Friday, May 30, 2014

Media Literacy How-To

Following my last post on media literacy, which focused on girls, I received this question from Lindsey, “Can you share some dialogue examples for pointing out the dehumanizing tricks? I want to help my boys recognize this, but I haven't been able to come up with a succinct way of talking about it.”

Photo Source I hate to include examples of advertising
that I find so abhorrent, but we must understand what we
are up against.
Since I didn’t acknowledge it in my last post, let me say here that the harm wrought on girls by media and advertising in no way exceeds the damage to boys. Levin and Kilbourne explain, “Boys learn to look at girls as sex objects, they really learn a lot about how to treat girls. At the same time, boys are seeing images of being violent, tough and macho which go against being able to have caring connective relationships when they grow up.” How sad. Our boys are hit constantly with a double whammy (be tough and girls are objects to be manipulated for your own gratification). Those two ideas combine in a toxic way. As Levin points out, this double whammy message can erode our boy’s ability to form and maintain warm, loving, connected relationships. Of all the things I wish for my son, being part of caring relationships tops my list.

So, how do we talk about media and the myriad of negative messages therein with your children? Before I give specific suggestions, let me first say that saying ANYTHING is better than saying nothing. Media literacy is all about an ongoing dialogue we share with our kids. That conversation is a stronger antidote than you might suspect. Secondly, I have focused thus far on how women are depicted in media, but that is only one problem among a myriad. If we pay attention, there are many ideas being peddled to us that are problematic. Media communicates ideas about gender roles, sexuality, race, happiness, consumerism. . . .
Photo Source

A good place to start with kids is by helping them understand the intent behind advertising or other persuasive forms of media. Let me illustrate this point by a cross-cultural comparison. In America, television used to be regulated. Then "in 1984 the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children's television. With deregulation it became possible to market toys and other products with TV programs.” Contrast this with Sweden, where it is illegal to advertise to kids under the age of 12. This ban on advertising in Sweden is,  “based on research that indicates children can't fully distinguish between advertising and programming until about age 10.”(Source) That being the case, Sweden deems limiting advertising to kids the moral thing to do, as children clearly are not able to reason through advertising as adults are. You and I understand the manipulation in advertising. We know, of course, that we are being sold something. We assume kids know this too. They don’t. To them, this is just information about the world, as accurate or valid as any other information they get.
Photo Source Does an image like this
make anyone else angry? This would
likely be illegal in Sweden, as well it
should be. It seems an exploitation to me!
Once you’ve helped kids understand that most of what we see in media is created to try to get us to buy something, you can begin talking about how they do that. Discuss the messages ensconced within the alluring images around us. I can only give a few examples here, but if you are looking for opportunities to have this discussion with your kids, you will find many. You can point out the unkindness of portraying women as objects or portraying boys as tough and aloof. Identify how happy or exciting people look in advertising then ask, “what is making them so happy? Do you think buying that _____ would really make someone happy? For how long? What things make you happiest?” Let them know that the people creating the ads want you to believe something as a result of what they see. What is it they want you to believe? Is that true? (e.g. They want you to believe that if you drive that car, you will be cool and have lots of friends. Is that true?) What is being taught about what it means to be a man or a woman or how men should treat women? You can let kids know that almost all images they see in advertising have been digitally altered. Once you create this framework for looking at media in a critical way, your kids will start doing it on their own. I still remember driving down the road, when I heard my 6 year old declare indignantly from the back seat, “look at that picture! They are trying to trick us that we will be so happy if we eat that. That’s not true!!!” I smiled to myself. My beautiful daughter was defining the world for herself on her terms and I loved it.

Photo Source
I want to end on an inspiration note and what better than
a quote from Maya Angelou, as we honor her memory. Bravo to a
woman who taught us what true beauty looks and feels like.
Photo Source

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Media Literacy

Years ago my life offered up a juxtaposition with a profound lesson. I was a mom of two little girls under the age of 5 and relishing the experience. During that time I was asked to help lead the youth group at my church. During the day, I spent my time oohing and awing over crayon drawings of heads with arms and legs coming out of them. Not that my two daughters needed my praise; they clearly felt whatever they created was a masterpiece without my saying so. 

In the evenings once or twice a week and every weekend, I spent time teaching and playing with girls ages 12 to 18. I began to notice something startling. My little girls preened and danced and colored and delighted in themselves and life. You could tell them they were smart, kind, talented, beautiful and they would grin and nod knowingly. Not so with the teens I loved. They would continuously scrutinize themselves and find themselves terribly lacking. Try to compliment them and they deflected. Of course, there were girls who bucked this trend, but it was a clear trend nonetheless. The New York Times reported, "this survey of 3,000 children found that at the age of 9 a majority of girls were confident, assertive and felt positive about themselves. But by the time they reached high school fewer than a third felt that way."

