Women and the Media Part 1: Targeted Messaging And What It Tells Us

“You cannot be what you cannot see.”  The presence of role models and media examples influences our understanding of what we are capable of, what we see as acceptable.  A lack of female leaders has helped to reinforce the idea that women can’t succeed in politics; similarly, a steady stream of messages about women not being built for science has helped feed into the leaky pipeline problem in STEM fields.  The media is one of the biggest sources of messages about social norms and behavior; it helps shape our ideas of possibility and acceptability; and it helps shape our concept of femininity and correct female behavior.

So let’s start with media that targets young women, and what that media is telling those young women.  Most of what we see targeting young women are romantic comedies, evening dramas, and afternoon teen shows.  Each of those categories has some good and some bad, but it’s definitely worth talking about the messages those programs contain.


You know the kind of media I’m talking about: shows on Disney Channel and Nickolodeon that target pre-teens and early teens.  A lot of these shows highlight a certain level of silliness, focus on unrealistic situations, or play into teenage fantasies (see: Hannah MontanaSonny With a Chance, Victorious, and iCarly).  Shows like these often show teenage girls as being absorbed in everyday tedium or petty drama (honestly, it’s about half the plot of any Hannah Montana episode).  They reinforce the idea that teenage girls aren’t capable of doing bigger things-~-you rarely, if ever, see the characters focused on giving back, getting into college, or pursuing bigger dreams.  Even if you count Miley’s career in Hannah Montana or Tori’s career as bigger, they are unrealistic dreams that most teenage girls will never be able to go after or achieve.

That said, a lot of these shows to highlight important ideas about growing up, learning responsibility, learning forgiveness, and building friendships-~-all things that matter a great deal.  The only problem is, they often aren’t the thing that sticks with you once you turn off the TV.


I’ll start with evening dramas still targeted at teens, shows like those on ABC Family.  A lot of those actually have some real substance and positive messages, but some of them are really problematic.  I’ve already talked about how much I dislike The Secret Life of the American Teenager: it does nothing to show a conversation about consent.  It does little to show safe sex actually working-~-even Adrienne, who was the most careful and the most sexually active, ended up getting pregnant.  But other shows have done an excellent job of delving into complicated issues and exploring diversity, so I’ll point a few out:

  • Pretty Little Liars looks a lot at female friendship and explores the complicated issues surrounding one character’s experience of coming out as a lesbian.  At the same time, it focuses on some silly issues.  Aria spends a lot of time in an inappropriate relationships.  Spencer is very focused on getting into a good college, but is lovingly mocked and never really celebrated for being as smart as she is.  Hannah does a lot of petty and stupid things, especially with regards to her family life.  While those things are a part of growing up, the reality is that she basically fills the role of “dumb blonde” within the group, somehow reinforcing the idea that the popular girl is never really the smart girl, never really celebrated for much other than being pretty and popular.
  • Switched at Birth does a decent job of addressing issues surrounding disability and deaf culture; it deals with identity issues that are in need of exploration.  But it also paints the main woman of color on the show as a sometimes-irresponsible single mother who succumbs to alcoholism when her daughter needs her most.  Bay, who is one of the main characters and struggling with feeling like an outsider and a disappointment to her family, is often painted as a stereotypical stupid, rebellious teenager, who needs to fall in line.  Her ambitions are generally dismissed by her parents as stupid.  What does this tell us?  That being different is bad?  That art is not a valid dream?  That looking and feeling different things to be squashed in order to make other people happy?  Maybe not the best messages.

Then we’ve got regular prime-time TV, which isn’t necessarily much better.  Glee’s Quinn compromises her values and then lies to everyone about it, because purity is what really matters, and alcohol apparently makes it impossible for a girl to say no or for that to mean anything.  I actually think Grey’s Anatomy has some really good messages, since the vast majority of female characters are ambitious, smart, talented, and sex-positive.  But what do shows like Mistresses say?  Why do shows like Once Upon a Time, which has a seemingly endless supply of strong female characters, still equate sexiness with evil and purity with good?  (Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed those visuals).  Why are we still getting these messages from the media?

#3. Romantic Comedies

Look, I enjoy rom-coms as much as anyone, but I’m well aware that there’s a pretty big problem with an entire genre of movie that focuses on girls messing up in their efforts to get guys.  These movies often downplay the rest of a girl’s life because the plot is focused on the development of her romantic relationship, often with the wrong guy, only to have the right guy swoop in at the last moment.  The predictability is almost alarming.  In 27 Dresses, Kathrine Heigel’s character basically puts her career on hold because she has a crush on her boss, who doesn’t even notice her that way, and she spends the whole movie pining over him and then finally ends up with someone else who actually, you know, cares.  And while it is a good message that we should be with someone who cares, what about the rest of her darn life?  She has ONE friend.  She has a sister she doesn’t get along with whom the movie kind of talks about but only in the context of how this guy impacts their relationship.  She doesn’t even really have a career bc she won’t leave her job for the aforementioned reason.  Then you have The Wedding Date (starring Debra Messing) which has an alarmingly similar plotline: the whole thing is focused on how her relationship with her ex fell apart and her feelings for her hired date.  She doesn’t even HAVE friends in the movie.  (It does, however, somehow pass the Bechdel test).  I LOVE When Harry Met Sally to no end and at least Sally does have a career and friends and that’s great, but the takeaway from the movie is that men and women can’t be friends, which is stupid.  Clueless is a classic in this genre and basically highlights everything there is to dislike about this genre.

My point is, this kind of media targets young women and feeds into an idea that relationships (particularly heteronormative relationships) are the most important thing; that their ambitions are not important; that what matters is getting your man; or worse, that they are a prize to be won.  These movies often trivialize sexual relationships even when those encounters might be emotionally significant (look, in real life, people can be casual about sex but also sex sometimes means something, I’m sorry to have to point this out).  It sends a message about what is important if you are a woman-~-how you should dress, what you should prioritize, heck, even what you should look for in a relationship, even though the relationships depicted often aren’t realistic and set a standard we can often never meet, setting us up for disappointment.  (Which is extra problematic if you buy into the idea that the perfect relationship is in fact the most important thing).

We need media that sends better messages to young women, messages about how they can be strong and smart, messages about how much they deserve.  It’s time.  We can do better and we’re going to have to, because feeding young women these ideas is only going to result in young women who haven’t internalized what they deserve and what they can achieve.  And that is a real shame.


~ by Randi Saunders on June 22, 2013.

2 Responses to “Women and the Media Part 1: Targeted Messaging And What It Tells Us”

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who hated Clueless! I seriously thought I was the only one.

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