Meet Emily Breitkopf, contributing writer to The LAMPpost and an expert on youth, gender and media. You can also read more of her work on her blog, “Kids and Gender” and follow her on Twitter with @emilybreitkopf. Emily spoke with us about how gendered media impacts young people, awareness and what we can all do to promote gender-positive representations in media.
What got you interested in the issue of young people and gender representation? I spent my undergrad working as a caregiver while earning my degree in Women’s Studies. The equation was inevitable. I started to frame my relationship with the families I worked for through my studies and became increasingly aware of the politics of caregiving and family life. One of those aspects was gender development, as the kids I cared for began to ask questions about their bodies and others’, and about gender itself, and to engage with gender stereotypes, especially outside their home. They (and their parents) gave me the freedom to ask them about sex, gender, and their socialization. Their answers and experiences inspired my interest in both gender development in young children and in what gender discrimination looks like today.
What are some examples of the most common “mistakes” you’ve seen recently in how media portray gender? The gender binary is so ingrained in our society that it permeates every part of it, especially via media. The media industry capitalizes on gender stereotypes so that finding anything subversive is like finding a needle in a haystack and pointing out the “mistakes” is almost the same as pointing out the media industry. While active voices against gender discrimination do exist, nobody’s running advertisements on them.
How aware do you think most young people are of the way males and females are treated differently in the media? There are so many layers of gender stereotypes that I think many young people are aware of the fact that men and women are treated differently in the media but I’m not sure they think it affects them. In Feminist theory, we use a word called “intersectionality”, which is used to analyze how institutions work together, systematically and inextricably, to create oppression. These institutions–sexism, racism, classism, transphobia, and homophobia-are so intertwined that it’s hard to talk about them if you don’t have the verbal framework to do so, and most kids don’t. But there are plenty of young people very aware of these institutions and who are doing great work to fight them. Plenty of generations have had movements related to gender issues and it has always felt like the young people driving the movement are treading water. In our generation, those young people are out there and you can see their solidarity and activism throughout the Internet, especially.
From your experience, how concerned are parents about the way girls and boys are portrayed in TV, movies, games, etc? As a caregiver and a Feminist, I’m constantly engaging in this conversation with parents, either through my own observation of their families or through meaningful discussion with parents who are interested. Many parents are superficially troubled by portrayals of gendered children in media but I think even the most aware parents become so overwhelmed with parenthood that gender seems like a secondary issue. It takes a lot of work to be a parent in the first place; to be a socially active parent seems a huge task for those not usually inclined to do so. There are always parents active in this dialogue but as media show us, society is pretty adamant about gender roles.
Do you think media are making progress in representation? How is it having an impact in real-life, if at all? Though the Internet is quickly becoming capitalized upon, it has proven to be a vast window of opportunity. For now, at least, a large majority of young people in the U.S. have access to the Internet in some way or another. While it can be troubling, the Internet can also be a liberating space where voices otherwise not heard in other media can gain some visibility. Progress is always slow and it’s easy to be cynical about it. But as long as conversations around gender discrimination exist, we know that progress does too.
The media industry is a huge machine and it can be tough to change. What can we do to help discourage media reinforcement of gender stereotypes? The media industry is impossible to change entirely, which is why media literacy is so important. Media literacy creates spaces that discourage media reinforcement of oppressive institutions, like those that enforce gender stereotypes, through accessible education. There are very few spaces where children of any background are given the tools to critically assess institutionalized oppression and media literacy programs are one of them. Looking at the entire machine can be overwhelming, but I think the best I can do is to be active in my community, even with my own family, to inspire a critical dialogue around identity, self-expression, and representation in the media.