Women's Images In The Media
October 3, 2011 1:18 p.m.
The images of women presented in the media can influence how people perceive the world around them and what issues are seen as important. These images can occur through pop culture or through the news media. The guests today will look at gender images from two different yet complementary points of view.
Sara Clarke Kaplan, Assistant Professor of Gender and Race Studies, UCSD
Jennifer Freeman, Program officer for the Women PeaceMakers Program at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice
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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. This October marks the one hundredth anniversary of women gaining the vote in California. We're marking the occasion with a number of programs about the status of women in California and beyond. And today, we focus on pop culture and the media. After the success of AMC's Madmen, TV producers seemed to think that all you need are some stiletto heels, bouffant hairdos, and Frank Sinatra songs to get viewers interested in a show. Programs about may boy bunnies and Pan Am stewardesses have debuted this season, bringing lots of 1960s eye candy to the screen. Some scholars see disturbing myths going unchallenged this drip town memory lane. Sarah Clark Kaplan is assisting in a privacy of gender and race studies at UC San Diego. Sarah, welcome to the show.
KAPLAN: Thanks so much, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Jennifer Freeman is program officer for the women peacemakers program at the Joan B. Crock institute for peace and justice. Hello.
FREEMAN: Hello, thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Sarah, let me start with you, what do you think about Hollywood's apparent desire to revisit what seems like simpler times?
KAPLAN: I think that when we think about Hollywood wanting to revisit the past, we have to understand Hollywood's desire is situated in a larger popular desire. In the end, what they put on television reflects what they think audiences want to see. And I think in a moment of continuing economic crisis, a continuing time of war, a shift in the US's status as a political and economic global hedge me, it becomes a time when many American Americans do want to go back to what they imagine to be simpler, happier times when everything seemed a little bit more glowing, shall we say? And I think that's part of what we do say in these kinds of shows. They reflect a desire on the part of both viewers and Hollywood to imagine a world that was a little bit more simple, but unfortunately a little bit more hierarchical as well.
CAVANAUGH: Aren't these programs though, at least informed by the difference in our world between the '60s and the two thousand tens? The teens? Aren't they at least -- don't we bridge that sensibility with us when we watch these programs?
KAPLAN: Absolutely. I think that we do bring that sensibility. And that's part of the appeal. Rather than say, look, back at these time periods and imagining them as somehow lacking in a particular kind of set of social equity or positions of power, instead when we actually do is imagine them as somehow simpler, better, more enjoyable. Precisely because they're an escape from what we see as the difficulties or complexities of today. So it's precisely that capacity of looking back and saying remember back when women could experience joy and freedom by simply putting on a yes or no tail and a set of sparkly bunny ears? That's precisely the nostalgia that I think people find in watching the show.
CAVANAUGH: So okay, that's the entertainment value. But are theres things that you think we need to be concerned about in these programs in one way or another?
KAPLAN: Absolutely. And I think I should say that as a scholar of popular culture, I firmly believe popular culture doesn't just tell people what to think but it reflects what they already think. That's part of the biggest concern. What we see in these show system a notion that, to be frank the exploitation of women as sexual objects is really secretly a side of empowerment for them. In the first episode of the playboy club, by giving up their last name, which we know was a way to make all women seem potentially unmarried, was really an opportunity for them to be whatever they wanted to be. So that sort of imagination that, in fact, oppression was really a side of empowerment for women they find really, really troubling.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer's focus is on the way women are depicted in the news media more than any pop culture. Professor Kaplan, Sarah, be in your opinion, where does say show like Pan Am go wrong? Here you've got a group of empowered, I'm doing little air quotes here, young women who are embarking on what is a very adventurous kind of career in the early '60s. It's not being a teacher, not being a nurse. The other two not being a librarian, are the other three kind of prospects they had. And then kind of going off and taking this risk with their lives. So that might be one way to look at it. What's another way?
KAPLAN: Well, I think actually the show itself in its opening segment gives you a bit of a glimpse into the other way. You see a voice over as the women are lining up to go through their mandatory weigh in every week. And we hear a voiceover that says that women can no longer be stewardesses as they were then called once they're 32 years old or once they get married. At that point, when they got married or were 32, they were wings would be clipped and they were forced to be ground attendants. What's dangerous is precisely this notion that really being a stewardess was this empowering way to see the world, which it may have been for some women, but only because A, they had so few other options, and B, under very limited conditions. Kathleen Barry's duke, femininity and flight came out two or 3 years ago, all about the laborer struggles at the very moment this show is set, were being fought between stewardesses and air lines over precisely these sexist, racist stereotypes and requirements for actually working as a flight attendant in the air.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer Freeman, as I said, you're focused on women's images in the news media. And there's a forum coming up, women, media, revolution that begins on Wednesday. Tell us a little bit about the subjects that you're going to be discussing there.
FREEMAN: Sure. It's going to be a public forum that we're holding at the institute where we're inviting frontline journalists, film makers, social media, citizen activists, who have actually chosen to include a more gender sensitive or gender inclusive perspective in their reporting. We're focus because of the institute's work specifically on how women are either absent from or portrayed in social justice and conflict issues in particular so much that's going to be 3 days of films talking with the different journalists, and why they made those decisions and why it's so different from mainstream media.
