Advancement of Women

Portrayal or Betrayal? How the media depicts women and girls

In Brief: 
  • The UN Commission on the Status of Women examined progress for women since the 1995 Beijing conference
  • A panel there considered how images of women in the media affect their status
  • The "sexualized" images in advertising, film, and TV demean women and girls, said panelists
  • Positive solutions include individual action and moral education

NEW YORK - When Jan Floyd-Douglass decided to buy a new car, she bypassed suitable models from many different companies - and then wrote to tell them why.

"I wrote to eight manufacturers saying, 'I love your car but I didn't buy it because I don't like your advertisements because they demean women,'" said Ms. Floyd-Douglass.

She told the story during a panel discussion titled "Portrayal or Betrayal: How the Media Depicts Women and Girls," which was held 3 March 2010 at the UN offices of the Bahá'í International Community.

The event was one of dozens of side events planned in conjunction with the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, held 1-12 March 2010, which this year examined progress made for women since the 1995 Beijing conference.

As a contribution to this theme, the panel sought to consider how images in the media - whether television, movies, or advertising - affect the way women are perceived and treated.

Ms. Floyd-Douglass was joined by Michael Karlberg, an associate professor of communications at Western Washington University, and Sarah Kasule of the Mother's Union in Uganda. The panel was moderated by Baroness Joyce Could, chair of the UK Women's National Commission.

Baroness Gould opened by noting that several recent studies have shown that images that objectify or demean women are now more widely used in the media than ever.

Moreover, she said, those studies show that such "sexualized" images have an unhealthy impact on the psychological development of young girls - and on young boys.

"It gives a very disturbing perception to girls and young women," she said. "For girls, it is about being told they need to be more attractive to men. And for boys, it is about looking upon girls as sexual objects."

Dr. Karlberg said this trend in the media is a result of both individual choices and institutional forces.

"On one hand," he said, "people everywhere are choosing to consume media that feeds base appetites that we have inherited from our animal nature. On the other hand, media institutions have been constructed in ways that purposefully stimulate, reinforce, and exploit these base appetites."

The result, he said, is a "feedback cycle" that has created a media environment that is "unjust, unhealthy, and unsustainable."

Dr. Karlberg said efforts to address the problem must consider the structure of media institutions.

"The assumption is that the media is just another commodity," he said. "But the media is not just another commodity. It is a process that facilitates democratic deliberations. It is a process that creates culture."

Part of the problem, he said, is that the media's real product is not content but the delivery of an audience to advertisers. The result is that the media strives to manufacture audiences in the cheapest way possible.

Media junk food

"The cheapest way to manufacture audience is through a high sex, high violence, high conflict content. It doesn't take talent or research or investigative journalism. Yet it stimulates the appetites, much the same way that a high salt, high sugar, and high fat junk food diet does."

Dr. Karlberg, who is a Bahá'í, also discussed efforts the Bahá'í community has undertaken to offer moral education for children and young people, which he said can help to counter the ill effects of exposure to sexualized or violent images.

"Bahá'ís, like people everywhere, are struggling to raise and educate children," he said. "They are trying to do this in a way that cultivates their inherent nobility, that releases their spiritual potential, and that helps them recognize the deep sources of purpose, meaning, and happiness in life.

"Such spiritual education can be a very important factor in making children less susceptible to messages in their media environment. It is also a very important factor in making children more likely to make thoughtful choices about media consumption as they grow older," said Dr. Karlberg.

Ms. Floyd-Douglass said she considered her effort to write to various automobile manufacturers that use sexualized images of women in their advertising as one among many weapons in the battle against the problem of such images.

Like the other panelists, she noted that such images are so commonplace as to seem innocuous.

Parents, she said, should explain the existence of such images to their children - and make efforts to counter their harmful effects. "We have to question stereotypes in the media. We have to laugh at them.

"My message is, if we don't actually do anything about this, we are complicit in it," she said.

Ms. Kasule said the problem is not confined to western countries.

"In the African context, much of the time, the way women are depicted in the media is quite negative," she said. "They are depicted as symbols of sex. Or as something to do with making men comfortable, or giving care."

There are some counter trends to the problem, she added. She described a national television project in Uganda that gives free air time for women to talk about things that matter to them and noted that educational levels for women and girls are rising.

"There are many programs for girls to read and write. This is important because they will be able to access information, to access media reports, and then they can respond," said Ms. Kasule.