I have watched in awe this week as women from all walks of life have demanded via #MeToo and in other ways that the culture of sexual harassment and abuse in this country be abolished. From what I can tell, there isn’t a single female I know that hasn’t at some point been ogled, catcalled, propositioned, touched, grabbed, pressured, raped, fondled or otherwise harassed, abused, or assaulted. And I wish I could make everything okay. I wish I could make it all go away. I wish we could magically change the culture that has for so long perpetuated an environment in which such behavior is acceptable. But that’s the thing about culture. It is by definition a long-term, socially agreed-upon way of life. So, in thinking about how to change the dragon that is this culture, we could attack the arms and the legs of the dragon. We could stab at its eyes and ears. Or, we could attack the very heart of this ugly monster. And based on my research, the heart is the media.
Nothing galvanizes a culture like media. Media creates culture. Media maintains culture. Television is where we go to get messages about culture. It socializes us. And our collective responses to media messages determine what behavior is okay and what isn’t.
Rightfully so, women have used media this week to accomplish much good. Obviously, then, media isn’t inherently bad. So, when I talk of media I’m referring to entertainment media, and specifically, the television and movie content that is made simply to entertain us. According to research I compiled and cited as part of writing Media Maze, here’s why such content is at least partly to blame:
- The average American child views approximately 10,000 murders, rapes, and aggravated assaults per year on TV. This means that assuming children wait to start watching TV until around age two (as the AAP recommends), by the time they are teenagers they will have witnessed more than 100,000 murders, rapes, and aggravated assaults on TV.
- Research shows that exposure to certain portrayals of sex in the media is related to (1) the belief that men are driven by sex (2) and the belief that women are sex objects.
- Research show that pornography is now a mainstream part of life for many Americans. And pornography use is related to a host of outcomes related to what we’re talking about today, including (see Media Maze p. 47):
- Rape myth acceptance (such as the belief that women who dress a certain way are “asking for it,” and the belief that women can prevent themselves from being raped)
- Acceptance of male dominance and female subordination
- Less progressive gender roles
- Perpetration of sexual harassment
- Attitudes supporting violence against women
- The notion that women are sex objects
In other words, the more mainstream media we consume, the more we hear and buy into a culture of sexual harassment, of victim blaming, and of male dominance, because that is the precise message that media sends!
Now, there will be those who disagree with me and will tell you that media has no effect. But beware of these people, because they may be the same people who use media to objectify women for their own gratification. If we think we’re immune to the media’s effect on our attitudes toward women, we’re deceiving ourselves. Every one of us has been affected. Can a fish not breath the water it lives in?
So, what do we do about this? How can we slay the heart of this ugly culture dragon? Here’s the thing about media. Media is driven by ratings. Shows are cancelled every season due to low ratings. Movies are withdrawn from theaters because seats are empty. I read just the other day that NFL TV ratings are down 7.5% through the first six weeks of the season compared to last year. These statistics have prompted meetings between players and owners about the socially significant issues that appear to be driving the ratings slide. In other words, what we choose to watch on TV can grab the attention of the power brokers and make a difference in driving social change.
Here’s what I’m proposing then. Whenever we see something, anything, that suggests that harassing or assaulting or pressuring a woman in any way is okay, turn the TV off. Walk out of the movie. Show our disgust with the way our culture is defined with our time and with our wallet. And on the other hand, let’s use media to spread messages of empowerment. Of women who share their stories of harassment and abuse. Let’s flood the world with the message that treatment of women, or of anybody for that matter, in these ways is unequivocally unacceptable.
I realize that I may be dreaming big here. And maybe only a few people will read this message and make such a commitment to culture change. If that’s the case, so be it. At the very least, it will make a difference in our lives and in the lives of our own children. And maybe changing the culture in one family here, and one family there, will be enough to change the world for some.
And that’s better than sitting around doing nothing.