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Gender Studies Matters and Thrives

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

In a culture saturated with media messages that undermine women, Sheila Gibbons says college gender studies courses offer vital training in critical thinking and intellectual self-defense.

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In a culture saturated with media messages that undermine women, Sheila Gibbons says college gender studies courses offer vital training in critical thinking and intellectual self-defense.
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Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)--Because of my various writings on women and media, I receive calls and e-mails from many gender-studies students. Their class projects include analyzing advertising images, tracking the number of women quoted or sourced on front pages and appearing on television news shows and assessing the impact of "Sex and the City" on female cable viewers.

In their voices and notes I can sense agrowing realization that they might never have grasped the menace of media stereotyping and bias had they not taken courses like these.

Female conservative pundits like to paint these types of courses with their broad ideological brushes as the work of radical feminists or even bizarre and a waste of time.

These courses are not only not a waste of time, they show no signs of wasting away. College courses on women and media are instead gaining ground as students in a media-saturated culture strive to sharpen their savvy about media effects. At the University of Maryland, the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the "Women and Media" course is now offered twice a year to keep up with demand. At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a course of the same title has seen class size soar to 50 students.

Media-Savvy Survival Training

In a setting where their participation is encouraged and respected, students look at such topics as indecency fines for broadcasters and on-air personalities who make degradation of women the core of their programming.

(The February cancellation of Howard Stern's controversial talk show in six cities by Clear Channel Communications, the largest U. S. radio group, is likely under discussion in term papers being written right now.)

Students also conduct content analyses of news media that prove women's activities and views are underreported on the evening news and in every section of daily newspapers. They bring to class copies of women's magazines and discuss how, by putting a premium on a physical ideal that few women can ever achieve, so much of their content undermines the self-confidence of their readers.

In a field where the achievements of women have been underreported and under-taught--a topic that I've covered extensively for Women's eNews--these courses can prepare students for their own careers in communications.

Free Associations Reveal Attitudes

M. Junior Bridge teaches at George Mason University and is one of those allegedly radical feminists. Bridge says she starts off her course by considering language. She will, for instance, write "masculine" and "feminine" on the blackboard. When invited to free associate, students often come up with "powerful" and "leader" for masculine; "talkative" and "submissive" for feminine. "Feminist," Bridges says, elicits "every ugly word in the book." Students then analyze their responses and ingrained attitudes.

For nearly a decade, Bridge conducted yearly analyses of the front pages of U.S. newspapers for the watchdog group Women, Men and Media (of which I was program director for several years). She quantified the presence of women in news stories, news photos and bylines. As her students studied her analytical methods and employed them in their class projects, they become aware of the limited presence of female newsmakers and begin to question the pattern of omission.

Male students now constitute about one-fifth of her enrollment. "When I started here seven years ago, the two male students I had told me they had signed up for the course to meet girls," Bridge says. Nowadays, she says, male students still "come into the class as a lark," but then settle down. "After a few weeks, you can see their surprise. They start to see the implications for their mothers, sisters, a future wife and children."

Maurine Beasley, a past president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Columbia, S.C., teaches "Women and Media" at the University of Maryland. Beasely--with whom I have co-authored several editions of a book on women and media--says she often helps students consider the commercial exploitation of women's sexuality. "One student brought in Playboy," she says. "She said she liked to look at it with her boyfriend and that she, of course, didn't take it seriously. I told her that someone makes a lot of money out of that."

The media her students have enjoyed up to that point have lulled them into "almost a fantasy world," Beasley says. "They know models are airbrushed and photographs are enhanced. They know they're not real, but they still seem to be caught between illusions of great glamour and the practical world of getting a job. More of them seem to be fantasizing about marrying Mr. Rich . . . They're hung up on the celebrity business and wondering how much use to make of their sexuality." Reality TV shows consume a lot of their attention, she adds.

Dedicated feminist academics fought for years to have gender recognized as a legitimate basis for inquiry, research and instruction. At a time when universities are under tremendous financial strain and looking for places to cut, let's make sure we praise--publicly and loudly--gender-themed courses that help students develop critical thinking skills and a realistic orientation toward the adult lives they will lead.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which in February 2004 received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association. She is also co-author of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

 

 

For more information:

National Women's Studies Association:
http://www.nwsa.org/

Center for Media Literacy:
http://www.medialit.org

Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute--
"Women's Studies Put Feminist Bunk Above Scholarship":
http://www.cblpolicyinstitute.org/ws2000.htm