Grown Up “Mean Girls” - Women's Foundation California

Maternity leave has granted me many wonderful things: precious, irreplaceable time with my new son, Julian; long walks rediscovering Golden Gate Park; humbling moments of wonder as we try to understand a new language of cries, grunts and giggles. And, morning television shows.

Not surprisingly, our mornings start early. If I’m on my game, the dishes from last night’s dinner are already done and the coffee is prepared. There’s time to get a mug of liquid energy with cream and turn on my favorite morning news program before Julian settles in for his breakfast. The show covers top news stories, celebrity gossip and some helpful household tips (did you know you could cover scratches in wood with shoe polish? It really works!).

Wednesday’s program offered something more disturbing, back-to-back stories covering the rise of cyber bullying among “mean girls” followed by an interview with the cast of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, replete with a scene in which one of the cast members curses out another and then flips a table over in a rage. The cast tells the interviewer that we can look forward to more hair pulling and even nastier gossip on season two. Really? Does anyone else notice the irony?

What does it say when news programs cover tragedies like the bullying-induced suicide of Phoebe Prince followed by the glorification of adult bullying that passes for entertainment? Is there some fine, invisible line between reality and reality TV? Is it a travesty to see children oppress each other but titillating to see adults do it?

Bullying is not a new phenomenon. But technology makes this cruelty faster, meaner and more anonymous. Bullying by text, email and social networking has parents and school administrators concerned. Yet, television producers are willing to pay non-actors to bash and betray each other while we watch with a mixture of shock and glee. And must I state the obvious? Most of these programs showcase women pitted against other women. Is sexism so internalized that we don’t notice how we participate and co-create its persistence?

Those who know me know that I love television, movies and the trappings of popular culture. I love a good story, and I know the names of the characters on some of TV’s trashiest shows. But I’m different now. I’m a mother. And I listen, watch and absorb media through a different lens. I now feel uneasy tearing up at the story of a girl so beaten down by her peers that she takes her own life, and then flipping the channel to see the fight between Snooki and another girl on “Jersey Shore.” I’m not sure I can do that anymore. I hope I can’t.

I know that television will not change simply because I stop watching certain programs. But I can be a thoughtful consumer, and I can teach my son to watch with a critical eye and to speak up if he is bullied or if he witnesses the bullying of others. For now, I can simply turn off the TV and watch my boy. He’s far more entertaining.

Find out more about media literacy and media advocacy from Women’s Foundation of California grant partners: Reach-LA, Khmer Girls in Action and Yo! Youth Outlook.

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