Driver or passenger? How our girls navigate the media

Ms Ruth Jans, Head of Mackay House

Earlier this year when l was driving to work, thinking about the day ahead, my thoughts were distracted by a song playing on the radio. It had a catchy tune and a good beat—I liked the sound of it—but as I listened to the lyrics it was impossible not to notice how disempowering and denigrating they were to women.

The singer was asking to be plugged in and turned on, like a machine waiting to be activated. Her words painted her as a passive object stimulated to action only when aroused by a man (Afrojack, 2010). As a popular song I knew it would be familiar to high school students, and I wondered how much they were influenced, consciously or subconsciously, by the message in the lyrics. Even if they do not sit down and think about them, how much of an impact does the repetition of words and phrases have on their developing identity? Admittedly, the concern about how women are objectified in the media is not a new one, and without critical engagement, the impact of the music industry on female gender construction is clearly detrimental. However, our girls seem to be able to listen to songs and watch music videos in which women are represented as scantily clad sex objects, while professing a belief in equality of the sexes and going on to lead successful lives after graduation. The question is: how do teenage girls make sense of this while discovering their own identity and place in the world?

Research conducted by Hamilton (2009), corroborated by International studies such as the AboutKidsHealth publication (2010), identify the significance of Media Literacy units in schools, the powerful influence of parents and the importance of peer role models in counteracting the negative effects of the objectification and sexualisation of girls in the media.  The curriculum at Brisbane Girls Grammar provides units on Media Literacy in English, while in Physical Education students explore issues relevant to women, relating to body image and health. Teachers in other subject areas also seize on “intervention moments” to discuss pertinent points relating to the holistic development of healthy girls. In this way students are equipped with the skills to critically analyse popular culture texts, access information about teenage health issues and engage in discourse on the media’s portrayal of women.

At home, it is important for parents to lend their experience to these conversations by discussing how frequently advertisements, music videos and lyrics, television shows and films portray women in a stereotypical or demeaning manner.  Dr Amantha Imber encourages parents to engage with their daughters in conversations, not lectures, about how women are portrayed in the media (Hamilton, 2009, p.53). While these conversations may be awkward at first, Dr Imber believes that when parents can “talk through the emotional implications of certain behaviour… they help girls begin to form their own boundaries and develop their unique sense of self” (p.53). In addition, the increasing emergence of intellectual role models like nineteen year old Claire Poyser from Melbourne, who is representing Australia at the G(irls) 20 Summit in October this year (Collins, 2011), are demonstrating to young women that they can be empowered and successful in their lives. Whilst celebrating the achievements of females in sport remains important, Ms Poyser is a role model that aligns with the Girls Grammar ethos of exceptional scholarship and intellectual pursuits. Her belief that women should have a voice to “help shape a Women’s Development Agenda on the international stage” is a particularly relevant example for our students.

Even though schools, parents and role models in the community help counteract the negative portrayal of women in the media, it would be a mistake to underestimate the extent of the media’s influence on our girls. The impact of the media, which Hamilton describes as the “super parent” (2009, p.4), increasingly exposes young girls to “a superficial, sexualized way of seeing themselves and their world …[and] they begin to assume that’s what is expected of them.” (p.18) Given that the average teenager consumes over four and a half hours of media per day, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (2010) (iPods, Youtube, MTV, social media sites and TV), it is worrying to speculate on the ideas they may gather from songs and music videos about how a woman should think, feel, behave and appear. If left to process what they observe on their own, teenagers can find themselves in a vacuum with only their peers or social media to help make sense of it. Without proper guidance, the objectification of women in the music industry can have significant and far reaching effects on teenage girls. According to the AboutKidsHealth report (2007), sexual objectification of women can result in girls developing anxiety about their bodies, prioritising their appearance as paramount. Depression, eating disorders, and inappropriate or self-destructive behaviour may then result. Whilst some female artists proudly claim to be feminists, such as Lady Gaga (Lady Gaga interview 2009), the images in their music videos often undermine this intention. “Up to 81% of music videos contain sexual imagery, the majority of which sexually objectifies women … and similar patterns of sexualisation and objectification are present in song lyrics” (AboutKidsHealth, p.2).

In addition, girls are being targeted by advertisements at a younger and younger age. Indeed, research suggests that the marketing industry has begun focusing its campaign on children as young as, or even younger than, two years of age: what Douglas Rushkoff (Popular Culture Expert) refers to as “the future consumer “(Hamilton, 2009, p.7). According to Hamilton “a baby is able to retain brand logos…” (p.1) a fact that was illustrated to me the other week whilst shopping at Coles, when I noticed that my two-year-old daughter pointed to the sign with “the big red hand” and sang “down down”. Although at first I reinforced her behavior with laughter, I soon realized that she was already being influenced by the advertisements seen on television. It is even more alarming when considered in conjunction with what marketing guru James McNeal discovered about drooling babies: that strategic placement of trademarked characters on a baby’s bib or clothes near where they dribble become images that “she gets to know. . . and see as a natural part of her world” (p.7). Sacha Monitorisz’s article about the impact of bad role models in music videos on her daughters highlights this concern about how young girls are being influenced by what they observe. She points out that the “discrepancy in the depiction of genders [in music videos] was startling … The men were subjects; the women were objects” (2011, p.13).

Clearly the goal of schools such as Girls Grammar is to teach girls to be the driver, not the passenger, in their lives. We want them to be the arbiters of their own fate, rather than limiting their life choices based on their gender. By sending your daughter to a school with a curriculum which develops the skills to make balanced choices, where positive and empowering messages and role models are part of their everyday life, you are providing a strong platform for her to develop into a well-balanced and healthy young woman.


AboutKidsHealth (2007, May 11) “Sexy Babies: How Sexualisation Hurts Girls”. Copyright 1999-2004 The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto.

Afrojack, Eva Simmons et al (2010) Take over control. Recorded by Afrojack feat. Eva Simmons. Released as a single, Netherlands. Spinnin’ Records.

Australian Communications and Media Authority (2010). Trends in media use by children and young people. Melbourne: ACMA.

Collins, Sarah-Jane. (2011, August 15). “Girl power aims to change tune of G20 boys’ club”. The Age, (Melbourne). p. 1.

Deveny, Kathleen et al (2007, February 12) “Girls Gone Bad?” Newsweek, Vol 149. Issue 7, p 40.

Hamilton, Maggie (2009) What’s Happening to Our Girls?: Too much, too soon, how our kids are overstimulated, oversold and oversexed. Australia: Penguin Books

Lady Gaga (2011) Born This Way. Recorded by Lady Gaga on Born This Way [CD], Streamline Records.

Molitorisz, Sacha (2011, August 1). ”To kick goals, girls need fewer bad teachers and more grand tourers” The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney) p13.

Nick Night, (2009, August 21) Lady Gaga: In Camera. In the Show Studio pages. Retrieved September 4, 2011 from

Tana Ganeva, (2008, May 24) “Sexpot Virgins: The Media’s Sexualization of Young Girls with M. Gigi Durham,” AlterNet,. Copyright © 2008 Independent Media Institute.


Leave a Reply