It's been an uncomfortable summer under the klieg lights for the entertainment industry.
First it was lambasted, rightly or wrongly, for abetting a culture of violence that results in tragedies like the Columbine High shooting in Colorado. Then racial and ethnic minorities blasted the industry for the way it portrays, or simply ignores, wide swaths of the American population.
Now, feminists are rallying behind a protest over media representations that stereotype or exploit women - targeting everything from advertisements to television dramas to public-affairs programs.
The trend may indicate that, for a growing number of activist groups, the Washington Beltway no longer represents the epicenter of power. Stymied by a Congress they see as unreceptive to their agendas - or simply recognizing that few Americans seem to notice much that Congress is doing, anyway - they are looking in a new direction to further their goals: Hollywood.
"The private sector is more receptive than the government at this point," says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which recently announced plans to raise public awareness about women's images on the big and small screens. "TV and film viewers feel more empowered than when they look at the Congress. They feel the advertisers will respond, and they will."
NOW hastens to add that it is not abandoning its activism on behalf of political, legal, and economic equality for women. But its concentrated effort to improve media images of women underscores a newfound recognition of the power of the camera - and the entertainment industry's role in influencing public attitudes.
A TV channel of their own?
NOW's quest to give media messages a more feminist flavor will go beyond efforts to "enlighten" the men in charge of most storyboards and lineups. In addition to potential boycotts and a day to unplug the TV, the group will go straight to the public with its own advertisements. It is even creating blueprints for a Feminist Communications Network, which would likely include radio and television programs and content on the World Wide Web.
The ad campaign will be tested in Boston in early 2000 and, if well received, expanded nationally during the height of the election season. Some of the television spots and print ads will highlight issues such as the need for day care. Others will aim to counteract entertainment images of feminists as "ugly, humorless man-haters" - stereotypes that sometimes crop up in campaigns against NOW-backed political candidates, says Ms. Ireland.
Media portrayals of women have improved since the mid-1960s, when NOW was formed and first took up the issue. Far from the days when "housewife" was the most common role, women on screen now reflect much of the diversity of women's work and family lives - with roles ranging from from high-powered lawyer to blue-collar single mom.
But much has worsened. To many girls and women, their counterparts in the media world are too often cast in the role of victim, treated as sex objects, or used to perpetuate the idea that a celery diet is the only way to be beautiful.
The faces on TV
NOW leaders cite studies that show males make up 90 percent of lead characters in children's programming, 87 percent of guests on Sunday public-affairs programs, and about 80 percent of the characters who have decisionmaking roles in the top American films.
"We don't have - behind the scenes or in front of the camera - a visibility or inclusion or a story line that is really helping the quality of our lives," says Helen Grieco, chair of NOW's Feminist Communications Network Task Force.
Not everyone agrees that the status of social groups is shaped so heavily by the media. "Some of that influence is real, but much of it is not," says Todd Gitlin, a professor at New York University and author of a number of books on American culture and the media. "You get media attention by wailing against media,... but visibility is not social power."
But feminists have always seen a link between images and power. A key concern is the degree to which women internalize the limited types of body images in the media. Many see a connection to the incidence of eating disorders.
The rebellion against images that may harm girls' self-esteem is growing, says Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation in New York. "So many parents and teachers are aware of what these images do to girls." And decisionmakers are starting to tune in to these concerns.
"The advertisers themselves are slowly changing," Ms. Wilson notes.
From 'June Cleaver' to Venus Williams
The recognition of women's importance as consumers and the rise of women in sports, she says, are the two biggest reasons for positive changes in how women are being portrayed.
NOW leaders hope to speed a change by adding their own names to the short list of women in control of the media. They gathered a wide array of media-industry figures at NOW's national conference this summer in Los Angeles to plan the launch of a Feminist Communications Network.
"We have a story to tell," says NOW's Ms. Grieco, "and it is not being heard through the male-dominated media conglomerates."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society