by Jeni Johnson / May 2005 issue of Socialist Action
When discussing the role of media in the average woman’s life, I decided the best place to see what the media wanted woman to want was in a very popular magazine called Cosmo. When I looked at the table of context, it all looked pretty interesting. I discovered that from one copy of this magazine I would be able to learn such important life lessons as: how to do my hair and apply my make-up like the celebrities do, what to do if I earned more money than my boyfriend, and, most importantly, Five things a guy never wants me to say, some of my favorites being I am not allowed to talk about any female bodily function, I shouldn’t ever tell him if I feel bad about my body image, and under no circumstances should I ever mention that he might need some work in what this magazine calls his “in-the-sack skills” .
Now those things are all obviously very important things to know if you want to be a good woman but the advertisements were what really caught my attention. In the magazine, there were: 22 ads for makeup, 16 ads for clothes, 16 ads for hair care products, 6 for diet pills, 6 for perfume, 6 for cars, 6 for feminine products, and of the 6 of those 4 mentioned the word discreet because as I learned from the article men never want to know these things exist, 5 for toothpaste or mints, 5 for soap, 4 birth control,4 for skin smoothing lotion, and 3 for deodorant. All of these ads were geared toward the girly girl stereotypical female. The one ad for athletic apparel claimed to be “the ultimate way to look cute while burning carbs” . All of this information was gathered from ONE copy of Cosmo. I should add that Cosmo is one of the most popular magazine for women. Hundreds of woman see these ads, read these articles, and actually believe that they have a basis is real life.
It is true that this magazine is probably one of the worst of its kind, so I decided that I should look at some other forms of media to see how they portrayed woman. What I found was quite depressing. The top movie right now is Hitch. In this movie, Will Smith teaches the average man how to trick beautiful but attainable woman into falling in love with him. The most popular book out right now is Honeymoon by James Paterson. This book has two main characters, a policeman and the woman he is hunting down. The woman, who is described as independent, resourceful, and deadly, falls in love but is avoiding marriage to work on her career so she kills her boyfriends instead of marrying them. The leading television right now is Desperate Housewives a show which shows the depths woman will stoop to have fun while their husbands are away. These are the roles woman are playing in modern society. We can either be content to try and please our man every way we can, we can be a sweet and innocent mother figure, or we can ball-busting, boyfriend murdering, independent career woman. There are so many options!
There are many complex reasons for assigning these positions to woman. The first of which is that by telling women their biggest fears should be wrinkles and keeping their men happy, women get the impression that their real concerns, such as finding money to pay the bills or finding a good job are things that are not part of what society expects them to do. In the 80s, mass media began to derail the woman’s rights movement by claiming that women who have left the home to live their own lives only end up unhappy because they are being robbed of their true position in life which is wife and mother. Though the people that said this admitted they had no actual proof of this happening, because so many people were saying it, the general public began to believe that it was true. The reason working woman may have been happy couldn’t possibly be that even though they were finally doing what they wanted, society still did not approve, so it must be that they missed nursing babies and vacuuming the living room.
Another reason so many magazines and TV shows try and promote this as being the way real woman are is because when a woman looks at a magazine and sees trim beautiful women on every page, she thinks this is the norm. So, to get her man, which she knows she has to do because the article on one page told her so, she must take the pills advertised on the next page, use the makeup advertised on the page after that and complete her perfect life style with the shoes on the page after that. The media helps perpetuate these negative stereotypes to increase revenues on the products they get paid to advertise. And it is working. The dieting industry, which through life experience seems to be almost entirely geared towards the female population, makes over 40 billion dollars a year. Women have been distracted from fighting for equality by the fact that every one is telling them they are fighting for the wrong things, that what they really should be concerned about is finding a good man and settling down. In almost every movie or TV sitcom, the woman is portrayed as a sex kitten or a beautiful, gentle mother figure.
From overexposure to these forms of media, girls as young as first grade believe that they need to work on their weight! This is no surprise seeing as the average American woman is 5’4 144 pounds and the average model is 5’11 and 117 pounds. A realistic female role model does not exist, or rather, she does exist and the media is only promoting the chauvinistic ideal woman. The women that girls have to look up today are tall and lack fat completely, barring, of course, their large breasts. There is very little chance that a woman will be born with this physique and because of this women are buying beauty products and pushup bras to achieve a look that is not even natural. Thousands of woman develop severe eating disorders while trying to achieve the perfect body they see on the cover of Cosmo, on their favorite TV show, or at the movies.
Things are not completely hopeless though. Though Cosmo, Seventeen, or Vogue may not show women what real life is like there are some alternatives such as Off Our Backs, the feminist news journal, Bust, a magazine for women who have something to get off their chest, and Bitch, a magazine that gives the feminist response to pop culture. These magazine addresses some of the real issues women face and also do devote half the magazine to clone like models promoting wrinkle remover and diet pills. Once women know that there are alternatives, that the average model on the cover of Cosmo isn’t reality, and the media stop trying to convince the general public that tall, slim, busty, and maternal are the best things for a woman, then we will be a lot closer to equality.