I was excited for the panel, considering I am frequently frustrated by the media’s exploitative use of women (whether it be the host of a show, such as Olivia Munn, or booth babes at E3) to appeal to a market that they treat as exclusively male. However, my expectations were quickly dashed when discussion of media literacy was tossed aside in favor of accusations of jealousy. Bonnie Burton and Adrianne Curry mused that women who were critical of sexy geek culture in any way were just jealous, had no confidence, and were projecting their issues with self-esteem onto the women who felt empowered by walking the Comic-Con floor in a Slave Leia costume.
When Jennifer Stuller (one of the creators of the upcoming Geek Girl Con) suggested that women who criticized “sexiness” were more than likely deconstructing the media, and by extension a society that tells women their worth lies in their ability to appeal aesthetically to men, she was rebuffed by the other members of the panel. Later, Stuller attempted to turn the discussion towards media literacy, to which Clare Grant responded that she doesn’t read magazines, therefore the media has no influence on her whatsoever. Adrianne Curry added that women criticize one another “because we’re all a bunch of bitches.”
Attitudes such as “Slave Leia kicked Jabba the Hutt’s ass while wearing that bikini – that is EMPOWERING!” and “I can’t help it that some of the characters I like to cosplay as are scantily clad” were met with rounds of applause from almost everyone in the audience. When the moderator mentioned that one of her friends posted a picture of her seven year old daughter wearing Slave Leia costume on Facebook, Adrianne Curry responded that there was nothing wrong with the human body, and that the U.S. is way too purtinical and prudish.
There were many disappointing moments that had me almost leaving the panel entirely, but nothing was quite so horrifying as the one contribution Chris Gore made when he finally showed up five minutes before the panel ended. He took the stage, apologized for being late, and said “Hey, I’m here to represent all the guys in this room who want to stick their penis in every woman up here on this panel.” There was nervous laughter and a bit of applause. I don’t even need to explain how disgusting and problematic that is.
The only good moment during the entire hour, was when the moderator called out Seth Green, who was looking disappointed with the discussion, sitting in the front row of the audience. Katrina Hill asked if he wanted to contribute or share his thoughts, and he unexpectedly took the mic for about fifteen minutes. As Hill explained to the audience what the audience would know him from (Robot Chicken), Jennifer Stuller mentioned that she had seen him promoting media literacy for the Girl Scouts. Seth responded that he felt media literacy is incredibly important in the ever-increasing, constantly-unavoidable, media saturated world we live in. He described how celebrities hold tons of influence over decisions people make, whether it’s over what product to buy or what sources can and should be trusted, and that certainly shouldn’t be the case. Green said that the media promotes a lot of “poison” and that girls, kids, and even adults need to know how to keep that poison from infiltrating the way you think, make decisions, and live.
When I returned from Comic-Con, one of the first things I did was go in search of that video. It is amazing and here it is:
If you enjoy reality television, I’m not here to tell you to dump ‘The Bachelor’…[Media literacy is] about learning to keep your critical faculties engaged, and that’s difficult because we turn on the television seeking entertainment, and we assume that entertainment means we don’t have to think.
Pozner has some creative ways to increase media literacy. She tellsBitch:
On the Reality Bites Back website there are Reality TV Mad Libs that are designed to increase media literacy. There is also a “Deconstruction Guide” with questions that people should keep in mind when they’re watching reality shows—or when they’re engaging with any other kind of media. There are tips for parents about how you can talk with your children about media literacy and how to let the kids guide that discussion. There are a lot of how-tos that make it fun to explore media literacy, so it’s not just medicine that you take.
