Visual & Written Story #2: The Stories of Girls
The Stories of Girls
Growing up, we are told stories. Dozens of stories, perhaps hundreds of stories. Stories about love, about hope, about happiness. About funny and fantastical characters, places, and situations that always seemed just out of reach of reality. As girls, we hear these stories in a certain way, through certain lenses, with certain voices. What do we focus on? What is focused on for us? And who is doing the focusing? Although my parents read to my sister and me on a daily basis when we were children, I find it both curious and unsurprising that most of the stories that first come to my mind are from movies and television shows that I watched when I was little. VHS tapes of Disney movies were a staple in my household. My sister and I never grew tired of the characters, the storylines, or the original musical scores in The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty. I do not recall ever regarding these female characters as role models necessarily, but these fictional women most definitely played a substantial part in formulating my conceptions of beauty, happiness, whiteness, and heteronormativity. Now, fast forward twenty years…
I saw Jean Kilbourne’s film, Killing Us Softly, for the first time when I was a sophomore in college. It changed my life. Call me dramatic, but it really did. In her presentation, Kilbourne examines a multitude of images and messages from print and television advertisements that have conveyed distorted and destructive ideals of femininity for more than a century. She challenges the audience to think more critically about popular culture and its relationship to sexism, racism, eating disorders, and gender violence. I left class that day with mixed emotions—I was enraged to find that such advertising practices and behaviors had become so engrained in our society; exhilarated by the possibility of analyzing and questioning the media we consume; and frustrated that these ideas were just being called to my attention.
Concurrent to discovering media literacy, I read Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” about white privilege, as well as Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) and Patricia Hill Collins’ (2000) scholarship on intersectionality, the ways in which socially constructed concepts such as race, class, and gender interact and affect one’s access, opportunities, and life experiences. It was at this time in my academic career and young adulthood that I began to explore the intersections of my own race, class, and gender and the role that my resultant sociocultural location has played in my experiences, interactions, and observations as a white female. I knew I had been exposed to hypersexualized and hyperracialized images and messages of women on a daily basis for years, but when I learned that I had the ability and agency to speak out against these injustices, my relationship with the media changed. I began to see emerging patterns of damaging stereotypes that reinforced unrealistic and unhealthy perceptions of beauty, perfection, and sexuality of women. Soon after, I was unable to leaf through a magazine or watch a television commercial without scrutinizing the images, implicit and explicit messages, and language used to grab audience attention and influence their decisions and perceptions.
I unwittingly began conducting ethnographic research on the intersectionality of gender, race, and class, as well as the media’s influence on girls, at the age of 14 upon entering the 9th grade at a private, all-girls K-12 school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The school’s mission was to empower girls with the self-confidence, intellectual curiosity, and independence needed to lead successful and happy lives through a rigorous, but well-balanced education. Yet, when girls are seen at lunch or in the hallways reading about how to lose weight or look sexy, and idolizing the emaciated models showcasing the hottest fashion trends in magazines like Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Seventeen, the school’s mission statement becomes little more than a formal technicality of the institution’s creed. It was not only the media texts that had a powerful hold on girls’ perceptions of themselves and others. The inhabitants of the school and the atmosphere of the institution and its surrounding community also generated a corresponding system of implicit expectations and definitions of what happiness, beauty, and normality looked like predominantly based on certain social, racial, and cultural constructions.
The resounding message coming from both popular culture and the school culture was that to be thin, white, and constantly concerned about appearance and material possessions was normative and everything else was “other.” Although I embodied a “typical” girl at the school in many ways—I fit the bill in terms of my race and socioeconomic status, was heavily involved in athletics and extracurriculars, and elected student body president in my senior year—I often found it difficult to relate to the conversations, attitudes and lifestyles of the majority of girls due to my penchant for leadership, not being easily influenced to follow the crowd, and dedication to talking about issues of diversity and intolerance within and beyond school boundaries. Looking back, it is evident that I spent my formative adolescence collecting field notes and gathering data on a variety of topics that would develop into a passion in college, evolve into a specialized area of study in my master’s program, and ultimately lead to my pursuit of a doctoral degree.
On occasion I imagine (and truth be told, sometimes become concerned about) the kinds of stories I will want my children to hear, and wonder what stories I will want to tell. The last thing that current media literacy educators advocate is protection from the media, and yet, it is sometimes impossible not to want to shelter young and malleable minds from the power and influence of media images and messages, particularly those that reinforce and perpetuate gender binaries and stereotypes in such incredibly rigid ways. I do not anticipate the first few years of my future children’s (and husband’s) lives to be easy, due in large part to my hyperawareness and sensitivity about these issues, and that I will most likely have a very hard time detaching from my personal life. But I am determined to raise my children with the media literacy and 21st century competencies that they will need to prepare them to be lifelong learners and global citizens and there is no way that I will ever apologize for that.