Resisting Stereotypes and Working for Change

Although many concerns remain about how women are represented in media, there are signs that things are changing. Roles for women on television, in particular, have become much more varied and complex in the last decade, ranging from tough and take-charge characters such as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica and Detective Kate Beckett on Castle to more realistic, but still powerful characters such as Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope.

While there are more of these characters than in times past, however, the default characteristic for women – particularly in children’s programming – remains boys and romance. [1] When Joss Whedon, creator of the definitive TV warrior Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was asked “Why do you write these strong women characters?” he answered “Because you’re still asking me that question.” [2]

Advertising is beginning to change, if more slowly. In the late 1990s, cereal giant Kellogg released an ad campaign for Special K which used pictures of older and larger women, and copy such as “the Ashantis of Ghana think a woman’s body gets more attractive as she ages. Please contact your travel agent for the next available flight.” The ads attracted such positive attention that in 1999 they were followed up by a TV campaign. In 2004, Dove released its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” a series of TV and print ads that were intended to promote more realistic images of women’s body size (and sell thigh-firming cream.)

Teen magazines are also getting a makeover. Although stories about “The perfect boyfriend—three ways to find him” continue to grace the cover of magazines like Cosmo Girl, the features inside are expanding beyond the requisite beauty tips and fashion spreads. In 2002, the Christian Science Monitor reported that teen magazines were running stories about homeless teens, a young female Palestinian suicide bomber, and an actress who refused to lose weight to get a movie role. [3]

Christina Kelly, editor of YM magazine, made headlines when she announced that the magazine would no longer run stories on dieting and would include pictures of bigger models. Media activist Jean Kilbourne applauded the move, saying, “Any magazine that purports to be for girls and young women, dieting has no place in it. This is a step in the right direction… It would be wonderful if some other magazine editors would be equally as courageous.” [4]

By Girls, For Girls

Andi Zeisler warns that critics may be expecting too much from mainstream media, which can “hardly buck the ad-driven culture… that literally depends on the product plug for its revenue stream.” [5] Not-for-profit ventures and e-zines, on the other hand, have been more successful in providing women and girls with ways to express their own perspectives. The Internet has been a particularly useful venue for empowering girls.

The alternative magazine Teen Voices is written by and for teenaged girls and relies on subscriptions from its 75,000 readers for most of its revenue. The magazine seeks to provide a way to help “high-risk” inner-city girls acquire life skills. Sixteen-year-old contributor Sarah Calvello has learned that, “In Teen Voices, you can say anything—speak out and be heard.” [6]

Managing editor Ellyn Ruthstrom agrees. For her, Teen Voices is “about them finding their voices and being confident enough to have a voice. We want these girls to feel that they are important enough to be heard—because they are.” [7]



[1] Smith, Stacy and Crystal Allene Cook. Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 2008.
[2] “American Rhetoric: Joss Whedon - Equality Now Address”. American Rhetoric (May 15, 2006).
[3] Teen magazines: Fewer fashion tips, more worldly fare. Christian Science Monitor, July 18 2002.
[4] Lee, Carol. Teen Mag Editor Promotes Healthy Body Image. Women’s enews, March 2 2002.
[5] Zeisler, Andi et al. Ten Things to Hate About Jane. Bitch Magazine, Winter 1999.
[6] Lemberg, Jeff. Two Magazines Deliver Teen Voices As They Really Sound. Women’s enews, April 5 2002.
[7] Ibid.