My favorite of Pozner’s media literacy tools is her “Reality Rehab” web show, a hilarious, SNL-like spin on “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” that borrows you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up dialogue and scenes from reality TV shows (“I would be a servant to you”). In each webisode, “Dr. Jenn” helps one of reality TV’s most persistent stock characters (“The Slutty Bitch,” “The Angry Black Woman,” “The Top Model,” “The Real Housewife”) break out of his or her stereotype. After completing a stint in Reality Rehab, which combines “media literacy therapy” with “confessional cam” monologues,the characters emerge fully-dimensional human beings once more. Here’s Douchebag Dude, webisode 6:
In the process, the characters share insights into the machinations of reality TV: how producers use casting, “Frankenbite” editing and various production tricks to turn fully dimensional beings into one-dimensional tropes. By revealing these mechanisms, Pozner aims “to get people to become more critical media consumers, especially in relation to the regressive gender, racial, class and sexuality tropes hawked within the reality TV genre.”
When I incorporated the webisodes into my own women’s studies curriculum this semester, they did just that, to judge by my students’ comments:
From explaining to the “top model” that she is never going to be a top model because she does not fit the extremely limited and one-dimensional mold that America’s Next Top Model makes their girls fit into, to telling “the bachelorette” that she should not waste her time settling for sloppy, egotistical men who have stuck their tongues down twenty-five girl’s throats, Jenn is definitely helping the “stars” and viewers make sense of this reality show world that has completely consumed them. – Andrea S., a 19 year-old Sociology major
As a reality television viewer, it is so easy to get sucked in and believe that what I am watching is real footage of people’s lives. Jennifer Pozner, and her websidodes, help to effectively use media literacy to expose how reality television warps the idea of “real” and alters it into something completely different. It was nice to get some reality rehab for myself! Chandler R., an 18 year-old Anthropology major
Indeed, everyone could use some “reality rehab.” To assume that we’re immune from the regressive tropes and values espoused by reality TV is to be ostriches with our heads buried in the sand. Whether we watch or not, everyone else does, and the lessons are insidious. It behooves all of us to sharpen our media literacy skills in order to challenge the toxic tales churned out by reality TV–and Pozner is leading the way.
Photo of The Apprentice’s Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth by Glenn Francis. Reused under Wikimedia Commons.
Your breasts may be too big, too saggy, too pert, too flat, too full, too apart, too close together, too A-cup, too lopsided, too jiggly, too pale, too padded, too pointy, too pendulous, or just two mosquito bites.
We all know that ads exist for one sole purpose- to sell products by appealing to our emotions and socially constructed desires. In a culture that has an insatiable breast fetish, our breasts have consistently appeared at the top of the ever-growinglist of unacceptable body parts and there’s always some product to fix our pesky problem areas or avoid them in the first place with “preventative maintenance.”
And here we’re offered Kush Support, the miraculous sleep support for big breasts. Because now we don’t have too merely worry about their size, shape and degree of perkiness but we can fret over the potential chest wrinkles big breasts create as a result of sleeping on our sides. And because of our increased insecurities and body anxieties, we’ll buy a cheesy plastic cylinder that actually looks like a cheap dildo and our problems will be solved!
The barrage of images of ideal beauty drown diversity, tout the unreal as real and leave us wondering, “What does a real woman look like?”
This is what real women look like (feast your eyes):
All photos taken by Melanie Klein, May 6, 2010, as part of a dual-part class project. The body collage and photo-shoot allowed students to compare and contrast manufactured images of beauty and authentic representations of beauty. Body collages were taped from floor to ceiling to allow students to “feel” the onslaught of one-dimensional images and place themselves in front of the mass illusion disseminated via the mass media and remind themselves that “this is what a real woman looks like.” Body image film to follow.
Let me start off by saying that whenever I read about online and cell phone phenomenons such as “sexting”, I feel old. I was in high school only 10 years ago, but the current culture feels so far removed from what I grew up around. There were plenty of rumors about people’s behavior regarding sex, drugs, and relationships, but they were just words, nothing more. All teenagers in all periods of time have acted reckless, made stupid decisions, and made mistakes. Except now, those mistakes live online, on computers, in a digital chip forever. There’s no escaping – pictures meant for one person can be shown to hundreds of Facebook friends, and profiles and pages deleted are stored in Google cache, long after they’re gone. There seems to be these two parallels running at the same speed – risque and sexual behavior starting at younger ages, as technology makes communication easier and faster.
