think it's a delight to watch. What do you think?
Jennifer Pozner: Rob, I think you hit on one of the reasons why the show is compelling: there’s enough parody in it to make it funny even to those who would prefer women not be portrayed as uniformly white, middle and upper class, spoiled and out of control… coupled with enough stereotypes and traditional mores (women pretend to support one another but really are ultra secretive and can’t trust one another; women are first and foremost defined by their relationships with male partners; women are the only people who should be responsible for child care; women MUST be classically, Western-ideal, ultra-thin and totally waxed to be beautiful; and women must be beautiful to be valuable) reinforced to make it palatable to the culture.
There was one episode that I thought definitely had some powerful feminist elements to it – the recent episode where Felicity Huffman’s out of control mom, whacked out on her kids’ ADD medicine, a lack of sleep, and an inability to control her little monsters, fantasizes about killing herself – and then drops off her kids at her friend’s place.
Later in the episode, the women tell her she’s not alone in feeling overwhelmed, because motherhood is hard. “Why don’t women share this stuff?” she says (I’m paraphrasing), reminding us of the importance of female friendship and communication, the dangers of silence, and the lunacy and injustice of myths portraying motherhood as singlemindedly joyous, all the time, for all women. But that one episode aside, I think the show does more harm than good.
To wit: Despite feminist writer Ellen Goodman’s claim that Felicity Huffman’s character is a signpost in the media of feminist changes in mores in the larger culture, I see her character as almost the worst thing about the show – you have a woman who enjoys and is great at her high-powered corporate executive job, who when she gets pregnant simply says, “Um, OK” when her husband tells her she should stay home with the kids, even though he makes less money than she does, and even though this is not what she wants to do.
The brief flashbacks we’ve been shown seem to indicate that as much as she loves her children, she is not at all interested in being a stay-at-home-caregiver, that she doesn’t like the mundanity of it, isn’t very good at it, and would much prefer to be working outside the home – yet she doesn’t insist on this to her husband … except as a bluff, when he suggests she home school them, because “we have to make sacrifices.”
When she responded that she’s already made sacrifices and that it’s his turn to stay home, that she’ll go back to work, bring in a higher salary than he makes, and he can home school them, I thought that I would have to take back many of the negative critiques I’d made of the show – only two find two minutes later when her husband flips out and says he’d go crazy, that she was just bluffing, she never intended to even seriously request from her hubby – she just said that as a way to get him to sell his prized boat so that they could afford to bribe a swanky private school to enroll them, so that she wouldn’t have to take care of them herself.
It was never even a question that the woman would be the primary caregiver to the children, even if she’s so incapable of doing so that she needs to “self medicate” with bottles of wine, and eventually dope herself up on ADD pills, to get through the day. The idea that the father would stay home take care of the kids was played for laughs, and dropped instantaneously.
Jerry Darcy, Seattle: Given the corporate controlled media, and parent companies owning multiple stations with competing reality shows, do you see these trends getting better or getting worse?
Is there any data on the education level of the typical viewer? Would improving education kill the appeal of these shows?
Jennifer Pozner: Excellent question, Jerry. There’s some talk recently, based on lowered ratings for The Bachelor this season, that the reality TV trend might be on the blink. I don’t buy it, and here’s why: The dirty little secret behind the corporate media contention that they are bombarding us with ad-rich, quality-poor reality shows simply because “that’s what the public wants” is that these shows aren’t what the public wants, they’re what advertisers want, and what networks want.
In these days of TIVO and cable channel proliferation and dwindling network ratings shares, traditional ad spots aren’t as appealing to advertisers as they once were. To the contrary, Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, told the Hollywood Reporter that product placement is “a very good business move” because it offers “a great opportunity for sponsors to have more control” over content. And that is the main reason the reality TV genre exists in the way we know it today: because of the many opportunities it presents for products to be written directly into the scenery, dialog and plotlines of these shows.
Reality TV shows are cheaper to produce than scripted programs, the sensationalized formats tend to score easy ratings, and they can generate hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of ad dollars from integrated sponsors before they ever sell traditional commercial. So, you have -- within the content of these shows -- cute little American Idol high-schooler Caremen faking orgasm while getting an Herbal Essences shampoo during a mini-commercial parody of the companies ads; and UPN’s America’s Next Top Model posing pitiful waifs in La Perla panties in the window of a La Perla storefront in NYC, and draping their nearly-nude bodies in Meritt diamonds strategically placed over their nipples (because a nipple uncovered for fifteen seconds, a la Janet Jackson, is indecent, while young women desperate for attention being stripped, down, oiled up and pimped out for advertisers on primetime TV is just good, clean entertainment).