I began wondering how I could avert this disaster for my daughters (I ended up with 3). This search led me to the work of Jean Kilbourne. From her website: "Jean Kilbourne is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking work on the image of women in advertising. . .In the late 1960s she began her exploration of the connection between advertising and several public health issues, including violence against women, eating disorders, and addiction, and launched a movement to promote media literacy as a way to prevent these problems."  I read her book Deadly Persuasion (republished under the title Can't Buy My Love) and kicked off my own little "media literacy" campaign for my daughters. I realized I'd never eliminate the media effect from my daughter’s lives (or mine, for that matter) no matter how strictly I monitored it (and monitor it I did!). I needed to empower them; give them tools with which to navigate the media saturated culture that they were marinating in. 

Guided by Kilbourne, I began deconstructing media's message with my daughters. We'd be driving down the road and see a billboard and I'd say things like, "look how happy that lady looks in that picture? Why do you think they made her look so happy? Do you think wearing those jeans (or driving that car or eating that Sara Lee cake) could really make her happy?"
Photo Credit
I would point out dehumanizing tricks of the trade, such as women being turned into objects or, even more insidious, being dismembered in an ad, showing only one part of a woman's body. I was amazed how my young daughters took to this and began doing it on their own. More than 10 years have passed since I began that dialogue. I set out to help my daughters, but I did more than that. I helped myself. Until I began examining it, I didn't realize how effected I was by advertising. Today I have a beautiful 15 year old in high school. But that isn't noteworthy. When I stop by her school, I am surrounded by a sea of beautiful girls her age. What is noteworthy is that her confidence hasn't taken a nosedive. Despite the occasional complaint about her hair or a zit, she still knows she is amazing, just as she did 10 years ago. This is what I wish for every girl and for every woman. To always know and feel her worth, despite overwhelming media messages that would persuade us otherwise for their own purposes.

To become better informed on this issue, check out this video clip of Jean Kilbourne, it will give you a glimpse of what girls and women are up against:  

Also, read this touching letter from a Mom to her daughter. It sums it up perfectly: 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Giving Up On Guilt

It's Monday, the day after Mother's Day. Did you all survive? I say survive, because for some reason, Mother's Day is harrowing for a lot of women. I hate that that is the case, but this weekend I heard three different women state that that they'd be happier without the holiday. These are not women who wanted to be mothers, but never got the chance. They are not divorced raising kids on there own. They are all very good mothers. There are many legitimate reasons to loathe Mother's day. But there are just as many reasons that are lame. And sad. And they stem from guilt.
I think we mom's feel that Mother's Day is about acknowledging what great mom's we are. Hence, cards and school projects (both tacky and useless and adorable) that proclaim to us "World's Best Mom." Which, lets be honest, makes us all feel like a fraud. Even the woman that actually is the world's best mom, wherever she is, feels a shame dump when she reads those words. Everyone is celebrating how amazing we are, but we don't feel amazing. We feel like if a camera were on us all the time, we'd be turned in to CPS.
Let's be HONEST. This is the hardest job on earth. Especially when you actually engage in it and try. We get it wrong again and again. Even when we know better, we do the wrong thing (for example, I know screaming like a lunatic will not make my kid suddenly responsible and respectful- still, I try this method that has failed me a thousand times before). We desperately want to get this one thing, the parenting of our children, right. And we keep getting it wrong.
Well, that, my dear friend is what we are celebrating. WE ARE CELEBRATING THAT WE KEEP TRYING TO GET IT RIGHT. We are not celebrating that we often get it wrong. We are not ignoring or hiding that we get it wrong. We are acknowledging that this impossibly difficult job is one that any reasonable person would look at and say, "forget it, who can be expected to do that?"And yet, we keep showing up. We keep trying.
That changes the world. Because life itself is just like parenting. Impossible to get right all the time. So we bring these precious souls into the world. And we love them. And some times fail them. And show up the next day to try again. They are watching. The message being imprinted on their souls is this: "Being my mom is no cake walk. But she loves me so much that she never gives up on me. Life is no walk in the park. But she keeps trying. When life seems to hard or relationships seem too demanding, I know that they are the most precious things ever, and I will forge on. Because that's what my mom does EVERY BLESSED DAY."
In that way, we get it right. Every day. And that is worth celebrating!!