CAVANAUGH: One of the fascinating things about one of the issues you're going to be talking about Snot just what images occur in the media, but also the absence of images, or women just being portrayed as either victims or bystanders in great stories of national and international concern.
FREEMAN: I was actually on Google this morning just checking up and looking at some of our mainstream media, and Googling something like women in Afghanistan. And the number of pages that I had to go through on a lot of mainstream sources to get to a story that actually had a woman as a protagonist or that focused on women were four, 5 pages in. I went to the Afghanistan blog on CNN.com and I looked through all the news things trying to find stories on women and their activity, especially with regards to these negotiations that are happening with the Taliban, and how they're going to be affected and whether or not they're being included. I finally found subjects that talked about women and their involvement under the life and culture section. So statistically, we're still looking at 24%. And that's within north America and the U.S. particularly that focus on women that have women as respondents, that you're looking at not by any stretch a full representation of your population when you're looking at stories that are showing less than half of half the world's population.
CAVANAUGH: I think where maybe your two to si, your two focuses merge, is how history gets written and rewritten. You talk about what you call a feel-good version of history. That started with Forest Gump. What do you mean by that?
KAPLAN: When we look at times of political and economic stress and strive in the U.S. in particular, we do see a tendency to go to the past but not simply to turn to the past in the notion that history can teach us something about the present, but to rewrite this kind of nostalgic notion of history as what some people, I think, particularly in positions of privilege image it to have been. You know, my gripe with Forest Gump has always been to be frank that it's a white washing of history. It literally imagined that a ah, shucks, bumbling along straight white man accidentally made every progressive or positive thing that ever happened, including the civil rights movement occur in American history in this kind of recentering of that kind of middle class ah, shucks white masculinity, I think produces an imaginary hero in history that erases the complexity of raced, gendered, international work toward producing social change. I think I was saying earlier to Jennifer that when my students say, well, but at least we're showing women in history when we have Pan Am or the playboy club. I always say to them that when we have those kinds of portrayals, it's that kind of commercialized while problematic portrayal that takes up any of the kind of air for the kinds of media representations that Jennifer's pointing out. So astutely that we really need more of.
CAVANAUGH: Wasn't it the absurdity of Forest Gump that gave it its mass appeal? Do you find that there are some people who didn't necessarily take it as absurd?
KAPLAN: I think that actually the film may have in some ways been intended to be ironic. But if you look at everything from the sound track to the trailers to the ways that it's historicized, it's actually historicized, it's actually shot, it's actually scored as this kind of epic American history that is intended to make us -- to touch us in our hearts, to make us feel good, to make us feel a part of this sweep of history. But the question then becomes who feels part of that sweep of history and who looks at it and says, oh, you've got to be kidding me?
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, you see a similar kind of rewriting of history through the news media, especially in regards to the recent events in Liberia. What are you seeing?
FREEMAN: Well, I would agree 100% with what Sarah has said and that it's not just occurring with regards to American history, but that it's occurring with regards to global history. So the civil war that ended up in Liberia in 2003 had a huge impact of Liberian women. They mobilized and were incredibly effective at bringing the two warring sides together. That story may never have escaped Liberia had it not been for the work of Fork Films, Abigail Disney, Jenny Reddicker, and others that contributed to create the film pray the devil back to hell, which went to Liberia, was able to hear the stories on the ground, and create this incredible award winning documentary which has since gone on to spur another series called women, war, and peace that KPBS will be showing later this month that talks about how women were active in multiple processes and multiple conflicts. And it's just that rather than perhaps looking at history meaning rewritten, I would say that history needs to be written correctly and that without the inclusion of women's stories, it's not being written correctly. And I would go beyond women's stories to a lot of ethnic minority, sexual minorities, etc. But that's what we've been focusing on. Who writes the story tells history, creates history. If you're not looking at women's stories, you're not getting an accurate picture of history.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I don't want to leave the opinion, the impression, Sarah, that you are against all sort of revisiting of -- even in a sort of poppy sort of a way, the history of the United States. In fact, you're not really down on Madmen.
KAPLAN: I love Madmen, I confuse. But I think aside from you know, my guilty love of the cinematography, how gorgeous it is as a film of, of Christina Hendrix, I think that's really interesting about Madmen, and I just would use it as an example, is the capacity to do media work that does look at the past in ways that are accessible to a broad swath of viewers but that is really interested in exploring the complexity. I think that Pan Am and Madmen are classic opposites in that way where Pan Am takes a creative time of massive laborer strive, of racial unrest, of gender struggle and seeks to produce it as this kind of uniform, lovely period, whereas on the other hand Madmen actually really sits in that complexity, sits in that struggle, and that's what drives the show forward. That's what we need in our historical viewing.
CAVANAUGH: We are out of time. I'm so sorry. Let me tell everyone, though, that the annual women peace makers' forum at the Joan crock institute for peace and justice runs from October 5th through the seventh, it's called women media, revolution. And I've been speaking with Jennifer Freeman, who is program officer for the women peace makers program. And spare sa-Clark Kaplan, assistant professor of gender and race studies at UCSD. Thank you both thank you very much.
FREEMAN: Thank you Maureen.thank you.