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  • American teenagers spend 31 hours a week watching TV, 17 hours a week listening to music, 3 hours a week watching movies, 4 hours a week reading magazines, 10 hours a week online. That’s 10 hours and 45 minutes of media consumption a day.
  • Women hold only 3% of clout positions in the mainstream media.
  • 53% of 13 year old girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number increases to 78% by age 17.
  • The number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed on youth 18 or younger more than tripled from 1997 to 2007.
  • 65% of American women and girls report disordered eating behaviors.
  • 25% of women are abused by a partner during their lifetime in the U.S.
  • 15% of rape survivors are under the age of 12.
  • Rates of depression among women and young girls have doubled in the past ten years.
  • The United States is 90th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures.
  • Women are merely 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

As stats like these (and many more) flashed across the screen, I sometimes had to fight back tears.  Looking around the room, I saw the same dismayed expressions on the faces of my friends that I’m sure they saw on mine. I had gathered together a group of ten women to watch Miss Representation, a documentary about how the media misrepresents women and how that damages everyone. It was a wonderful night, full of friendship, wine, great conversations and many laughs. But it was, also, a very depressing night.

Many of the women that I watched the movie with are also mothers. As the mother of a girl, the film spoke directly to me. The media gets girls early: Disney movies and t.v. shows for toddlers that already put females in gender-specific roles and even sexualize little girls. And if your daughter happens to watch t.v. or movies aimed at an older audience, that’s when things get really ugly: Snookie and The Bachelor, music videos with practically naked women being treated as objects, cheerleaders and ditzy commentators, models so photoshopped they display a vision beyond reality. And that’s not to mention the toys for girls: nurse costumes instead of doctor costumes, Lego playsets that don’t involve any actual building, Barbies and Bratz. And then there are the clothes: onesies for baby girls that say “Pretty Like Mommy” and the matching set for boys that say “Smart Like Dad.” T-shirts from Forever 21 that say “Allergic to Algebra.” Thongs for pre-teens.

Yes, things are hard for mothers of girls. But many of the women I watched the movie with have sons. And honestly, it’s no better for boys. They grow up playing violent video games and watching violent movies and as adults they fill our prisons to overflowing.  They grow up seeing women portrayed as sex objects and as adults they disrespect and abuse women. They grow up learning that it’s not acceptable for men to be emotional and as adults they become alcoholics, they sabotage their relationships, they commit suicide. Obviously my friends don’t want any of that for their sons, but how to they stop it?  Can you ban video games and t.v. altogether? What kind of person does that child become? And how can you stop the peer pressure and male stereotyping that boys and young men do to each other?

I look back on my own life and it reads like a catalog of the harms discussed in the movie: body-image issues, eating issues, sexual violence, domestic abuse, depression, sexism in the workplace. I even gave up my ambitions of politics or success in business largely because I didn’t want to involve myself in that male-dominated, ugly, chauvinistic, and cut-throat world. I am a victim of what the media has done to our culture, but I am also a survivor.

When I look at Adeline, I become both more depressed and more fired-up. I don’t want her to grow up in this world. But what can I really do for her? I will try to be a good role model, but then I think of my mother. She was a great role model: a professional woman, she didn’t care about pop culture, we didn’t watch much t.v., she encouraged me to pursue my academic and intellectual interests, she discouraged violence and tried to teach me that the media was often a negative thing. And yet I still fell prey to it all. Being a good mother simply isn’t enough.

If we really care about these issues, we have to look outside our children, outside our families. We have to do more. I don’t think that government is the answer, and that’s my one disagreement with the film. Government regulation cannot solve this kind of problem. It’s more insidious and ingrained than that. Any solution has to come from the people, it has to start at home. Furthermore, as a firm believer in the importance, nay, the necessity, of free speech, I wouldn’t want government regulation even if I thought it would work (which it won’t). If I take that position, it leaves me only one option: I have to be an agent of change myself.

Writing about these issues is a first step. But then what? The issue is so overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to start. I sign online petitions all the time, but how much good does that do? I don’t watch reality television or read magazines that objectify women. I’m making more of an effort to boycott products that use sex and violence to sell. I plan to start volunteering at a shelter for women and children. There, at least, I can help individuals who need immediate assistance. But there must be more. What do you do to make a difference on these issues?