In any case, getting back to the issue of ownership, etc., product placement is only one of the forms of advertising that makes these shows so appealing to the networks. The other is cross-promotion, wherein the booted beauties from ABC’s The Bachelor appear on ABC’s Good Morning America the morning after their on-screen rejection.
It isn’t only fluff morning “news”/infotainment shows that do that, though – during the first installment of Joe Millionaire, a local Fox News affiliate in NYC ran a seven or eight minute “news” segment using the actual actor who played the butler on Joe Millionaire to narrate a fluff piece about media mogul-turned-NYC-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The “report,” plugged in commercials throughout the 9pm Joe Millionaire show, ended up using the same graphics, soundtrack and title to keep viewers tuned into the 10pm news program to learn about the love life and spending patterns of “Mike Billionaire,” who “likes his women like his wine, well aged.”
Before we can understand and effectively challenge media images that denigrates female politicians, we have to understand the big picture: that means not only recognizing that media IS biased, but WHY it is. The biggest problems in media today are structural. Some of these institutional biases include media economics, corporate ownership and advertising.
Other structural biases concern women specifically – such as women’s underrepresentation both in news content and behind the scenes in the media industry. And finally, we have to factor in the personal bigotries of some of the most powerful decision makers in media. All of these institutional issues invariably compromise what media give us to read, watch and hear – that means reality TV shows, scripted fare, and “respectable” news broadcasts alike.
That’s why everyone who cares about these issues – and about women, or our culture in general – needs to get involved with the media democracy/ media reform movement. Learn more about that at WIMN, or MediaActionCenter, or MediaTank, or FAIR.org, or a great many others.
K.R., NY: It seems we are in a Narrative Perception War -- between forces that distribute and thus reinforce reactionary patriarchal narratives faster than we can deconstruct with fine magazines like Ms., Bust and writings like yours. But I think we should also pay attention to the axis on which the two opposites cross (i.e. that we have a hero like Sydney in Alias who, like Buffy before her is “strong” largely in that she uses extreme violence to destroy evildoers.)
We have known that sex and violence sells since the Greek Tragedies. Sex and violence is defined as Power itself in fantasy and reality, but Power to serve what myth (or counter myth)? – It seems no matter what we do, however many letters as we write NBC for example we are hampered by the system itself. NBC needs sponsors and GE which owns NBC is one of the largest major military contractors. These are our storytellers. And that system where four companies own 94% of all media has an objective, no? Not just to sell generally, but to sell a mindset first and foremost.
Jennifer Pozner: You’re singing my tune, Kenneth … not to mention giving me a perfect segue from the last question, which I ended talking about the need for progressives, feminists and all of us to get involved with media reform efforts like WIMN, the media analysis, education and advocacy group I founded, or a number of others I mentioned, or another great group, Free Press, spearheaded by Robert McChesney and John Nichols.
About that “Narrative perception war” you mention … I talk about that to a large degree in a multi-media presentation I give on college campuses, called “Condoleezza Rice is a Size Six, and other things I Learned from the News," in which I encourage people who care about sexist media content to get much more literate, angry and active about the reasons behind the production of that content.
Why are media companies so eager to exploit women for advertisers, so hot for violence and patriarchal modes of behavior, and so dedicated to upholding the status quo? Because the main point of media production is not to provide citizens with the accurate, inclusive and complex information we need to know to function as active citizens in a democracy, and it’s not to provide challenging, diverse, creative, independent entertainment that propels our culture forward. The purpose, of course, is to create profits for a handful of powerful media owners.
Today, the vast majority of newspapers, magazines and network, cable and online news and entertainment outlets are owned by just a small handful of multinationals, including Fox and Vivendi and GE and Disney, etc. This powerful handful of mega-merged media monopolies controls not only the reigns of public debate but also record labels, radio stations, theaters, TV and movie production companies, publishing houses, Internet and cable distribution chains, telecom and online companies and advertising billboards -- DEEP BREATH -- not to mention sports teams, stadiums, theme parks and a myriad of other holdings.
For instance, in addition to owning NBC and (with Microsoft) MSNBC, General Electric is also invested in the financial services, insurance, medical technology, aircraft engine production, nuclear and weapons manufacturing industries. CBS also dealt in nuclear energy via being owned by Westinghouse before it wed Viacom.
