Stereotypes and the Media
Some of you may be following the David Petraeus story. He is a five‐star general and former head of the CIA, who resigned last Friday for an extra marital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. With the help of the media, David Petraeus was perceived to be one of the greatest generals of his generation. He was highly touted as a man of honor and duty. And the very media that created this image of David Petraeus is now creating sensational headlines over his extra marital affair.
The media's role in his rise to stardom and his plummet to disgrace is something we need to pay attention to. Did the media make him seem more perfect than he was? And is the media now capitalizing on his downward fall and using his disgrace to create scandalous headlines? Maybe.
But, as Frank Bruni pointed out in his op‐ed piece in The New York Times this Wednesday: "It's the women in these situations who are often subjected to a more vigorous public shaming—and assigned a greater responsibility" for the extra marital affair than men are.
Recently it has come to light that there are other players in this sad and sordid story, but if you look exclusively at the liaison between the general and his biographer— and nothing else—you will see a difference in the way the media treats men and women.
As the woman who is blamed for the demise of David Petraeus, Paula Broadwell has been presented as a seducer that no red‐blooded man could turn down. Her body parts have been dissected and analyzed. Perhaps Petraeus has not faced the same physical scrutiny because he is a pubic figure, and she is not. But the important point is this: Both were married, and both were at fault, yet the media treats them differently. Today I want to look at the different way the media treats men and women.
Last month I explained my belief that most of us have a natural inclination to be good people. I said that sometimes societal pressure brings out our competitive, cutthroat, warring—sometimes mean‐‐ selves. I encouraged you to know who you are and to protect yourself from making bad choices and hurting yourselves or other people.
One of the outside forces that might infringe upon your sense of self is the media. Although I am looking particularly at the effect media can have on girls and women, this is not a bench talk exclusively for girls. When the media treats one gender unfairly, everyone is a loser; everyone is hurt, and it is important to know about it.
One of the things we cherish as Americans is free speech and certainly the media takes full advantage of this important freedom that we have as American citizens. I am not here to criticize responsible producers of media but rather to charge you to be critical consumers of it. When you gain information, ask yourself, "Is this reliable information? Do other sources corroborate this information? Where, exactly, is this information coming from?" Unfortunately, we are not always cognizant of the moments when the media shapes our self‐perception, our values, or our beliefs. I hope that you can begin to be more aware of moments when you might be unconsciously affected by what you read or see.
On any given day, students in middle school and high school spend on average 7 hours and 38 minutes in media consumption. This statistic includes watching TV, listening to music, watching movies, reading magazines, and being on line. If we were to include the moments when you are multi‐tasking, that number jumps to 10 hours and 38 minutes per day!1 That's a lot of time.
There can be no doubt that the media hugely affects who we are as a culture and a society. But it also shapes us individually. It can affect our emotions and our brains. Because you are young and your brains are still developing, you are vulnerable to the images and messages that you receive from television, movies, magazines and the internet. Someone who is older‐‐ like Dr. Mascaro or Mr. Burnes—might not be as vulnerable.
I want to focus on one particular stereotype we often see in the media. This is the stereotype of women as catty and vindictive, and certainly you will see a lot of this if you follow the David Petraeus story. When you read about this affair, I challenge you to look for moments where women are being demonized in a way that men are not. Look for discrepancies in the way the media treats the men in this story and the women in this story.
A prevalent stereotype of women is that they are competitors in two things: beauty and men. Why is it that the media often pits women against each other? This is not the natural inclination of the girls and women around us. Of course we have examples of mean girls and of girls who have grown into mean women. We have examples of insecure girls who seem to hate other girls, but this is because they are insecure about themselves or in some way do not like themselves. The idea that girls and women are natural enemies is artificially created and promoted by the media.
I have recently learned quite a lot about the feud between rappers Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj. I know this sounds a little odd. I am not thoroughly informed about the music these women produce, but I know about their tense relationship because I asked my daughter Alexa for public female figures who are pitted against each other. She told me about this battle, and so I did a little research, and I want to tell you what I found.
