Media’s Influence on Teen Girls

by Lucie Hemmen on February 11, 2013

Last week Gateway School in my hometown of Santa Cruz showed the documentary Miss Representation to its parent population. I was asked to moderate a discussion afterwards.

The documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and later aired on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.  It explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women create an underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.

A central message of Miss Representation is that media shapes our kids.  With its rapidly proliferating branches of access and engagement, our teens have a million seductive ways to absorb themselves in media messages.

A message of particular concern:  Women are valued for their looks. 

Because the media so relentlessly offers depictions of girls and women as sexual eye candy, it teaches girls and boys that a women’s value is in her “sexiness”.

At a young age, girls are exposed to messages that their value lies on their beauty and sex appeal.  Movies, television shows, reality t.v., advertisements, video games and music promote the same stereotypical images or, and attitudes toward, girls and women again and again and again.

The results are powerfully damaging.  Eating disorders, anxiety, depression, self harming behavior, plastic surgery, precocious sexuality, drug and alcohol use are one the rise for our culture of media saturated young women.

Instead of considering women  valuable as multi-dimensional human beings,, girls and boys saturated in media’s marinade are likely to view beauty as the ultimate currency of power for women.  Instead of aspiring to be leaders, film makers, CEO’s, and policy makers, a girl is likely to say her goal is to be America’s Next Top Model.

How do we encourage girls toward health and empowerment beyond looks, in areas such as science and politics and leadership?

Miss Representation makes the point that girls need to SEE women represented in the media as powerful in order to envision themselves in such positions.  If Hollywood, and other media sources, relentlessly underrepresent women in positions of power, girls cannot see models of what they can become.

Since it is mainly men that occupy positions of power  in Hollywood and advertising,  they tend to produce images and depictions of women that they want to see.  The result is a very narrow and superficial  miss representation.

Because we see hypersexualization of girls everywhere we look, wide spread acceptance of such a limited portrayal is the norm.

In our post-documentary discussion, the parents of Gateway and I discussed small changes we can focus on to create significant changes.  Here are a few examples:

  • Encourage media literacy by talking to our kids, about what they are seeing and viewing. To this end, Miss Representation comes in versions appropriately edited and geared toward middle school kids and high school kids.  When kids learn media literacy, they can question what they see instead of absorbing it unchallenged.
  • Encourage empowerment by supporting girls to seek positions of power (school government, etc.).   Offer models of such women so that girls can envision a trajectory for themselves.
  • Support balanced development by limiting screen time.  This can be challenging because teens faced with limits push back on parents who are often to busy or distracted to supervise and enforce boundaries. Still, kids and teens cannot place limits for themselves and need the parental support to shut down media and its incidious effects.
  • Parents can join kids and teens in their viewing to see what they’re watching and how they are thinking and feeling about what they see.  Parents with a light touch can often plant seeds of awareness by saying things like:  “I wonder why this character is dressed in those clothes when she’s fight crime?  The creators of this show chose much more practical clothes for the male characters.  What do you think that’s about?”
  • Parents can research quality viewing and initiate family viewing that portrays girls and women in diverse and interesting roles.
  • Parents can refrain from praising girls unduly for their looks and focus their attention on supporting multi-dimensional development with an emphasis on values such as hard work, integrity and kindness, and interest in a variety of activities and topics.


A few months ago, my 14 year old daughter showed by 18 year old daughter an advertisement with a rather incredible image of a woman’s body:  “Oh my God Marley look at this ad!” she remarked with a mixture of fascination and anxiety.

“Daisy, that woman looks nothing like that in real life.  This is air brushed and if any woman were this thin with breasts that large, she would fall over and die.  I saw a documentary last year called Miss Representation and it talked about how pictures like this are air brushed and changed entirely.”

That’s an example of media literacy at work!  I hope all high schools have the opportunity to share this documentary with their students.

Join the discussion in the comments below!



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