How powerful is the media in creating social norms?
Social media, television shows, movies, advertisements, celebrity events, and other large public viewership happenings are powerful tools in setting cultural trends, social norms, and lifestyle benchmarks. These norms include subtle (or not so subtle) cues about how certain people should look, act, what they should wear, and how they should live. This doesn’t just create changes in material culture (styles, trends, and aesthetics), but creates internal changes within us, between us, and internally in our own community. It changes how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how others see us.
In the 1990’s, global health specialist Anne E. Becker conducted fieldwork in Fiji during a time of rapid social transformation- mainly the arrival of Western television available for household use. Becker documented a stark rise in previously non-existent eating disorders among adolescent girls after their exposure to American television dramas, as they began dieting and exercising which were not before observed in Fijian society. Young girls suddenly began to view themselves as inadequate in comparison with the thin bodies they saw on television shows which boasted the sleek modern lives of “successful people” in the West. This not only created emergent health concerns for the young girls who began restricting food , but also put them in conflict with the norms of their society. Traditional Fijian culture celebrated robust bodies and viewed them as healthy and ideal. Western norms of thinness equals beauty brought dangerous emotional, physical, and mental harm to young girls’ body image while rejecting traditional depictions of beauty. This separated Fijian girls from their culture, families, and community. Not only did the young women judge themselves by these new standards of television culture but they began to judge others in comparison. Becker’s research stood as one of the greatest examples of how problematic media and a lack of representation of diverse ethnic and cultural communities does not just harm individuals, but it creates a ripple effect that impacts communities, creates internal cultural conflict, and even internalized racism and sexism. This case is just one example of the power the media has. It also explains how impactful media is in affirming or cementing social feelings into larger cultural norms.
We absorb media images, television depictions and advertisements at such a young age that we tend to think of them as reflections of how things are the world instead of constructions made by other people. Due to this, we are less likely to challenge them. This is why media literacy is so important.
What is media literacy?
Media literacy is the awareness that images, social media, movies, and other forms of media are creations which have subtext and messages attached to them. They aren’t reality of life, but instead constructions. This can be confusing, as media is often made to look unstaged. For example, an Instagram photo showing a model looking flawless just waking up in the morning may appear not to be posed. In reality, a great deal of staging often takes place and many photos are taken when capturing moments which will be read as unplanned. These skewed depictions not only impact individuals, they also impact relationships. Picture perfect families on television may cause many parents to feel like they are failing if they don’t measure up. Some may ask: “What about documentaries? Aren’t those depictions of real life?” While documentaries may not be scripted, there is still a director who decides what scenes will be included for viewers to see, and what scenes will not. Deleted scenes may have given the viewer a very different idea as to what is actually taking place.
On another level, media literacy is also the ability to decode the meta-messages (or deeper meanings and takeaways, what is communicated but not said) that are entering our minds and shaping our norms when we consume media. Since the creation of visual media, certain people and places have been consistently depicted in certain ways, which has created an expectation or stereotype about how those people and places must be in real life. For example, many people have ideas about whole continents, like Africa, despite ever visiting. For Americans, often times these depictions of Africa are what people see in movies and media, which play upon stereotypical portrayals of foreign peoples that are highly oversimplified, inaccurate and sometimes downright offensive. Having a degree of cultural literacy allows us to read deeper into media images and debunk the underlying ideas in them which are problematic. Media literacy helps us to intervene and say "This image is playing on cliche stereotypes about Africa and does a disservice to the rich complexity of an entire continent". Movies are very strong tools in projecting an image of a country and its people which comes to define it, regardless of whether it's accurate or not. In essence, media literacy is the ability to understand that the media has the power to make some people look dangerous, even if they’re not, make some intentions look innocent, even if they aren’t, or make sexual assault look harmless, even though it isn’t.
How does the media create norms around sex?
