Disrupting Gender Stereotypes in the Media

My friend Sam Ford does a lot of interesting things, and one of them is teaching in the Popular Culture Program at Western Kentucky University. Last year, at a research conference, Sam was on a panel with another WKU professor, Ted Hovet  – and during that panel, Ted made a provocative proposal: “We should never ask students to do anything again in which the professor is the only person who sees their work”. Sam took that idea to heart. And now, at the end of every semester, he sends out an email with links to students’ videos, presentations, and research articles from his classes.

I always like getting that email from Sam, because his students’ work is so enjoyable. But this past semester, there was a presentation so exceptional that I thought it deserved a wider audience. Sam kindly put me in touch with three of the four students who did that presentation, and the students agreed to share their project on this blog.

Shelby Bruce, Katie McLean, Kalee Chism, and Paige Medlin were students in POP 201 (Introduction to Popular Culture), and the topic they chose for their end-of-semester presentation was “women in the media”. The Prezi of the entire presentation is available here, but the part of the presentation that really caught my eye was Katie’s photographs – which posed men in the same poses as women on the covers of women’s magazines, and posed women in the same poses as men on the covers of men’s magazines. I found these images very powerful, and was really curious how the project and the photos came about. So I was glad when Kalee, Shelby and Katie agreed to be interviewed via email about their work.

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Katie graduated from WKU this spring with a major in photojournalism and a minor in political science; Kalee is majoring in broadcasting and pop culture; and Shelby is going into her sophomore year as a major in news/editorial journalism.

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Fiona: What was the assignment that led you to do this project?

Katie: We were assigned a very open-ended final project in our Intro to Pop Culture class. The only hard and fast guidelines for this group project were that it had to incorporate/demonstrate an understanding of the principles discussed in the class.

Shelby: Professor Sam Ford instructed our class to do a project based upon creating a website or page to incorporate or demonstrate the ideals and teachings we learned in this class about media. It was up to us how to go about doing so, so therefore we weren’t limited to a specific thing.

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Fiona: Why did you choose this particular topic for your project?

Shelby: Since we had learned a lot about the way media portrays different people in society, we figured the way women were looked at was something that could be very beneficial. It’s amazing how most people don’t think twice about seeing ads with women in skimpy clothing to sell a fast food chain’s new burger or so on. It’s almost as if people have just made it a new norm, since all kinds of ads are coming out that make women look like objects.

Kalee: All of the members of our group were girls, and it was something we could all relate to. It is something I am extremely passionate about and a topic that I hope to work on in the future through my career.

Katie: It didn’t take very long to decide we wanted to use this project to explore the representation of women in the media, a topic we were all equally interested in and disheartened by.

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Fiona: What gave you the idea for the photos?

Katie: The idea for the photos actually came while standing in line at the grocery store. Both Women’s Health and Men’s Health magazines were displayed and the stark contrast of the covers were just mind-blowing to me. Magazines that for all intents and purposes were supposed to be similar, in their focus on health, could not have been more different. The Men’s Health magazine displayed a strong, confident Vin Diesel in a natural and dominant pose. The Women’s Health magazine displayed a topless, coy-looking Cobie Smulders shying away from the camera in a fairly unnatural and submissive pose. It seemed absurd and I wanted to expose the absurdity of it visually. I decided I would take real covers from the magazines and replicate those covers, using women to pose like the models on the Men’s Health magazines and men to pose like the models on the Women’s Health magazines.

Shelby: We took the idea that men are always shown in health magazines doing “manly” things from showing off their muscles or talking about how to eat healthy whereas nowadays women are usually only seen doing ads such as the ones I talked about above. Due to this, Katie decided to reverse the roles and photograph men doing ads that women are seen doing these days and vice versa.

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Fiona: Who are the models in the photos, and how did you recruit them to participate in the project?

Katie: The models are mostly friends or friends of friends. I thought I might have some difficulty talking people into posing as a different sex but everyone I asked was really excited to do it and felt like it was an important project to be a part of. It was really heartening to see my friends embrace the project the way they did. Thanks y’all!

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Fiona: What was the photo shoot like? How did the models feel about the poses they had to take?

Katie: The photo shoots, and how the models (my friends) reacted to the poses and the wardrobe, were actually a great indicator that I was on the right track to exposing how ludicrous the dichotomy of the covers were. My male friends laughed the whole time (because the poses were totally laughable!) – some of them even questioned if I was exaggerating the poses, wardrobe, etc. When I would show them the photo I was trying to replicate they would just laugh and shake their heads and we would move forward. On the other hand, my female friends were totally into their photo shoots, they loved the strong, tough poses. When I showed them the photos, many of them expressed how they wished the covers they saw on women’s magazines in general more resembled the poses they were asked to execute.

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Fiona: What kind of reaction did you get to the presentation in your class? Was it what you expected?

Katie: It was great. It’s always nice when you can make a point by eliciting a laugh. The class giggled and then they were confronted to find the deeper (and a little darker) reason for that giggle. I think the class was challenged, and that was the goal.

Shelby: The reaction to the presentation was very diverse. We had many people who agreed and others who shared their strong opinion on how inappropriate the presentation was. To be honest I think we were ready for all kinds of different reactions because we did have some powerful images and videos within the presentation. Although some didn’t agree with it, I think it got the point across. It did the job of capturing people’s attention and making them more aware of how women are looked at in the media and how it should be up to us to make that change.

Kalee: We got good reactions in class, for the most part, and it was very well perceived, a lot better than I expected especially from the boys in our class. The only bad reactions that we got were to the “F- Bombs for Feminism” video due to the amount of curse words and the idea that it “took away from the message,” which was a reaction I expected due to the crudeness of the video.

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Fiona: What other reactions to the project have you received?

Shelby: We have actually received nothing but great feedback from people outside of us! The last time I checked, the Prezi had a couple hundred views, and we’ve been reached by you and someone else about sharing it on a blog! It’s amazing to me the response we’ve gotten from it!

Kalee: We have received wonderful reactions from others, especially from the audience our teacher got on our project via social media. It got a lot more attention than I expected a small class project ever would.

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Fiona: What do you think you learned from working on this project?

Shelby: The main thing I have learned from this project is the importance of fighting for what you believe. There are always going to be people who disagree, but if you’re passionate about something then it’s important that you continue to be passionate towards it. I honestly would not consider myself a feminist, I just know the difference between what I feel is right and wrong. I just don’t agree with the way people have portrayed women in the media, and as someone who hopes to be a part of the journalism world once I get out of college, this is something I’m really hoping I don’t have to face. I think if enough people started showing awareness towards the topic and started pressing towards equality amongst men and women, then this could be something that would be solved. Women know just as much as men! Gender shouldn’t determine someone’s intelligence.

Kalee: I learned that many people are uneducated on the ideas that we presented throughout the project, and I learned how big of an issue this really is in our society.

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Fiona: Anything else you would like to say about the experience of this project?

Kalee: It was a wonderful experience to look deeper into the women in the media subject, and to see how this issue impacts everyone in some way, even if they don’t realize it.

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Thanks to Katie, Shelby and Kalee for generously sharing their time and their work!

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