Hollywood Gets Heat For Being Clueless About Images of Girls

Experts worry that teens get mixed messages: Parents and schools say, 'Don't have sex.' The media say, 'Be sexier.'

As a young teenager, Chely Rodriguez of Carpenteria, Calif., dreamed a dream shared by many girls: She wanted to be an actress and a model.

At 13, with her parents' permission, she enrolled in classes at a modeling agency. "They put me on a very strict diet," recalls Chely, who was then 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. "They said, 'Get down to a Size 3.'" The agency also told her to read fashion magazines and watch "Beverly Hills 90210." She thought, "This is what I have to look like to be an actress."

Friends introduced her to diet pills. She starved herself, and her weight dropped to 98 pounds. She wore Size 1 clothes.

"I wanted to be like the popular, typical girl you see on TV," explains Chely, now 18. "I just wanted to fit into society, and be thin."

Be thin. Be beautiful. Be sexy.

Hour after relentless hour, those messages bombard American girls through television, movies, magazines, and ads. Sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, they send powerful signals about ideals of beauty. In the process, critics say, they erode confidence, create eating disorders, and injure health.

Now advocates for girls hope to change those messages. For three days earlier this month, nearly 200 parents, educators, Hollywood executives, magazine editors, and teenagers gathered in Los Angeles to consider ways to improve media images of girls. Many participants at the event, sponsored by the California-based advocacy group Children Now, want more diverse representations of body size, race, and beauty.

As one measure of the problem, nearly 40 percent of girls surveyed by Girls Inc., a national group serving girls and young women, said that their world is almost never shown on TV.

"People are portrayed as perfect, but the wrong kind of perfect," says Nicole Riddle, a teenager in Los Angeles. "Instead of being straight-A students or good in sports, they're perfect beauty-wise and popularity-wise. But that's not going to matter unless you graduate."

Even for actresses who epitomize this narrow standard of beauty, a darker side exists. Jessica Klein, producer of "Beverly Hills 90210," has had to take cast members aside and tell them to eat. "I say, 'You look horrible.' They don't know it."

Crossing a line

No one is suggesting that appearance is not part of the culture. "Pretty is one thing," says Susan Douglas, author of "Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media" and the mother of a six-year-old daughter. "Sexy is different. That's the line we're all concerned about."

As that line gets crossed with increasing regularity in movies and on TV, child specialists worry that American children are getting two kinds of sexual information. One message, says Mary Pipher, author of "Reviving Ophelia," a bestseller about teenage girls, comes from people who love them. "They say, 'Don't have sex yet.' They want girls to be more mature. The other is from the media. We couldn't send them a worse message."

Jane Delano Brown, a professor of mass communications at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, criticizes TV and movie producers for often failing to show three C's: commitment, contraceptives, and consequences. "There's little commitment in relationships, and more sex outside marriage than in it," she says. "There's barely any contraceptive use, and seldom any consequences."

Ms. Klein defends "90210," noting that the program shows commitment and consequences.

Teenagers and parents also complain about the lack of strong roles for young women. They point out that girls are often shown in their bedrooms, rather than playing sports and being outside.

Offering one reason for these continuing stereotypes, some critics note that many Hollywood producers still believe girls will watch a program with a male lead, but boys won't watch a show with a female lead.

Industry executives defend their productions. "There's nobody in Hollywood trying to figure out ways to undermine the culture," says Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television. Still, he believes parents should spend "a lot more time" watching TV with their children.

Magazines are highly influential

Some parents, including Ms. Douglas, bristle at that suggestion. Explaining that she does watch television with her daughter, she adds, "When Jack Valenti [president of the Motion Picture Association of America] says, 'If you don't like what's on, turn it off,' I say, 'You come to my house and read her "Ivanhoe." ' I think that is a completely ignorant and arrogant thing to say to parents."

Hollywood hardly deserves all the blame. In Dr. Brown's view, magazines may be the most influential medium for teenagers. They contain "a lot of sex, and it's highly salient," she says.

Advertising, too, contributes to unrealistic images. Too often, ads present "an ideal standard of beauty that virtually excludes everyone," says Jean Kilbourne of Newton, Mass., who has studied images of women in advertising for 25 years.

"A nation of girls who felt good about themselves would be bad news for many advertisers," says Dr. Kilbourne. "They wouldn't smoke, they wouldn't drink wine coolers, they wouldn't refuse to leave the house without makeup. It doesn't mean they wouldn't wear makeup, but maybe they wouldn't feel naked without it."

Despite the criticism, producers and editors see positive things happening. On network TV, Klein cites the popularity of celebrities such as Rosie O'Donnell, who is a plus size, as encouraging. Others praise cable network Nickelodeon for including diverse faces and showing strong girls in programs such as "Alex Mack" and "Clarissa Explains It All."

In print media, Seventeen magazine now uses occasional plus-size models in photos. A monthly feature called "School Zone" highlights a different high school each month, showing "real girls with real bodies," says executive editor Roberta Caploe.

Another article focused on what it's like to be the smartest girl in the class. "We're showing them there is more to their world than what size bathing suit they wear," Ms. Caploe says.

Advocates for girls want to frame these issues not just as random problems but as a public health issue, similar to safe driving and smoking. "You cannot show anyone on TV now without showing them buckling up a seat belt," Klein says. "You can't show good guys smoking anymore. As long as we have TV showing sexuality, what's wrong with increasing safe sex?"

Others want to include abstinence messages.

Nor are young women the only ones needing positive images. "It's important for TV to offer role models not only of girls who are strong and adventurous but of boys who are nurturing and can change the baby," says Brown Johnson, a senior vice president at Nickelodeon.

A tip sheet

For producers and editors, critics offer suggestions for improving gender roles. Among them:

* Create roles in which girls are valued for things other than sex and beauty.

* Tell girls they have options, choices, and some control in their lives.

* Show more girls cooperating with each other - solving problems, playing sports - instead of competing over boys.

* Show more girls in front of computers.

* Finally, listen to the voices of girls themselves.

One voice already speaking out belongs to Chely. Although she eventually recovered from her eating disorder, she challenges Hollywood executives to offer better examples for teens. She also wants to see more Latinas on TV.

"You guys should just take a little time out of your day to spend with us to see what it's really like, instead of just assuming everything," Chely says. "We're the future, and your shows shouldn't always be a fantasy version of life."

Adds Linda Ellerbee, president of Lucky Duck Productions, "If we could show real women in the real world doing real things and succeeding, we could live with the Barbie dolls. We must recognize that we are more than we are reflected on the air."

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