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Week 16: 'You Can't Become What You Don't See'

Not everyone is a trailblazer

For better or for worse, most people are not trailblazers.

That doesn't mean that they have no potential. But it does mean that they need role models. They need to see other people, often people like them, succeeding at the type of thing they want to do. They need it for inspiration, leadership, paths to follow, and to help them believe that they can succeed.

They also need other people to have seen people like them succeed, so that they will give them a chance. The owner of an auto-repair shop is more likely to hire a woman if he's seen a woman mechanic before. A couple saving for their retirement is more likely to trust a female financial adviser, if they've seen women talking about financial issues on the news before.

First woman to _____.

First gay person to _____.

First black person to _____.

First ____ person to _____.

Those firsts are important. Those trailblazers are critical. But the thing that truly makes a difference to each and every member of a marginalized group is when it becomes mainstream for people like them to do something they didn't dare dream was possible.

What happens when women are invisible?

"You can't be what you can't see." Those are the wise words of Marie Wilson from the White House Project. When children are seven years old, an equal number of girls and boys say that they want to be President when they grow up. But over time, something happens. Girls watch, observe and listen to what is happening around them. By the time they are fifteen, a wide gap has emerged between the number of boys who still want to be President and the now much smaller group of girls who want to be President.

Take a look at this video that shares some eye-opening statistics on the gender disparity in the media.


The lack of balance between women's voices and men's voices in the media is the reason why it was such a big deal recently, when all of the by-lines on the front page of the Wall Street Journal were from women.

What happens when women's role is relegated to sex object or commentary on "women's issues"?

Some media outlets do a better job at ensuring that women are fully represented than others. But for many of them, I get the idea that fair representation of women means getting women to talk about what they perceive as "women's issues". There are not yet enough women commenting on politics, finance, business, the economy, sports, and more. In some cases, shockingly, even on things that are considered "women's issues" (e.g. abortion, birth control), some media outlets will call in a cast of male "experts" instead of seeking out women's voices.

The problem most days is not simply that women's voices are absent. The problem is that when they are present, they serve to further perpetuate stereotypes and gender roles.

For example, in the Huffington Post earlier this year, Tara Sophia Mohr wrote about the montage of great movie moments shown at the Oscars:

In the first clip in the montage, Forrest Gump ate from his box of chocolates. Next, a series of couples gazed lovingly into each other's eyes: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost. Then came a stream of 25 clips showing male heroes talking to, leading or fighting other men. In the middle were a few women, one screaming in stress about her wedding, one screaming because she was being attacked and one screaming to fake an orgasm. And with that, the montage ended.

She goes on to deconstruct the montage in more detail and ask whether it really matters, concluding that it does:

Films shape our culture and they shape us. Popular films become part of our cultural fabric, stories that paint a particular picture of what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be white or black. Over time, the images we see in story after story subtly impact our ideas about who we are. Films -- whether realistic or fantastical --teach us underlying ideas about what is possible and what is true. When women can't see strong, interesting, female protagonists in the stories we watch, it becomes harder for us to see ourselves as the strong, interesting protagonists of our own lives. When girls grow up seeing story after story that tells them they are sex objects, accessories or victims, they will learn that to be a "woman" is to play one of those three roles.

That movie montage may be just one example, but it is emblematic of women's portrayal in the media in general. If you haven't seen it yet, the movie Miss Representation is definitely a must-see to understand how female actors, journalists, politicians and more are treated in the media.

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

As if that wasn't enough, the recent media commentary on Ashley Judd's "puffy face" showed us all one more time how things work. The difference, however, is that she fought back. Explaining why she chose to address the issue instead of just ignoring it, she wrote:

I choose to address it because the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle. The assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.

She also addressed the fact that the attacks on her, much like the "mommy wars" I've written about here before, came primarily from women. Instead of us supporting each other in our ambitions, whatever they may be, we have nothing better to do than to attack each other's appearance and parenting. Judd wrote:

That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.

Let Them See

I want our daughters to look out into society and see that they can be anything they want to be. I want them to see women in roles that include President, teacher, mother, lawyer, scientist, construction worker, astronaut, activist, engineer, doctor, farmer and more. I want them to see women expressing opinions, calling the shots, giving expert advice, and standing up for what they believe in. I want them to see women doing all of those things, without people commenting first and foremost on their bodies, their clothing, and their make-up. I want our daughters to believe that they can be anything they want to be, not just because we've told them that, but because they see that mirrored back to them in society.

I want all girls to believe that they have a chance to be whatever they want to be. Not just those girls with the trailblazer gene.

This is the third in a series of four posts looking critically at the way society, corporations and media influence the role girls and women are expected to play in society. The posts are written by me (Annie @ PhD in Parenting) and are generously sponsored by Pigtail Pals.

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