Don’t mess with Frozen. Students in the new English/Communication course, Women in Media, decisively agreed that Frozen’s Princess Elsa should be considered a hero in light of her isolationism and empowerment. This is the exact purpose of this class: evaluating movies, TV shows, musicians, and reality TV that claim to present women in a positive light. But are they really doing so?
To help crystalize these messages, Sean Flannery, Ph.D., associate professor of English/Communication, had the class watch three films: Mean Girls, Frozen, and Gone Girl. Each female lead character had negative and positive traits that needed to be examined for what they really portrayed about women. However, many of the students defended the characters in Frozen…they didn’t want to hear any criticism about this beloved Disney movie.
“This is the mind training that’s being done at 3, 4, 5 years old,” Flannery stated. “I mean, ‘Let it Go’ is a great song, but look at what the words are saying.” Flannery wants the students to recognize the difference between empowerment and being downright evil or cruel, as many of the characters were in the viewed films.
“Discussions have become very heated in class,” admitted Flannery. Although the class was mostly composed of women, the lone male student, senior Chris Abernathy, often had a calming effect on his classmates when things got a little heated, according to Flannery.
“I grew up with strong women in my life,” stated Abernathy. He admits that going to college has opened his eyes to other perspectives. He was surprised to learn that some of his female classmates’ experiences with conveying confidence and assertiveness had labeled them as being “bitchy.” Abernathy concluded that many women felt that if they wanted to be strong and confident, that that would put them at odds with society…much like Elsa in Frozen.
In the seminal 1950s show I Love Lucy, the enduring premise was that of Lucy attempting to “break into” show business. The class watched an episode in which Lucy needs to fit into a size 2 costume in order to become a background dancer in husband Ricky’s show, and she therefore spends the episode dieting and being jealous of her female rivals. The evaluation of the class? Although there has been improvement, the sexism and objectification demonstrated decades ago is still the norm in America.
Negative stereotypes and exploitation of women are reinforced regularly through the media, many times by the women themselves. To delve deeper into this, Flannery assigned a final paper in which students were to choose and examine either an iconic woman who has attained a level of self-actualization in the face of sexism or a woman who perpetuates sexist stereotypes.
Morgan Justice, who will be graduating in December 2015, thoroughly enjoyed the Women in Media class. “This was the first class where I could have intelligent and important conversations about females in the limelight,” she stated. “We discussed everything from race, gender, equality, feminism, and more. These discussions have really helped me grow into a more knowledgeable feminist.”
Flannery admits that the class is somewhat frustrating, mainly because so many issues and concerns are brought up in class discussions that have no immediate answers or solutions. Although it’s great to uncover inequalities regarding women in the media, it’s exasperating because many of these perceptions have been around for years and not much has changed.
Fodder for the class was Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her bid for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Flannery showed the students her commercial announcing her bid and several other clips featuring Clinton. Then, they watched The Daily Show, which ran outrageous clips about her from various sources.
Flannery noted that, ultimately, Clinton will have to navigate the specter of gender and insist that her policy be the focus, but he is skeptical that this is possible. He also speculated that if Clinton doesn’t win her party’s nomination, it will set women back politically. Flannery obliquely broached the topic of women in politics by having the class watch an episode of Veep in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus portrays the vice president. Although the TV show can be humorous, he asked the class to examine how the character is demeaned because she is a woman.
Viewing U.S. media portrayals of women through a global lens is pointless. Flannery cites German Chancellor Angela Markel, noting that she is one of the most distinctive world leaders today and that the people of Germany have no issue with her gender, or the fact that she is a grandmother. They look at the bottom line and the fact that their country is doing well and is considered a leader on many global issues.
Flannery raises the topic of U.S. presidential candidate Marco Rubio, observing that a female candidate with as little political experience as Rubio would never even be considered. “This is just how the patriarchal paradigm has been established,” Flannery stated.
A topic far from politics that addresses the issue of women and self-esteem is the posting of “selfies.” Flannery explained that selfies are empowering—if the first photo taken is used. However, he noted that the average selfie is taken 12 times before finally being posted.
“Who is making these value statements about women?” he asked. “Who convinced you that part of your self-worth comes from how many ‘likes’ you receive on Instagram or Vine?” Flannery suggested that men have convinced women of these sexist ideals.
A recent and pertinent positive role model for women may be Ronda Rousey, the Mixed Martial Arts/Ultimate Fighting championship fighter. Rousey has overcome many obstacles in her life including sexual abuse and wrote a book chronicling her experiences, called My Fight/Your Fight. However, Walmart decided that they would not sell her book because it is too violent. Flannery is outraged: “So here is a woman excelling in a man’s sport, and Walmart is going to make value judgments about traditional/non-traditional female behaviors.”
Another woman who could be viewed as a positive role model is musician Pink. Flannery commented that she is “her own woman” with tattoos and short hair. He indicated that her songs are very empowering to women if they actually take the time to listen.
This is indeed the crux of the lesson that Flannery wanted for his class: Listen to words…listen, don’t just take what the media hands you.