Does television reflect society or does society reflect television?
That's right girls, turn it off.
Thoughts on this question, late at night
It is an ongoing debate; does television (and other media) reflect society or does society reflect the influence of television? It’s one of those circular questions, like the old chicken and egg, that seems so obvious in answer, until you stop to think about it.
Why, you wonder, am I pondering it? Why am I writing about it? (When I should be doing something else, it’s true.) I’ll be happy to share that answer. During one of my many coffee breaks today, I took the time to read pgrundy’s excellent and much anticipated article “Bimbo bashing and other inglorious sports.” It was indeed thought provoking, but no more so than some of the comments. One in particular caught my attention and sparked another inconvenient train of thought. (I am never going to get these rewrites done.)
I hope the author doesn’t mind my using it here. Well, you did post it in a public place for all to see, but I’ll take your name off.
“I'm sorry, but the media did not create this phenomenon. It can be faulted for not giving critical insight, which used to be the media's gift to us. But what it does with women is simply a reflection of a culture-wide bias which, the words of a few of you notwithstanding, is shared by women as well as men. In my household, the women are more absorbed by the Victoria Secret commercials than even the men.”
Let’s leave the reference to Victoria’s Secret for now – although it does bring up a point I’ll come to later – the enshrining of the nubile (pre-baby) female form as representative of universal sexuality, and exploited as such.
It is the first statement that deserves further examination. Is it true?
Is the media the follower, the mirror-image of the society we live in? Once upon a time, it may have been. I had to do a lot of remembering. What were television’s influences on my youth?
In my elementary school days, I passed the time watching good old Sheriff Andy in Mayberry, which could have been the town I lived in, except for the accents and lack of snow. Aunt Bea looked and acted just like my Aunt Marge. I could truly relate to that one. Then there were shows that even as a young child I knew couldn’t possibly be real: Father Knows Best and Donna Reid – too perfect, too clean, and too preachy. Who does housework in a full skirted dress, high heels and pearl earrings anyway?
A few years went by and the faces I watched changed.
I loved the Beverly Hillbillies, and never questioned why Ellie Mae was so scantily dressed and clueless. At least she wasn’t as dumb as Jethro, who to my adolescent eyes more than made up for the lack with other attributes. (She would have been a bimba and he a bimbo, to quote another very clever comment found on the same hub.)
I’ll admit to the wearing of equally short cut-offs that summer – at least when my mother wasn’t around. Would my twelve-year-old mind have conceived of the idea without Ellie Mae’s example? Probably not. Nor would I have dared.
By the age of thirteen, I was a true fan of Star Trek. Again, I didn’t question why it was that women had to fly into outer-space in dresses that barely covered their fannies, worn with up-to-the-knee black leather boots. I accepted it, and my own skirts rode higher.
My father liked crime and legal dramas, and in those days, the few women represented, always as secretaries and receptionists, wore severely businesslike attire. I remember an episode where Perry Mason chastised a woman client for not wearing a girdle – which would definitely give the jury an altogether seamy impression of her morals. I didn’t question why women were only support staff, and had to cram their bodies into uncomfortable undergarments.
My mother presented me with a girdle when I was thirteen, with the order “You don’t go out without it.” I did go out without it. I hated the thing and at the age of thirteen, who could tell? However, message received -- in duplicate -- from Mum and Perry Mason.
The commercial content was also different. Some commodities, like menstrual equipment or women’s undergarments didn’t exist, according to the airwaves. What I remember most from commercials in those days would be a woman, dressed very nicely under the circumstances, not able to clean her house to some unattainable standard, and this man showed up with just the right product and instructed her on how to perform her domestic duties properly.
