The things we LIKE are complicit in the things we DON’T…

Today Theresa and I spent the day with ten junior girls looking at images of women and girls in the media, particularly print media – those ubiquitous women’s and girls’ fashion and lifestyle magazines – and thinking about how destructive they are to us as people – men and women

To Begin

Current Issue of CosmoGirl
Current Issue of CosmoGirl

We started by looking at a stack of magazines, from CosmoGirl and Seventeen to US and Vanity Fair. The girls made two piles of images – a stack of healthy and positive pictures, the so-called “normal” women, and a stack of photos of über-thin women in impossible clothing doing unbelievable things. We had a great conversation as we looked at these magazines.

Our exploration of these images took at short break when Sarah, an intern at the Chicago Women’s Health Center, came to talk to us about the work that they do. The collective has been in existence since 1975 and provides amazing health care for women in Chicago. She joined our conversation about the media, and our discussion turned to issues of domestic violence and the statistics that a battered woman, on average, will be hit 30 times before she calls the police. That she will return to her abuser seven times before she leaves him for good. We talked about violence against women, abortion services and reproductive justice (their word), counseling, and the transgendered and their difficulties finding health care. It was very interesting to the girls and an excellent segue into our little film festival.

The Film Festival

We showed five short films and one longer piece. We started with the five films produced for The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Starting with the first “True Colors,” and then screening “Evolution,” “Onslaught,” “Amy,” and “Hair.” I have a hard time watching “True Colors” without tearing up; maybe it’s the fact that I have three daughters or maybe it’s because I always wanted to change my own body (too flat, hair too straight, blond eyebrows and lashes) that it hits home. But it will, without fail, make me cry. “Evolution”, “Onslaught”, and “Hair” make you gasp at the extent of the advertising and how unreal these women really are (really!) but it’s “Amy” that produces the smile and the “awww” from the girls. When the title comes up that reminds us that even though Amy can find 12 things wrong with her appearance, the boy wistfully calling for Amy can’t find one, we all melt. It’s the dream. That the male gaze is less critical than our own.

These are really powerful – but then! Top the festival off with a viewing of “Killing Us Softly 3” a 34 minute presentation from Jean Kilbourne, the filmmaker who created the first Killing Us Softly almost 30 years ago. She makes a connection between the objectification of women in advertising and violence against women, between the hyper-sexualization of children and teens in advertising to the high rate of teen pregnancy. Her argument is compelling in the face of so many examples. In fact, right after lunch, one of the members of the group said we needed to all look at Pink’s video for her song “Stupid Girls.” Grrrrr…. (that’s a growl out to the necessity of having to declare that you “don’t want to be a stupid girl.”) Amazing to watch it as we start to think about gender and power.

The Action and Reaction

So what to do? Back to the pile of images already culled and four large pieces of black poster board – the young women in our group created collages that show how women are treated as objects (breasts, backsides, torsos, legs), how women are depicted as powerless or victims (the pout, the aggressive male looming, infantilized clothing or props, dead), and how IN-frequently we are shown as having real sized bodies with real sized parts. They responded to questions in writing, and we put their responses and their collages on the bulletin board outside my room.

And the conversations that have already taken place around that board have been amazing – Duane, counselor and the pied piper of our school, explaining to a group of boys how it was not just pictures of HOT girls but that these images actually insulted them as men – a young woman’s voice asking loudly and over and over, “Who did these? Who did these?” until I came out of my room. “These are amazing! Did you do these all by yourself? This is so excellent.” – The girls who created them explaining to their friends (especially the boys) what they represent.

So we like those magazines. We like the clothes. But… they are really destructive to who we are UNLESS we are aware of the semiotic potential of these images. I’ll post pictures of their collages tomorrow when I get back to school.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. cburell says:

    Very cool. Was that “grrr” a disapproving commentary on Pink? From the little I’ve seen of her, I’ve admired her.

    I still can’t help but wonder, though, if our religious unconscious were less based on Paul’s anti-sexuality and more on Ishtar’s celebration (and sanctification of it in itself, not only for married couples), if we’d have a different take on the role of sexual “objectification” of women. Maybe men and boys would do it in a reverent instead of crude way, and maybe women and girls would see it as something of a grace to be treasured?

    But maybe not. I know it’s more complex than that. And that I just engaged of hilariously wishful thinking.

  2. Kate Tabor says:

    Hi Clay – I LOVED the Pink video – My irritation is with the reality of what is depicted in the video – bulimia, breasts over brains! I’ve got three daughters who wrestle with the pressure all the time. My 14 year old is in the thick of it. Here is a girl geek, but a gorgeous girl geek. Pressure then from all fronts – boys, girls, self, and teachers. One of my 11 year olds worries that she is going to be tiny forever! We have had really honest discussions about why we can never look like the people in magazines and why we wouldn’t want to. We talk (and laugh) about sex and puberty at our house. The girls are (age appropriately) grossed out when they even consider the fact that their existence is, in fact, directly related to sex.

    I agree with you; I think that in a perfect world, we can be sexual beings without being sexual objects. And all of this leads back to Enkidu. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. This is the beginning of our Shirkey-esque work for the year.

  3. Paul C. says:

    Wow, the ten junior girls who spent the day with you and another teacher, will not be forgotten. (Was this a special club?)

    I marvel how you structured the entire day. The students given magazines and making piles of women’s images under several categories, listening to a guest speaker from a woman’s health centre (always powerful to bring in a guest speaker tied to the real issues), watching six short films (a mini film festival) exploring the theme of the objectification of women, the students making a collage from the images and writing about their impressions, then posting their displays in the hallway so that students can learn themselves about the powerful day you had together.

    To amend Einstein’s formula, your lesson was education squared!

    (I have two daughters to your three – that background knowledge helps to tie in the important dynamics of your lesson.)

  4. Kate Tabor says:

    Hi Paul – this was the opening day of our community action project for the year where we integrate social justice topics into our United States history and American Literature curriculum.

    It was a “mind blowing” experience as the girls noted today, and the ripples are still widening from it. It’s exhausting, exciting work that we do (I teach at a progressive school whose mission is educating for ‘character’).

    I posted about the narrative anthology that came out of last year’s work this summer. As always, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  5. Paul C. says:

    Hi Kate,
    Great that you could integrate your study in a cross curricular focus. I am glad your students are so excited by the experience!

    Speaking of ripples:

    Best wishes.

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