To empower someone means to give that person the power to do something. The way someone is usually given power lies in how he or she is perceived by others: someone powerful is only powerful because others let him or her be. In our society, people base their opinions on the information they have, which is publicized by the media. Media is the key to information, thus the key to public opinion and control on any matter, including over women. Women are portrayed in the media in a way that does not show the meaning of being a woman: we are merely objects, pretty bodies used to reinforce men’s power (and women’s powerlessness) within a patriarchal society that has yet to overcome its stereotypical approach to gender.
|Photo @ USA Today|
Our appearance is so important that we are constantly criticized for it with little thought given and as a result our substance is overlooked. For example, during the 2008 Obama/McCain campaign, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, both running for vice-president of their respective parties, were shamelessly criticized on their appearance by public media networks instead of on their ideas and opinions. Hillary Clinton, who dressed in a more masculine way, was portrayed as a bitchy, power-hungry and ambitious woman, and because she supported gay marriage, as a lesbian. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, although also judged on her looks, was labeled “America’s Hottest Governor” by Alaska Magazine (Miss Representation, 2011), and seen more as an object of sexual desire than as a future politician; she was “ditzified”, meaning portrayed as a dumb, pretty, white girl, as Caroline Heldman, associate professor of political science at Occidental College, said in the documentary Miss Representation (2011). This kind of superficial media attention made the public solely interested in Hilton’s and Palin’s physical appearance, and their substance was deemed irrelevant and ignored.
Media portrays women as being parts of whole individuals, whose achievements and qualities are unimportant next to their looks, and the public comes to accept it. Thus, it becomes extremely difficult for a woman to empower herself if the public does not care about her ideas and substance, and sees her solely as a body deprived of spirit. No one would empower an empty vessel yet the media depicts women as such; thus, it is not thanks to the mainstream media that women will find supporters to their empowerment. Media also portrays women as “emotional, thus irrational” beings, which makes them unfit to assume leadership positions. For example, on Fox News (cited in Miss Representation, 2011), the following dialogue occurred between two newscasters:
“You get a woman in the oval office [...] What’s the down side?”
“You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings?”
Here, a woman is assumed to be hysterical and deprived of self-control due to her hormones. Politics are once again implied to be for men: the message conveyed by the media is that women should not become leaders due to their supposed inability to assume leadership roles. This notion is then reinforced in movies and television shows by the small number of female protagonists: only 16% of all main characters are female in Hollywood (Miss Representation, 2011), and even fewer of them are strong, independent leaders like Brigitte Nyborg, Prime minister in the Danish political drama Borgen. The lack of female-leader role model makes girls stop (or never start) believing in women’s leadership capacity, which keeps them from pursuing leadership roles. After all, as Mahatma Ghandi said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” (as cited in Miss Representation, 2011) In other words, if no female leader is fairly portrayed in the news, it becomes very difficult for girls to picture themselves as or to aspire to being leaders.
This deplorable situation is not only that of American women today: in France, for every 25 minutes a man talks on the radio, a woman does so for 1 minutes 30 seconds; 60% of French journalists are women, but only 30% are chief editors, and half as many are managing editors. (United Fashion For Peace, 2013) This shows that women in leadership positions are also rare outside of America, and the higher up in the hierarchy we go, the less and less females there are. This could be because of our world’s Americanization; however, the fact that both European communities and American society obey a patriarchal hierarchy system should not be considered a coincidence.
Indeed, in our societies, men have always been in power: women’s sudden desire for leadership positions and equality goes against what has been valued in Occidental cultures for the last centuries, and endangers men’s holding of a higher social status. The fear of losing their power is what makes men allow backlash against women in leadership positions and their objectification on public media networks, and dismiss the creation of new female TV channels by saying “We already have one”, although there are 22 ESPN Sports channels! (Miss Representation, 2011)
If men continue to fear sharing power with women, because that is not what their ancestors did prior to the latter 20th century, then it is most likely impossible for women to become equal to men. However, although the process is very slow, mentalities can change, and so can cultural beliefs. As seen in Miss Representation (2011), women and men alike have started taking action against women’s discrimination; new ways of life have to be taught to our children, and adults need to be convinced to join the movement. By continuing to talk about it and publicize it, I believe people’s mentalities will eventually change for the best. For more information visit The Representation Project.
Newsom, J. S. (Producer & Director). (2011). Miss Representation [Documentary]. United States: Girl’s Club Entertainment.