The Women I am Not

After spending a weekend in bed with flu and catching up on TV, I have an aching sensation (which incidentally doesn’t come from my infected sinuses).

Sex on screen continues to be misogynistic, violent and completely unrealistic.

As young girls we are told to be good. While the definition of good varies from society to society, there seem to be some common traits: if you were born a girl, you should wait for the right man, dress appropriately, not be easy.

But when it comes to sex, mainstream TV teaches us the exact opposite: we should always be ready, willing and, of course, we should never say no. On TV, sex is both the preferred weapon and ultimate punishment, and there seems to be very little in between.

Mainstream TV-makers tend to portray women who have sex in three ways: (1) as manipulators, using sex to advance their agenda; (2) as props, used by the male characters to express their masculinity or to say an intense goodbye before taking off to war (or some other kind of heroic activity); and (3) as a victim of violence.

Needless to say, in all these scenarios, the women involved are beautiful, slim and perfectly groomed – including, to my horror, the penniless sex workers in 19th century Paris.

Women are not the only ones whose sexual lives are gravely oversimplified on screen.

The unfair representations of masculinity – including sexual performance, needs and emotions – are undoubtedly hurting those who do not see themselves as ever-eager, macho sex machines who fear even the idea of monogamy. Not to mention other groups, such as the trans* community or people with disabilities, whose sexual lives are often altogether omitted in popular culture.

It is well established that the representation of social relations is a powerful tool in media, which can have a strong impact on normalisation of behaviour and norms. For instance, it has been argued that the increased presence of LGBTQ+ characters on TV is positively influencing the coming-out and self-realisation in the community.

Other studies show less positively, that media portrayals of rom-com relationships can normalise stalking. So, in absence of other portrayals of sexual encounters, are we doomed to learn our sexuality from what we see on TV screens?

I know, in theory, that the characters and scenes we see in films, ads or TV series are there only for entertainment and not to be taken too seriously. But in practice, I often feel conflicted.

I am angry to see that unrealistic stereotypes about such an important part of human lives continue to be reproduced on TV, and I refuse to replicate them in my own relationships. But, years of media influence had an impact on my idea of what constitutes perfect sex, and I often find it difficult to completely reject the influence of over-sexualised images of women that we all know so well from pop-culture.

I am neither the good girl  society wanted me to grow into, nor the women I see on TV. And I’m trying to find my way to be okay with that.

There is little we can do about the decades of unrealistic and misogynistic sex on TV reels, which has undoubtedly influenced generations of viewers. But we can inspire the future. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about it openly, without fear or shame. Let’s talk about our contradictions, misunderstandings and repressed needs. Let’s laugh together at the endless imagination of TV makers coming up with ever-new ideas on how to reproduce old stereotypes.

Sex is a spectrum, full shades, and we should all be encouraged to find our own way in navigating our own sexuality. After all, reality is much more colourful than TV.

Amplifying Girls’ Voices in Myanmar

This year, the theme of International Women’s Day was #PressforProgressThe inclusion of diverse voices in the press is integral to an active and dynamic society. However, according to a recent report published by Myanmar Women’s Journalist Society, only 16% of voices in Myanmar news belong to women. Additionally, women are rarely sourced as ‘experts’ on a topic, and “female representation in Myanmar media is one of the lowest in Asia”.

The media matters because it has the ability to harm a girl’s confidence and self-perception, and to work against her best interests. It matters, too, because strong representation and diverse knowledge creation have the ability to play a positive role in a girl’s life. Media can influence a girl’s aspirations. It can influence her decisions and her behaviors around health, education, sex and work. Media can create opportunities to lift the needs and rights of girls to a higher status in their communities, and even in the public policy sphere.

However, challenges to access and control of media limit the potential benefits to the well-being of girls in Myanmar. Over the past few years, we have been experimenting and learning alongside girls to determine how to address these challenges and create opportunities for positive change.

We’d like to share two Girl Determined media-related initiatives putting girls in control of media analysis and creation.

One of the featured stories in our recent by-girls-for-girls magazine, ‘Pollinator’, came from an interview with female Myanmar journalist, Khin Su Kyi.  She spoke about the massive gap in representation of girls and women in media, both on and off screen. While there are a few recognizable women’s faces regularly seen, namely Nobel-Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, most girls and women are portrayed on screen in limited roles such as domestic housewives, mothers, or daughters.

According to Khin Su Kyi’s analysis, women in leadership roles are almost always depicted in the media in a singular, specific way – conservative, donning a well-tailored local sarong-set, in the appearance of an ethnic-majority Bamar, and as a practitioner of Buddhism. This singular depiction does not provide an aspirational role model for girls from different backgrounds, with varying ideas of who they are and who they want to be.  This representation tells girls, “if you don’t look like, speak like, and carry yourself this way, you shouldn’t aim to lead.”

The journalist encouraged girls from all walks of life to participate in media as producers, directors, journalists, or artists, which will in time inspire more girls to get involved and take on leadership roles. We love Khin Su Kyi’s analysis and encouragement, and we are working to provide pathways for girls to develop their understanding of media and representation, as well as to create opportunities for girls to engage in media creation.