This presents serious journalistic conflicts of interest: Is it any surprise that news outlets whose parent companies reap hundreds of millions in government subsidies are quick to attack poor mothers’ need for food stamps, but slow to critique corporate welfare? When two of the most powerful weapons producers have owned two of the Big Three news networks, what are the chances that serious or sustained criticisms of the military-industrial complex will make it to the nightly news?
When media companies profit from war, those chances aren’t good, as we’ve seen all too painfully throughout coverage of Iraq, from the Dixie Chicks being banned from radio stations and subjected to radio-sponsored CD-stomping parties for criticizing the president, to activist actress Janeanne Garafalo being called treasonous, a Saddam Hussein sympathizer, anti-American and worse all over the media (but especially on a gaggle of Fox News shows including Bill O’Reilly’s, Fox & Friends, and Hannity & Colmes.
Without accurate, independent, non-biased journalism and creative cultural entertainment we can never move forward as a democracy. The progressive community – especially now, in the next four years – must involve ourselves in the fight for media reform.
Question: Jen, I think you are right about supporting Title IX. It's been such a great program. But doesn't the problem with women and sports go much deeper -- culturally? Women's sports have never held a significant TV audience -- and as a result, if you sit home on any given weekend to watch sports, it's still a completely male domain. Furthermore, everything from the LPGA to the WBNA to Women's Beach Volleyball has been forced to play to stereotypes of body image and femininity in their public relations campaigns.
I don't mean to be a pessimist, but it seems to me all the government-enforced opportunities don't mean much if the cultural attitudes don't change, if we don't stop seeing female athletes as athletes second and women first. And, frankly, I think we're going in the wrong direction pretty rapidly. I guess my question is, are you optimistic that our representations of women and sports will change? How?
Jennifer Pozner: The reason I mention Title IX is that enforcing and ensuring equal opportunity for women in sports, as in education, the key to creating the cultural shift you’re talking about – it’s not about the government forcing women to play sports or the like, it’s about making it a priority to encourage girls to take advantage of the same opportunities presented to boys… it’s about getting women to consider options available to them that they never thought possible before… it’s about those girls and women realizing that they have the right, and the opportunity, to pursue whatever they want, and trying to make sure that they can actually do so without external biases and barriers holding them back from reaching their full potential -- not only as athletes but also as mathematicians, as engineers, as doctors, and medical researchers, as computer programmers…
What you’re talking about is a long-term shift in the culture, which requires:
A. Institutional support (for example, via Title IX and other programs that work to redress gender inequity in various areas),
B. Structural media reform (to demand media accountability to the public interest, which would eventually result in a more inclusive representations of women in sports – not to mention news coverage of female politicians, who are sadly also portrayed as ladies first, leaders second, in the same way you mention about female athletes), and
C. Awareness and action on the part of feminists, progressives and all those who care about these issues -- meaning that we have a responsibility to do our part not only in pursuing the institutional and structural change I mention, but also to have the conversations that will raise awareness of these issues at our kitchen tables, at our office parties, with our friends, on the subway…
Media companies are not magnanimous. They will not alter their programming roster just because it’s the right thing to do. I am optimistic that representations of women in the media (and in sports, and in society) can change… but only if we actively demand and fight for that change.
Jennifer Pozner: Hey everyone, thanks so much for making this such a lively and challenging chat. If you've read this far, I applaud you for your stamina ... which is my way of saying I know I wrote a mini novel here, so I'm sorry if your eyes are bleary from staring at the screen for so long. It was heartening to see many of you interested in letter writing campaigns to the networks, corporate ownership and structural reform issues, in addition to the important content analysis that must happen simultaneously.
Women In Media & News will launch its full web site early next year. In the meantime, please feel free to visit for an "under construction" placeholder, to get more information about our programs, including media trainings for women's organizations, and multimedia presentations on women, media, politics and pop culture for college campuses (let me know if you want to bring me to your campus in the spring!). WIMN also works with journalists to help them find qualified women experts as sources for their stories, so if you are a member of the press, feel free to ask for our help. If you would like to sign up for WIMN's future media monitoring listserv, please e-mail me.
Thanks all, and I look forward to seeing you online, or on the front lines of the struggle for media reform.
* Have something you want to add to the dialogue? The blog is now open for additional comments.