If I added up all the messages I received from the media in my formative years, they’d run like this: A girl can grow up to be a nurse, not a doctor; a school teacher but not a professor; a secretary but not a lawyer; never a police officer (but for the occasional police matron who looked like a refrigerator in sensible shoes and was mean) or a firefighter; certainly not an astronaut (but even if she did she’d wear skimpy clothes.) Women are to be well-groomed, made up and bejeweled at all times and that included all the uncomfortable under-riggings that made sure her flesh didn’t jiggle. Women came in two forms – good girls who married, and marry they must to men who instruct them in life, cleaned their houses all the time, cooked three heavy meals a day for their families, didn’t work outside of the home, and were usually blonde – and bad girls, who didn’t wear girdles, partied, chewed gum with an audible snap, were unabashed about runs in their nylons, smoked, were usually brunette and ended up needing Perry Mason.
If it all sounds distorted – it was, but what twelve or thirteen-year-old girl gets the whole picture. In all honesty, this was life for women as absorbed from the media by girls of that age and time. I know it wasn’t only me thus influenced. This is a discussion I’ve had with many women of my age.
Was it a true reflection of society at the time? No. Many women went to work, and our neighbor was a female doctor. Another taught at the local college. Still another was a renowned paleontologist. I knew women on ranches who spent all day working beside their male partners, and then came home to make dinner while he “took it easy.” None of them lived by the roles as portrayed by the television, not in attitude, and certainly not in dress and appearance. Somehow, though, the electronic messages were the stronger ones, the ones we ate up, that left us desperate to break out and at the same time, afraid we weren’t normal.
The sixties came along, and for me, fifteen in 1968, that wonderfully bizarre year, everything changed. Then I no longer wanted to be a ‘good’ girl – and if that meant I was headed for ruin, so be it. But it took a lot of work to unravel all this programming, and I still feel the after-effects.
So, I applied my remembrances and theories to the girls of today, and to the media of today. And again, I ask, is the media merely a reflection of society’s true state?
What does a girl see when she turns on the television? Many things have changed. Women are portrayed in all roles in society, which is good, but along with their professional success, they must above all be glamorous and sexy, which is not good.
Sometimes it’s almost funny. My granddaughter, who loves to watch TV, didn’t pick up on it until I pointed it out. She was watching CSI, and commented, “Nana, see the women here are equal to the man – you’re wrong.”
“But haven’t you noticed that all of them look and dress like pole-dancers?” I asked. “Even the police officers are walking around with their tits hanging out, and pants that look like they’re painted on. And the coroner – look at her. She’s dressed like she works over at the Emerald City Gentlemen’s Club. Do you honestly think this is how real women in these professions look?”
After her show, when I wanted to take her out for dinner, she went to change and came back dressed just like them. She’s a cute girl, with a nice figure, but in a tee-shirt that showed not only a third of her breasts but her belly button, and pants that barely covered her pubic area, too tight and not at all flattering considering the roll of baby-fat above them, she looked ready to turn tricks on the seamy side of Highway 41.
“It’s the fashion,” she grumped, seeing my displeasure.
“Says who?” I asked, knowing her father, were he here with us, would never let her out of the house dressed like that.
I didn’t argue, but vowed we’d discuss “everyone” over dinner. Once inside the restaurant, I looked around. There were a number of girls out with parents, some older girls out on dates, and many women of various ages. Aside from a few daring décolletages, everyone’s clothes covered their bodies.
Quite a few shot less than admiring glances at my sweet baby girl, and by the flush on her face when we seated; I knew she’d realized she’d misjudged the situation. I watched as she fidgeted with her napkin, trying to cover herself, and took pity on her. I slipped off my light jacket and handed it to her.
Embarrassed tears filled her eyes. “I thought everyone dressed like this here in Florida.”
“What made you think that?”
“It’s what you see on TV.”
Not only did I raise my own daughters, but I parented a series of foster daughters over the years and I’ve watched them as they try to emulate what they think is society’s norm as fed to them by that electronic pimp. I’ve seen them diet to stick-thin proportions after watching Calista Flockhart, dress like tarts because they so loved Madonna (or whoever it is flaunting their flesh on videos now), spend all their money on labeled clothes just like Beverly Hills 90210, speak like idiots from The Valley, and talk of implants and lipo-suction after some hideous reality show based on plastic surgery. They do it to feel normal.
