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.

How ‘Grace and Frankie’ is Changing How Women View Ageing

Every so often, a film or show grabs the cultural spotlight and wrenches it onto women.

In the 90s, Sex and the City exploded on television screens (and thinkpieces) everywhere, showing four 30-something women unapologetically in charge of their careers and sex lives. Later, the more wholesome Gilmore Girls was driven by three complex and independent characters; a wealthy and indomitable matriarch; her daughter, a single mother; and her grand-daughter, a would-be journalist. Most recently, blockbusters Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Wonder Woman once again sparked the realization that viewers are thirsty for well-written female characters.

Yet these, valuable as they’ve been, exclude a significant subsect of women. The youngest and most attractive women have to fight for their place in Hollywood. Older woman are practically non-existent. A ruthless combination of sexism and ageism in (and behind the scenes of) our media can leave women fearing for their careers, and their self-image, after a certain age.

Pacific Standard points out, it’s not only a lack of visibility; it’s a lack of desirability.

“In 1997, five researchers judging characters in the top 20 highest-grossing movies between 1940 and 1980 found a negative correlation between older female characters and positive character qualities like goodness, socioeconomic status, intelligence, friendliness, and physical attractiveness (physical attractiveness and goodness particularly dropped off as women aged) across all five decades.”

A double Emmy nomination for Netflix’s daring Grace and Frankie show that recognition of women over 50 is may finally be becoming mainstream.

In line with media trends, Netflix’s blockbusters often centre around the young: among its top performers are Stranger Things (which revolves around a group of twelve year olds), Orange is the New Black (whose prisoners are largely under 40 and attractive) and Master of None (Aziz Ansari’s take on an American obsession, surviving your late twenties.) Grace and Frankie is a surprising – and wholly welcome – outlier.

Jane Fonda, 79 and Lily Tomlin, 77, lead the show as the titular Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein, whose husbands reveal that they’ve been having an affair – with each other – for years.

The two characters must rebuild their lives at a time when most people assume there isn’t that much left of it. The show doesn’t shy away from the reality of age discrimination for women: a bank declines a loan for the business because they think Grace and Frankie may not be around long enough to repay it. Frankie, at the end of a trying day, throws a fit when a cashier fails to notice her because there’s a younger, attractive woman nearby. In the second season, a major plot point revolves around the idea that it’s still taboo to think of women over 50 as sexually active.

Both Grace and Frankie have to be adaptable, inventive, energetic and resilient to keep their footing during such a massive upheaval (with Fonda and Tomlin at the helm, they’re often funny too). The show touches on myriad problems beyond the women: motherhood, addiction, work, marriage, sexuality – but at its axis are the two matriarchs, who it seems have carried their families for decades, and must now figure out how to reconstruct them.

A lack of representation, or a negative one, can lead older women to feel that they’re invisible or unwanted, and Grace and Frankie is a heartening sign that Hollywood is addressing that.

Tomlin and Fonda remark that the feedback they’ve gotten for the show, across generations, is that it makes viewers less afraid of old age. As Fonda says, what she enjoys about the show is that it sends the message, you may be old, you may be in your third act, but you can still be vital and sexual and funny … that life isn’t over.

‘The Bachelor’ Group Date that Nobody is Talking About

The Bachelor contestants get ready to ride tractors in the bikinis in downtown Los Angeles. Image c/o ABC.
The Bachelor contestants get ready to ride tractors in bikinis in downtown Los Angeles. Image c/o ABC.

Okay, I have to confession to make. I watch The Bachelor and I admittedly *guiltily* enjoy it. With my glass (bottle?) of wine beside me, I go into these episodes with an understanding that what I am about to witness will be completely sexist and will inevitably stereotype its female cast members as backstabbers, crazy, drunkards, airheads, damsels in distress, and/or the I’m-here-for-the-right-reasons-and-am-innocently-looking-for-my-one-true-love girl. (Why else would anyone ever want to be cast on a high ranking national television show? Certainly not for the five minutes of fame.)

