Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Media Diet

My thanks to Golda Poretsky for this awesome sign.
You should totally visit her rockin' site.
I don’t usually traffic with that “diet” thingy. Weight loss dieting has a 95% failure rate (Chastain, 2011), often results in a net weight gain (HuffPo, 2013), and valorizes self-imposed starvation, a disgusting concept that couldn’t exist anywhere but an industrialized nation. However, for the past decade or more, I’ve put myself on a pretty strict media diet. My recipe? No TV aside from the occasional series I snag via Netflix, maybe one movie per year, no non-political magazines, and aggressive ad blocking on the Internet. That said, I’m an Internet fiend, and I listen every day to NPR in part because it has no commercials but also because, you know, listening to the news while driving kinda rocks.

I say “diet” because it’s a concept with which we’re all-too-familiar in the U.S. However, my diet isn’t about deprivation but release. Honestly, you have no idea how relieved I felt when I gave myself permission several years ago to disengage from popular culture. Prior to that, I’d had this bizarre conviction that I should stay on top of pop culture so I could use examples in my classes and relate to my students’ experiences. Now, I tell them why I happily abstain and let my students provide the media examples. Everything works out just fine.

So why do I limit my media intake? First of all, I have lots of stats and studies, ones that say, for example, “Research has repeatedly shown that constant exposure to thin models fosters body image concerns and disordered eating in many females” (Serdar, n.d.; for more info, see Turner, et al, 1997). Another good quote:

Sixty-three percent of girls think the body image represented by the fashion industry is unrealistic and 47 percent think it is unhealthy, yet 60 percent say that they compare their bodies to fashion models, 48 percent wish they were as skinny as the models in fashion magazines, and 31 percent of girls admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight (NYC Girls’ Project, 2013).

Also, media are incredibly violent; according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, by the time they’re eighteen, children will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence on TV alone (NCCEV, 2003). While it’s ridiculous to think we’re programmable media zombies who mindlessly reproduce media representations, violent media contribute heavily to our culture of violence. And yes, while gun-related violence and rape rates have been declining, the U.S. is still a very violent place (ChildHelp, 2013; Pew, 2013; RAINN, 2009). Studies show people who consume violent media choose more violent words in post-test situations and report feeling more violent emotions (Shrum, 2002). In a couple more examples, greater exposure to media increases viewers’ fear of crime (Dowler, 2003), while exposure to graphic representations of sex decreases their satisfaction with their own sex lives and increases their likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behavior (CommGAP, n.d.).

Not all media messages have negative effects, and I’m the first to admit some good can come from media, particularly when they expose rural and homogenous communities to diverse peoples and situations. And also, Sesame Street. That sh*t just rocks. Nonetheless, I just feel crappy when I ingest media in substantial doses.

I know the stats and studies, but most important to me is how media make me feel. I turn on the TV or watch a movie, and I’m immediately reminded that no one on the screen looks like me. I’m reminded a woman’s attainment of arbitrary beauty ideals is more important than her family, educational accomplishments, or community involvement. I’m reminded that older people, even though they’re 13.3% of the American population (AoA, 2012), only exist onscreen if they look much younger, while people with disabilities, who compose 20% of the American population (CDC, 2011), remain virtually absent in media. Mainstream media still under-represent non-Whites; those people of color who do make it to the screen or the magazine page too often find themselves portrayed stereotypically (Keegan, 2013). Finally, although we’re 51% of the American population, women are still under-represented as media characters, featured persons in the news, and in media production (Schilling, 2013;, 2013). I feel all these absences every time I engage with media. They hurt.

So I continue to feed my curiosity about the greater world via books, radio, and the Internet. It’s not perfect, especially since my musical fare tends toward insipid, misogynistic, and/or heterosexist-to-outright homophobic mainstream pop. And, yeah, I may be a romance writer, but the genre is currently giving me some pretty severe heartburn.

What would make me happy? Television, movies, radio songs, magazines, and books that feature realistic characters, characters that look like my loved ones and me. Media that emphasize character development rather than physical and sexual violence. And, you know, media representations that acknowledge that, while the limelights may glisten beautifully on the foreheads of young, straight, able-bodied, so-called "attractive," and/or White guys, other groups do actually exist.

For those who feel excluded or angry about mainstream media, I hope my books help create a culture that features more expansive and realistic representations. Goodness knows I’m trying.