Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sexism for Teens

Just when you thought television couldn’t get any worse, The CW network (formerly the WB and home of shows like America’s Next Top Model) announces that it will air a new reality series “The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll”. Viewers, we have a problem.

When CBS and the WB network publicly merged in May to form the teen-targeted CW, their advertising team spent the summer bombarding viewers with ad after ad for the “new” network. Yet the program lineup was exactly the same and only two (unsuccessful) new shows were added. Their slogan “Free to be… (insert catchy word here)” was plastered on billboards as far as the eye can see.

With few exceptions, programming on The CW is primarily made up of reality series and dramas that are targeted at teenagers. However, the portrayals of teen life and the messages they are sending to actual teens have the potential to be very harmful- especially for young women. Heavy hitters like America’s Next Top Model, One Tree Hill and the WWE Friday Night Smackdown! consistently feature hyper-sexualized female images, which become ingrained in the minds of young women and girls as the ideal. Perhaps the network’s slogan should have been “Free to be misogynistic”.

And, as if teen girls didn’t have enough media telling them how women are supposed to look and act, The CW puts another nail in the feminist coffin with Pussycat Doll. The group started as a rather impressive modern-day burlesque but has now given into ‘The Man’ with sex-charged songs about getting the guy and dissing other women. Do you think the FCC will only allow this during “safe harbor” hours? I can only imagine how many fourteen-year-old girls will be asking Santa for fishnet stockings and lace garter belts this holiday season.

But this has always been a problem, hasn’t it? Women have been portrayed merely as sexualized objects by our society since before most of us were born. Now you turn on the television or look through a magazine rack and it’s as if the feminist movement(s) never happened. But the producers of these images would have us believe that Cosmo and Tyra Banks are crusaders for a new feminism, where being a sex kitten is somehow liberating.

Yet this is entertainment, and the demand for such programming and other media is high. The shows mentioned throughout this column have a high fan base because they provide entertainment value. Simply put, we can’t help ourselves. Even those with a discerning eye get sucked in, helplessly watching the slow-motion train wreck- either to re-affirm their principles or to satisfy the part of their sub-conscious that really enjoys watching women battle on the catwalk.

The problem is that our American values are hideously out of whack. As a nation and also as women, we are highly segregated by race, class and sex (to name a few) – but our media shows us the way to transcend all of those things: beauty.

To struggle for women to gain status in our society has been perverted by stereotypical media images of what an “acceptable” woman is. To have an elevated status, not only do you have to have intelligence and wit, but you have to act like one of the boys, too- in a low cut blouse and spike heels. In the end, the value is placed on physical attributes- this is how we are to access power.

Most teen girls are none the wiser, yet they are the audience that is bombarded by these images and ideals the most. Shows like Top Model or Pussycat Dolls are seen as a fun glimpse into a more glamorous lifestyle, but the messages behind them go unnoticed. Herein lays the danger, because as the messages become indoctrinated into their thoughts and views, the vicious cycle of female repression thickens and is that much harder to break.

Media outlets have a social responsibility to provide women and girls with something other than blatant stereotypes wrapped in glossy packages. However, and this is a big however, we as women have an even greater responsibility to ourselves. Watch whatever you want. Read Cosmo religiously if it turns you on, but do so with a critical eye. Recognize the messages being fed to you and don’t be content to passively consume! How else will we end our exploitation?

Erin Petersen


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