The Power and Impact of Gender-Specific Media Literacy

“Fifty-seven percent of girls and 59 percent of boys say the female characters in the television shows they watch are “better looking” than the women and girls they know in real life…Seven out of ten (69%) say they have wanted to look like, dress, or fix their hair like a character(s) on television…Both girls (62%) and boys (58%) say the female characters they see on television usually rely on someone else to solve their problems, whereas male characters tend to solve their own problems.”(1)
For many, this is not new news. We know that media emphasizes stereotypes and gender roles. But in the youth media field, we don’t always account for how girls, specifically young girls, are bombarded with images of women as powerless, passive victims noted primarily for their bodies and sex rather than their minds and capabilities.
Youth media organizations that focus on girls have seen the positive effects of gender-specific media literacy training—it changes girls’ relationships to themselves, their bodies, and each other. However, these organizations’ effects are limited unless the field as a whole takes to heart the impact of media on girls. Until then, youth will continue to re-create harmful stereotypes in their own media—they might say they do not identify with say, a tall, blond model, yet she continues to show up in their films. It is up to the field as a whole to help students critique media, avoid stereotypes, and act out new identities.
Why Girls?
Gender stereotypes are a part of our daily lives. From bus stops, billboards, schools, work, even bathrooms, youth are constantly absorbing messages that media throws at them. “Studies estimate that, counting all the logos, labels and announcements, some 16,000 ads flicker across an individual’s consciousness daily.”(2) Girls as passive, boys as active, boys with trucks and super heroes, girls with Barbies, dollhouses and kitchens: constantly interpreting these social messages, youth are trying to fit into the stereotypical gender messages showing traditional roles of men and women.
To avoid the inundation of images we protect ourselves by avoiding the flood of information and moving into a state of automaticity. The problem with this is the conditioning that occurs while our minds are on autopilot. “The media condition us to habitual exposure patterns to the messages they want exposure for. This increases the risk that we will miss many of the messages that might have value for us [and] accept [without challenging] the meaning they present.”(3)
Sadly, the constant exposure of sexualization, objectification and images of gender stereotypes directly contribute to girls’ lack of self- and body-confidence, as well as depression and eating disorders. As a result, girls who do explore media tools often use these to mimic overt sexualization, sending or posting videos/images of themselves to a predominantly male audience. In effect, the behavior reinforces this harmful gender role stereotype.
Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the APA Task Force and associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz says it well: “We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.”(4) The persuasive influences of the media have been linked to negative health outcomes, such as eating disorders and poor body image, anxiety, and violence.
The images in the media are powerful and pervasive. As a Reel Grrl producers shares, “I know that I shouldn’t compare myself with women in magazines or on TV, but it’s hard not to. They make me feel ugly.”(5) As a field, we cannot ignore the role media plays on girls’ lack of confidence and poor self-esteem.
So what can youth media programs do? Youth media practitioners need to incorporate creative ways to encourage thinking beyond socialized gender norms. Girls, especially, must be given a space to critically explore and use media tools to break down the roots of stereotypes and gender role-play. If we do not provide the tools necessary for critical examination of these norms and a space for young people to create different messages and alternate identities in media-making, our efforts to support youth media will be incomplete.
We need to evaluate where girls see themselves and how media reflects those ideals. Do they support or repress them? How can girls create their own messages to accurately reflect and support how they feel, act, and aspire to be?
Through girl-specific media literacy, an analysis of images and critical discussions, girls take the power from media to define them and put it into their own hands. Through girl-specific youth media programs, the media that girls use and create are instrumental to their developing sense of themselves, the world, and of how and who they should be.
Breaking Out of the Mold
“The influence of the camera is huge. And to be able to just take that and make your own message, I think, has really proven something to me,” says the producer of the Reel Grrls film The Wall of Shame.(6) This powerful film challenges teenage girls to talk back to the mainstream advertisers and their demeaning images of women. Girls pull ads from magazines, write on them and critique their messages. This offers a way to recognize their objectification, sexual exploitation and gender stereotypes.
