In her own words
Six women essayists share their thoughts on how they think the media portray them
Television, news, radio, magazines, movies and billboards bombard us every day with images of women, some of them fairly accurate and even highly positive, many others designed only to manipulate and deceive.
This year, for our annual Women’s Issue, six women essayists tell readers how they believe the media have portrayed them, how the media have played a role in their lives or how they see different media outlets affecting women around them.
They’re a diverse group: One’s a politician, another is a psychic. There’s a college freshman, as well as a blue-collar worker, a retired mathematician and an activist. They address many similar topics, but their voices and perspectives couldn’t be more diverse.
The shoes we wear
“OK, what do I need to do today? Go running is number One, then I also need to go get some Botox injections. … Wait, I have no wrinkles. What am I thinking?”
It’s times like these that make me wonder how much the media affect women like me. What other kinds of subliminal messages are jammed into our heads?
As a brand-new college student to the University of Nevada, Reno, I’ve been realizing how the media seem to affect the young adult female population in Reno.
Recently, I have noticed that, for some odd reason, a lot of the women at school think they’re supposed to wear high heels to class everyday. Girls wearing these shoes walk incredibly slow and look like they need a hip replacement. I have to laugh when I see these strange creatures. I’m just waiting for one of them to topple over.
I strongly believe the media are partially responsible for why these women vainly torture themselves. What’s the world coming to? First, the media want us to be skinny, then they want us not to have any wrinkles, and to top it all off we’re supposed to wear high heels every day? What’s next?
I will admit, though, some aspects of the media portray women in a positive way. All these lawyer and crime-scene-investigation TV shows present the message that women can be smart and successful. I think women (and men) have gotten the message, over the past 50 years or so, that a woman can get the same job as any man. In these same TV shows, however, have you noticed any overweight lawyers with missing teeth? I didn’t think so.
Although these television shows are sending out some positive messages, there is still that element of “you must be pretty to be smart and successful.” I do wish I could walk around in fabulous heels all day and look cute as hell, like Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) from Sex and the City, but that is just unrealistic.
The media, I think, affect different women to different degrees. If a girl doesn’t have very many personal role models or anyone outside the media to look up to, then my theory is that she will turn to the media to learn how to behave in society. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to rise above judging ourselves against the females portrayed in the media and love ourselves for ourselves.
Wearing high heels all day on a multi-leveled campus with lots of stairs is a perfect symbol for how the media unconsciously affect women. Until women start to realize that wearing heels to school is ridiculous, I will continue to get a kick out of watching these funny female creatures, wearing their big backpacks, on the verge of toppling over. As those high-heeled girls begin to walk slower and slower, I will continue to think that my tennis shoes are the greatest, speediest shoes on campus.
Sarah is an 18-year-old graduate of Galena High School and a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno. She works at Bikram Yoga and at Woody’s Hot Dogs and Espresso. She really has time only for studying and work. Her other interests, however, are music and doing yoga.
Northern Nevadan Republican first
My relationship with the media is somewhat different from the relationship of many women politicians because the media cover me from two very different angles.
First, as an elected assemblywoman, I am often in the media’s eye because of the positions I take on issues. More often than not, however, that attention centers on whether my position is in complete agreement with my political party, not on how my gender has affected my position. This focus mirrors the manner in which the media cover male political figures. In the 2000s, political party and even regional affiliations are more important than gender in how the media cover a person’s votes or statements. In general, the media cover me as “Republican” or as a “Northern Nevadan” rather than as a “woman assemblyman.”
The media also cover much of what I do or say based on my husband’s, Congressman Jim Gibbons', position. As the wife of a congressman, the media often look at me as simply an adjunct to him. As is the situation with many other political wives, I find that attention challenging because I am always aware that anything I say reflects on him. I don’t know that husbands of female political figures feel the same way. Being quoted as “Dawn Gibbons, wife of Congressman Jim Gibbons” is entirely different from being quoted as “Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons.” I’m completely comfortable with being accountable personally and professionally for my positions on issues. I am more “on my guard” when I am specifically being interviewed because of my position as Jim’s wife.
I still remember clearly the media firestorm that occurred when Barbara Bush gave an interview and took a position that differed markedly from that of her husband and the Republican Party. As the president’s wife, she was apparently supposed to share his every thought on every issue. When speaking to the press, I am quite aware that I would rather not put any differences my husband and I may have in the public eye.
Overall, many of these issues have more to do with being in a “political couple” than they have to do specifically with the media and their treatment of women. And that is quite different from the way things were just a few short decades ago. Today, political figures are increasingly female, as are the reporters who cover political figures. The questions asked of women politicians are now much the same as the questions posed to males. While there are fewer women in the political arena than there are men, women are no longer a rarity requiring different treatment.
