|Humanist Essay for June 2012
"You've come a long way, baby - Not"
"You've come a long way, baby." Remember that one? By 1968 women had come so
far that Madison Avenue designed a cigarette just for us.
Since then, they have taken us on a merry romp in the
"updating" of womanhood. In TV and movies, we have
seen our roles transformed. Where once the female role
was to provide utilitarian set decoration - a buxom girl
with a steno pad off in the corner or a nurse poised
prettily two paces behind the wealthy male patient or
distinguished doctor - women characters began to take
center stage in boardrooms, courtrooms and, of course,
Hollywood had it all figured out: If a good looking woman looked good on the periphery of the action, imagine how she'd look in a tight dress and high heels pleading the case center stage. And when the bound-and-gagged, ripped-bodice, helpless, virginal-but-damned-sexy victim character wore thinner than the nightie she was invariably abducted in, she could be replaced with the even more scintillating spandex-clad cat-woman character, whose punches and leg kicks showed off her curves. Over time, the female super-hero or anti-hero has "evolved" to the degree that she is also freely shown being hit herself. The violence in both directions has become more real, leaving the heroine looking much like the old image of victim - bruised, cut, bloody and barely dressed.
Violence, torture and death are inescapable themes in mass media entertainment. Whether consciously devised or not, our TVs provide an effective regimen of desensitization to every kind of destruction and horror. Spend half an hour surfing channels (you'll get plenty of movie trailers and video game ads in the mix too) and you may come away with PTSD from all the shooting, burning, bombing, slashing, crashing, stalking, dissecting, threatening and torturing you will be exposed to. The big breakthrough for women is that now the female characters get to be on both sides of the abuse, as well as in the lab tracking down the rapists' DNA.
Some of you will not know what I'm talking about or will think it does not concern you. You do not own TVs, or don't watch TV, or you watch only the most elevated fare. Perhaps you have turned away from TV for the very reason I point out - the abusive nature of the relationship. So you have freed yourselves. But can you afford to ignore the situation altogether? The merging of political speech, current events reporting, celebrity gossip and entertainment has implications for our democracy. Who has the ear of the electorate? What is their agenda? If it is not political, is "just making money" any more benign?
I applaud those who have taken a stand against excessive screens in their lives, but we have to remember that our turning off and tuning out the mass culture delivery devices does not make the message or the messengers go away. We have to keep creating our own messages and demanding space for them in the public forum. And we have to bring an informed and astute critique to the table - something more than a disdainful shudder at what others subject themselves to.
Media literacy is a fascinating interdisciplinary field of study that combines the arts and sciences, politics, economics and culture. It teaches us to deconstruct the language, imagery and production techniques of mass media. The skills are readily learned and easily shared; and once those faculties of critical observation are engaged, they quickly develop into habit. Pulling aside the curtain won't necessarily stop the fantasy-generating machine, but it will diminish the power that those fantasies, and their creators, wield over us.