Last updated: December 14, 2012 10:12 pm

Let’s look at role models

Girls need to learn to evaluate media images on the basis of their brains, not the glossiness of their hair
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of an eye reflecting a role model©Shonagh Rae

I have been keeping a covert eye on the posters next to my daughters’ beds. The reason? Until recently, the pictures on the wall were mostly items such as cute fluffy cats. But these days boy bands are cropping up (think One Direction), along with my daughters’ favourite female television and pop stars (Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, Victoria Justice and so on). And while these girls all have cheery faces and sparkling white teeth, they feature something else too: a slim physique, beautiful features and a tendency to wear short(ish) skirts.

Is this a bad thing? I would love to say no. After all, similar images have been circulating in teenage bedrooms for decades. But a few weeks ago I watched the documentary Miss Representation, and those smiles no longer seem quite so innocent.

The basic message of Miss Representation – which was released in America last year – is that media images are having an increasingly powerful impact on how children think and act. Most notably, girls today are being encouraged to think that they have to be slim and beautiful – if not outwardly sexualised – to “succeed”. While some of that brainwashing comes from explicit material, the most potent influences are often the most subtle, ranging from the behaviour of TV news anchors, to the pictures on girls’ bedroom walls.

The woman who wrote and directed Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is certainly in a position to know. I first met her a couple of years ago at a glitzy New York awards dinner, and (to my shame) I initially assumed she was a Hollywood cliché herself: she is blonde, slim and gorgeous, with a dazzling smile, an impressive acting career (she has featured in shows such as Mad Men) and an equally handsome husband to boot (Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant-governor of California). But appearances are deceptive. Newsom, who is very bright, has suffered sexual assault and eating disorders in the past; and while she has enjoyed career success in the looks-obsessed Hollywood machine, she has come to loathe the message that it promotes. Consequently, when she gave birth to a daughter three years ago, she decided she needed to act: she gathered a group of powerful women together, to make a film about the way that the media industry “misrepresents” – ie oppresses – women.

In some senses, this message is not particularly novel. Women have been complaining about exploitative pictures ever since the feminist movement took off 50 years ago. But what is striking – if not shocking – about Miss Representation is that Newsom fears that the problem is, if anything, getting worse. This is partly because fierce commercial competition is encouraging different media channels to attract viewers by providing ever-more-shocking images, even in mainstream outlets. Hence the images highlighted in the documentary, such as Jessica Simpson in a tiny crimson bikini on a soapy car; semi-naked women draped over boats; or the rapper Nelly showering a faceless woman’s pulsating crotch with dollar bills. But the other problem is that the rise of social media now makes it harder for anyone (including parents) to police what children see. Banning posters from bedroom walls is one thing; unplugging the internet is quite another.

Is there any solution? Newsom is convinced that the real answer is to rethink the position of women in the media. Right now, she argues, just 3 per cent of the jobs with real “clout” in television and film are held by women. If more women were controlling the production process, rather than just appearing in front of the lens, there would be more pressure to rethink those images. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” insists Rosario Dawson, the American actress, who is one of those pushing for women to be portrayed in “serious” roles. Or as Katie Couric, the American television anchor says: “The media can be an instrument of change … [but] it all depends on who is piloting the plane.” Instead of being fed a diet of Rihanna or Selena Gomez, in other words, girls need to see pictures of Angela Merkel, Condoleezza Rice, Ursula Burns, Sheryl Sandberg, Marie Curie or Hillary Clinton; and – more importantly – they need to learn to evaluate them on the basis of their brains, not the glossiness of their hair.

It all sounds like a noble ideal, and I would urge any parent, teacher – or media executive – to watch Miss Representation (although sadly it is not suitable for girls themselves, precisely because it shows those sexualised images).

In the meantime, I will keep trying to get my daughters as excited about Sheryl Sandberg as Katy Perry. But it is an uphill battle, in an increasingly image-obsessed age. If anyone knows how to make an exciting bedroom poster of Merkel or Clinton that will appeal to young girls, I would buy it by the sack-load this Christmas.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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