Media: A Girl's Friend and Foe

An excerpt edited with permission from the author's book, Where the Girls Are.

There has been ample documentation in the past few years that the mass media are hardly a girl's best friend. It seems as if every time we turn on the TV or open a magazine advertisers try to make those of us born before 1970 feel like over-the-hill lumps of hideous cellulite in desperate need of a scalpel and a lifetime supply of Retin-A.

Women like me are not too happy with the seeming insistence of those selling hair dye or skin cream that unless we all look like Christie Brinkley, act like Krystle Carrington, and shut up already about equal rights, we're worthless.

Women are angry at the media, because a full twenty years after the women's movement, diet soda companies, women's magazines, and the Sports Illustrated "swimsuit issue" still bombard us with smiling, air-brushed, anorexic, and compliant women whose message seems to be "Shut up, get a face-lift, and stop eating."

One of the things we are angriest about, because the strategy has been so successful, is the way we have become alienated from our own bodies. We have learned to despise the curves, bulges, stretch marks, and wrinkles that mean we've probably worked hard in and out of our homes, produced some fabulous children enjoyed a good meal or two, tossed back a few drinks, laughed, cried, gotten sunburned more than once, endured countless indignities, and, in general, led pretty full and varied lives.

The mass media often trivialize our lives and our achievements, narrowing the litmus test of female worth to one question: Does she have dimpled thighs or crow's-feet? No wonder we want to throw our TV sets out the window whenever an ad for Oil of Olay or Ultra Slim-Fast comes on.

But our relationship to the mass media isn't quite this simple. If we are honest, we have to admit that we have loved the media as much as we have hated them — and often at exactly the same time. ...Even though I spend an inordinate amount of time yelling back at my television set and muttering expletives as I survey the ads in Glamour or the covers of Vanity Fair, I don't always hate the media, or think the media are — or have been — always bad. We all have our guilty media pleasures, the ones that comfort us at the end of a rotten day or allow us to escape into a fantasy world where we really do get to soak in a bubble bath whenever we want.

No, the point here is that we love and hate the media at exactly the same time, in no small part because the media, simultaneously, love and hate women.

Since the 1950s, women growing up in America have been indelibly imprinted by movies, television, ads, magazines, and popular music. ...Little kids have all these cracks and crevices in their puttylike psychological edifices, and one relentless dispenser of psychic Spackle is the mass media. They help fill in the holes marked "What does it mean to be a girl?" or "What is an America?" or "What is happiness?"

Along with our parents, the mass media raised us, socialized us, entertained us, comforted us, deceived us, disciplined us, told us what we could do and told us what we couldn't. And they played a key role in turning each of us into not one woman but many women — a pastiche of all the good women and bad women that came to us through the printing presses, projectors, and airwaves of America. This has been one of the mass media's most important legacies for female consciousness: the erosion of anything resembling a unified self.

Presented with an array of media archetypes, and given morality tales in which we identify first with one type, then another, confronted by quizzes in women's magazines so we can gauge whether we're romantic, assertive, in need of changing our perfume, or ready to marry, women have grown accustomed to compartmentalizing ourselves into a whole host of personas, which we occupy simultaneously.

...Most women take for granted their own conflicted relationships to the mass media. They assume they are the only ones who love and hate Vogue at the same time, the only ones riddled with internal contradictions about whether to be assertive or diplomatic, gentle or tough. And too many assume that such contradictory feelings are unusual, abnormal. They aren't.

Most women feel this because they've been socialized by the mass media, all women should know that feeling these contradictions on a daily basis is what it means to an American woman.

Our pop culture past isn't all embarrassing, and it's not irrelevant to how we feel or what we face today. Some of it was pretty goofy — I mean identical cousins, get real — but much of it requires a second look. History, including this history matters. It may help to explain why American women are both mad as hell and yet resigned, at times even happy, to leave things the way they are.

This history also helps to explain why so many women are ambivalent about feminism, shunning the label but embracing so many of the precepts. And in the end it reveals why the mass media are both our best allies and our most lethal enemies.

Author Bio: 

Susan Douglas is professor of media and American studies at Hampshire College.