Q&A with Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: Author of the Lolita Effect

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: I’m a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa; my research specialization is feminist media studies, and I study and write about representations of gender and sexuality in the media.

MS: Why did you write the Lolita Effect? When did you become aware of these problems? Was there a specific moment?

MGD: I wrote the book for a few reasons: to draw attention to the issue of the sexualization of young girls in the media and the social repercussions of that phenomenon; to make a distinction between “sexualization” and more progressive, open, healthy conceptions of girls’ sexuality; and to translate my research and that of other feminist scholars into a form that was accessible and available to general audiences. I’m not sure I can identify a key moment when I became aware of the issue – it developed gradually, especially during the mid-1990s, when a number of studies were recognizing some of the complications and problems associated with girls’ adolescence in American culture. I began to wonder how the media were implicated in these problems.

MS: What’s the most important thing a parent can explain to their children about the media?

MGD: First of all, that the media, especially the entertainment media, are filled with myths — media images and messages are not “reality” but constructions that seem real, so they should be recognized as something close to fiction; and second, that these constructions of reality are tied to profit motives, so the representations are designed to maximize advertising revenues for the media industries and are not at all in the best interests of the audience members.

MS: Do you think that the media is changing? For better or for worse?

MGD: I can’t say I see any great changes, as the underlying structures — the dependence on advertising, the commercial motivations, the circulation of myths of femininity and sexuality — have stayed the same for decades now. But if anything, it’s getting worse: the media industries are targeting younger and younger children with sexualized and retrograde messages, and the constructions of “ideal” femininity have become even more unattainable and narrowly defined.

MS: Should we try to censor children from the media? Is this possible?

MGD: I’m absolutely not an advocate of censorship. I am much more in favor of open public discussions of important issues that could lead to pro-social change. But some form of regulation might be helpful; this is the case in Scandinavian countries, which are havens for free speech but which also recognize the developmental differences between children and adults.

MS: What are you planning to work on in the future?

MGD: I’m currently writing a couple of academic articles about sexual violence against women and girls. After that, I’m hoping to begin work on a book of essays about media and contemporary girlhood.

MS: How can people take action and try to change the media or advertisements?

MGD: Expressing your views directly to media corporations can be effective. Monitoring your media environment, as well as your child’s, to try to avoid misogynist and harmful media content is another step you can take. Boycotting products that use sexist advertising, and publicizing the boycott, is a good way to challenge sexism in popular culture. I’m also an advocate of media literacy programs that help people develop analytical skills so that they can be active media consumers rather than passive audiences.  I think media literacy should be part of every K-12 curriculum: in today’s media-saturated environment, it’s as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

MGD: That’s a really hard one! There are so many amazing women — and men — whose activism and brilliant social critiques have changed the world. If I started listing them, it would take all day! But my work is indebted to the work of all the feminists who have gone before me.

MS: Do you have any advice for young women that are hoping to become writers, directors, producers or activists?

MGD: I’d say, let your passion guide and inspire you, and find ways to combine your energy and emotion with articulate analysis. Forge strong bonds with others who are working to change the world — coalitions and networks are important, not only in terms of making a difference, but in terms of emotional and moral support. Read the work of feminist activists whose insights offer depths of understanding as we try to tackle the world’s problems; the brilliance of our feminist foremothers will enrich your own work.  Get involved with grassroots groups in your communities, and start creating the work through which you want to share your vision: short films, essays, plays, dance performances, whatever. These days you can post your videos to Youtube or blog or submit your writing to local literary journals; eventually, you will gain a wider audience. Above all, keep striving for change — there’s so much to be done!

photo credit: Overlook Press

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Q&A with Jennifer Siebel Newsom: Director of Miss Representation

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Melissa Seymour: Hi, Jennifer! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom: I’m the writer, director and producer of Miss Representation, a 2011 documentary that challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman or girl to feel powerful herself. In conjunction with the release of Miss Representation the film, I launched MissRepresentation.org, an organization being renamed this fall to The Representation Project. I continue to write, direct and produce documentaries while also running The Representation Project.

MS: What is the long-term goal for Miss Representation?

JSN: Our mission is to transform culture so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, age or circumstance can fulfill his or her potential.

MS: Do you think it’s important for women to reach out to one another and mentor each other?  Did you ever have a mentor in your field?

JSN: Miss Representation actually wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many female friends mentors and a few good men. The eventual film was the result of a lot of hard work, passion, and collaboration. I hope that it stands as a testament to what a small group of committed individuals can accomplish together – a testament to the power of the collective.

Early on I approached my friend Regina Kulik Scully with the concept for the film and she really encouraged me to move forward with production. She came on as an early executive producer and trusted me completely. I am so grateful for her friendship as I am to my film team’s hard work, support, and belief in me. The film is filled with the stories of inspiring females who prove, over and over again, that our potential is really unlimited – especially when we support each other and work together. Many of our interviews from Miss Representation remain friends, supporters, and role models to me and the org.

MS: How does having experience as an actress affect how you view the media?

JSN: As an actress I witnessed the injustice towards women in the media first-hand. It’s not just in front of the camera that we see these demeaning images and stereotypes, but the treatment of women behind the scene is just as limiting.

There are so few opportunities for women to excel as writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood – the influencers of which stories get made. Wanting to change this culture was a big motivation for Miss Representation and remains a goal of the organization.

MS: You’ve mentioned that when you were acting, people treated you differently due to your degrees from Stanford University and Stanford Business School. Could you expand on this?

JSN: My first agent didn’t take me seriously and went so far as to request that I take my Stanford MBA of my resume – he didn’t want me to seem too threatening. Ironic that he had no problems diminishing me however.

MS: What are you planning to work on in the future?

JSN: I’m currently writing, directing, and producing The Mask You Live In (MASK) and The Great American Lie, documentaries that explore American masculinity and the social, political, and economic consequences of a society that values dominance, power, control, and aggression over empathy, care and collaboration. MASK itself explores “the boy crisis” in America that results from extremes of masculinity imposed on our boys and men.  Both films examine the intersection of gender, race, class, and circumstance, and how kids are further influenced by our education system, sports culture, and mass media– especially violent video games and pornography.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

JSN: Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton, and my husband, Gavin Newsom.

MS: Do you have any advice for young women that are hoping to become actresses, directors, producers, or writers?

JSN: The most important thing is to be passionate about whatever you do and be true to your authentic self.  Find that thing that you love that you also happen to be good at and don’t look for outside affirmation. Most importantly, don’t leave your values and morals at the door.