13 April 2011


Last night I watched "Miss Representation." I felt like I had blinders pulled from around my eyes so that I could finally really see and understand aspects of the media, politics and power that completely degrade and delegitimize women. It was horrifying, yet inspiring. I couldn't stop talking about it, I couldn't sleep half of the night thinking about it, and I am still blown away.

The more I think about this film and the issues it raised, the more clearly I see myself and recognize my own roles in consuming these images. I notice the ways that I play into the hands of these stereotypes and the narrow, twisted definitions of womanhood that we are expected to accept, despite so many aspects of our reality that confirm that this is a LIE.
Last night, in a more or less related vain, I started re-thinking about something that has been on my mind for awhile now. . .

About a month ago, at my good friend Jamie's wedding reception, I was talking with a guy and for whatever reason, he pointed out another girl's shoes, saying that they were ridiculous and that she wore them only because she thought they would make her attractive to men and they looked painful. I found this comment unsettling, despite the fact that I personally agreed that this girl's shoes were a bit over the top and appeared to be rather uncomfortable. But I joked, "Sometimes it's painful to be a woman." And he countered, "You don't have to be a woman. At least, not that kind of woman." I felt like I should have been grateful--I was talking to a man who didn't expect women to wear uncomfortable shoes (and by extension clothes, make-up, etc) to be attractive. That's a good thing, right? So why was I bothered by his statements? Why was I disconcerted by his comment?

Over the past month, I have come to this conclusion: it's just another kind of expectation.

And the last thing women need are more expectations.
I attended a play at BYU called "To Thine Own Self Be True" a couple of weeks ago. It was written, directed and performed by female students (or former students) at the university. The play was about the female experience at BYU. The opening scene exemplifies what I am trying to say (by the way, I don't have a perfect memory so this is just paraphrasing!).

A freshman girl walks onto campus. She is excited and smiling and hopeful. She is wide-eyed and curious. Suddenly, a voice out of nowhere welcomes her to the school and begins to set out for her what her experience will be (while objects representative of each statement are piled into her arms):

"While you are here you are expected to work hard. You are expected to make friends. You are expected to serve those around you. You are are expected to go to church. You are expected to date."

At first she remains happy and excited, but then,

"You are expected to learn to cook and bake and clean and take care of a house. You are expected to play sports. You are expected to t have musical talents. You are expected to be the top in your class. You are expected to t get married. You must are expected to a successful career. You are expected to look pretty at all times. You are expected not to be vain or care too much about your appearance. You are expected to have kids. You are expected to go to graduate school. You are expected to ...."
Well, I think you get the point. By the time the scene is over, she is piled on with the physical symbols of these expectations, and she is entirely overwhelmed and lost.

But it isn't just women at BYU who feel these expectations (though perhaps in some ways they are amplified). Women everywhere feel the need to meet up to expectations of near perfection. Sometimes these expectations are completely impossible; sometimes they are even in conflict with each other. Some of these expectations may be positive. But when they are pressed upon someone, as though she can only achieve success, respect and power by following a particular set of rules, it is detrimental.
Going back to the example of the conversation I had at my friend's wedding, here is why I have a problem with the comment made by that young man. It is sending a new message about expectation, and a contradictory one to that which (he assumes) the girls is trying to fulfill. I agree with him that women should know that they are not expected to wear the crazy shoes and pounds of make up to be attractive. What I don't agree with is the idea that if she chooses to wear those shoes, or if she has been influenced by the constant message that this is what she should do, she is open for ridicule. This is the message I am hearing and that I am afraid that too many other women hear too (though I know isn't always the case or necessarily exactly what is being said or thought):
You are only valuable and of worth when you look good and men find you physically attractive. Your power is all about your sex appeal and appearance. I will care about or respect you if you give in to these stereotypes.
You shouldn't give in to the stereotypes and expectations of beauty you hear constantly from the media and others. You give up your value, worth and dignity. I won't have respect for you if you are affected by the media and the expectations of beauty and womanhood that inundate you or make choices that I think are reflections of that those expectations.
A woman can't win for losing. No matter what she does, she is coming up against some expectation or another. And it isn't just with appearances either. On one hand, women are expected to be mothers and homemakers; they are expected to be good cooks, to be crafty, to decorate. Yet, there are others who say, women should not accept those roles, but have careers, attain higher education and have powerful positions in society. And then some people think women should do both, simultaneously. And whatever she chooses, someone thinks she is giving in; someone isn't satisfied.

So what is a woman to do. Ideally, she will make choices about her life, her family, her appearance based on what she wants most, what she truly values and what makes her feel the most fulfilled. But with waves of expectation coming in from every side, it is sometimes hard for women to feel free to make these choices and not to feel that no matter what she chooses, she is being judged.

I was struck by a quote I read in relation to the play "To Thine Own Self Be True" in which a woman expressed her shock that, as she got to know more women on a personal level, she found that no matter what choices these women were making, they felt they were being judged and they felt like they were coming up short. Women who stayed home with their kids felt they were looked down on by others because they didn't work or have a career. Women who had careers felt they were judged for not staying home and raising their children full time.

Where does it end?

Women DO NOT NEED more expectations. We need respect.

to decide that (something) is
requisite or necessary

esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability

Women should be able to make the choices that they feel right about for their lives. Women should be respected for who they are, not what they do as a job or what they look like or how they dress. Women (and men) need to be valued as individuals with a wide variety of characteristics and be esteemed for personal, character driven definitions of success.

And women need to be the first to stand up and support each other.

So I've made some goals for myself. I will try....

.... not to talk about my weight and appearance, or that of other people.
.... not to give women complements based on their appearance, clothes, etc., but rather their character.
.... to be much more aware of the media that I see. And I am going to think about what messages are being sent and why.
.... to say something when I hear sexist comments, media, etc. or observe sexist behavior.
.... to use my power as a consumer, a citizen and an intelligent human being to tell the world that I am not okay with the way women are portrayed in the media or the expectations they receive from various parties.
.... to be myself and I am going to be okay with that (even if it's a long process).

I hope you will think about how media and the expectations you face as a woman (or a man) influence your life. I hope you will consider what you can do to improve our mental environment (a friend yesterday said we all need to be mental environmentalists... and I LOVE that!). And please tell me what you think, even if it isn't what I think, because I don't want to be just another person adding expectations to the list!


ps. I think there are actually a couple of issues here that for me
have become very closely interwoven.
So maybe everything doesn't connect completely
but in my life, these issues of media's portrayal of women
and the expectations women, men, families, communities and cultures
put on women are sometimes equally difficult to navigate.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Great post! I watched the trailer and now I want to watch the whole film. Thanks!