How We’ve Let TV Hurt Girls

Fifteen years ago, I became director of an 18-acre residential treatment center in Westchester County, N.Y. The place was in lousy condition when I arrived, and I could see it would take several years just to renovate the cottages – which, of course, provided little immediate relief for the teenage boys and girls living in them.

Early on, however, I found a way to score quick points with the kids: cable TV.

Every cottage had a living room with a TV that had the old-style rabbit-ear antennas, gasping for electronic signals from the atmosphere. I called the local cable company, arranged a good deal and presto – the kids had access to the basics of cable: ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. I was a hero.

A few weeks later, I was touring through one of the female cottages, where all the girls were sitting in the living room watching the tube. I sat with them for a few minutes to watch and chat. A music video channel was on – probably MTV, VH1 or BET – and I was horrified by what I saw.

The lyrics degraded women. Guns and violence were glorified. Thieves and thugs were held up as role models. The more videos I watched, the more I saw of the same, with homosexuals occasionally held up for derision in place of women. I asked myself, “What have I done?”

I thought about this when the American Psychological Association recently released its “Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,” which finds “evidence that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development.”

The report cites television, music videos and music lyrics, as well as magazines, movies, video games, the Internet and advertising campaigns. The authors link the increasing sexualization of girls in media to an increase in eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders and low self-esteem.

The report offers recommendations about how to confront the problem, some of which apply to those of us in youth services. The recommendations include using media literacy training programs that confront the issue of sexualization, viewing TV and other media with kids “to influence the way in which media messages are interpreted,” and offering girls instruction on “practical and psychological alternatives to the values conveyed by popular culture.” It notes that “girl empowerment groups … support girls in a variety of ways and provide important counterexamples to sexualization.”

I’m sending the full report to all of my staff members who work with young women. We are, after all, the caregivers for many of them. It’s at http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html.

But will the recommendations work? I admit I have my doubts. The American culture is so awash in oversexualization and violence that efforts to counteract it seem puny.

Consider a troubling personal example: I recently took a two-hour United Airlines flight with my wife and 4-year-old son. The plane featured small TV screens that dropped down from the ceiling every four or five rows, so all passengers in the vicinity could see them, whether they wanted to or not. We left the headphones tucked into the seat pouches in front of us, not intending to watch the shows, but every once in a while, I would look up to see what was playing.

Our 4-year-old insisted on doing the same, despite the arsenal of coloring books and crayons we brought along. At one point, the program “CSI” came on; we were subjected to watching a woman shoot a man in the head. In another scene, a cadaver was dissected.

On our return flight a week later, we tried hard to divert our child’s attention from viewing an episode of NBC’s “Heroes,” in which a young woman in her underwear writhed in bed while being filmed for an Internet porn site. My exasperated wife asked, “Didn’t they use to show re-runs of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ on these flights?”

This is what we are up against, and to tell you the truth, it feels like an onslaught. Twenty years ago, I was one of those people who looked askance at Tipper Gore’s rants about the media’s negative influence on kids. Now I wonder if she was right. And I wonder if we have done far too little in youth work to counter what the APA now recognizes as a serious detriment to the healthy development of young women.


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