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: 


  1. 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...

    1. Lindsey, thanks for this thought provoking question. It deserves a thorough response. Look for a blog post dedicated to answering this question in the next day or two. In the meantime, you might be interested in this post on a facet of raising boys in our culture: