Lately I’ve been watching quite a few documentaries, and not surprisingly, what stands out to me the most are the stories about women. And appropriately, this is International Women’s Day!
The first documentary I dug into on Netflix today was Miss Representation, which explores the inherent patriarchy in the media. I wasn’t necessarily surprised about the pervasiveness of sexist and objectifying portrayals of women– everyone knows about that. What was surprising was the fact that it’s not getting better. Try, if you will, and count the number of female protagonists whose action is not driven by a man in some way, or whose story arc does not somehow involve finding love and (re)discovering her feminine side..
There’s not many, right?
Worse still is when you learn that our entire social structure and cultural gender bias is almost entirely created and enforced by a media campaign that was started after the end of WWII. During the war, women went into the workforce in droves. When the war ended, they did not want to go back home– they liked working! Something like 80% of them didn’t want to leave work. But alas, the men returning from war wanted to put their women back in the kitchen, so America’s new-fangled mass media tool, the television came to the rescue.
Advertisements and TV shows were created by newly created networks that glamorized the image of the woman at home. They focused on how pretty she looked and how perfect her home was– all because she was there to take care of it. As time has advanced forward, we see that this image of the happy housewife at home has become warped and used against women to keep them from achieving success.
To this day, if a woman is in the public eye, the focus is on what she looks like instead of what she says. Journalists ask her how she can balance being a wife and mother with her career– why don’t they ask men how they balance being a husband and father with their careers? Women are described in terms of beauty and attitude rather than intellect, skill and expertise.
Entertainment and news media are equally to blame for this– it’s seen in equal measure in both. And then popular culture imitates it like a bunch of monkeys. Take for example, the shitstorm that takes place on the internet every time Feminist Frequency posts a video. My YouTube feed is filled with response videos that often fail to address any of the actual content of her videos, instead focusing on how she looks and what kinds of degrading things they would like to do to her. If you watch one of her videos and make the mistake of viewing the comments section, you’ll find much of the same sort of thing, only badly spelled and usually in all caps.
Ironically, this type of response kinda proves that many of her arguments regarding gender norms are, in fact, correct.
Inbred sexism has spread across our society like a plague. If you look at the world of politics, you’ll find that the US is far behind in gender equality–China, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others, have all had a female head of state. The 2010 election was the first time that women haven’t made gains in congress since 1979. And there weren’t that many women in congress to begin with. This could explain the sudden rise in absurd laws regarding women’s health. There just aren’t enough women around to sit these men down and explain to them how the female reproductive system works– with diagrams.
And the political commentary surrounding female politicians is vastly focused on what they look like, how they dress, how they act, etc., rather than what their views are, or what they have done during their term.
Weirdly enough, much of this commentary comes from female journalists, who are in turn judged by television producers and the public based on these same criteria. And the public (you and I) will then judge our female neighbors and ourselves based on what we look like, how we dress and act. It’s a vicious cycle.
Our societal gender constructions haven’t just hurt women, though. I recently watched a short video that has been circulating Facebook for a couple of weeks. It’s kind of a flipside of the Miss Representation film, and it talks about how harmful the American version of masculinity is and how it has harmed young men and boys.
Turns out, being told to “be a man” and encouraged to hide emotions and present a facade to the world is actually pretty harmful to the psyche of a human being– male or female. Boys with behavioral problems in school are often struggling to express their emotions while simultaneously hiding behind a mask. Men in America have significantly fewer friends than women, even though they crave and need the support of friendship just as much. Culturally, it seems that men are constantly forced to prove their manliness and any infraction– crying, liking fluffy bunnies, things of that nature– can result in the loss of something called a “man card.”
I don’t have a “woman card.” It seems that women are women no matter what they do, wear, say, or achieve.
What if we could all just be who we are? What if a man could express emotion and have friends and a woman could be president and earn $1 for every dollar her equally qualified male colleague earns? Would that be so terrible? What if the term President or Lead Pastor could belong equally to a woman or a man and no one raises hell about it? Would it crack the foundation of our society?
So I think today is a great opportunity to have a Come to Jesus moment as a society. I think the suggestion made at the end of Miss Representation is a great one– recognize the power of the consumer. If we stop watching and buying into the harmful portrayals of women that we see on TV and in movies, the producers and television executives have to change it. If we stop voting for politicians who don’t support the rights of women to have the same general freedoms as men, our political parties will have to change their rhetoric. We have to be courageous enough to say that the way things are isn’t the way that they should be– and then act to make changes happen.