I am writing this as a parent who is incredibly grateful that the school my girls attend teaches media literacy aggressively and early. Beginning in the 5th grade, the teachers present the students with examples of how we are barraged every day with messages that may or may not represent us, but whose sole aim is to sell us something, even if couched in the guise of “entertainment.”
And so I was not terribly surprised to see the article in this morning’s New York Times regarding the MTV reality series “16 and Pregnant.” (Disclaimer: I have never watched, nor do I anticipate ever watching this show. I cannot speak to the relative merits or pitfalls of it, and I’m more interested in the larger theme of media influence, in any case.) The Nielsen company, responsible for television ratings among other things, released a report suggesting that this show and others like it may have “prevented 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.” Don’t ask me how they did the study. I didn’t delve too deeply in to it, but I suspect some other folks will, given the voices that have been raised in opposition to shows like this since their beginning. The people in that camp believe that these shows glamorize teen motherhood by featuring the teens on television, thus rendering them celebrities, and may convince young girls to go out and get pregnant before they are ready to. Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not with regards to this particular blog post. What strikes me is that what both sides have in common is the assertion that television shows, among other media sources, have a strong impact on their audience, so much so that they can influence major life decisions. With that, I will agree.
Last week on the way home from school, Eve reported that the 8th graders had begun a new unit in their health class involving body image.
“We’ve had two classes on it so far and, man, there’s no way we’re ever gonna get through even fifteen minutes without someone bursting into tears. I mean, even though we know that pictures are Photoshopped and nobody looks like a Barbie doll, some of the girls in my class have such low self-esteem because they think their bodies are all wrong that they can’t stop sobbing.”
I confess to being surprised. This is a school that has encouraged families to watch the critically acclaimed Miss Representation with their children, a school that has the 7th grade students create their own posters using images from magazines to demonstrate their understanding of media messages and how harmful they can be, a school that embraces and holds up diversity as a source of power. And yet, there are girls who are still so divided in their loyalties to themselves versus someone else’s idea of what they ought to look like that they can’t make it through a class on body image without feeling awful.
Let us not underestimate the power of both the media and the perpetuation of those messages among our youth. Let us continue to talk to our children about what is truly important and worthy. Let us help them to think critically about what they see and hear and decipher which messages are there to lift them up and which ones are there to tear them down and open their wallets. As Stephen Colbert once said:
“But if girls feel good about themselves, how can we sell them things they don’t need?”