State Assemblywoman Dawn Gibbons has been a business owner and entrepreneur in Reno for 28 years. She is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno. She is married to Congressman Jim Gibbons; they have three children, one grandson, and are expecting a new granddaughter in the near future. Gibbons is the co-chairwoman of the Nevada’s Organ and Tissue Donation Task Force. She successfully spearheaded the Education First and Gibbons Tax Restraint initiative petitions. Her hobbies are skiing, reading and collecting rare U.S. coins.
Media role models
When I was first asked if I would give my opinion on how I think women are portrayed in the media, I thought, “Sure, no problem.” Then when I sat down and actually started to think about it, I wasn’t really sure what my opinion was.
There are all different aspects that the media cover. When you look at how women are portrayed in fashion magazines, I think we are looked at more as objects than anything else. The women in these magazines aren’t what you would call typical in appearance. Tall, thin, beautiful, not to mention rich. For young girls, this isn’t the most realistic role model. For women who are past the age of superficial role models, it’s a little frustrating trying to live up to the standards of what being beautiful is supposed to look like.
Then there’s television. If you look at how women were portrayed back in the ‘50s, all they aspired to do was get married, have children, cook and clean. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that; it just seems like it was the only option.
When you watch television now, women are shown as being very independent and career-minded—being anything from doctors to lawyers and firefighters to teachers. I think we women are exposed to a lot more options now than we used to be.
There are many more positive role models on television than on the covers of fashion magazines. Women in movies are generally shown in a positive light, as far as being professionals. The only negative portrayal, I think, is on reality TV. We are shown as either being desperate to find a husband or just plain cut-throat when pursuing a career. We are portrayed as catty, rarely capable of getting along with other women. Well, I have plenty of women friends, and we would do anything for each other.
Then there are women in sports. This is probably the most positive portrayal. These women not only make their living by being athletic, but also by branching out with clothing and product endorsements. They also bring a realistic body image to young women.
Overall, I would have to say we women are shown in both positive and negative ways, although I think it tends toward the positive. You have to take everything you watch and read with a grain of salt—it’s easier for women who know themselves well than for the young girls who are still trying to find role models to identify with.
I would definitely say there are a lot more choices now then there were many years ago. I’m glad I grew up in this era where I can do whatever I want.
Laura Jensen is a 35-year-old heavy-equipment operator. She lives at Lake Tahoe with her boyfriend and two dogs.
Spiritualists led the way
In the media today, the women of this country are portrayed to be more realistic than those of the old-time TV shows, such as Leave It to Beaver or The Brady Bunch. Women now have jobs and other lives besides just being “housewives.” The path to the difference in portrayal was not an easy one to walk, but the women of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have worked in different ways to change their image.
In the 19th century, Spiritualist psychic trance mediums enchanted the public with lectures and speeches. To hear a woman speak during this time was a rarity. The women who began as trance mediums soon lectured on women’s rights.
Spiritualism’s national speakers, such as Lizzie Doten and Emma Hardinge Britten, helped spread the movement more widely than the few abolitionist agitators ever could. Doten and Britten were undeniable favorites of the Spiritualist public.
During the 1980s, the media advertised women as fighters for equal rights. The nation watched as women were shown that they could bring home the bacon and fry it too, via waves of TV commercials and magazine ads. This encouraged more women to join the work force and compete for higher positions with higher pay.
“It was a wonderful thing for women of that time to step up and open the door for those of us to come into the work force later,” says my 16-year-old daughter, Britney. “It took a lot of courage, and they are quite admirable for it.”
Today, women are demonstrating to the public their ability to hold leadership positions in areas such as government and the military. Hillary Clinton’s strong ego and tireless energy pushes on. Through scandal she has stood strong, and her power drive has kept her in a governing position.
Women in the media, such as Barbara Walters, are extremely influential in the United States today. Walters has interviewed people of power and prestige no one else could.
To truly shed light on the real women of today, the media have to turn to areas such as government and religion, as well as social and home life. In the 19th century, unmarried women made a living as seamstresses or through prostitution, while married women bore an average of eight to nine children; these lifestyles have been left in the past.
“Women have come a long way in the journey to freedom,” says Britney. “Education has become serious business for all to utilize equality. Women make choices as to by whom and how the household is run, the number of children they will bear, and [they] are now, in some cases, self-supporting.”
Women today are viewed by the media as beautiful, sexy, strong and intelligent—in many ways, a major difference compared to the view of them as little as 10 years ago.