The film explains and questions, “Every day we are bombarded with thousands of advertisements. But what exactly are the advertisers trying to sell us? Are they simply trying to sell a product or is the product inconsequential and the real objective is to sell us a mindset that would make us, the public, more eager consumers?” Looking at existing media, the girls in the film talk about how they feel about themselves in relation to what they are (or are not) seeing. “We are able to recognize the kind of images that we feel like we are supposed to be like but we know we don’t have to be.”(7) Making the connections between social issues and how media perpetuates them helps girls to not just receive these messages—working to take them apart and critique them in a very poignant way, they are able to choose how they see them. To see the film, go to:
Girl-Specific Youth Media
Girl-specific youth media programs like TVbyGIRLS, Reel Grrls, and Beyondmedia Education, provide gender-focused media literacy education. Their overarching missions are creating stories and messages that show creative, compassionate, involved and thinking girls and women. They provide mentoring and leadership programs that use the tools of media and analysis to combat the defeating and limiting messages young people receive everyday.
In these girl-specific programs, girls:
• Explore how visual images evoke emotions and become the visual vocabulary for their unique storytelling.
• Support one another in collaborative working models and in individual leadership styles, and develop more confidence to share their ideas and be open to different ways of thinking.
• Create film projects that use a strong intellectual inquiry and share their authentic stories with their peers, families and communities.
• Receive individualized mentoring relationships with women media professionals. TVbyGIRLS encourages the development of self-expression and critical thinking.
Reel Grrls
• Watch popular TV shows, PSAs and commercials, then fill out critique forms. The forms ask participants to notice technical effects, as well as what message the media is trying to get out, who the message is aimed at and whether the message is effective. These are things they ask girls to think about and write down before coming up with their own project ideas.
• Understand the “language of media”: Types of shots, rules of framing and shot composition. They highlight these rules by letting youth shoot and then looking at the footage together.
• Analyze ads in magazines that are interesting/upsetting to them and come up with questions based on those ads. They then conduct street interviews with people using the ad, asking the same questions.
Beyondmedia Education
• Use images that are inclusive, realistically depicting the diversity of women in the world.
• Understand the role of art in the world as presenting the broadest range of images, such that each person has the opportunity to see her or his reflection somewhere in that mirror.
• Strive to break down boundaries that are maintained through so-called “professional standards” controlling expression and containing resistance.
These organizations are girl specific; however, the activities and technical exercises can be directly adapted for non-girl specific organizations as well. In fact, it is encouraged, as the effects of these programs have been profound.
Mentors and parents, for example, see more confidence, leadership, and critical thinking in the girls. There is a shift in how girls see themselves as well as the world around them. “My daughter’s level of self-confidence shot up after being in the program. To have your child experience personal growth, that’s what stands out strongest about what the program offers.” –Reel Grrls parent.
Youth producers from these organizations report that: “Reel Grrls gave me the ground to stand on and know myself for the first time as a real filmmaker. And I haven’t wavered a bit.” -RG grad, who has just finished film school and completed her first feature.
Maddy from TVbyGirls says, “I think the importance of TVbyGirls is that we make films in such a different style that people really stop and pay attention. We don’t blend in as just another voice saying, “Do this, do that.”
Likewise, Annie from TVbyGirls explains, “I’ve become so much more aware of the importance of youth voice, especially girls’ voices, and how we can have an impact using the media. I love that we can tell real stories and open people’s eyes.”
In short, when youth are media literate they are more capable of steering through the media world and embracing and building the life they want, rather than letting the media create the life they want for them.
Suggestions for the Field
As youth media educators we have a responsibility to discuss the power and impact of our creations and how they inform viewers. Media educators, male and female, need to provide media literacy curriculum that makes young people aware of how gender norms, stereotypes, and sexualization impacts girls and young women. Regardless of mission or youth focus, youth media organizations can:
• Offer gender-specific youth media literacy programming. Organizations like MediaWatch offer lectures, videos and links to further media literacy resources. In addition, JUST THINK and the Center for Media Literacy offer curriculum and free hand outs.