They are led. Television does not reflect our reality – it makes it.
Young girls are so very sensitive and unsure of themselves. They wake up one day, look in the mirror and ask, “Whose body is this? It doesn’t feel like mine anymore. And is it good enough? Am I normal? Do I fit in? Or am I the freak I feel I am?”
They look to the media for guidance, because as every parent knows, at a certain age Mum and Dad know nothing. And what do we give them?
Isn’t that gorgeous DA, going to court in a tight black suit with a red teddy peeking out about as realistic as Donna Reid prancing around her immaculate house dressed for a White House reception? Little girls of eleven or twelve parade across the screen as sexualized parodies of fashion dolls. Women in positions of power and prestige are portrayed as slightly aging beauty queens, not intelligent, regular, women-down-the-street. How does a girl cope?
Now I’m ready to come back to the Victoria’s Secret thing. I’d be willing to bet that while the men are ogling the parade of perfect bodies, the women are looking at the lingerie and thinking, would I measure up in that? The hidden message is buy this and you too will look as sexy as me. Strange how sex has degenerated into a ‘look’, don’t you think? It would seem to me that as long as we worry about how we look, sexually speaking, we’re not free to feel, and I thought that was what it was all about.
The nubile female body is now enshrined as the universal symbol of sexuality, so of course it has come to be as compelling to women as to men, but for entirely different reasons.
It is the media that has led us here, no doubt – no doubt at all.
What adds particular insult to this injury is that the men can look like anything at all. Picture Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy on Law and Order, a gifted and compelling actor no doubt – but handsome? No, I don’t think so. And yet over the years we’ve seen a bevy of stunning women pass through his office as his assistants, all learning their law and tactics from this ordinary looking man. Not a plain one in the bunch – a situation I’ve heard wryly described as “eruditing to a high-fashion model.”
Picture David Caruso strutting about the gaggle of almost-bare-breasted, beautiful women supposed to be police officers, scientists and lawyers on CSI Miami. Is he a hunk? Not in my books. (In fact, he looks suspiciously like my grade seven English teacher.)
There are so many examples, but I’ll stop here. It’s unfortunate, but the media’s lesson has been learned far too well in our society.
Some time ago, doing some research, I interviewed men recently released from prison. One of them had enjoyed a correspondence with a woman for years while in prison, but had rejected her once they met.
“She was a dog,” he said, showing me her picture. She was an ordinary looking woman, reasonably attractive, but no show-stopper to be sure.
I looked at this overweight, butt-crack displaying, bald, saggy-faced loser who after a decade in prison felt that he too, was entitled to a gorgeous thing on his arm. After ten years spent where the only women he saw were those on television, I suppose his expectations probably were a little skewed. Before I could stop myself, my temper took over and I snapped, “Have you looked in a mirror lately? What makes you think you’re a ten?”
Yes, the media has much to answer for, I believe. It does not reflect our society other than in the most distorted manner, pandering to our basest fantasies. No sir, Mr. Comment-Writer, I disagree with you. The media has created this phenomenon. We have reached the age of life imitating art, not vice verso, where the appearance of things outweighs the content.
I imagine we’ll get the leaders we deserve in this media age.
It is important that we point out the “bimbos” of the airwaves – for the benefit of our girls, so that they don’t buy into it, any more than they already have. I believe the term is calling a spade a spade.
More by this Author
What's it like to homeless? This homeless, working couple talks about their lives.
In 30 years as an outreach worker helping abused children, I've never once interviewed a single perpetrator. I decided to rectify that, and with the help of local law enforcement, set out to interview four convicted...
Recently a New York Times editor asked if it was a reporter's job to challenge dubious assertions made by newsmakers they write about. You mean they don't already? Eegads -- silly man, the answer is YES.