I started thinking “Have we learned nothing from the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world?” Of course it then occurred to me that mainstream media, and the treatment of these women is part of the problem. I’m not saying they should’ve been slut shamed or torn to shreds, but the way it was handled doesn’t exactly set a good example. Paris Hilton went from being an anonymous heiress to a household name (again hit television show, movie roles, spokesperson, etc.) What did Kim Kardashian get after her sex tape was “leaked?” A hit television show on E! and countless offers to be a spokesperson, cover model, etc. So far network heads, corporations, and publications have shown that you get rewarded for this kind of behavior.
Like I said, the answer isn’t slut-shaming, but maybe the answer is not rewarding these exploits or at the least not paying attention? I got annoyed the other week when I read the Huffington Post writing about Brandon Davis’ tweets about ex-girlfriend Mischa Barton. “Why is the media still giving this asshole a platform?” I wondered. The question isn’t just “Why were these women rewarded for their sex tapes?” But like Davis’ tweets, “Why were the sex tapes a top story in the news in the first place?” The media is our educator – they get to set the norms. So what is the norm the average 15 year old girl is growing up watching? Girls Next Door, Pretty Wild, and Keeping up with the Kardashians, just to name a few. I grew up watching Daria and Buffy. Quite a difference in the last decade, no? Not everyone is lucky or educated enough to be as media literate as us.
The pop culture landscape is flooded with endless streams of hypsersexualized images, with images targeting younger and younger audiences, and personal sexual exploits that would concern any parent resulting in reality TV careers. What’s a young person to do? The messages are conflicted and inconsistent. The news reports the latest story on sexting or a tween sexual exploit shared on Facebook and at the next turn a new celeb-wannabe gets rewarded with fame and fortune for the same behavior.
As parents are less able to keep up with all the new technological innovations that make this behavior easier and faster, teenagers expose every aspect of their lives through social networking, the two combined create a problem that just seems to be spreading instead of slowing down. Combine this with the contradictions of the media environment and one can become overwhelmed, searching for answers.
We need to be educated – in technology, in the long lasting effects of this behavior, and in having a critical eye when it comes to magazines, TV, movies, and music. It’s important not to forget about the influence the media can and does have on our society and culture.
Whether or not you subscribe to a tabloid (or a number of tabloids), read them occasionally or only skim the covers as you make your way through the check-out stand (even Whole Foods carries a select few, such as Us Magazine), tabloids matter. They matter because they comprise a component of our pop culture environment, like it or not.
You may scoff at the rags, belittle them, feel disgust and/or frustration, you may have boycotted them entirely (good for you!), but (you know this was coming, right?) plenty of other people read them. They do inform a large segment of the population. Don’t you want to know what messages are being constructed and disseminated?
When I attended Z Media Institute in 1997, I was in a full-on boycott of the mass media. I’d shut the cable off, stopped buying tabloids and I even stopped flipping through them when I got my nails done. I was done. I felt great. In fact, I felt smug about my choice and my intellectual elitism. Mass media? Pop culture? Nope. I’d moved on and I was above it. And then Michael Albert started talking about the NBA.
I think he could tell how surprised some of us were by his intricate knowledge of professional basketball and his affinity for Michael Jordan. Michael Albert was my favorite teacher at the institute (besides the workshop I attended with Noam Chomsky). He taught all sorts of cool media theory classes and I was heavy into theory those days. I respected him and was sorta oogley-eyed. His status as an out-and-out NBA fan didn’t match up with his intellectual, activist and anti-mainstream persona. Without any prompting on the part of his surprised and speechless students, he went on to explain that as an alternative media activist he couldn’t just turn a blind eye to the mass media. He could examine it critically, limit his level of mediation and even enjoy parts of it. Why would he want to completely distance himself from and consider himself superior to mass culture, pop culture? How could he expect to relate to the rest of the population? How could he speak the same language and create change if people perceived him as an intellectual snob in an ivory tower that viewed their hankering for some end-of-the day programming?
