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!