You can blame the film industry for portaying young women as sex objects…or you can blame yourself. Especially if you are a parent of that sex object.
Parents must be more engaged in raising their sons and daughters. The public can place blame on film and television all they want for portrayals of the female form, and its effect on the self-image these young women create as a result of being exposed to the media. But if parents raise their daughters to be confident in themselves, to be skeptical of popular culture, and to take only what makes them stronger and better from what they watch, young women would be much better off in today’s society.
From a young age, my mother and father instilled a particular truth in me: I am who I make myself to be. No other person or thing in society is responsible for who I was, who I am, and who I will become. While influence from external sources is inevitable and inherent to the human experience, it is my responsibility to take what makes me a better person, and discard what does not, while internalizing the reason why I chose to discard it – learning from the experience.
The USC Annenberg study on sexiness on screen conducted by Stacy Smith and Marc Choueiti found that “Hollywood continues to be a difficult place for women to find on- and off-screen role models, and provides some grim details about society’s sexualization of teenaged girls.” The Parent’s TV Council conducted a similar study called “Sexualized Teen Girls: Tinsel Town’s New Target.” These findings showed that television shows portray young girl in a sexual nature far more than they used to. While these studies provide evidence that the media is not helping girls to have what the American Psychological Association calls a “healthy” self-image as they relate themselves to the female characters on screen, we should also quantify or qualify what parents have done in response to these representations.
The USC study reported that in the top 100 grossing films of 2008, 39.8% of female characters were seen in sexy clothing, and 30.1% were shown with exposed skin. The PTC study reported that 49% of the characters participating in sexual depictions were underage females, compared to the 29% of the characters who were adults. The PTC study also found that only 5% of the underage female characters showed dislike of being sexualized, in any form. These findings can be combated.
If parents communicate to their daughters, their children, that these portrayals are not the norm, or that these portrayals are inappropriate for girls their age, that means something. If parents talk to their kids about what they think and feel about what they are watching, the discussion makes them think about what is truly important. It introduces the idea that the media is not always correct. It instills the idea that there is more to a woman than her body, more to her than just the way she is received by men, or other women. The discussion forces them to analyze what is most important to them. If they appreciate how beautiful a young woman can be portrayed, while understanding that sexual behavior should be reserved for those with the maturity to handle all that comes along with those experiences, parents have accomplished something there.
I also believe that the less publicized part of the USC study is more important – their findings on female roles in the creative process of filmmaking. In films with male directors, only 31.7% of speaking roles go to women, whereas in films where there is at least one female director, 44.4% of speaking roles are female. While this margin might not be that great, the fact is that women’s voices are heard more often when a woman is at the helm. If parents instill more confidence in their daughters, to ask for and work for those roles, that percentage could rise. If parents instill in their sons that women are as much a creative asset as men, the percentage could also rise.
Smith said that females are still being marginalized and sexualized in film. Sex sells. This trend, so long as the movie business operates on money, will not change. But if parents continue to communicate with their children, continue encouraging them to ask whether a representation is truly accurate, their daughters will be better equipped to experience the media without being brainwashed by it. Parents must not disengage and allow their children to passively consume media without questioning what they see. A young woman will be able to see that she is responsible for her self-image and identity, not popular media.
Special thanks to Joe Cappo for help with my lead. 🙂