I've spent the past few months watching through all seven seasons of NBC's The West Wing on my Amazon Prime streaming service. As I have done so, I have been struck by the different way women are treated on this show as opposed to virtually any other show on TV, past or present.
One of the earliest episodes in Season 1 is called, "These Crackpots and These Women." In this episode, three of the high-powered male characters stand at a cocktail party and admiringly watch the strong, capable, smart women with whom they serve and comment on their inner qualities instead of the size of their breasts or rating their prowess in bed. At one point, the chief of staff comments on one woman staffer who is "going punch for punch with Toby in a world that tells women to sit down and shut up." By and large, this conversation among the male staffers summarizes the basic attitude toward women on the show. You rarely see women sexualized, women are always portrayed as strong people with brains who have things to say, and women virtually always have their clothes on (and their clothes tend to be business suits or classy, sophisticated evening gowns). This is the TV show I want my daughter to watch. In fact, this is the TV show I want my son to watch. I want them to see how smart and capable women are, how wonderful it is when the two genders work together to accomplish goals. I want my daughter to see that she is more than beauty (although she is that), but she is also a smart person, a serious person.
As I have found myself steeped deeply in The West Wing these past months, I have become very aware of how terribly women are treated on most other shows. On most shows, women exist for men in some way. Women are merely sex objects, bodies, for the consumption and pleasure of others. Women are taught (Miley Cyrus, anyone?) that the more outrageous the spectacle of their nakedness and sexuality is, the more fame they will be awarded and the higher they will climb in achievement.
This point was underlined in a New York Times article by Jodi Kantor this Sunday, "Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity."
In even such a venerable school as the Harvard Business School, women are often silenced and relegated to being sex objects. Kantor writes: "Yet many Wall Street-hardened women confided that Harvard was worse than any trading floor, with first-year students divided into sections that took all their classes together and often developed the overheated dynamics of reality shows. Some male students, many with finance backgrounds, commandeered classroom discussions and hazed female students and younger faculty members, and openly ruminated on whom they would 'kill, sleep with or marry' (in cruder terms). Alcohol-soaked social events could be worse." This from a so-called "serious school"! If Harvard fares this way, what hope the rest of the world? The article goes on to detail the ways in which the leadership of the school is trying to upend the social system that makes such an environment possible. They have made some modest gains and I hope they will continue their good work.
Sex is a part of life. But is it all there is to life? Has our culture become so saturated in a sexualized way of approaching women that we can no longer view them as real people with an important perspective to share? As serious leaders? As intelligent agents of change, hope and purpose? I've begun to ask these questions even more after watching the eye-opening (and sometimes graphic) documentary Miss Representation (available on Netflix streaming currently). Jennifer Siebel put this film together because of her deep concerns for her daughter as she looked at the way women were treated in the media. She realized how powerful the images we see day after day on our screens can be to us. She wanted to challenge the norms and raise a clarion call for higher standards. She also wanted to challenge us all to consider what the media norms for the portrayal of women say to our culture about women in leadership. Do they keep us from taking women in leadership seriously? How can we change that?
I find myself wondering, with Siebel, not only how the media affects my daughter's body image and self esteem but also how it impacts what she wants to do with her life and whether she feels that she can be taken seriously in a world that talks more about Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and Sarah Palin's beauty queen looks than the substance of their arguments. And I wonder how the media impacts the experiences of women in ministry too. I was once a woman in pastoral leadership. Did the men who I led see me as a serious person with intelligence and serious thoughts? Or did they see me as a girl who needed to keep house, look pretty and leave the serious thoughts to the boys? If I had to guess, I'd say that I think that there were probably some of both mindsets.
I don't know exactly what we do to change things. But I have a couple of goals for my daughter and son as I seek to shape their view of women. First of all, I hope to encourage them to view worthy, edifying television and movies. Although I will seek age-appropriate viewing, this does not mean that I will look for what is the most squeaky-clean as my only concern but rather that I will look for media to consume that uplifts worthy values and worthy people, that shows the consequences of bad choices, and that stirs imagination and thought. I will also hope to seek out projects that give a positive view of women. Secondly, I hope to engage my kids in discussion about what we see on the screen. We won't always agree with everything we see and I don't believe in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If the majority of a show is good, I won't abandon it because of one distasteful element. But I will (and already do) talk to my kids about what we see, what is worthy, what is not, and why. I will teach them to analyze what they see instead of just accepting it whole-sale.
And I will hope for many more worthy television programs like The West Wing.
What about you? How do you navigate the challenges of media and the portrayal of women with your kids? What shows or movies have you found to be especially worthy and edifying?