The other day I saw Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the First Lady of San Francisco, speak at the Commonwealth Club about women and the media. She’s producing a very ambitious documentary called “Miss Representation,” about how the media under-represents women in positions of power and influence. She showed a short clip of the film, which included snippets of a impressive line up of women, from Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice to Katie Couric, Margaret Cho and Jane Fonda.
Throughout the talk, a sweet 10-year-old girl wearing fuzzy pink and green legwarmers sat with her aunt on my left, sewing contentedly.
‘How cool,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I can start taking my kids to stuff like this soon instead of stupid Disney movies.’
I admit, I am shielded from many of the negative images of women in the media, because I’ve mostly opted out of pop culture (except for those Disney princess movies we can’t seem to escape…Well, at least that last one wasn’t so bad). Sometimes I watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report while I fold the laundry, but that’s about it for TV. My husband and I love movies but we’ve all but given up trying to watch them after the kids go to bed, because we can’t stay awake long enough. And I’m one of those obnoxious snobs who actually prefers reading The New Yorker to reading People. Outside of music, my knowledge of pop culture is embarrassingly paltry.
“Do you know who LeBron James is?” my husband asked me the other day. (He likes to plumb the depths of my ignorance every once in a while.)
“Some kind of sports guy?”
“He’s the most famous basketball player in the world.”
“See? A sports guy!”
“Don’t ever change, Katrina…”
So how could the media possibly affect me? Because millions of other people are watching it, and it’s profoundly affecting them. Newsom said it best:
“If you can see it, you can be it. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
The media is our society’s muse. It attends to our collective consciousness. Whether we watch it or not, like it or not, it propels (or limits) our collective imagination. So when our society is bombarded with images of madonnas and primadonnas, princesses and whores, these images worm their way into our understanding of what a woman is.
Where do working moms fit in here?
I asked that question and Newsom had a couple really interesting things to say.
She told us about an interview she did with a big network executive (a woman) who said that the network had to be very careful about integrating working moms into television story lines, because every time they did, the viewers would flood the network with complaints.
Despite the fact that half of all U.S. workers are women, despite the fact that more than 70% of mothers in America work outside the home, there are still a lot of people out there who find the concept of a mother working distasteful. They don’t believe we can adequately take care of our children if we work.
Who’s running the show here? Is the problem that the public doesn’t see strong, compelling, likable working mom characters, and this limits their imagination? Are viewers truly so resistant to the idea of mothers working that the network’s hands are tied? Or is it the network executives who are resistant? Are the working mothers too busy to watch television, let alone lodge a complaint, so the networks only hear from the small minority of people who can’t relate?
Newsom also said we need stories of capable fathers. Fathers who once knew best are now invariably hapless, incapable, comical characters who can’t hold a job, be faithful to their wives, or take care of children. Homer Simpson is funny, but surely there’s room for other kinds of dads, too. (Yes, even I know who Homer Simpson is.)
This trend to infantilize fathers hurts women; it reinforces the idea that the burden of parenting belongs with the mother alone. And it hurts fathers, too. I know so many fathers (my husband, my cousin Eliot, all those wonderful dads at my kids’ schools) who are loving, capable, thoughtful, reliable parents. They do housework, handle many kid logistics, make compromises in their work schedules to accommodate their families, and do just fine with the kids when mom has to go away on a business trip. A few of them stay at home with their young kids while mom works. The hapless daddy stereotype is a stigma they don’t deserve.
These dads aren’t an anomaly. A recent Newsweek column described how male behavior and attitudes are shifting in surprising ways. For example, they’re spending more time with their children:
…Millennial fathers—those under 29—spend an average of 4.3 hours per workday with their kids, which is almost double that of their counterparts in 1977. A Families and Work Institute report found that these young dads are actually now spending more time each day with children under 13 than mothers between the ages of 29 and 42 are with their own.
They’re doing more housework:
…while women still do most of the housework, men are becoming far more familiar with the sponge and vacuum cleaner, particularly less educated men. Between 1965 and 2003, college-educated men did 33 percent more housework than they did before, and men who never completed high school did 100 percent more, according to research from Oxford University.
And they’re deeply conflicted about working long hours. Studies show married men are now feeling more torn over balancing work and family than their wives are.
We need more stories, better ones, about real women and men raising real families, doing the best they can with what they have, genuinely struggling to do their best as parents, as workers, as citizens, and sometimes all three at once.
I turned to my 10-year-old seat partner when Newsom’s talk was over.
“So what did you think?” I said. “Did you learn anything?”
“Nah, I wasn’t listening,” she said. “But look, I made this.” Then she stood up and show me the new fuzzy pink tube skirt she’d just finished.
What do you think? What stories do you want to see?