Tuesday, 27 April 2010

TV Empowerment - or not

this blog post also appears on www.ukfeminista.org

Ok, I admit it, I love Glee. I watch it every week with a half confused feeling (why do I like this? I should hate this!) but deep down I know I love it, and I love the cheesy singing, and I cried when Kurt came out to his dad, and I cringed when Finn sang to Quinn about the baby, and I love Emma’s wardrobe. I know it has terrible problems with the fact that half the cast never say a word (mainly half the BME characters) and that it is tacky and cheesy but I still watch it.
Last night was the already famous Madonna episode, where all the songs featured were written by Madonna and performed by the Glee cast. The set-up was that the girls in Glee club were feeling oppressed by their boyfriends and the boys in Glee. Even Mr Schu (the glee teacher) realised that he had been disrespectful to women (mainly the lovely OCD Emma) and decided to use the music and personality of Madonna to encourage the girls of Glee to Express Themselves and to teach the boys What it Feels like for a Girl. (n.b. as the characters in Glee are teens I am calling them girls and boys, hope that’s ok).

Well, great I thought. A mainstream TV show encouraging the young women of its cast to stand up and be counted, and forcing the teen boys they hang out with to recognise the sexist manner in which they treat the girls, introducing terms such as objectification and misogyny to the class. Mr Schu allowed the boys to see that telling their girlfriends how to look, behave and act in order to be attractive to them, pressuring them into having sex and generally disrespecting them as women was not acceptable. Listening to Madonna (I know it sounds weird but go with me…) showed the girls that they had the right to express their sexuality the way they chose to, showed them to respect their bodies and minds and feel confident in their own skins and personalities. As Ms Ciccone famously said ‘you need to express yourself, so you can respect yourself, hey hey.’ It was great to watch a TV show, aimed at teens, starring teens that was basically telling women to go out, be who they want to be, don’t feel pressured into behaviour that you’re not happy with, love your bodies, love your minds and stay strong. Woohoo! I cheered at the TV. What an antidote to those bloody 90210 ads which are on E4 constantly, where every single girl is staring, tear stained and weeping, at a man walking away from them.

And, the Glee girls took the advice on board. As did Mr Schu. Rachael decided she needed more respect from her boyfriend before she sleeps with him. Tina refuses to change the way she looks and behave to get male approval. Mercedes takes matters into her own hands and sings her own solo. Quinn still dances like she isn’t really pregnant (but that’s another story). And Mr Schu gets the boys to sing ‘What it feels like for a girl’ to help them understand that they need to stop treating girls like objects and give them the respect they deserve.

What was so great about this episode (appalling mash-up of Borderline and Open your Heart excepted!) was that we had a TV showing alternatives for women in expressing their sexuality. It said you can go ahead and have sex, it said you can wait until you’re ready, it said you could own your own sexual experience. It moved away from the Angel/Whore paradigm. It didn’t say waiting and abstinence was the only way. It said women had a choice about sex. Which was pretty impressive I thought.

But then, of course, the dream had to end. At the end of the episode, Rachael is between love of her teen life, Finn, and new boyfriend, Jesse. Finn tells Jesse he’ll try not to look at ‘his girl’ anymore. Jesse refers to Rachael as ‘his’. By this point I was thinking, scrap Madonna, this girl needs to sing “You don’t own me’ by Lesley Gore. I couldn’t work out whether this ‘owning’ of Rachael was a continuation of the theme about encouraging the women in the show to be their own person, that she was going to break out and sing ‘You don’t own me’, or was actually (and what this felt like the truth) a massive let down by placing the woman as the property of the man.

And what this whole episode got me thinking was where are the positive role models for women on teen TV? Here was Glee, standing out to me as a fine example of a TV show tackling head on the issues of sexism, objectification and lack of respect for women in a fun and approachable way. But even then, it fell down in its final look at Rachael’s relationships. Are women forever to be defined by the men in their lives, according to TV? Are women forever staring weepily at the man walking away from them? Are teenage girls only allowed to define their own sexuality so long as at the end they are still adjacent to a male unit?
And this train of thought got me thinking further. We have a massive problem with inadequate sex education in this country. Where sex ed focuses any attention at all, it is on the biology and not exactly the idea of pleasure, or desire. We have the problem of what Ariel Levy calls ‘silent bodies’, where teen girls are unable to express desire because they simply don’t know how, leading for their own desire to be subservient to male sexual desire.  When I was at my (state secular) school having social ed 10 years ago the message was still ‘you wait’. Not ‘you do what you want and what you feel is right for you.’ If the way we talk about sex in the education system still refuses to give recognition or credence to female desire then we turn to pop culture to see what’s going on. And it seems to me that pop culture aimed at teen girls isn’t giving a strong message of love yourself, love your mind and body and be confident with who you are and what you want. If the most female positive TV episode I have seen in ages still falls down on that message at that final hurdle, then this is a problem.

So – what do we do? Well, we can take some of Mr Schu’s lessons. Teach boys and girls about mutual respect in relationships and recognise the necessity of showing students where inequalities lie. Teach media literacy so girls and boys recognise distortions of representation and objectification in their every day lives. Teach sex as being something beyond biology. You don’t need to play ‘Express Yourself’ down the school hallways to encourage young women to respect themselves and young men to respect women. A great starting point is Women’s Aid’s Expect Respect education pack, which at BFN we have encouraged education centres to use. And if more TV shows start making episodes which encourage young women to think about empowerment, and point out inequalities to their wide, wide audience, then that can only be good thing. We need to start finding some pop culture heroines for young women who promote self respect, happiness and empowerment. We need to get away from the weepy woman who is dependent on her man. Glee was ¾ of the way there last night.

For me, Mad Men has the strongest female characters on TV. What are your thoughts? Where are our strong pop culture heroines? What can we do to encourage young women to express and respect themselves? The floor is open to you…

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