THE BLOG

#BraveGirlsWant to End Stereotypes, But What They NEED Is YOU

08/27/2013 04:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)

The past few years have seen a massive groundswell in activism, fueled by social media, focused on challenging stereotypes and addressing media inequities. The newest venture, international in ambition, is the Brave Girls Alliance. Started by girl empowerment activists, the Alliance is determined to raise awareness of both issues and encourage people to use the power of their voices and pocketbooks. They want to work with media creators, retailers and large corporations to help them move away from negative stereotypes and sexualization into more empowering options.

The first step the group took was to host a Twitter party using the hashtag #BraveGirlsWant. The response overwhelmed the organizers. More than 1,500 tweets and 3.5 million impressions were generated in during the hour-long event.

"The tweets and posts are inspiring," says Inês Almeida, one of the organizers. "People are agitating for change. This is a great way for us to engage companies in inclusive and future-driven discussion."

That online conversation, held just a few weeks ago, has organically grown into a formal network.  The group, led by Almeida in Australia, and Melissa Atkins Wardy in the US, is a quickly growing network of experts activists, parents, small business owners, authors, and girls determined to raise awareness of how destructive stereotypes are and to encourage people to use the power of their pocketbooks to fight back.

The alliance's ambitious next step is "Brave Girls Want to Take Over Media." The team, which is entirely virtual, has set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to pay for electronic billboards in Times Square and other similarly prominent venues globally. They have 16 days left to raise just over half of the fund needed for the Times Square campaign.

Ideally, they hope to project their messages on the ABC Disney Billboard in Times Square.  This is a deliberate choice given the nature of the movement. It is entirely possible that Disney or ABC will decline.  Members of BGA were instrumental in forcing Disney to abandon its "sexified Merida" makeover earlier this year.

"Over the course of 7 days, curated tweets and messages from our communities will be displayed on a billboard," says Wardy. "We will take up 4 minutes per hour from 6 am to 2 am, we hope to display 40 messages/tweets from around the world per hour."

The group is targeting the week of October 11th of October, the 2nd International Day Of The Girl, for the campaign. Last year, on the same day, Almeida left her corporate IT job and used her life savings into creating Toward the Stars, a website that sells healthy products for girls. She is also the creator of 7 Wonderlicious, a girl adventure app for kids ages 3-7.

Demanding that companies like Disney develop non-stereotyped and realistic portrayals and images is no small or simple task. This affects every aspect of their businesses: characters, merchandising, products, clothing, toys, books, magazines, websites, music, television, movies, social networks, advertising. It's ALL media that reaches children.

Peggy Orenstein, who has signed on as a supporter of the group, wrote about how Disney's $4 billion a year princess category, which did not exist prior to 2000, has indelibly shaped the childhood imagination. Her Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a funny, albeit deeply disturbing romp through the hold that this archetype has on children.  A recent Buzzfeed post catalogued decades of content that portrays ethnic and racial minorities in egregiously biased ways. Disney is not alone, of course. These tropes permeate our media. Last year, researchers at two major American universities, conducted a study that found that the more television a child watches the lower the child's self-esteem. That was true for all children... except young white boys. Children's sense of themselves and their capabilities are derived from the stories we tell them and the degree to which they see themselves reflected in culture. We aren't telling our children good stories -- in TV, games, movies, apps, or toys.

You would think, given the occasional flare-up of bad press, that taking the approach suggested by advocates like those involve in BGA would make sense to these companies, who often end up only when their gross use of stereotypes sufficiently angers enough people.

The hard truth is that many people like and believe gender stereotypes. They are, indeed, the stuff that traditions are made of. They are safe, predictable, easy and unchallenging. They can also be, for parents and grandparents doing the buying, nostalgic and comforting.  But, they are, without a shred of doubt, harmful. Organizations like this alliance,  Pink Stinks, Everyday Sexism Project and Miss Representation document these harms every day.

The use of gender stereotypes for marketing, particularly the gendered color-coding of childhood, is relatively recent. The marriage of faster processing technology, data mining and processing capabilities and globalization means that marketing virtually requires gender stereotypes in order to be profitable. The idea of one-to-one, targeted advertising has limitations until one-to-one customized products are ubiquitously and cheaply available. Gender stereotypes remain the simplest, cheapest, most cost effective way to make massive quantities of marketing data actionable.

And, whereas have become more conscious of overtly racist and ethnic stereotypes, they are loathe to put gender in the same category of sensitivity.  This doesn't mean ridiculous stereotypes about race and ethnicity don't produce awful products that convey racist messages. They surface with depressing regularity, and globalization makes that more likely. But gender is a baseline segmentation tool for the purposes of developing products, particularly for children. As noted last year in The New York Times by Elizabeth Sweet, "Imagine walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the "Inner-City Street Corner" building set and a "Little Rapper" dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a "Hotel Housekeeper" dress.

Additionally, because major brands and media enterprises are global, traditional gender stereotypes often translate well as the cheapest way to create transnational products.  There is also, of course, the reality that people buy products that reinforce their assumptions about gender, race and sexuality.

"At every turn our society is sending messages about girls and women that research has shown to be unhealthy and damaging. We've heard it a hundred and two times, how this media can lead to depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, poor school performance, risky sexual behavior, drug abuse," explains Wardy, whose book, Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween, is due out in early 2014. "We are taking that conversation to the people who need to hear it most. We need better representations of body image, female protagonists, diversity, gender equality, and an end to the sexualizing of female bodies."

The pigeon-holeing of girls into the lowest common denominators of glitter, sex and hetero-normative femininity is well-documented. Two years ago, Miss Representation, a documentary about media representations of girls and women, demonstrated in disturbing detail how media continues to emphasize and often reducing female characters' value, to their physical appearance, usually as white, thin, sexy and passive. Year after year research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media confirms the persistence of this reality and its effects year after year after year.

The founding group, which began as a think tank of girl empowerment experts, is collaborative volunteer effort that includes a diverse group of teachers, activists, psychologists, parents and organizations doing work in this area.  Among the members is SparkSummit, a global girl-fueled activist movement that will engage girls to participate directly. The group is also asking interested individuals and organization to sign on by contacting them. Together, the individuals and organizations that make up the BGA collectively represent nearly a quarter of a million people. That is a lot of consumers wanting change, but a small fraction of the ultimate desirable number.

This week, tonight, Tuesday, 27 (9:00 pm New York, 11:00 Sydney) and Thursday, 29 August 2013, (4:00 pm New York, 21:00 London) the group is hosting two more #BraveGirlsWant twitter parties.

As Lori Day, a child psychologist and advisor to the group put it in her excellent article, 'The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations for Girls,' resistance to simply asking for fair and multi-dimensional representations of girls, all girls, is high.  People interpret pro-girl advocacy as an assault on boys and confuse loss of privilege with oppression. Many are disdainful, dismissive and aggressive in their objections. "The world will be a better and a more just place for both males and females when power and leadership are equitably shared, and that all begins in childhood.... No, I do not have something better to do with my time than try to make the world a better place for girls and women."

What You Can Do

Check out the site, the #BraveGirlsWant twitter parties and Indiegogo Campaign. In addition, the websites of member organizations as of today include great information about media and childhood.