There’s a ‘madness’ in children’s media…..

Posted on: Monday 27 June 2011 11:23pm

You will hopefully have seen Francesca’s biog (see the post before this). Here’s her first blog for the CMC 2011.

This is for all content makers across all genres and platforms, as well as advertisers. Francesca says children’s media is riddled with a type of ‘madness.’ Are you guilty of it?

Francesca’s professional interest and passion is the relationship between girls’ identity and the media. Here she explains why, and just what this madness is.

I wouldn’t like to start my first blog with a rant about girls’ representation in the media, but this is something I can’t avoid doing: I am hoping that by reading this you‘ll be able to understand why I feel so passionately about this topic. 

The last twenty years have seen the debate around girls’ representation in the media (with so-called “sexualisation” on top of the list) receiving growing attention, with a plethora of books published addressing the problem of increased pressure on girls – as young as primary school – to fit into stereotypical and limited views of femininity.

In TV programs and adverts, girls are not only ridiculously underrepresented – the current ratio is about 3 to 1 in PG rated movies and TV programs, but in some cartoons it can reach 10 to 1- but they are also misrepresented: they are fashion, shopping or make-up addicts and most times they are looking for a boyfriend. The landscape for boys is not much broader: the model of “hegemonic masculinity” (power & violence, geniuses & heroes) is still evident in most programs and adverts I watch with my eight years old son.

I sadly realised why the majority of girls in my pilot study (7-8 years old) already have concerns about their bodies and look up to celebrities to re-define themselves in terms of outer beauty: they are simply responding to the monotonic flow of images currently populating the media, they‘ve already begun the process of “objectifying” their body – seeing themselves as an object to be looked at.

I looked up the research done so far. The main question was: “Why are so many 7-8-year-old girls concerned about their weight and their look?”

My first self-conscious feeling related to beauty started when I was about 13, although I cannot remember any negative feeling or real preoccupation until when I was about 14, right at the beginning of my puberty. So, now girls talk about watching their weight or “having the right body” (and about sexiness, beauty and dieting…) well before their bodies even started to change! Psychologists have confirmed how this preoccupation influences the way they see themselves and the way they interact with the world. Moreover, a lazy and highly “gender segregated approach” currently adopted by marketers is pushing girls and boys into prefabricated boxes of “what is good for girls” and “what is good for boys” (toys’ industry firstly – however, we all know how vital is their advertising for children’ channels, so this approach translates into fewer options for children in term of programs).

As a result both boys and girls are constantly restricted to act in a certain way, liking particular toys and activities (pets, make-up, fashion and beauty items) and avoid perhaps what they consider not appropriate for their gender. Of course, I agree that parents remain the primary reference point at this stage: their behaviour is still mostly based on imitating how their parents act.  On the other hand, let’s not forget that the media are a constant and powerful presence in their life: the images they see will increasingly form an idea in their mind of how the world works, what are the important things in life – and this is especially true where parents communication is lacking – children will start to model their behaviours and motivations on the base of what they see happening through the media.

I keep reading testimonials and watch videos of very young girls obsessing over their look and I can’t help biting my lips, thinking “what a waste of energy!” The other week my son (8) decided to drop out of his gymnastic class as he was the only boy (except from one much younger) saying he was feeling out of place! He’s also the only boy in the choir at school, the other three boys who were with him in the previous year decided the choir was too “girly” for them!

Do we really want a world so neatly divided into “what’s for boy” and “what’s for girl”?

In my opinion this is madness…BUT this doesn’t have to be a rant, because there are ways to transform feelings of repression, anger, frustration into positive action. I can already see ways in which children’s program producers can fight back: just finishing reading “Screening gender on Children’s Television” by Prof. Dafna Lemish, which I highly recommend for anyone working in or engaged with the children media industry. What I learn from this book is that the world is full of incredibly talented media producers and coordinators who care about children’s wellbeing: these professionals, I was surprised in discovering that two third of them are actually women, are not insensitive to the present concern about gender inequality and stereotyping; these are innovative and creative people who struggle to cope in a world so highly motivated by profit, who are often caught up in the financial compromise which necessarily guide children channels’ choice about programming. They understand that children are the future and that the issues at stake are just too pressing to be ignored. I can’t help thinking that as long as these people exist, the future of children’s media CAN consciously take a more ethical turn towards these issues.

At this conference I’m hoping to meet many of you, learn more about the world of children’s media and its dynamics, and attempt to stimulate and engage in a lively discussion about ways to correct – or at least improve – this demeaning, restricting, and unbalanced approach which is affecting children.

Looking forward to meeting you all very soon!