Cover Girl Culture: Awakening the Media Generation. Directed by Nicole Clark. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 80 minutes.
Sexy Inc.: Our Children under Influence. Directed by Sophie Bissonnette. New York: Women Make Movies, 2007. 36 minutes.
Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied up. Directed by Debra Chasnoff. New York: New Day Films, 2009. 67 minutes.
Cover Girl Culture: Awakening the Media Generation is a documentary by filmmaker Nicole Clark that uses the cultural phenomenon of “model mania” to examine the effects of media representation on young women and girls. Body image is currently a hotbed issue for a large percentage of women, and the film along with its website provide insight and offer a variety of tools that facilitate understanding how these issues impact young women and girls. In my (Mason’s) Women’s Studies classroom in Spring 2014 four out of six group presentations focused almost exclusively on body image and media representation and the way in which the two work together to create a variety of concerns around eating disorders, self-esteem, and relationship issues, to name a few.
Although the basic message of Cover Girl Culture is pertinent to young women and girls, the film fails to provide perspectives from multicultural standpoints. This is problematic and dated from my perspective (Mason) as a teacher in the current women’s studies classroom. Many educators now teach students about the third wave of feminism, which values inclusivity of the various groups whose needs and concerns the first two waves of feminism failed to fully embrace.
Black and Brown women and girls also read the magazines that were discussed in the film such as Elle and Teen Vogue and are negatively affected—perhaps to a greater degree than white readers—by the images of emaciated models as well as by the size standards and limited images of Black and Brown models of any size. If the target population for this film is rural White girls, then it might work well by limiting the images within the documentary. However, the filmmaker runs the risk of providing familiarity at the expense of reinforcing the marginalization of other ethnicities and simultaneously depriving the White girls of knowledge and information about the multicultural world in which they live.
Race continues to be an issue of paramount importance in the supposedly “post-racial” United States of America. While Cover Girl Culture includes approximately eight images of Black/non-White females and a few interviewees who are women of color, it offers almost nothing that addresses racial issues that Black and Brown girls face. Additionally, none of the experts are Black or Brown, and this is problematic because it places the White female feminist in the “voice-of-God” position, implying that they speak for all women and girls. The limited number of experts, interviewees, and images of women and girls of color renders it difficult to gain diverse perspectives on the issues presented in the film, such as media influence and pressure on self-esteem, unattainable cultural beauty standards, model culture, celebrity culture, body image, and self-worth. Due to its lack of inclusion of the various intersections of gender, race, and class, which we often address in the women’s studies classroom, I would likely not choose this DVD, if others with similar content were available.1
A recent incident with middle-school-aged girls gave new meaning to the concept of “sexy” for me (Nelson). Once a week, I supervise a group tutoring study hall for about a dozen middle school students at my children’s school. One afternoon three of the sixth grade girls were at the computer while one of the girls was completing her Spanish homework. Girl A asked Girl B what her website would be like if she had one. Girl B proudly responded with confidence that she would have a “billion likes” because everyone would see how “sexy” she is. All of the students laughed at Girl B’s response. I, on the other hand, was left realizing more than ever how influential this notion of being sexy is to tween and teenage girls today which makes Sexy Inc. a timely film.
Sexy Inc. examines concepts such as eroticism, sensuality, and sexiness and how they are influencing and impacting the daily lives of girls as young as five to those in their high school years. The documentary discusses the impact of being sexy as represented by the women in US music videos, women in advertisements in teen and pornographic magazines, the Bratz dolls, the Pussycat Dolls musical group, and fashion. Educators will also gain practical classroom activities from the documentary. For example, activities may include watching and discussing images of women in music videos and comparing and contrasting advertisements of women in teen and porn magazines. Good advice is provided by one of the experts: parents (but also educators and other support personnel who work with young people, such as nurses) can help children and youth to deal with the images they see by teaching them to be critical, giving them the tools to read what they are seeing, and teaching them who they really are.
Sexy Inc. was filmed in Canada and many of the magazine references are Canadian, so students in the United States might not understand all the popular cultural references. Also, be aware that at times English subtitling is used or participants are dubbed with a speaker speaking in English when French is spoken.
“The personal is political.” This statement, credited to Carol Hanisch, is an anthem from the second wave of feminism that echoes into the current third wave of feminism. Debra Chasnof’s documentary Straightlaced personifies this anthem through the stories of young students from various backgrounds, told in their own voices. Straightlaced provides insight into their experiences and challenges at the intersection of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Having viewed several other documentaries that are targeted toward the women’s studies classroom, I (Mason) consider Straightlaced to be well constructed and refreshingly inclusive. The film is as political as it is informative and enjoyable.
Some of the political issues within the documentary involve teachers reinforcing gay bashing and bullying through their silence. Gender queer students describe being ostracized on sports teams with little intervention from coaching staff and parents. Questions are raised about notions of social constructions of masculinity and femininity in Chapter 5, “The Gender Spectrum.” The filmmakers show an array of identities across the gender spectrum from various standpoints. Standpoint theory is often taught in women’s studies classrooms, and the film provides several examples of this theory, such as when individual students share the particulars of their personal experiences. Stories about gender—queer teens and those who choose alternatives to homosexuality assists the women’s studies instructor with clarifying this theory. This may also provide an impetus for students who want to share their own stories in the classroom.
The Straightlaced DVD set is also classroom-friendly in its packaging of the interactive curriculum guide disc and the “making of” feature. If I had prior knowledge of and access to Straightlaced, I would use it for several possible teaching modules in my own “Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” class. There is valuable content in areas of gender and sexuality and masculinity studies. The filmmakers cover a lot of ground using expert testimonies and interactive background graphics, which make the content delivery interesting and entertaining. Finally, there is a complete website (http://groundspark.org/our-films-and-campaigns/straightlaced) devoted to further use and implementation of the DVD for curriculum planning and design as well as a supplement to existing syllabi. This website is accessible to those who do not have the film, and through it the film can be streamed for a nominal fee. Straightlaced is an all-around excellent tool for the contemporary women’s studies classroom.
1 Other films that I have viewed and shown in my own class, which address similar issues in more complex and inclusive ways are: America the Beautiful (Daryl Roberts, 2007); Color of Beauty (Elizabeth St. Philip, 2010); Miss Representation (Jennifer Siebel Newsome, 2011); and Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women (Jean Kilbourne, 2010).