Vickie Gay has been married for 26 years and has three daughters. Vickie was a woman who, in the ‘80s, was bringing home the bacon and frying it, too. She is a psychic medium and also has her own maid-service business. She’s been working since she was 13 and has been self-employed since 25. She turned 50 in July.
Hear my voice
I sometimes see women of color on TV, light-skinned faces gracing mags that don’t appeal to me, or better yet, how about shaking their asses on MTV …
Our realities are strictly for the purposes of superiority and commodity … My color is Black, yours gives you privilege and accessibility to whatever, whenever … Subjugation and subordination is my middle name … We feel constant incrimination and discrimination, which leaves us out in the cold …
When I am asked to straighten my hair, fix my nose, and look like a Barbie doll, it’s because media elites stand to make a dime …
Mainstream America doesn’t understand my reality as a Black woman … Oh but let me guess, I am just tellin’ lies …
Am I angry, or just bitter over my people’s lack of history …
We have our token few—Oprah, Condi, oh yeah, like Halle, they’re just livin’ lies … Their mere existence is met with fierce resistance from who that stand to make a dime … Who are we? Globally we are red, yellow, Black, Afrikan, spiritual, lesbian, and self-defined … Media conglomerates rely on political and economic power to get them by!!!
Have you ever heard of Conquer and Divide?
The “other” is subjugated to a look, a wink, or whine, when we speak up against our invisibility in the media’s eye …
My sistahs, when will we take up a united front and be proactive instead of reactive against our mass destruction …
When will women all over the globe stand up and be counted?
Spoken words critically analyzed and assessed by all those who can’t understand … I’ve looked for my voice in the movement and have been paralyzed with fear. … Black skin makes me a quick target for lethal tongues with privilege. … Find my voice, has the cat got your tongue, speak up girl!
Politically my people have been looking for one since slavery. …
Those with more than an average view, look down upon their own, forgetting where they’ve been, and can never understand my reality as a black woman.
I am subjected on a constant basis to racism, hypersexualism, classism and –isms I can’t even define. …
When will someone stand up and make sure I don’t have to cry?
Inger McDowell is a native Nevadan. Born in Las Vegas, she moved to Reno when she was 8. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, in May 2003, with a degree in political science and a minor in women’s studies. She currently works for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), a statewide nonprofit coalition, as a community organizer.
A step backward
Entertainment and information presentation to the public since World War II has undergone many changes, both visually and in content, but ways in which women have been and currently are portrayed have changed very little.
If one looks back before the war, in classic movies for example, women were often portrayed as intelligent, capable and strong; in some old westerns, the woman kept the homestead functioning, while the man was off fighting Indians. There were detective stories where the woman was portrayed as being just as ingenious as the man. There were the “dumb-blonde stories,” but they mostly had a twist that showed the woman was really clever after all.
During World War II, women worked the jobs that had to be done while the men were at war. The media portrayed these women as being very competent—working all day building airplanes or ships, and then coming home to take care of the kids and the home. Women were at the height of equality then, appearing in ads displaying their efforts to “keep the home fires burning” while the men were away. When the war was over, women returned to their traditional roles. Television grew, and men became the principal workers in the industry. That has not changed much over the years.
In general, women on television have to project a young, sexy image. Intelligence is not the first consideration. On many news programs, the first thing we see are the knees of the females who are perched uncomfortably on high chairs, peeking out from under the current “hide the eyes under the bangs” look. Are they reporting the news? I hope so, but I am too annoyed to find out. Of course, not all women in news broadcasting fit the above description.
Let’s look at commercials. The housewife is commonly a cute, slightly stupid person. There is usually a man, her child or her husband telling her how to use the product, often with the dialogue implying she is not quite smart enough to figure it out for herself. And, how many commercials do we see promoting pills, creams or exercise equipment to turn women into “sexpots"? What kind of image does that portray? “Never mind what the inside is like, the outside is all that counts.”
How are women described by male sports commentators? The implication is—especially when a group of men discuss women participating in a sport they think is for “men only"—that those women are not feminine. The comments are generally delivered with a little snicker. Many more men report on women’s sports that women report on men’s sports. Why? The implication is that a woman can’t understand a man’s sport, so she doesn’t qualify to report on it.
The above comments do not apply to every news show, commercial or sports program, but women should be portrayed just as they are: intelligent, capable and strong. We can only hope that some day the perception of the equality of men and women in the media becomes a reality.
When Jeannine Lamar took an aptitude test in college, circa 1947, she scored high in math, engineering and English. She was told that the first two options were not open to her, as they were “for boys.” She became very determined to become a mathematician, and even though she met with a lot of resistance from math instructors, she kept working until she accomplished her goal. Today, she is 75 and retired, although in her spare time she tutors math and teaches ice skating.