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Media images stereotype girls, foster violence in men, say speakers

by Sherry Fisher - April 9, 2007

Girls are bombarded by advertisers with images of princesses, fairies, and things that are sexy, pink, and glittery, and this entrenches stereotypes of girlhood, according to Sharon Lamb, co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes.

The message is that girls gain power by being sexy and pretty, Lamb said during an all-day conference promoting media literacy on March 30 in Bishop Center.

The conference, “The Mass Media, Children, and Values,” was sponsored by the Neag School of Education.

Thomas Goodkind, a UConn professor of curriculum and instruction, coordinated the conference, which is in its fifth year.

Lamb is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at St. Michael’s College in Vermont.

“The term ‘Girl Power’ is used over and over in marketing,” she said. “In the ’70s, Girl Power meant that girls could enter into all sorts of careers.

Today it means something entirely different: Marketers use it to mean the power to shop, the power to attract boys, and the power to choose among different types of girls to be.

This boils down to two types: a girl can either be for the boys, or one of the boys.”

For the book Packaging Girlhood, Lamb and co-author Lyn Mikel Brown collected data from some 600 girls; met with focus groups of girls, guidance counselors, and parents; and conducted a content analysis of the “stuff”’ in girls’ worlds.

Girls were asked what kinds of clothing they wore, the television shows and movies they watched, what they read, the music they liked, and what they did in their spare time.

Some of the stereotypes Lamb found that spanned different ages were that girls love to shop. Another is that girls watch, and boys act.

“Girls are not usually in the driver’s seat on a toy package, unless it’s a particularly ‘girly’ car,” she said. “They’re on the sidelines watching.”

Some of the stereotypes found in books, television, and movies, according to Lamb, are that girls are mean, and hate math, and that only boys are geniuses.

“In a science education toy catalog, boys were constantly looking through telescopes and using remote controls for the helicopter, cars, or boat,” she said.

“Girls were arranging flowers and working an ATM machine.”

In movies such as Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, boys are the inventors. “Little girls are marginally represented,” she said, “and are often the sisters, friends, or helpers of boys.”

Films like Mean Girls encourage girls to get power by being mean, Lamb said, “which encourages girls to label and typecast.”

She said marketers use the illusion of choice to sell products such as sneakers.

“They argue that you have a lot of choice: ‘I’m a pink and black kind of person. I’m a green and black kind of person.’”

That’s because it’s difficult to market to real girls, said Lamb.

“It would be hard to know what product to market and how many girls would like it. To encourage girls to form types is to encourage them to buy a product that fits that type.”

The popular Bratz dolls are highly sexualized, she said, and “are not good for girls. They dress like prostitutes. They’re sold with a party plane and a juice bar. They’re hot-tubbing with boys or partying on a plane.”

Lamb said marketers developed the term ‘tween’ to sell more products to young girls. They market transitional items like cherry cola lip gloss: “You’re a girl; you need lip gloss.”

Girls are getting their sex education from MTV and movies, she maintained.

Anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz speaks about how media images foster violence in men, during a day-long conference on “The Mass Media, Children, and Values” at the Bishop Center March 30.
Anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz speaks about how media images foster violence in men, during a day-long conference on “The Mass Media, Children, and Values” at the Bishop Center March 30.
Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

“They’re learning how to be sexy, rather than being sexual from the inside out.”

Even the same brand of bicycles stereotypes girls and boys, she said.

“Girls will have pompoms and boys have noise makers, which give a different message. Also, the girls’ bikes have little purses with compacts. The message is that girls put on makeup when they ride their bikes.

“Girls’ bikes have names like Island Breeze, suggesting that you’ll be riding softly,” she added, “while boys’ bicycles have the names Challenger, Competitor, and Thruster.”

“Should we just turn off the TV?” Lamb asked.

“You can’t turn off the world. These images are everywhere.”

She said parents should listen to their daughters, and know what’s on the radio and TV, and the toys and other items they’re buying.”

In another presentation, Jackson Katz, a leading anti-sexist male activist, explored how mainstream media images foster violence in men.

“In doing gender violence prevention research, I was struck by the outrageous level of men’s violence against women in society,” he said.

“Culture teaches boys and men that there’s a linkage between manhood and violence. The media is a great pedagogical force of our time.”

Katz is founder and director of MVP Strategies, an organization that specializes in providing violence prevention education and training for men and boys in schools, colleges, the military, and corporations. He is author of The Macho Paradox and the creator of award-winning educational videos for college and high school students, including Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity.

Katz showed clips from Tough Guise, which examines the hyper-inflated images of men promoted in the media, films, toys, and other popular culture, and how they influence men’s behavior.

“We are challenged by the media culture that has incredible power to naturalize men’s violence,” he said.

He urged the audience to see Jean Kilbourne’s film Killing Us Softly, which explores advertisers’ use of images of girls and women to sell products.

“Body image dysmorphia is a pandemic problem,” he said.

“The media’s portrayal of women affects how they view themselves, and also has a profound effect on men.”

After showing a video clip of a verbally abusive college football coach, he said sports media are “incredibly influential. … If winning is valued and making a profit is valued – if it’s more important than respect – we get bullies who win. The culture is rewarding men for being bullies.”

The Bumfight series of DVDs may be connected to some of the recent violent attacks against the homeless, Katz said.

In these videos, homeless men perform humiliating acts for money and alcohol.

These videos contribute to the “desensitization and the normalization of violence,” he said, adding that teens across America engage in what they call bum hunting – stalking and attacking the homeless for the fun of it.

Men’s violence is glamorized, he said.

Noting the violence in director Quentin Tarantino’s films, he added, “We live in a culture where if you have artistic talent, you can get away with fictional brutality.”

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