As you know, when you want to find something out, you need to go to primary sources, so I listened to several interviews of Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj regarding this "catfight." I also checked several sources because as you know, when you do research, you want to get as much information from as many different angles as you can. That way, you are decreasing your chances of being manipulated by a single headline from a tabloid. So I gathered information, checked my sources, and this is my summation of the "catfight" in the world of hip hop.
From what I understand, Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj were once friends; things became tense after a track they had recorded together was shelved. Lil' Kim was the veteran, and she felt that she had given Minaj certain inspiration for her work in music, and this was unappreciated by the younger rapper. Lil' Kim acknowledges that the
music industry pits women against each other, and she says it is important to be savvy enough not to let that happen. But it did. Then things got worse when Nicki Minaj made subtle criticisms of Lil' Kim in her lyrics. And it developed into a full‐ blown much‐publicized feud.
But I want to point out the role that the media had in this conflict between the women. One on‐line newspaper wrote "The unwritten law of hip‐hop stipulates that there can only be one queen." I found this to be very interesting and disheartening and biased against women. Why would there by an unwritten law that there can only be one queen of Hip Hop? This "law" in itself would promote catfighting. And of course the next question is "Can there be only one king?" I think not. Other on‐line newspapers perpetuated the feud by asking fans to vote on various aspects of Minaj and Lil' Kim such as who is better, who would win the battle, and who would be a better MC. Whatever the women themselves did to start this feud, there is no doubt that the media amped it up and perpetuated the stereotype, forcing into opposition two unique and equally talented women.
It is important to remember that competition is not bad. Competition can make us work harder and improve. Competition and rivalry become destructive when it is about tearing someone else down rather than raising yourself up.
In its purest form a catfight is when two women fight each other by slapping, scratching, pulling hair and ripping each other's clothes; it is often between a blonde and a brunette as we see in the Miller Lite Advertisement when a blonde woman and a brown‐haired woman engage in all the behaviors I just described. Miller Lite used this catfight stereotype to promote the debate about whether people buy Miller Lite because it tastes great or because it's less filling.
The image of a catfight appears in literature as early as 1590 in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. As you will see in our upcoming production, blonde‐ haired Helena and dark‐haired Hermia go at it due to tension over Lysander. Although it was 500 years ago, the dynamic follows the ingredients of the
stereotype: Hermia blames Helena for stealing Lysander rather than blaming Lysander himself. Hermia feels it is Helena's height that has stolen him away. Hermia and Helena hurl insults at each other: "You canker‐blossom!" "You puppet you!" and the ultimate insult "Thou painted maypole!"
So why do I find this catfight funny and other catfights not funny? Well, for one thing the men in the play are as ridiculous as the women. The whole play pokes fun at our human foibles and stereotypical ways of loving, wooing, marrying. It pokes fun at perception and our inability to see something that is right before our eyes. In this play the women aren't demeaned anymore than the men. And that is the difference.
In classic literature, particularly books written by women, we can see female friendships abound. These friendships are unwavering and resistant to outside forces. In Pride and Prejudice we have Elizabeth and Charlotte, who within a few days receive proposals from the same man. Everywhere in Pride and Prejudice there are outside forces to disrupt this friendship, but Elizabeth and Charlotte sustain it. In To the Lighthouse the friendship between Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay transcends life itself; in Their Eyes Were Watching God Pheoby remains friends with Janie despite the disapproval of the entire town. In Jane Eyre the love and smiles of Helen Burns sustain Jane through her eight trying years in an abusive orphanage. I believe these strong female friendships are the natural inclination for girls and women, but we forget this when we are overwhelmed by media that promotes an artificial and harmful stereotype.
We don't have to look back at literature from 200 years ago to see examples of strong female friendships. We have many students here at MBS who are deeply committed to being good to each other and loyal, supportive friends.
The media can be a wonderful thing, but when it is irresponsibly crafted and mindlessly consumed, it can be harmful. I have two things I want to ask you to do: first, actively resist allowing the media to shape the way you see yourselves or the way you form your friendships and the way you lead your lives. Second, work towards privately and publically supporting each other. When you see your friends actively counter the catfight stereotype, offer affirmation. When you see one student reach out to another, be verbally supportive. Let these voices of support and encouragement ring in our ears.
Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!