Monday, April 4, 2016

Can 21st Century media be used to combat sexism?

I was raised primarily by women - my mom and two sisters. My dad constantly worked outside of our home, so most of the instruction I received in my formative years came from these three women. Now that I'm married, my wife is incredibly influential and important to me. Needless to say, the women I love in my life have helped me become the man I am today. They deserve respect, equality, and love, just as everyone does.

My mother and two sisters with my wife and I on our wedding day.

But I'm concerned that this respect is getting lost and deformed through the 21st digital society we live in. Facebook, Twitter, television, movies, video games, and the internet as a whole have made pornography and illicit sexual themes more accessible than ever before. Although some might think these forms of media will clean themselves up over time, I'm not so optimistic. 

What we need is a change

change in the way we consume media.
change to begin to fill the world with good and uplifting forms of media.
change to create a powerful and respectful image of women across the globe. 

But first, let's look take a historical look at media and disrespect.

A Brief History of Disrespect

During the mid 1900's, women were depicted as only fit to be a housewife and companion to the hard working man. The national government and other educational agencies produced movies, like the below featured "The Problem With Women," highlighting the personality problems, absenteeism, and marriage interference that made women terrible employees

Movies like these made men change their perception of women, seeing them as employees who made their work-space their bathroom counter-top, who needed to be explained things 10 times over to get it through their heads. During the time when these movies were being produced, one female author in particular stepped forward and posed "the question that had no name." 

Betty Friedan writes about the way that thousands of wives and mothers are feeling across America in her 1963 Feminine Mystique. Women feel they are going through the motions, expected to be a domestic housemaid who does everything the men expect. Those who are in the workplace are treated as second-rate employees. These conditions still exist here in America, but are being perpetuated through volatile forms of digital media. 

Video Games: Are we any better?

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"In the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, which has repeatedly broken video game sales records, women are typically depicted as prostitutes and men as violent thugs. A male character can have sex with a prostitute, then kill her and take his money back."

In the 21st century, video games in particular highlight the problematic gender perceptions that dominate our digital culture today. Women are over-sexualized, while men are shown as forces of violence and power. An article about video games and sex roles discusses the way video shape the way young people perceive the opposite gender, creating problematic sexist perceptions. The author writes that  "those who played more violent video games also endorsed more traditional views of sex roles, such as the idea that men are more capable as leaders and professionals, while women deserve less freedom than men and are subservient to men." Women are seen as sex objects, not just in the video games, but in real life.

An influential YouTuber named the Factual Feminist released a video in 2014 answering the question "are video games sexist?" She claims that video games are not sexist. Rather, videos games are made primarily for men, so the games have what these men want: violence, sexy women, and explosions. She says this is just like how women watch shows like the Oprah Show and The View - these shows contain the themes and topics that women are interested in. While I think she make a good point, this is an over-generalization. Women are portrayed as weak and susceptible, powerless and useless in video games. 

Words Cut Like Daggers

Indeed, socially acceptable jargon only aggravates this problem. Feminine terms are often used pejoratively to describe weak people, such as "pussy," "don't be a girl," and "you hit like a girl." Conversely, masculine terms are associated with strength and fortitude, like "man up," "ballsy," and "grow a pair." The media has influenced the deprecating way we address the opposite gender.

This is highlighted in a simple perusing of YouTube comments. Well-respected TIME editor Belinda Luscombe created a video  of her dramatic reading of the most misogynistic and abrasive YouTube comments she has received. These inappropriate and harsh comments have little to nothing to do with the content she is putting up, but everything to do with her looks and gender. 

We shouldn't be surprised because YouTube commenters have finally been scientifically proven to be "the worst." In a study of 595 TED Talks, researchers looked at the comments that appeared on the actual website versus the comments on the same videos on YouTube. The results are staggering, showing that people are using their words in our digital society as knives that cut deep.

Can This Change? 

Colin Stokes gave a TED talk in November 2012 entitled "How movies teach manhood." wherein he highlights two movies, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. In the former, Dorothy saves the world through making friends and having influence for good. In the latter, Princess Leia waits around to be saved, scantily clad, in the end awarding the men with medals and a wink.

I side with Stokes when he poses the probing question: "Why is there so much Force ... in the movies we have for our kids, and so little yellow brick road?" Movies and digital media don't need to have violence and force, like GTA and Star Wars. Instead, the movies can have female protagonists who solve problems using their talents, intelligence, and ingenuity.

This change can be seen and heard in the popular Broadway Hip-Hop musical Hamilton, which I've become obsessed with over the last few weeks. On March 17, 2016, International Womens Day, cinema star Emma Watson interviewed the mind behind Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

They discuss, among other things, the United Nations' HeForShe campaign, speaking about one of the songs in the musical (see video at 07:13). This 21st Century media is perpetuating an image of empowered and intellectual women, as embodied by Angelica, a main character in the musical, raps the following lines:

"You want a revolution? I want a revelation
So listen to my declaration: 
'We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal' 
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel!"

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Similarly, in 2014 the lovable toy company LEGO released their "Research Institute" line of female LEGO characters in response to high demand. These toys are helping boys and girls understand that women are professionals and they can build LEGO toys just as much as boys can. 

A Huffington Post article highlights an interview with one of the directors of a recent LEGO documentary entitled "Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary." In this interview the director says, "for me, if my daughter is building, I'm happy. Any way to get her into LEGO, which I feel is a gateway to engineering and to science and to art, I'm happy no matter what." LEGO recognized that their toys were being primarily used by boys, so they made a change. The above featured female scientist line is evidence that the toys our children play with mold and change their perceptions about gender.

We Can Change

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We all have women in our lives who are tremendous examples of power, intelligence, ambition and virtue. The forms of media we consume can be used to help mold the minds of younger and older generations alike to understand the real value women contribute to our society. 

Our movies and TV shows need more protagonists like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Angelica from Hamilton: The Musical
We need less video games like Grand Theft Auto. 
We need forms of media that empower men and women to see the possibilities we can achieve by working together. 

The digital age we live in has limitless opportunity for these changes to occur. As you and I begin to change, we will see change appear before our eyes.

The need for change in our digital culture does not stop here! Click here to learn how tolerance in social media platforms breeds radicalism, or here to learn how the elderly's reluctance to technology in education is hindering the growth of younger generations.

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