Why media images can ruin girls' lives

Photo: s.huyser

Authors: Lia Latchford and Ikamara Larasi 

The images we see in the media - everything from advertising to news, television, music videos, film, and content passed between children and adults at school and online - form the cultural backdrop, or wallpaper, of our lives.

It’s hard to keep track of the barrage of media messages that you and your children are exposed to daily, but it is important to think about the ways in which marginalised groups – including women and ethnic minorities – are portrayed in the media and how this could be informing our attitudes and behaviours.

Negative messages about women are the norm in the media. As an example, James Bond (among many others) continues to characterise women by their physical appearance rather than as complex characters with personalities, thoughts and feelings. On top of this, women of colour are often portrayed as exotic, different, and either sexually aggressive or submissive.  There are concerns about links between media messages and violence against women and girls. Restrictive or negative representations are harmful but so mainstream that we may not even notice.

The media also routinely sends harmful messages about ‘race’ and people of colour.  Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and My Crazy New Jamaican Life rely on common stereotypes of minority communities, encouraging viewers to laugh at the apparent differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

What can you do to counter media messages?

Discussing media can be a great way to explore your children’s developing ideas. As the media and new technology are in constant development, it’s normal to feel as though you are playing catchup, but there are things you can do to address it.

Be aware of your own media consumption

What are you seeing in the media? Are you actively analysing media messages? How does this affect your attitudes towards different groups including young people, women and minorities?

Take an interest in your children’s interests

Explore what your children are into. Be open and understanding and find opportunities to discuss and unpick any prejudicial opinions they have expressed.

Open up conversations with your children

How do you and your children feel about the media that you see? What is the impact of media messages? Are your children analysing the media and do they know how to? What opinions are they forming? Is the media representative of reality?

Have realistic expectations

It will be impossible for your child to restrict themselves from exposure to all media messages, but you can help them to understand that everything published or broadcast comes from a set of assumptions that they don’t have to share, and can even disagree with. Have ongoing conversations and take the lead in providing them with sources of support.

Identify resources to help you and your children challenge media representation

We currently run Purple Drum, a movement of young women (16-30) challenging media misrepresentation and promoting equality in pop culture and beyond.  Young women can get involved by submitting their own pieces of writing, art, poetry, photography or audio material to the blog, aiming to challenge media messages and change the conversation.

Recent research has linked the rise in sadness among girls in Years 7 and 8 to unreaslitic and sexualised images of women in the media - see our article 'Sharp rise' in 11-13 year-olds feeling sad and anxious.

The Government Equalities Office has published careers advice to help parents of girls, Your Daughter's Future. Our article, How stereotypes stop you being you summarises their advice on avoiding the stereotypes that lead girls away from a lot of satisfying and interesting career choices.

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