The air we breathe: Our responsibility as youth media educators

Posted on: Thursday, July 26 2012


By Ingrid Hu Dahl, Director of Next Gen Programs
“What does it mean for the 3rd highest grossing film of all time – The Avengers – to have two female characters that don’t talk to each other and out of seven superheroes in the film, only one is a woman?” 
Pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian raised this question last week to a number of young people across the nation, including students in BAVC’s Web Native summer program, who watched her Mozilla livecast.
Sarkeesian’s question alluded to The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies, cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s now-popular three-point criteria for rating representations of women in mainstream Hollywood film. To pass, a movie needs to have a) at least two named female characters who b) talk to each other c) about something besides a man. Bechdel’s criteria sounds simple, but you would be surprised at how many movies fail to get full marks (The Avengers only passed 1 out of 3 tests). 
This dearth of meaningful representations of women in popular media is a frequent topic on Sarkeesian’s video blog series Feminist Frequency. Recently, Sarkeesian has endured an appalling amount of online harassment and violent threats due to her Kickstarter campaign to raise money for film productions that examine gender in video games. Jay Smooth gets it right in his video response to what he calls the “massive cyber harassment and misogynist bullying” directed at Sarkeesian.

But plenty of dudes aren’t watching, or listening, and their continued harassment of Sarkeesian reveals a deeper, incredibly troubling, and misogyny-fuelled stubbornness when it comes to the media status quo being challenged. As Sarkeesian explained during the Mozilla livecast, “the media has a big role in how we view ourselves, other people, and the way we think about the world. When we are told recurring myths and stereotypes over and over again, we tend to think of these messages as fact.”
So how do you change the message? Sarkeesian’s voice is important in pushing the conversation forward. And as attested to by the despicable response of her detractors, there is still a long way to go. She is an inspiration for the kinds of conversation all media organizations who work with youth should be having.  As she explains, “Critiquing media is not just complaining and talking badly about it. It’s because we want [media] to be better and accessible to everyone.” 
With access comes responsibility. As a youth media educator, I feel my duty lies not just in empowering the next generation to share their stories via new media tools, but to help them wield that power ethically in order to create something inspiring, innovative, and forward-thinking. I want youth who are itching to go against the grain, to be mindful that they aren’t merely putting old, tired and hurtful stereotypes in new packaging. “The media is one component of a larger, social equation,” Sarkeesian stated in the livecast.  “We all interact with the media more and more – it's the air that we breathe. And it is in our best interest to make sure that the air isn’t full of toxic racism and sexism.”