SEATTLE (WOMENSENEWS)–A teen is browsing the racks in her favorite department store when another female shopper catches her eye. Uh oh.
“Is she prettier than me?” she asks herself.
A computer-generated readout appears in her field of vision: “Scanning competition: Threat detected: 90 percent probability.”
She notices someone else: “Is she hipper than me?”
The screen reads: “Scanning competition: Quasi-trendiness detected.”
“Is her body better than mine?”
“Scanning competition: No threat detected; 22 percent probability.”
No, no one has created software that can instantly assess a teen’s relative attractiveness versus the assets of the rest of the world. In fact, this painfully funny scenario appears only on film, in a public service announcement created by two teen auteurs: Wendy Dang, 15, and Mel Machara, 18. They are among 20 participants in Reel Grrls, a new Seattle-based media program that permits teens to check out issues of image in mainstream media.
While media literacy programs are increasingly popular, very few of them give teens technology and training to create their counter images.
“There are so many stereotypes about how we should look, so much pressure on girls to be thin, have an acne-free face and look like a model,” says Dang. “In Reel Grrls, I learned that I can use the media to influence other people about what’s real.”
This film and others created by Reel Grrls were screened at 911 Media Arts Center, a Washington state nonprofit arts and educational organization in June. They will be rebroadcast on Seattle’s Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, KCTS. The videos will be submitted to national youth film festivals and hosted on 911 Media’s streaming media Web site and the national youth Web site Listen Up.
Before entering kindergarten, most girls in the United States will have watched 5,000 hours of television. Girls are exposed to more than 20,000 TV commercials a year. By the time a girl reaches her teens, she will have spent more time watching television than going to school.
The Purpose: Helping Teens to Think Critically, Challenge Media
The aim of Reel Grrls is to help female teens to think critically about the media and its messages and to turn their own intellectual and camera lenses upon social issues and stereotypes that affect and afflict teen-agers. The teens move from passively accepting media messages to actively challenging and countering them with their own reality.
Technology is the great equalizer, says 911 Media’s director of the Reel Grrls project, Malory Graham. “We’re hoping that these girls do more than just confront and analyze the 20,000 TV commercials they see each year,” she says. “I want to see them turn the tables and create their own media and their own standards of what is real.”
Meeting after school and on weekends, 20 female teens, 13 to 18, take a rigorous curriculum in two distinct phases, art and activism. First the teens learn video production skills from media professionals, including storyboarding, scriptwriting, digital camera operation and nonlinear video editing. They read material by authors like Jean Kilborne, “Killing Us Softly,” Mary Pipher, “Reviving Ophelia,” and Susan Douglas, “Where the Girls Are,” in order to analyze concepts and myths of female beauty in the media.
“We learned these extra-skinny models are taken down on computer and made to look even skinnier than they are,” says Emily Vissette, 14. “It’s pretty gross, actually.”
For one week, Kathleen Sweeney, a media artist from New York, assigned the teens writing exercises designed to tap into their self-images. In another lesson, the teens worked with Vain, a Seattle “salon” that works with people to create their own images–they gave the teens a free day.
“They’ll discuss what you want to be and how to express yourself, and show you how to do things,” says 18-year-old Mia Karpov.
Teens Use the Media to Pursue Women’s Issues
After exploring issues of self-identity and how to express themselves through film, students then focus on how to use the media to effect social change. They examine effective social issue media campaigns, learn how to produce public service announcements for mainstream media and identify several women’s issues that they wish to pursue.
They then produce 2- to 3-minute films, reflecting the teens’ personalities; some are humorous, others dramatic, angry, direct or contemplative. Karpov produced several projects.
Karpov and 16-year-old Nia Saterlee produced a film called “The Scale,” about not judging one’s worth by one’s weight.
“First you have my feet walking by and I’m humming like I’d just gotten out of the shower. I’m humming, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor,” says Karpov. “Then there’s a close-up of the scale and it’s turned to ‘Hate my body.’ I get on it and the scale moves and says ‘Love my body.’ Then the words float across the screen: ‘Don’t judge your worth by your weight.'”
Jamie Wheeler’s first public service announcement was a warning about the media.
“I realize more what the ads are trying to do and that this is a problem I have to change,” says the 17-year-old Wheeler. “My first PSA was basically a monologue of advice to young girls. I warned them, ‘Don’t listen to ads!’ Then I made another one that was a humorous claymation about consumerism.” A claymation is an animation in which a clay figure moves and speaks; in this case a clay bully tells a clay girl with blue hair that blue hair is bad and she needs to buy expensive hair products to fix her hair.
Film Uses Terrified Male Baby-Sitter to Spoof Helpless Female Victim
Mel Machara made the film about the image-obsessed shopper, and also filmed her own monologue based on her experience in fifth grade of feeling unimportant and uninvolved. It concludes: “I used to think I could disappear and become part of the cardboard background: flat, dispensable and unnoticed. But I’ve changed that. I create the background.” She also created an announcement on sexual assault statistics.
Emily Visette’s project was a parody of horror films called “Scary Movie Spoof.” She satirizes the classic scenario of the helpless female victim by placing a young man in the role of a terrified baby-sitter, clutching a teddy bear after a series of telephone hang-ups by a mysterious caller. Visette encourages her audience to experience firsthand the humiliation of being typecast as helpless and passive. The male baby-sitter looks at the camera and nods, as the narrator whispers, “See how it feels?”
The idea of a media workshop for female teens arose from dialogue with participants in “Breaking the Stereo,” a 911 Media after-school workshop that addressed media stereotypes of teens in the aftermath of the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Reel Grrls was born in January 2001 after 911 Media sent a flier to schools seeking 20 female teens to work with professional media artists to create videos about images of young women in the mainstream media.
Seattle’s YMCA and KCTS, the public broadcasting television station, supported the project, which received supplemental funding from the Women’s Funding Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts.
On TV, Men Dominate, Women of Color Scarce
According to the National Organization for Women’s report on television, “Watch Out. Listen Up,” men still dominate television programs and news. People of color and women of different body types are extremely under-represented and lesbians and people with disabilities are virtually nonexistent.
“These girls are incredibly articulate now,” says Lucia Ramirez, director of youth development at Seattle’s Metrocenter YMCA. “When we first started, they were very quiet. They were shy.”
Jamie Wheeler has decided she will be a filmmaker. “I want to change the world and media is the best way to do it because media controls society,” she says. “If I’m behind the camera, I can control it.”
Elisabeth Keating is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in education. She has edited educational materials for PBS and Scholastic and was a contributing writer to “Herstory.” She works at Microsoft as a senior editor on the Office.NET team.
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