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Manipulating the message

I recently watched a documentary I think should be mandatory viewing. Miss Representation explores how mainstream media and culture contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, but it also exposes how messaging impacts our self-views, expectations of others and the role we play in perpetuating these beliefs.

According to the synopsis of the documentary, "We live in a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, and the collective message we receive is the idea that girls’ and women’s value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality, and not in their capacity as leaders." Boys, on the other hand, "learn their success is tied to dominance, power and aggression." 

Girls are being told at a young age their worth lies in how they look. They are bombarded with altered images of impossible beauty standards and are encouraged to lose weight and change their appearance to be loved. The few women they do see in positions of power are torn down, questioned about their bodies instead of policies or successes, or portrayed as "The 'Bitch' and the 'Ditz.'"

The messaging is clever and not overt, until you take a second to actually unpack what you are seeing. Just look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. News stories focused on how "haggard" she looked, called for Clinton to smile more, criticized the shape of her mouth and placed importance on her appearing softer and more feminine. Thomas E. Patterson, professor of government and the press, found Donald Trump was afforded three times more attention on policy matters, whereas only four per cent of Clinton-related stories during the summer of 2016 encompassed policy.

But the lessons that should have been learned appear to have been tossed away with yesterday's paper. Annalisa Merelli wrote in Quartz, coverage of Democratic US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has been "wrapped in a layer of doubt, or somewhat incredulous amazement at her success," despite her "relentless" approach of presenting policy proposals for everything from prison reform to childcare. The mere fact Warren is a woman has put her at a disadvantage, Merelli argued. Even fellow candidate Bernie Sanders, when asked about Warren's impressive rise in approval numbers, dismissed her by suggesting Warren's gains in popularity were simply because "there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected."

Women in power are not celebrated, they are abused. Diminishing questions such as "is she tough enough?" or disgusting accusations that she slept her way to the top serve only to dehumanize, and would not be present in coverage of a male candidate.

If media coverage of the most powerful women in America is so limiting and derogatory, what chance does the average girl have?

Allison Chorney

About the Author: Allison Chorney

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