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