Why teach media literacy to teen girls? (part 1)

The first time I saw “Killing Us Softly,” Dr. Jean Kilbourne’s take-down of the toxic, dehumanizing culture that surrounds women in advertising, it was 1996. I was a naïve sophomore at the University of Michigan who had been raised, above all, to be pretty – with Victoria’s Secret catalog pages and Self magazine workouts pinned on my bedroom walls. But that day at U of M, I left the lecture hall feeling like my whole body was on fire. My political awakening had begun.

The original film, “Killing Us Softly,” debuted in 1979, and you’d probably think that in four decades since then, things have changed dramatically. But you would be wrong. 

If anything, as Dr. Kilbourne said in 2010 when she released “Killing Us Softly 4” (yes, her third update), the way women and girls are shown in media is worse now. 

All cut up

Sure, in the 1970s, airbrushed photographs made women’s skin poreless and ageless, setting an impossible beauty standard. But today, Photoshop not only banishes every “imperfection”, it also sculpts inches off celebrity thighs and waists – often without the women’s consent and against their will. Women’s bodies are still shown in disconnected pieces, while the models and stars are turned into products themselves. Dr. Kilbourne warns that objectification of any group is the first step towards violence against them.

Ad for Wonderbra from the 1990s probably: Blonde-haired white woman wearing a black bra. On her cleavage it says "I can't cook. Who cares?"
Just above her cleavage are the words “I can’t cook, who cares?” This Wonderbra ad is the kind of image we used to see all the time. (From “Killing Us Softly 4”)

“But wait!” you object, “What about ‘Shrill’, #bodypositivity and #naturalhair? What about Lizzo and Kelly Clarkson? Today, girls have role models like Emma González and Greta Thunberg… Mia Hamm and Serena Williams! Haven’t we moved past all those crippling Miss America beauty stereotypes for girls?”

My answer is a resounding “no”. We need action-oriented media education for girls* now, more than ever.

What social media has to do with it

Instead of just magazines, movies, and TV, our girls have to face the entire world of social media. And it’s all in the palms of their hands, 8-10 hours a day. The average girl gets a smartphone when she is 10; she opens her first social media account when she’s 12.   

Teen girl leaning against a chair or couch, looking at her smartphone with a serious look on her face.
Credit: iStockPhoto

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and texting, girls don’t just consume media, they also produce it. They craft their own self-images and publish them for others to critique, applaud, or degrade. While boys at this age often use smartphones to play games, girls use them to compare and rank themselves — versus each other and their favorite, artificially-perfected role models.

How is this Instagram post any better than the Wonderbra ad above? It’s not. (Credit: Instagram)

Psychologist Jean Twenge puts it bluntly: “We’re in the middle of a teen mental health crisis  — and girls are at its epicenter.” 

According to Twenge’s research, “rates of depression started to tick up just as smartphones became popular.” For teens born after 1995, who spent their entire adolescence under the spell of the smartphone, the impact of social media is frightening. She calls it “a cold arbiter of popularity and a platform for bullying, shaming, and disputes.” 

Credit: iStockPhoto

No wonder rates of major depression and suicide are rising among girls. Equally terrifying, three times as many 10- to 14-year-old girls were admitted to emergency rooms for self-harm in 2015 as in 2010. 

Teens must know how to decode media

The ability to critically assess media of all kinds is an indispensable life skill for teen girls — as vital to growing up as learning to make healthy, self-empowering decisions about friends, alcohol, drugs, sex, and sexuality. 

All of this is integral to the About-Face mission and it’s embedded in everything we do. In my next blog post, I’ll walk you through some of the biggest myths about 21st-century girls I’ve encountered among teens, parents, educators, and allies…and I’ll lay out the hard, cold realities. 

Stay tuned for Part 2! Meanwhile, share your favorite myth, your observations about what girls today need, or anything else in the comments below.

Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director of About-Face.

* About-Face welcomes and includes gender-expansive youth. To us, “girls” means self-identified girls, trans girls, gender-expansive youth, gender non-conforming, and non-binary youth.

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