Many people learn about the norms of sex and relationships through media. A rising number of children and teenagers’ first understanding of sex is from pornography and media, as opposed to having safe, educational conversations with parents or trusted persons. Research has shown using porn to have an impact on teens. Teenagers who consume porn become sexually active at a younger age, have an increased number of partners, and are more sexually active in general, when compared to teenagers who learned about sex from parents. The same study also reported that girls commonly felt less attractive than women they saw in porn, while boys were found to have more performance anxiety about sexual expectations they saw in porn.
Sex research journalist Maggie Jones states, "These images confound many teenagers about the kinds of sex they want or think they should have. In part, that’s because they aren’t always sure what is fake and what is real in porn. Though some told me that porn was fantasy or exaggerated, others said that porn wasn’t real only insofar as it wasn’t typically two lovers having sex on film. Some of those same teenagers assumed the portrayal of how sex and pleasure worked was largely accurate. That seems to be in keeping with a 2016 survey of 1,001 11-to-16-year-olds in Britain. Of the roughly half who had seen pornography, 53 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls said it was “realistic.” When these norms are set, viewers might then begin to judge their own sexual experiences or relationships against what they see in media. When issues like sexual assault or consent aren’t respectfully or accurately portrayed, it perpetuates harm in many ways.
How do media representations impact survivors?
Harmful, misleading, or inaccurate l depictions of sex and sexual violence are common in the media. This not only is triggering for survivors to watch, but creates norms about what is and is not safe, healthy, respectful relationships. Many times, these depictions romanticize sexual assault, depict rape or sexual violence as less harmful (or even okay), and erase problematic relationships for the convenience of the story. These depictions aren’t just in fictional television or movie dramas- they’re even visible in the news and other outlets which the general public look to as fact-based.
In her study of visual representations of sexual violence in online news outlets, Sandra Schwark found that three specific themes were readily used when reporting on sexual assaults:
- Rape myth
- How victims are portrayed
- Third theme
These portrayals were found to have very real implications on how society viewed sexual assault survivors in terms of what sexual assault looks like. Additionally, these portrayals were found to impact whether victims felt like they were victims in their own experiences of sexual assault Professor Heather L. Littleton says, “Women who have an experience that legally would be rape instead label what happened to them as something that is not a crime, such as a miscommunication.” Research shows that the frequent portrayals of sexual assault by strangers create conflicting internal expectations that true sexual assaults are perpetrated by strangers, despite the fact that 90% of perpetrators knew their victims before the crime. Stereotyped ideas interfere with a person’s ability to identify sexual violence when it is happening to them. “Rape scripts” – mental scenarios constructed from ideas and stereotypes about how rape is typically supposed to play out – can interfere with acceptance. “The more someone’s experience with rape differs from their script … the less likely they are to label it as such,” says Littleton. “In other words, their experience does not match what they think rape looks like; maybe they trusted the assailant, the assault was not violent, they did not resist strongly or the perpetrator was a woman.”
Male survivors of sexual violence have been left virtually absent from depictions of sexual violence and harassment, and as such, still struggle to report or seek help due to harmful ideas perpetuated by media. When male sexual violence is mentioned or featured, its regularly in the form of a joke or used as a way to shame or demasculate a character, pushing further stigma onto the issue. Even the words we use to describe sexual violence may dissuade male survivors from identifying as victims, as men will identify more with experiencing “unwanted sexual experiences” rather than “rape” or “sexual assault”.
What is the relationship between gender norms and media representations?
The media plays a large role in shaping how we see the world and how we learn social norms. Things like movies and media are the standard in which many children make sense of the world and their place in it. The media also shapes how they will interact with others and their future. Without meaningful conversations to interrupt harmful messages , problematic or harmful norms become normalized and do not help us move towards a more equitable society. For example, the “Draw a Scientist” social experiment created by David Chambers has been used for the past 50 years to identify what kinds of gender and physical stereotypes exist in children’s minds about what a scientist looks like. The overwhelmingly common depiction is of an older white male with glasses in a lab coat- no coincidence, how many scientists have normatively been showcased in movies, television, and pop culture. This not only has been found to shape children’s expectations of what a scientist looks like, but inversely, that only certain people who match that description can be scientists.
