The messages we receive about relationships on television, in music, in literature, in video games, and on the internet often support and perpetuate sexual harassment, abusive relationships, and sexual assault. Popular music is filled with messages which equate “being in love” with dominance, control, violence, and sex. The media messages from all sources brainwash us to turn a blind eye to abuse and not recognise the warning signs of abuse.
Many media images convey the idea that romance requires jealousy, passionate arguments, and infidelity. The message sent to young girls is that unhealthy relationships are normal and better than no relationship at all. The message to young boys is that females are readily available and need to be dominated by men. Few images in our culture provide a realistic impression of the time, effort, and commitment that healthy relationships require.
Given these messages, it is not surprising that many teens (and adults) are confused about relationships.
Why become media literate?
Media does not just influence our culture. In many ways, it is our culture. In the centuries prior to the advent of the media, cultural norms were taught by the elders of society. All of the secret truths of how to live a happy and successful life were taught to us by our grandparents and those elder people who would sit us on their knee and explain life to us as young children. Now, all that people seem to do is look to movies and other forms of media from which to learn. Parents often use the television as a babysitter, which unfortunately proves to be a damaging mistake for the children that sit in front of it later in their lives. There is no-one taking the time to pass down the oral traditions like they used to.
It is not practical to tell people to ignore or boycott all forms of media to protect themselves from unwanted messages. Instead, it is better for people to become aware of and understand what messages they are receiving and be able to have a conversation about how they feel about the messages and what impact those messages have on others.
Once you can identify what is being conveyed by the media, you can begin to access the messages you want and sort through the ones you don’t. This is not to say that you can or have to avoid all negative messages. Rather, you will now recognise those messages, process them, and move on.
What are the connections to us as young teens and adult women?
As women of all ages who know how to use the internet, we can educate our communities that the images and messages of violence in the media contribute to a culture that tolerates actual violence. We can illustrate how hypersexualised images of women promote the idea that women want and are made purely for sex. We can point out that the hypermasculine and hyperviolent images of men endorse the idea that men need to exhibit the same behaviours in order to be a “real man.” The way that the media portrays men and women interacting, especially in relationships, dictates how relationships “should” look.
Knowing these connections, we can look deeper into messages that contribute to a tolerance and acceptance of sexual and domestic violence. We can examine how media impacts gender socialisation and normalises violence, how media perpetuates a culture that is tolerant of sexual violence (i.e., a “rape culture”), how pornography is related to sexual violence, and other connections.
By educating ourselves and our communities on the impact of these negative media messages, we can start to seek and create counter messages. The desired outcome is a shift in culture; one that no longer tolerates interpersonal violence. As new media messages and outlets emerge, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to help shape the messages.
When you see images or advertisements that sexualise women, or treat them as second class citizens, you can start a petition on Change.org and get the numbers needed to take to someone in authority such as a local member of Parliament, and force the person at the source of that message to rethink what they are doing. I’ve seen several petitions that have worked by gaining the numbers needed to show that women are being disrespected when shown in the light that they are portrayed in, in certain advertisements or commercials. The power of numbers makes a big difference – I’ve seen it work for the good.