However, a portion of last Monday’s episode was a little harder to stomach than usual.

Chris Soules, dubbed the handsome and perfect bachelor (a.k.a. Prince Farming…because he lives on a farm, get it?), invited a group of six girls on the season’s first group date with a date card that read, “Show me your country.” The date aimed to show Chris the girls’ so-called ‘country side.’ So how did The Bachelor’s producers tackle this difficult task? Why, by making the contestants strip down to their bikinis, walk around downtown Los Angeles, and ride tractors through the streets, of course! Because what could be more country than women walking around in bikinis?

Let me repeat. The show’s producers (two out of three of whom are men, along with the show’s writer) equated ‘being country’ to women parading around downtown Los Angeles in only their bikinis while straddling tractor seats (no sexual innuendo there or anything). Not only this, but ‘being country’ also meant being subjected to street harassment as cars honked at them and men whistled at the nearly naked women – moments that have been conveniently edited out of the clip on YouTube.* Additionally, seeing as how Chris wore a zip-up sweatshirt on the date, one can assume that the weather was not conducive to swimsuit attire. Television at its finest. (Stay classy, ABC.)

With all the recent steps forward in building awareness to end street harassment, from Twitter’s #YesAllWomen trending hashtag to The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams’ plan to end catcalling to the viral video of a woman being catcalled for ten hours while walking in New York City, last Monday’s episode was a major step in the wrong direction. Even Emily Maynard-Johnson, a former contestant, agreed that the show had taken a step too far.

I’m sure some of you reading this will say, “If the group date was so bad, why didn’t the women stay home or put on some clothes?” That is easier said than done. For starters, the contestants do not know what the date entails until the moment arrives. As a result, the women are put on the spot and expected to agree with whatever the producers have arranged. With millions tuning in and their chances of getting a rose (i.e. advancing to the next round) at risk, there is incredible pressure to just go with the flow. Nobody wants to be characterized as the lame girl who wouldn’t participate in a ‘fun’ little game (except me, but I guess that’s why I’m not on the show) and nobody wants to go home early. (Free luxury vacations, amirite?)

Even the group date’s description on ABC’s website is incredibly cringeworthy:

Description of group date c/o ABC
Description of group date c/o ABC – Click to enlarge

The producers, by not only merely creating this group date, but by also airing this group date on national television, seem to condone the idea that gawking at women in the street is A-Okay.

If you think street harassment is harmless, think again. There have been countless reports of women being killed or seriously injured after rejecting their harasser’s advances. In Michigan, a mother of three was shot and killed. In New York City, a 26-year-old woman‘s throat was cut. In Florida and Washington respectively, a 14-year-old girl and a 33-year-old woman were run over multiple times by men in cars. Shoshana B. Roberts, the woman featured in the aforementioned viral street harassment video, received countless rape and death threats. There is an entire Tumblr dedicated to stories of violence inflicted on women who reject sexual advances.

Sexism on television and in film is nothing new. We’ve witnessed it time and time again, as women are more often than not portrayed as sex symbols, objectified, and treated as if they are subordinate to men. In fact, sexism, for so long, has been so closely intertwined with media in pop culture, that many viewers may not even realize it exists.** (And in case you missed it, advocating against sexism and gender inequality in the media was a major theme at this year’s Golden Globe awards.)

“These girls are looking smokin’ hot on these tractors, it’s incredible. I’m the luckiest dude with two thumbs [shows thumbs up sign], right here.” – Chris Soules

For those of you who will argue that ABC’s The Bachelorette objectifies men the same as The Bachelor objectifies women, I say to you that until the day comes where a man feels the constant threat of a woman potentially threatening, raping, or killing him as he walks down the street at night (or day!), these two topics cannot be compared.

We all know that media plays a powerful role in influencing pop culture, and misogynistic shows that continue to live in the dark ages must not be tolerated. As for me, you won’t find me watching The Bachelor next Monday night – at least not without a big bottle of wine.