Accurate representation isn’t just important for ensuring that all people have the opportunity to fulfill their full potential without mental barriers, but is also vital in assuring that people understand history and how the current status quo came to be in the world. For example, the classic Disney film Pocohantas depicts a consensual adult relationship between Pocohantas and John Smith. In reality, however, Pocahontas (named Amonute in her native Algonquin) was a 12 year old victim of kidnapping and child marriage- forced upon her by European occupiers. Children unaware of the meta-message (or deeper takeaway) are vulnerable to believe the things they see in media are accurate understandings of history, and believe them to be “the truth.” This not only points to the importance of conversations about media literacy from a young age, but also that media literacy be an ongoing form of education we all undertake throughout our lifetime, as conversations continue to shift and evolve around certain issues.
Representations in the media have historically adhered to binary, patriarchal fantasies of how members of society should act, according to their gender. These patriarchal foundations instill harmful norms and standards which encourage and normalize acts of sexual violence. As Silvia Galdi states, “Media that sexually objectify women by portraying them in ways that emphasize physical beauty and sexual readiness as well as reduce them to decorative and sexual objects ..[are a] risk factor encouraging sexual harassment and sexual violence.” Hyper-masculine depictions of men create equally harmful standards and prevent children and adults from thriving as they really are and not as who society expects them to be in order to be respected and valued.
How do media representations impact racism?
Due to its wide reach, television has served as "a primary source of America's racial education," according to scholar Stephanie Troutman Robbins. As such, the norms of white supremacy culture have pervaded the airways and continued to reproduce harmful standards and expectations. For centuries exclusively white middle to upper class depictions of life were portrayed by an exclusively white cast. A recent study from Colors of Change indicates that these trends still continue. Their findings were that 59% of poor people portrayed in media are Black families, despite the fact that 66% of all living in poverty in the USA are white. Black people were also found to be 300 times more likely to be depicted as on welfare, and Black fathers regularly were found to spend 50% less time with their children as were portrayals of white fathers. As outlined in A Guide to Exploring Trauma, “The use of misleading language in news media is also extremely common in regards to how children of color are presented. They are often depicted as adults, as less innocent, and with more claims to culpability. Research has shown that Black children as young as 10 are viewed as more mature and fit for adult consequences.” This has very real consequences, including but not limited to higher court sentencing or reactionary police involvement - all of which can drastically change a child's and family’s life.
Many white audiences simply view the presence of a person of color as representation as opposed to thinking more critically about how they are being depicted, what message it’s projecting, and if it's an accurate portrayal. It’s vital to remember that true representation is different from tokenism.
What is tokenism?
Tokenism is a hyperfocus on a person from a specific community to meet a quota or check a box, as opposed to genuine engagement. When individuals are tokenized, they are used to disprove the existence of harm. It is important to note that examples of representation aren’t exceptions that prove the rule. There is often an incorrect assumption that the United States is in a ‘post Me-Too” era because of the legal action brought against Harvey Weinstein, or that the USA is now a “post racial” society because of a few instances of representation. For example, after the election of Barack Obama in 2009, the United States witnessed a lot of cultural commentary indicating that his win had ‘ended racism’, or put forward ideas that discrimination was now a thing of the past. On the contrary, the temporary presence of an elected official or talking head doesn’t magically erase the longstanding foundation and generational reproduction of racial injustice in any one country. This is because racism is bigger than any one person or event, even if that person is a President, Prime-Minister, or religious leader. Even with a Black President at the helm, the United States saw countless examples of racial injustice continuing both institutionally and in the public and private spheres. In fact, in many instances, the success of a Black person might be used to distract from or bury the idea that racism exists. Having a Black President didn’t undo the many centuries of racism that have existed and continue to exist, just the same as having a billionaire as a President didn’t dissolve the realities of poverty across the country. As such, having a token gay character or a token Black woman on a sitcom is not to be confused with true representation.
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