Growing Up Female in a Media World

An overview of issues on women, girls and the media.

The media world is a lot more complicated for today’s girls and women than it was for prior generations who watched Annette grow up on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s. During our 20th century lifetimes, women have witnessed the increasing influence of the mass media in shaping our values, needs and identities — and those of our daughters and granddaughters.

The world is saturated with messages telling or selling something. Americans are exposed to over 2,000 ads a day, sixty channels of tv, movies showing at the local theatre or on video, airwaves full of radio talk and music, newspapers, magazines, books and now the Internet.

Women are rightfully concerned about the role the mass media plays in their lives. What's a woman to do? The challenge facing women today is to develop the skills to discern and interpret the images presented by the media. And teaching these skills to the young people in our lives. This can be done by:

  • Observing women’s images in the media.
  • Seeking out alternative depictions and supporting women to make their own media messages.
  • Sharing knowledge with your family and community.

Observing women's images in the media

Television is still the leading source of news, information, and entertainment for most of us. After all, the average adult today spends three to four hours a day watching television. What picture of women and their place in society does television present?

To begin with, women are 51% of the U.S. population. But in prime time entertainment, there are twice as many male characters as female characters, with men representing 65% of that fictional population compared to their 49% share of the real population.

According to studies conducted by Children Now, an independent children’s advocacy group that keeps tabs on diversity issues in television programming, prime time is a world overwhelmingly populated by able-bodied, single, heterosexual, white, male adults under forty. Diverse types of women do not populate much of the television world:

  • Women over 40 are less than one-fifth (19%) of the characters in primary roles.
  • Ethnic women are barely seen. Out of the prime time population of 2,251 characters, only 145 were black, 25 Asian American, 18 Hispanic and none were American Indian female characters.
  • Gay and lesbian characters comprised less than 2% of the prime time population and were found primarily in comedies.

When women are seen in fewer roles, the existing portrayals skew the proportions and are perceived by the viewers as "normal." The idealized image of women on television is a female who is under 30, thin, white and has plenty of disposable income.

Magazines and movies reinforce this idealized image using production techniques to improve upon even the most attractive woman. Recently actress Michelle Pfeiffer was featured on the cover of a national men’s magazine with the headline "Michelle Pfeiffer is Perfect!" No offense to Ms. Pfeiffer but if she is perfect, why did the photo re-touching — taking out wrinkles, smoothing the chin, removing tiny skin blemishes — reportedly cost over $1000?

As a result, women of normal weight are likely to have a distorted perception of their weight and body image. Compared to today’s Courtney Cox of the hit television show "Friends" who barely tips the scales at 105 pounds, few people know that Marilyn Monroe wore size 16! And Lillian Russell, the sex symbol in 1900, weighed 200 pounds!

Usually, models and actresses are forced to maintain the myth of thin is sexy. So it may be good news for all women when actress Renee Zelleweger chose to gain twenty pounds for her role in the recent film Bridget Jones Diary in order to depict an "average" young woman.

As for the news, a few individual women are prominent in national news reporting. Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters are usually listed amongst the top ten people of influence in the news. At the same time, women reported less than one fifth of the network news stories in 1997 according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

And men are more often newsmakers and the voice of authority. Reporters turn to men as experts more than women. Media monitor "Women, Men and Media" reports close to 90% of comments are provided by men for news sound bites. On the morning programs "Good Morning, America" and "Today" twice as many men are interviewed as women.

These observations have just touched upon how women are seen or not seen in both news and entertainment. Viewing the media with a critical eye does not mean one gives up watching her personal favorite programs. Women can enjoy television while at the same time recognizing the need for heightened awareness of the images the mass media presents, or leaves out.

The media is just one of many educators

The media may present negative images but despite political finger-pointing, they do not create core values. "Sexism was not born in the media, but it is most visible there," stated sociologist Karen Sternheimer at a recent seminar sponsored by the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. "Although [the media is] a pervasive force, we are not passive recipients," she noted.

Indeed, according to Carlos Cortes, author of The Children are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity, "we each bring our own experience, culture and age to our understanding of media images." Many women and young girls are able to resist media messages and make up their own minds about what messages they will accept or reject.

This ability to think critically must begin early in a child’s life, notes Dr. Jane Brown, a media researcher at the University of North Carolina, who has spent over 12 years researching, as she describes it, "sex, drugs and rock ‘roll."

In one of her first studies on how pre-teens interpreted sexual messages in the media, Dr Brown asked a group of teen girls to keep a journal for one month noting TV shows and movies they watched, magazines they read and music they listened to. Then she visited with each girl privately at home. In the intimacy of their own bedrooms, surrounded by their favorite movie star posters, music collection and bulletin boards, the girls were at ease to express their feelings and ideas about what they accepted or rejected in the media — and why.

What she found was that images or messages from media are a lot less influential than how the girls were raised. "Media sophistication seemed to be correlated not with age, but with family communication patterns, family media habits and the sexual values conveyed by parents and other role models," she explains. "Girls whose families stressed conformity and obedience to authority were more likely to accept media messages at face value. But girls whose parents encouraged their daughters to think for themselves were apt to initiate the kind of independent thinking needed for media criticism."

Expanding your media diet

What we see today is not a uniform media culture. The television networks, national magazines and newspapers, Hollywood movies and videos represent only the bottom tier of a common culture. The media is rich in alternatives if we just look. Not only adults, but also young people, can be encouraged to explore and expand their media experiences. The approach is pro-active:

  • Don't rely on any single source of information about an issue or idea. The Internet is now a powerful tool to find alternatives to mainstream newspapers or network TV news. Thoughtful documentaries about issues of interest to women exist and can be found by taking a second look at the TV guide or the video store shelves.
  • Learn (and teach others) the monitoring skills needed to stimulate analysis and critical thinking. Try conducting a gender study of your local newspaper. This is a wonderful activity for women of all ages and leads to amazing insights about who makes the news — and why.
  • Seek out ways to deconstruct advertising and commercial images of women. A classic curriculum for groups or classes is "Break the Lies that Bind." The website of the non-profit organization, About Face, ( takes on advertising images in provocative and, often, very funny ways.
  • Plan a woman's film festival in your church or community in order to experience different points of view and alternatives to mainstream "action" movies made primarily for young males. "Women Make Movies" ( is a great source for short and feature length films by women around the world. Work with your local video store or public library to stock and feature independent and alternative films made by women.
  • Be a media maker and encourage others, particularly young people, to create their own media messages — on video, in print or multi-media. Girl Director is a wonderful low-cost book that helps young girls find and speak in their own voice.

This article first appeared in October, 2000 issue of Response, a national publication of the United Methodist Women.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).

Dale Ann Stieber is a media producer participating in the CML's Felton Media Literacy Scholars Program.