Of all the invaluable things I learned during my time in Woodshole, MA, this conversation has remained with me in incredible clarity. My time at ZMI changed me and Michael Albert’s talk on activism and the NBA changed my approach to activism, my understanding of pop culture and my to relate to and resonate with the “average” mediated individual in immeasurable ways. And, it allowed me to have a little more fun.
So, unlike a lot of you reading this, I do read tabloids. It’s part of my job as a media critic and an educator. I need to know what my students are subjected to. What are they reading? What are they watching. In essence, what are they consuming? It allows me to speak the same language and use examples that are relevant to them. This allows me to connect with them and create a shift in consciousness.
Aside from creating more interesting, often entertaining, and relatable lectures, *I* want to know what messages and images are being constructed. These messages and images shape our social values. I’ve been a student of media literacy for 15 years, I consider myself a conscious media consumer and I limit my level of mediation but most people I interact with don’t fall into that category. I’m talking about my neighbors, the people at the market, the gym, the drivers next to me on the 405.
In the end, whether or not you read the tabloids, tabloid messages help frame our culture. With that said, I have decided that beginning with last week’s tabs, I am going to examine the covers of at least 2 tabloids and find out what they’re saying. It may seem trivial or superficial but tabloid talk matters. Aren’t you curious to see what they’re telling thousands of people each week?
Well, lets take a look:
“Tabloid talk” was inspired specifically by these two covers from last week. Interestingly enough, both covers featured women exclusively. But that’s nothing to get too excited about. The dominant themes are: weight and body image (you’re either too thin, a plastic surgery freak or a body project success), relationships with men (endings and beginnings) and the girl-on-girl feud. Oh, and there’s a brief mention of Kate Gosselin and it’s not good. For more on all the “Kate-hate,” check out this article at CNN with commentary by WIMN director, Jennifer Pozner.
Sound familiar? Yeah, because I posted covers from a few weeks ago that had countless cover stories of warring women (women are never really friends, right?) and post-baby bodies.
How does this compare to older cover stories? Again, lets take a look at this 2004 tabloid cover from my personal archive:
Hmm, not much has changed, has it? I always find the examination of tabloid covers and advertisements more powerful when viewed as part of a larger spectrum of images. The seemingly mundane or superficial focal points become more powerful when viewed collectively.
So, let tabloid talk begin. It will be my weekly online content analysis. Complete results will be tallied and posted in 56 weeks.
I was first introduced to Kilbourne’s work in 2001 with the 3rd and most recent installment (at the time) of her legendary lecture on images of women in advertising, Killing Us Softly 3. Coupling wit and sass with an eye-opening examination of taken-for-granted themes in advertising, Kilbourne helped me develop a more critical and analytical eye. I was truly changed and continued to show that film every semester for the next 9 years.
After nearly a decade, I can recite every line from her film and am less surprised (but no less outraged by) by the disturbing, and often horrificimages created by ad execs and other media makers. But the film is no less relevant or important and, sadly, the images she deconstructs have remained fairly unchanged. Every semester, my new crop of students continue to be shocked awake by her film, the blinder peeled away. Her words and the images she discusses continue to be important and meaningful despite the 4 decades that she has spent discussing this topic. After all, not much has changed. This is why I am so happy that Kilbourne and the Media Education Foundation have released an updated version, Killing Us Softly 4.
Check out Jennifer Pozner‘s 2001 article and interview with Kilbourne, You’re soaking in it, an examination of “advertising’s increasing encroachment into every niche of mass media impact our culture in general, and women in particular.”