Monthly Archives: January 2012

What Kind of Film Do You Want to Be In? Combatting Media Brainwashing

Lynne Murray says:

Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those horror films where the entire population is increasingly infected by an incurable Body Hating Zombie Virus. Only instead of eating other people’s brains this sickness forces one to eat one’s own and pay for the privilege.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s film,Miss Representation, and the website/movement that goes with it, aim at a different goal for women: not purchasing power, but real power. The goal is to bring women together in dialogue, action and mentoring to break the advertising trance and redirect women’s energy away from buying the message and the products–and into running the store, and running for public office.

Miss Representation … exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. The film challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.

In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades,, the site points out, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.

On getting to the website, a visitor is immediately offered the opportunity to sign a pledge “to challenge the media’s limiting portrayal of women and girls.” I did this, got on their mailing list, and begin to receive weekly ideas of “actions you can take immediately to make a difference…” For example:

…Remember your actions influence others. Mothers, aunts and loved ones- don’t downgrade or judge yourself by your looks. Fathers, uncles and loved ones—treat women around you with respect. Remember children in your life are watching and learning from you.

…Use your consumer power. Stop buying tabloid magazines and watching shows that degrade women. Go see movies that are written and directed by women (especially on opening weekend to boost the box office ratings). Avoid products that resort to sexism in their advertising.
…Mentor others! It’s as easy as taking a young woman to lunch. Start by having open and honest conversations with a young person in your life.

When I first planned to write about Miss Representation , someone pointed out that it seemed similar to Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly so I checked that out. It’s available in segments on YouTube

Miss Representation, as a film and as a nudge toward collective action, stands on the shoulders of Kilbourne’s pioneering work on media brainwashing. These films have some equally activist siblings, all of them addressing the insidious invisibility of the advertisers’ message. Kilbourne points it out clearly in the fourth revision of Killing Us Softly:

Advertising is more sophisticated and more influential than ever before but still just about everyone feels personally exempt from the influence of advertising.

I asked the first four people I spoke to after hearing this, and all of them confirmed her observation, saying they were not much influenced by ads because they seldom or never watch television.

Kilborne counters this mindset by listing some of the innumerable, half-invisible entry points through which ads can infect your mind:

The average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every single day…. The ads, as you know, are everywhere. Our schools, the sides of buildings, sports stadiums, billboards, bus stops, busses themselves, cars, elevators, doctors’ offices, airplanes, even on food items like eggs. Almost every aspect of popular culture is really about marketing. (Killing Us Softly 4, part 1 of 2 on YouTube)

Watching Kilbourne’s YouTube slide show, I suddenly realized I had bought and read her paperback book a few years earlier. Seeing the ads in video format brought home to me how much more intense the film medium can be.

Images from film versions of books stick in our mind even when we reread the books. Harry Potter will always resemble Daniel Radcliffe in our minds. Even a documentary film is simplified and streamlined compared to a book; the visual nature of images and movies bypasses the forebrain and goes directly for the gut.

Advertisers know this better than anyone. The cultural goals that have been carved out for women in particular have sneaked into our brains and become an abnormal “normal” that needs to constantly be questioned.

Author Amy Ahlers expresses frustration at how advertising’s toxic self-assessments creep into our minds and color our self-worth in her essay “Big Fat Lies Women Tell Themselves: Ditch Your Inner Critic and Wake Up Your Inner Superstar”:

Studies show that only 8 percent of the images we consume are registered by our conscious mind. That means that 92 percent of the airbrushed, stick-thin, perfectly proportioned images infiltrate our subconscious minds, influencing the way we feel about ourselves. It’s an onslaught of insanity: all these unattainable bodies put before us as an ideal to strive for. As the supermodel Cindy Crawford once said when looking at her airbrushed, Photoshopped pictures, “I don’t even look like Cindy Crawford.”

We need to consciously work to win back our thoughts about how we are supposed to look. We need to overcome the Big Fat Lies about our bodies and our self-care. We need to tune in to our Inner Wisdom on a deep level and to practice, practice, practice, so that we can model a healthy relationship with ourselves.

It is refreshing to see independent and dedicated filmmakers fighting back.

One such is Darryl Roberts, whose America the Beautiful, targeting the unwholesome “beauty” standards Debbie reviewed in Body Impolitic in 2009.

Roberts aimed his cameras at the now $65 billion weight loss industry in a follow-up America the Beautiful 2, The Thin Commandments,

The Australian feminist group Collective Shout, which I wrote about here last year, is also aiming to raise awareness of the toxic and dangerous definitions being forced down our throats, and of course there are dozens (if not hundreds) of others.

Each group’s focus is slightly different, but they are all trying to help us shake free of the hypnotic media-induced trance and each invites to examine the advertising industry’s vision of womanhood:

Kilbourne remarks,

The ads decrees that women should be polished, perfect indeed flawless. She has no blemishes, indeed, she has no pores.” Such a woman also need not concern herself with ideas, as she is made to be seen and not heard. Her mission is to devote most of her energy into the quest for an unnatural, truly impossible beauty standard, which will supposedly result in the heavens opening up and showering her with all that she desires.

Sadly, the hook that the advertisers are setting is baited with an almost real, physiologically based experience of power that many people have, briefly, during their prime reproductive years, when nature heightens every hormone in humans to ensure the continuation of the species. The myth advertisers are selling is that this attractiveness can be captured, distilled and sold as a product and used to help the consumer stay young, powerful and vital.

Also highly disturbing is the advertisers’ use of shocking images to grab attention in this morass of advertising, particularly of shocking violence toward women. The advertiser’s “normal” world, where “all the women are flawless and men are Alpha” is also one where battering, gang rape and stalking are presented as appealing courtship modes.