• Attend a gender-studies or gender-focused media literacy class through a local youth network or university. Invite a graduate student in this field or a speaker to help the staff develop gender-specific media literacy skills.
• Start a Media Literacy Group. Gather interested people monthly and discuss best practices, share a media literacy reading list and report and discuss current events.
• Ask youth to think not only about the images they’re using in their work, but how they’re representing themselves—their family, race, town, and gender. Encourage them to take responsibility for their work and to be resourceful in how they’re portraying their characters, each other and themselves.
Deconstructing media messages reveals a valuable link between sexism, gender stereotyping and maintaining the male-dominant status quo. The ultimate step is to use young people’s root awareness of media messages to encourage and support youth media that more closely resembles young people’s reality than idealized, received, or constructed images. The more people who make media that debunks stereotypical norms, the more likely those norms will change.
Rebecca Richards Bullen is the associate director of TVbyGIRLS. Formerly a coordinator and producer with Twin Cities Public Television, she has over 15 years of production experience. Rebecca has been a media and leadership mentor for more than 7 years. A current steering committee member for the Twin Cities Youth Media Network, she is dedicated to expanding the access to authentic and diverse stories by youth, especially girls. She is also the proud mother of 2 terrific children and expecting a third in November.
(1) Reflections of Girls in the Media: A Content Analysis Across Six Media and a National Survey of Children. Conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now.
(2) The Bribed Soul: Ads, TV and American Culture. How advertising transforms both our experience and identity into a “sponsored life.” By Leslie Savan.
(3) Media Literacy, third edition. W. James Potter, pg. 13.
(4) APA Press Release February 19, 2007: Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Executive Summary.
(5) Reel Grrl participant.
(6) Reel Grrls, “Wall of Shame” video.
(7) Reel Grrls, “Wall of Shame” video.

Highlighting Girls in Youth Media

When I was a producer/director at the Twin Cities Public Television, I had the unique opportunity to be the birth coach for one of my best friends. As I held this baby girl in the first few minutes of life, I was struck by how hard it is to grow up female.
Although half our population are girls and women, less than one quarter of them are in positions to make major decisions. That seems odd. Or maybe not, if you understand how rarely girls are supported to share their perspective.
And I realized a big part of that was the industry I worked in.
Knowing the power of media to shape the public’s cultural perceptions with stories and images, I thought that media could be used to help girls’ asset development. When I pitched this angle to my boss, he claimed that no one cared about girls (ironically, at the time he had an eleven-year-old daughter). TVbyGIRLS was created that morning.
Like many of our girl-specific youth media peers—such as Reel Grrls, BeyondMedia, Rock and Roll Camps for Girls, Teen Voices, Girls Write Now, and Khmer Girls in Action—TVbyGIRLS recognizes that the unique psychological development of adolescent girls flourishes in gender-specific media programs.
Every youth media program can provide a program that has a focus on girls. Working with an awareness of girls’ development, we can help teenage girls construct images and stories that empower them and add diversity to the media landscape.
The Psychological Development of Girls in Adolescence
In adolescence, girls make a transition from literal thinking to abstract, metaphorical thinking and they begin to place a deep importance on fitting in and belonging outside of their families. Carol Gilligan, professor of psychology at Harvard University and the NYU School of Law, wrote the first comprehensive study of adolescent girls, Making Connections, in 1990. She shares that girls reach a critical juncture at around age 12, when fitting in and building relationships becomes more crucial than her independent ideas.
For example, Leah, a 13-year-old producer at TVbyGIRLS, explains a scenario of mixed gender projects in schools: “Everyone will have different ideas and if a girl has an idea, the boys will just sort of withdraw. They’ll let her do her idea but they won’t be much help or engage much. [However,] if a boy has an idea, the girl will drop her idea and work real hard to make his idea work. You might be disappointed at first but you learn real fast that to fit in, you don’t push your ideas.”