PS – If you currently watch the show but do not follow along on Twitter using #TheBachelor, you are doing it wrong.

*You can watch the sexist group date in its entirety here beginning Monday, January 19th.

**The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media exists solely to promote gender equality in the media.

Do you watch TV? You’re not getting the whole picture.

Let’s picture this:

  • In family rated films, for every one speaking female character there are three male characters.
  • Females are over two times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing attire (24.8% vs. 9.4%), thin (38.5% vs. 15.7%), and partially or fully naked (24.2% vs. 11.5%).
  • There is virtually little or no difference in the sexualization of female characters between the ages of 13 and 39 years.

These harsh statistics are not a thought experiment, rather the realities of the current global entertainment industry. On Monday, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media hosted the 2nd Global Symposium on Gender in Media to discuss the underrepresentation of women in the industry. It was an honest, concise and transformative event that is sure to alter the way I consume media for the rest of my life.

IMG_9453Academy Award winning actress, producer, writer, model, and athlete, Geena Davis, founded the Institute at Mount St. Mary’s College after spending time watching television with her young daughter and discovering the extent of gender imbalance in television shows and films – particularly those geared towards children. It is the only research-based organization working within the entertainment industry to highlight the need for gender balance and create necessary female characters in children’s programs.

Davis’ speech began by presenting the gender disparity in the media and its effects on youth today. As a result of female underrepresentation “we are saying that women and girls are less valuable than men and boys.” The more television a girl watches, the more her self-esteem drops because she thinks she has fewer options. For boys, it’s quite the opposite. The more television a young boy watches, the higher his self-esteem.

“The change must be dramatic. What reason can we possibly give to children to explain why women and girls are missing from their TV shows and movies or devalued?” – Geena Davis

The Gender Bias Without Borders report compiles findings from 120 global films from Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S., the most profitable territories worldwide, and compares data based on female roles, sexualization, and sectors represented by a female leader. In the movies examined, there are very few (if any) lawyers, judges, doctors, professors, journalists, sports figures or clergy female characters.

If young girls do not see all the potential opportunities in the media, where else will they find these role models?

“We tell [kids] that boys and girls are equal, but if they don’t see it, it doesn’t sink in,” Davis adds. As a result, the message becomes boys are more important than girls and this skewed representation is a disservice to all children.

Davis also noted that the ratio of male to female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. In the U.S. and the U.K., the percentage of women in leadership positions stalls out at nearly the same percentage of women depicted in media – approximately 17 percent. Even in overhead shots of crowd scenes, the percentage of women shown remains a mere 17 percent. Although there has been a slight improvement in gender equality in the media over a 20 year study, if gender parity continues at the same pace, we will not receive gender equality in the media for 700 years.

Also in 1946, the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established with a mandate to “set standards of women’s rights, encourage governments to bring their laws in line with international conventions and to encourage global awareness of women’s rights.” Fast forward nearly 70 years and we are still discussing similar issues regarding women’s rights. It is no coincidence that the representation of women in the media has not changed in the same time frame.

But the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is arming itself with information to represent women accurately and abundantly by creating original content for children under 11 and disseminating their reports to industry executives.

“Media itself can be a cure for the problem it’s created.” – Geena Davis

Davis concluded with an inspirational call to action: “In the time it takes to make a movie or create a television show, we can change what the future looks like.” Media images are a very powerful force for shaping how women and girls are viewed around the world, and how they view themselves. Unlike other areas where women are underrepresented, the shift in the entertainment industry can happen immediately and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is spearheading this revolution. Don’t sit back and watch.

September 21st-26th Girls’ Globe will be in New York for the 2014 UN General Assembly. We are partnering with FHI360, Johnson & Johnson, and Women Deliver in support of Every Woman Every Child to amplify the global conversation on the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 agenda. Follow #MDG456Live, raise your voice and join the conversation to advance women’s and children’s health. Sign up for the Daily Delivery to receive live crowd-sourced coverage of these issues directly to your inbox.

All facts and statistics were found in the Gender Bias Without Borders report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.