Newsom, Kilbourne, Roberts, Collective Shout, and their allies are engaged in a fight to wake all of us up from the consumer ad dream/nightmare and energize our lives for real. It can benefit every one of us.

Sometimes I wake up from the Body Hating Zombie Virus film and get the much more positive feeling that I’m in one of those sci-fi movies where we’ve managed to contact The Resistance and there is still hope to save the planet. May the Force for Self-Empowerment be with you!

Filament interview with Laurie

Laurie says:

As I posted earlier, Filament magazine did an interview with me in their last issue. They are an English feminist erotic magazine that called itself the thinking woman’s crumpet. The questions were excellent and they chose a really good selection of the photos from “Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes.” The editor Suraya Sidhu Singh was a pleasure to work with.


This is part of the interview:

In a world where beauty is portrayed almost exclusively as young, thin, white women, photographer Laurie Toby Edison works to reveal the beauty of people of all sizes, ages and ethnicities. Interview questions by Jacqueline Dunkley-Insight and Marta Owczarek.

• Tell us a little about how you got started in photography.

I had spent several years doing social change work on issues of body image – what was then called “fat liberation.” I was the token ‘thin’ woman on panels and at workshops where fat women discussed their social and political experience of being fat and we strategized about what could be changed and how. In working with these women, I realized that they were beautiful – and it was a kind of beauty that was almost never portrayed in the world we lived in. I literally became a photographer to portray this beauty. (I’d been an artist for years, but I had worked only in metal before.) I wanted my pictures of fat women to be fine art black and white photographs. I knew that high aesthetic quality would be essential to changing how people see. These portraits eventually became the “Women En Large” project, done in collaboration with my writing partner, Debbie Notkin.

• What inspired you to undertake the ‘Familiar Men’ project?

After completing “Women En Large,” I contemplated working with a wider variety of female nudes and realized that “Women En Large” was my artistic statement on the female nude. When I started to consider the male nude, I realized that, like fat female nudity, male nudity was unexplored and unrepresented except for a very few images of conventionally sexy men. I was immediately captured – I’m always pulled to work that is both artistically and intellectually challenging.

I wanted to do respectful nude portraits of real men, the ones in our lives, the men we see every day. They are largely invisible in a world where the dominant culture’s vision enforces a narrow stereotyped version of masculinity. An underlying theme of all my work is making the invisible visible. My goal was to photograph a wide and diverse group of men, of differing age, race, ethnicity, ability, class and size. Familiar Men continued my exploration and representation of the body and its images. And as with the Women En Large photographs, I knew that the aesthetic quality of the work would be crucial.

• How did you choose your ‘familiar men’?

When I see a person, I know whether or not I want to photograph them. I also see people differently at the beginning of a project than toward the end, because I have an aesthetic structure for the suite of photographs in my head. As the project develops, that structure evolves, and I know more about what’s needed.

I only photographed people to whom I could be introduced. I want the people I approach to have a context for me and the project. I needed both the greatest possible diversity and I knew I would have to work hard to get it. I also needed community feedback on Familiar Men. So, during the five years of the project, my collaborators (Debbie Notkin and Richard Dutcher) and I did a series of slide shows of the work in progress. We would talk about the work and ask people what they wanted to see and what was missing. Many of the models came from the slide show audiences or people they knew.

• Do you think women need or want their own porn or erotica, designed especially with women in mind?

I know that some women do. I think that the female erotic gaze differs from the male in many ways – although women, like men, vary greatly in in what arouses them. One example of a difference that I perceive is the intense focus on the penis in male erotica.

• Do you find your images sexual or erotic? Were there moments of erotic tension while shooting?

My images are portraits, and people are complex. I’m striving for as complete a sense of each person as I can portray. By definition, erotic and sexual images foreground at most one aspect of a person. Nudes do have a sensual quality, and I think that’s present in my work. What I want to show is an essential sense of who people are. I shoot in people’s chosen environments, frequently in their homes. I work with the models so that they can be as comfortable and relaxed in the moment as possible.This requires such a level of focus from me that, even if an erotic response were appropriate, I would have no emotional room for it.

• What sort of reactions did the men have upon seeing the resulting images? Did any of their reactions surprise you?

Being photographed by me is a process. I start with having coffee, showing the prospective model images of other people I’ve photographed and discussing the project. I explain early on that, as this is a fine-art project, the final image choices are mine. If someone is interested, I like to give them a month to think it over. This was a film-and-darkroom project, which affects both the timing and the kind of image(s) seen. Some time after the shoot, I show them the contact sheets (all the photos shot in small images) and then (frequently much later) my final photograph(s).

Many men were immediately delighted with the final image; some needed time to think and process. Most reacted very positively, and for some the image was revelatory. There were a few who, however much they may have appreciated the work, were not comfortable with their photographs.

I was not surprised by men’s final reactions, but I was surprised during the very early photography sessions because I had thought I understood how unused men were to being the object of “the gaze,” and how this would affect the sessions. I was wrong – I completely underestimated the issue. It takes far more work to make men comfortable with being photographed than women. One of the most effective tools I know for making people comfortable is to be silly in ways that make them laugh at me.

• Would you have chosen to do anything differently if you were creating ‘Familiar Men’ again?

I looked through the book before answering this question. I wouldn’t change anything important, but my eye and my work have moved on since I finished Familiar Men. I’ve changed aesthetic – I can always see differences and potential changes in previous work.

If you’re interested in getting the magazine, it’s available in these places including several in the US.