I am a fervent patron of the “chick flick;” don’t get me wrong. These films offer a specific promise that my sensibilities won’t be rocked, that the experience will be safe. Before settling into my sunken movie seat, with compressed popcorn blooms held fast, I know how it’s going to end: gratifyingly gushy.
Yet at the same time, I know it is going to reiterate the fixed roles that men and women supposedly ought to play in finding true love. I know it is going to showcase the specific gender identities for which the chick flick genre is known. Typically, the man is the one to realize his failings, atone for his sins, and recoup the relationship before it’s too late. Ideally, the woman indulges his appeals, quickly mounts his contemporary stallion, and rides off into dusk to be with him forever.
Unfortunately, these feel-good finales not only perpetuate swells of romance, but they can also perpetuate gender stereotypes. In our society, how we construct our gender identities depends much on how the media delineates them. I do not think I naturally go looking for how to “act more my gender.” But with pop culture’s help, I discover how my gender should behave. Embedded in my programs, advertisements, merchandise, and movies, I find the most up-to-date conditions for my femininity.
Consider hyper-sexualized family channel shows like Greek or the National Fluid Milk Board’s campaign “Body By Milk.” Consider online “beauty guides” or the unfailing typecasting in romantic comedies. Clearly regulating and defining idyllic gender conditions, these examples propose how I might achieve what is “most female” these days. They show me gender-specific actions, products, physical features, and roles that apparently stand for what is most attractive and advantageous for today’s woman. Thus, the degree to which I adapt to these standards determines what level of femininity I have achieved, according to the media. How I think my womanhood compares with others’ womanhood on screen ultimately marks my “relative status in the sexual marketplace,” says Kate Ellis from the Journal of Sex Research 1.
Regaining Control of Gender Identity
My question, then, is how do I take control of my gender identity despite the media’s provisions for it? How do I construct my identity without yielding to gender conditions purposely woven into my media experience?
Presently, I do not know if there are clear-cut answers. But raising people’s critical awareness concerning this phenomenon is a fine first step. Gender relations on screen, in print, and online truly can and do affect our interpretations of gender relations in real life. Every day, we encounter media texts that feed us persuasive information about the conditions for such relations. Therefore, I think it only necessary to start critically considering the mass-produced gender systems we are fed daily.
In addition to raising awareness, media advocacy and activism can both challenge and influence our current setup. Initiatives like the NYC Grassroots Media Coalition and Reclaim the Media set goals for justice in media access, control, and power, and work tirelessly to accomplish them. In a new journal called Imagining the (UN)Thinkable: Community Media Over the Next Five Years, media activists offer “critical information on the potential power of the internet, radio, and community-access TV to enhance social justice movements” 2. By supporting or working for these kinds of initiatives, we can offer a pluralistic view of gender identity, or rather that there is not one supreme type of femininity or masculinity out there. It is possible to work to provide healthier, more meaningful media experiences without enforcing strict gender-specific criteria.
Many of us might love the sentimental, epic finales to chick-flicks, and that is perfectly okay. When Richard Gere rises from his limo’s sun roof with flowers in hand, he sweeps pretty woman Julia Roberts and audience members like myself off our feet. Climbing nervously up the ladder, Gere conquers his fear of heights to apologize and win her back. Roberts lets down her big curls and in an instant seems to forget the past. At this point, our hearts flutter because the picture is so perfect. What we don’t realize though is how strong a message that picture sends. “Love looks like this,” says the screen. The man plays the hero; the woman plays the rescued. The man shows up with flowers and confidence, and the woman unties her ponytail to look more appealing for him. Although it might seem charming, the picture subtly defines specific gender functions for how romance is supposed to operate. It shows us what “gender strengths” to embrace and what “weaknesses” to work on so we too might find this kind of picture-perfect love.
But it is when we start viewing gender traits as strengths or weaknesses in our character, rather than just pieces of our identities, that we lose a sense and appreciation for how God designs distinct characteristic sets for each person, not each gender. Why not challenge the images and roles then, critically analyze them, and advocate for an end to ready-made gender identities altogether? Why not work to showcase and celebrate the cosmic hodgepodge of people’s qualities rather than limiting them to an idealistic gender continuum that the media constructs and promotes?
1 Ellis, Kate, Ph.D. “Fatal Attraction or the Post-Modern Prometheus.” Journal of Sex Research. 27.1 (1990): 111-122.
2 Funding Exchange: Media Justice Fund. 9 May 2008. Funding Exchange. 3 May 2008 “>http://www.fex.org/mjf/>.