When you are a child, ‘adult’ things seem terribly serious and important to you, if not a little bit scary. One of those ‘adult’ things is the news. The news is so serious that the adults in your life can get a bit argumentative when they are discussing it, and they adopt that serious grown-up voice that indicates something is important. As a child you are not mature enough to join in, and anyway you know it’s not your place to have opinions, but you soak up the message that this is what the adult world involves : you know that one day, when you are properly grown- up, you yourself will be expected to join in and take it seriously. It is something that you aspire to.
When you are very little, and impressions are continually forming about the world around you, you can get things a little wrong or mixed up. Both my children for example believed for many years that Huw Edwards was the prime minister. Why else would he be telling the nation the news every evening? Who else would be qualified to do the job…? I only found out they believed this many years later, because of course they eventually realised their mistake and thought to tell me. Crucially they had not thought to tell me when they believed it to be true, BECAUSE THEY BELIEVED IT TO BE TRUE. And because they didn’t ask, they didn’t find out.
(I myself, growing up in Chester in the 1960s, believed for many years that Liverpool was the capital of England and the Beatles ran the country. I realise now how wrong I got that – the Beatles actually ruled THE WORLD…)
Anyway… the point is that children absorb an enormous amount of information in their everyday lives, some of which they ask you about and some of which they don’t. Some things can seem so obviously true to a child that they don’t think to ask or to question. And this is where the ‘news’ as a thing can have such a strong influence. Something that adults take so seriously and which is available every day, both in media and print form, can have the stamp of authenticity to it, can be seen as part of the establishment, even part of the government (of course, in some countries it IS part of the government, but that’s another story…) To a child then, this is like an officially-sanctioned part of the ‘truth’ of the society to which they belong : stories and images are legitimised by appearing on the 6 o’clock news or in the daily paper in the way that they are not when they appear in children’s programmes or comics.
To some extent of course this is also true for adults : things are taken more or less seriously according to the context in which they appear. Adults too are influenced by media, but it is even more pronounced in children, who have yet to develop sophisticated critical faculties.
The depiction of women in the media is problematic, not because we want to protect our children from sex (although we might want to do that as well), but because it tells a false story in a space which is meant to be THE TRUTH. This is a powerful thing. It can override the messages that children hear from their parents and teachers, partly because experiential learning is more effective than being told something. If a parent tells you that it is important to be kind and hard-working, but what you EXPERIENCE every day is that it is important to have big tits (remember – the newspaper makes this seem ‘serious’), then the big tits thing can win out. Similarly, if a teacher tells you in media studies (that’s if you’re lucky enough to get media studies in the first place…) that Page 3 and similar images are airbrushed and photoshopped and therefore unrealistic, but the boys in your school compare you to them every day, then once again the experience is likely to win out over the facts. How the images are EXPERIENCED on an emotional level can have dire consequences for girls, WHETHER OR NOT they understand analytically how and why these images exist.
Add to this the fact that if anything is repeated often enough it eventually takes on a kind of truth of its own, whether or not it started out as a lie or a joke or ‘just a bit of fun’. The act of repetition legitimises things, as advertisers know very well. In this way images such as the Sun’s page 3 effectively ‘advertise’ to viewers the wares on show and make them seem normal and desirable.
If we as adults respond as we do to advertising (and we do), then it becomes impossible to argue that children, with their developing minds, are NOT affected by what they see around them every day, and NOT at all influenced by it. We should be very legitimately concerned about what our children, and other people’s children, are seeing every day, and just how this might be shaping the adults of tomorrow.
My children eventually realised their mistake about who read the news, and I learned that I’d got it wrong about the capital, because subsequent experience cancelled out the false beliefs. This process is harder to rely on in the case of the depiction of women, because the images are getting more and more ubiquitous : where the Sun blazed a trail in re-branding soft porn, the Star and the Sport have followed, and the lads mags have contributed to the mainstreaming of porn by placing themselves squarely on supermarket shelves. At the same time there has been a failure to depict enough women in successful roles to counterbalance this increasingly narrow view of women’s worth; in fact, on the contrary, successful women are often judged on similar criteria to the ‘glamour’ models, so that they are reduced to their appearance or ‘hotness’ whatever else their achievements might be. This obviously serves to reinforce the message of what women are for, as seen in media images which are visible every day.
In short, we don’t want our children growing up in this media landscape, not because nudity is a bad thing, but because the depiction of nudity is almost entirely focussed on women : women who are very young, white, slim but with large breasts, and sexually passive and available. It is an image that is distorting and objectifying and very very limiting, but it is an image that now proliferates to the extent that girls growing up today might find that their early mistaken beliefs about the role of women in our society might never be corrected as they grow older.