Girls’ Leadership and Media Advocacy Summer Camp

Fifty girls from across the country recently gathered together near the top of a small mountain to enjoy the cool breeze and discuss media – particularly the representation of girls and how it impacts each of us. They talked about the myriad ways that media enters daily life, even in remote villages and camps for the internally-displaced; and how girls can start to use media channels in their communities to raise their concerns, challenges and perspectives, and to enhance their status.

The ‘Pollinator’ Magazine

The team has now completed two issues of ‘Pollinator,’ with the third in the works. The magazine process puts control into the hands of adolescent girls and legitimizes their voices and perspectives in print.  Over several months, the girl media team has worked closely with a local creative agency to develop the step-by-step process for content creation and layout design. Thanks especially to the grounded, thorough and insightful work of Bridge, we now have an amazing game which the girl media team plays to guide them through production, editing, reviewing, layout and the publication of each issue.

A page from the latest issue of Pollinator.

The result is an eye-catching, scrapbook-style magazine that represents the perspectives and ideas of the girls and young women involved. Having grown up with periods of intense media censorship and limited media access in general, this is the first time that girls in our programs have had the chance to be media creators. The process really gives girls the tools to succeed, and because it is not technical and almost fully ‘analog’, girls from across the country can participate. There are opportunities to write stories, commentary and poetry, as well as to feed directly into layout and design. It allows girls from across the country to spread their ideas.

Every girl has a voice and she must decide how she wants to use it.
It is up the rest of us to amplify her voice, and to listen.

The Hollywood Problem

Source: WikiMedia Commons
Source: WikiMedia Commons

In developed countries, we tend to speak of the status of women in less developed countries as oppressive and beyond comprehension. For many of us, it is self-evident that women are equal to men in terms of our capabilities, status and dignity. Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that in our own countries, there exists a persistent and clear gender bias which, though acknowledged, is proving difficult to fully eradicate.

Within the mainstream media, more and more voices are emerging which point out the numerous institutions and standards that exist in the developed world that operate on an implicit gender bias. In no case is this more obvious or unapologetic as in Hollywood. The women in Hollywood are subjected to a reduction of themselves as a sum of their physical features. A woman is far more prized in Hollywood for her attractiveness than her acting chops, with the majority of magazine covers dedicated to women featuring their faces, their bodies and their love lives rather than their insights or accomplishments. This could be attributed to a simple superficial interest in celebrities, but male actors, while also subject to a fair amount of objectification, are under far less scrutiny. Their physical attractiveness plays a significantly smaller role in their success if they are particularly talented in comedy, writing, directing or acting.

This seems superficial, but the modern world is saturated by media and women are strongly affected by depictions of themselves in popular culture. Everyday, we are bombarded with messages repeating that our bodies aren’t thin enough, our faces aren’t pretty enough, and by extension, we ourselves are not good enough. This is a harmful and damaging message, and one that is having real effects: the representation of women in media has been blamed for a spike in the number of eating disorders and increasing demand for cosmetic surgery. Apart from their focus on superficial appearance, Hollywood is apparently suffering a general scarcity in the number of strong female leads they offer as roles. Joss Whedon, director of the hugely successful blockbuster The Avengers, has spoken of his desire to make a superhero film with a female lead, stating his frustration with the state of the industry as the father of a young girl himself. NPR writer Linda Holmes did an analysis on the number of movies screening in theaters on a given weekend; 90% of them were about men, and only one of 617 was directed by a woman. As she states:

Dudes in capes, dudes in cars, dudes in space, dudes drinking, dudes smoking, dudes doing magic tricks, dudes being funny, dudes being dramatic, dudes flying through the air, dudes blowing up, dudes getting killed, dudes saving and kissing women and children, and dudes glowering at each other…what we have right now is a Hollywood entertainment business that has pretty much entirely devoted itself to telling men’s stories — and to the degree that’s for business reasons, it’s because they’ve gotten the impression we’ve devoted ourselves to listening to men’s stories

Holmes makes an important point. A large part of the success of Hollywood’s body-shaming and lack of prioritizing is our culture’s acceptance of such behavior. Hollywood is not an independent entity with its own agenda; it responds almost exclusively to public demand. The industry’s lack of preoccupation with authentic women is an ugly reflection of our own lack of preoccupation with authentic women. Hollywood responds to what we, as consumers, demand.

It seems contradictory, but women can be their own worst enemies. We ourselves need to take responsibility of rejecting the way women and girls are portrayed in media, TV and movies if we’re to take control of it. The unrealistic standards of beauty and lack of representation are clearly skewed, but the media and Hollywood have little incentive to change if we, as consumers, continue to fill their pockets in exchange for their products. Too often, we have assumed we need to change men’s minds to change the status quo, but with women having achieved the status we have, we are entirely free to choose to reject what offends us, and we have the freedom to put ourselves, as real women, in the beauty magazines and in the movies.

It is possible that in today’s world, by continuing to allow ourselves to feel inferior and continuing to allow ourselves to be controlled by an industry which responds directly to our actions, we are oppressing ourselves.
While it is important to recognize gender discrimination everywhere in the world, sometimes we also need to remember to look to our own countries and cultures and recognize the harmful norms and values that hit closer to home.

Cover image: WikiMedia Commons