Too often, the message girls receive is boys have ideas and girls follow through to make these ideas happen. Sounds like any movie, sit-com or commercial you see any day—a paradigm of gender that we instinctively play out. Girls usually lose in this equation, surrendering their ideas for the rewards of fitting in.
Youth media educators need to be aware that girls often silence their ideas in exchange for belonging and need support to share their stories, pitch their suggestions, and have equal footing with their male counterparts. If educators are more informed of gender dynamics, they can quickly identify opportunities to engage students, both individually and as a group.
As practitioners in youth media, we have the opportunity to support the long-term development of girls.
Collaboration and Leadership
What I’ve seen work at girl-specific organizations is educators consistently encouraging young women to collaborate and co-create; specifically, to share leadership roles within a working group. This is about shifting the paradigm. Instead of surrendering to fit in, girls experience that this environment is about having ideas and sharing them to fit in—a perspective she carries into the other components of her life.
To begin teaching collaboration skills, educators need to make clear what collaboration means—that it is not a watered down version of a good idea but a process by which good ideas build into better ideas and richer intellectual thought. This is an active co-creative process that brings into play different skills and interests and gives the team a sense of ownership and commitment. This is the leadership model needed for the 21st century—a way of working in which diverse points of view can be harnessed into collaborative, fully realized partnerships for solutions. Youth media programs can help girls lead the way.
Girls need opportunities to see how their work—or final product—connects with others and how making a media project can have an impact. It is very important that girls experience how their points of view matter in a larger context than their small support group. From TVbyGIRLS, we recommend screenings of girl-specific work and engaging girl-led discussions with an audience to seal young women’s awareness of the power of their unique voices. The result of having a collaborative and leadership experience is likely to afford girls continued expectations for leadership skills and sharing inside and outside youth media organizations.
A TVbyGIRLS Suggestion to the Field
At TVbyGIRLS, we have a project that can help start girls on this road to leadership and voice. We call it the “Challenge Piece,” and it is designed to help girls use the power of visual thinking to communicate emotions in storytelling. This process utilizes adolescent girls’ refined skills of relationship building and connection.
• First, we encourage girls to look at images or photographs and ask them, before intellectually processing the question, simply answering “what do you feel when you look at this.” We ask girls to work in pairs with others they do not know well. We explain the idea of images evoking emotions and their use as visual metaphors in storytelling.
• Second, we ask girls to share a challenge they have and to listen to each other carefully. The goal is to understand what their partners are feeling without giving advice.
• Each girl is then asked to make a 1-minute piece that authentically and compassionately reflects her partner’s challenge. Her instructions are to list the emotions she heard her partner evoke and what visual metaphors communicate these emotions. Girls plan, shoot, edit and finish the 1-minute piece within 2-3 weeks.
• Girls work with an adult mentor to help clarify and shape the idea (of course, with her taking the lead).
When all the 1-minute videos are completed, girls share their pieces and the processes/intentions in a mentor-guided conversation. As a result, the media makers see their ability to connect and create while featured girls feel their perspectives/challenges were heard, understood, and recognized. Both the story-teller and the creator decide if they want to share the film with an outside audience to continue the dialogue.
Next Steps
If youth media organizations can highlight girls’ developmental skills with gender specific programs, we can help girls construct images and stories that reveal their unique voices. As youth media organizations nurture and share girls’ work, we are able to influence the mainstream media idea of gender roles, which impact all of us within and outside of the field. As a girl sees her work in public, she becomes more powerful, her perspectives matter, and the effect ripples throughout her life and society. All youth media programs can help expand girls’ leadership and experience of cultivating and showcasing their ideas. We have an opportunity to develop half the world’s population—where girls lead the way.
Barbara Wiener is the founder and executive director of TVbyGIRLS. She works directly mentoring and teaching girls and developing curriculum. Barbara is also an award winning documentary filmmaker and brings a 30-year career in arts and media to her work with girls and women.
Gilligan, Carol, Nona P. Lyons and Trudy J. Hanmer (1990). Making Connections, the relational worlds of adolescent girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge: MA. Harvard University Press.