Do We Need a Commission To Provide Positive Images for Women and Girls?

Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis joined Senator Kay Hagan and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin on Capitol Hill July 13 to introduce a bill that would support efforts to improve the image of girls and women in the media. The National Taskforce on Women and Girls in the Media would be chaired by Davis and former FCC Chairman Deborah Taylor Tate. In a statement to the press, Davis said:

“I am proud to join with Sen. Hagan and Rep. Baldwin to promote gender equality and positive portrayals of women and girls in the media. What children see affects their attitudes toward male and female roles and impacts the value they place on girls and women in society. The Healthy Media for Youth Act will help ensure we are creating a positive media environment for all our children.”

You may remember Geena Davis in her memorable role as one of the stars of Thelma and Louise. But taking on an advocacy role on behalf of girls and women is something she is obviously passionate about, clearly less celluloid and more cellular. It’s a hard road for today’s girls transitioning into puberty and young adulthood. The images of teenagers and young women found in TV and films are unattainable in real life and haven’t kept pace with the real opportunities girls have to excel in academics, sports and leadership. Instead, we find exposure to images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies, which is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls.

Women—and their body parts—sell everything from food to cars. Popular film and television actresses are becoming younger, taller and thinner. We are led to believe- and that “we” includes mothers and grandmothers — that if we can just lose those last twenty pounds, we’ll have “everything” —the perfect marriage, loving children, great sex, and a rewarding career. Ha!

Why are standards of beauty continuing to be imposed on women, the majority of whom are naturally larger and more mature than any of the models or actresses that surround us? And film and TV provides no balanced view, showing role models who are able to think critically and demonstrate the complexity of being a good citizen?

The media has an enormous impact on the psychology of women, and the present array of images is negative. When it comes to shaping attitudes and expectations in a more positive way, Geena Davis knows that women in her industry do make a difference:

“When there is a woman working as a writer or producer in a film, there is a greater chance that the film will include more positive images of women and girls,” Davis said.

The concept of a Task Force on the Media made me think: Isn’t it everyone’s job to promote healthy, balanced, and positive images of girls and women, and not only in the media? And aren’t real experiences at least as important as celluloid (or digital) images? Press coverage of positive role models can highlight positive social changes with regard to women’s advancement; for instance, Iceland’s new President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first democratically-elected female president of a country, notes press coverage of her inauguration: “A woman in a turquoise dress surrounded by men in black ties.”

What can each of us do in our communities to ensure that girls and young women develop their intellects and their self-concept in a positive way? For one thing, we can lobby our local press to cover the academic achievements of girls and women. Second, we can highlight female role models in business, politics, and professional life. University students often tell me how much they appreciate seeing “older women” with particular expertise speaking at conferences because they realize, “Okay, I get it. That’s what a woman leader looks like, and sounds like.”

The actual pace of change with regard to women’s advancement into top executive positions is stunningly slow but Geena Davis means to change that by confronting the role of media in perpetuating sexist stereotypes. To use Davis’ language, when women speakers convey that they are “healthy, balanced, and positive” with a can-do attitude, people will listen. Those positive values will shape the future in a way that benefits everyone, including boys and men. Think of the repercussions when women present fresh ideas to the City Council or present new policy proposals at a staff meeting, and (someday), when more women Meet the Press or Face the Nation. Having a Commission focus on the media’s representation of girls and women is one step towards achieving a more equitable society.

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