I interviewed my Aunt Anne, who is the sister of my mother. She grew up in a household of six, two sisters, a brother, both parents, and herself in Minneapolis Minnesota. After the interview, I concluded that my aunt must have been quite ahead of her time for a girl growing up in the 50’s-70’s based off her answers to many of my questions. I picked up that my aunt was, and still is personally independent of the media. When I asked her if she had a female role model to aspire after, she said there was no one person she wanted to be like. She responded, “There wasn’t any one person that I wanted to say, ‘hey I want to be like her’. What I think I wanted was the opportunity to choose what I wanted. Instead of having the option to be an engineer, I wanted all the chances to be an engineer… I was well aware of stereotyping and what was assumed appropriate, and I was well aware that I did not want to match that. I didn’t want to focus on anything in particular.” When I asked her about TV shows and movies, I found out that my aunt did not watch a lot of TV and going to the movies was not a frequent activity.
“We didn’t have a TV until I was ten and then there was only one in my parent’s room so pretty much everyone watched the same shows. The only show I watched was Mission Impossible. That was the time of variety shows. I also watched Star Trek. I remember women being active characters in Star Trek, but they weren’t in a command position very often. They might be a communications person, but not a navigator. Unsurprisingly, they played secondary roles.” She continued, “When I was growing up women were pretty much barbie dolls when I was a kid. On TV they were housewives, like in the TV series Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and also played nannies like in, The Sound of Music (1959) and nurses. Rarely did you see a movie with a woman as an engineer or plane pilot or anything like that. The whole idea as a little girl, up to the age of twelve, is that women were to be beautiful and take care of men, and be in the professions that are caretakers and teachers. When I got into my teens, that was the beginning of the feminine era with Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidman and civil rights. Then things began to change.”
There was definitely change in women’s roles on TV and in the movies as my aunt points out as well as Guantlett. In the 50’s men were the main focus of the films who “made the decisions which led the story, and were assertive, confident and dominant. Women had important in roles in many films but were far more likely than men to be shown frightened, in need of protection and direction, and offering love and support to the male lead character(s)”. (50, Guantlett). Well, if you were aspiring to be barbie, then for sure you needed a lot of help, and a lot of protection.
The 60’s were not much different with little change. Interestingly, in the 70’s women had noticeably bigger roles and kept getting bigger and more noticeably stronger than before. (However, he does mention that in the early 70’s and 80’s no matter how big the role women played and no matter how action packed, women still had to be saved and protected. ex: Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977). ) So yes, there was change, but tradition still held on tight in the media.
So what did my aunt like? “Books” was her answer, especially old mystery series like Nero Wolf and Nancy Drew. My aunt noted that there has been some improvement of the female roles in the mystery books she’s read over the years like more female detectives and head detectives. Because of the little TV, and the absence of feminine magazines, books dominated much of her time. My aunt pointed out that her family didn’t follow the current pop culture however, it’s not like it was completely out of her life. “My mom was never a leading fashion woman and the rest of us (my siblings and I) never picked it up either. It was something that required too much energy that could have been spent elsewhere. The media never had a huge influence on me even though I went to an all-girls school, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t surrounded by it. I do remember classmates who read Seventeen magazine, priming their eyebrows and wearing certain makeup styles to mimic the ones in the magazine. I was part of the hippie culture where we kind of ignored that stuff. When we got out of uniform, I had 2 pair of pants, blue chords, and 2 brown cords. For me there was no emphasis on what you wore, just as long as you were covered.”.
My aunt lived a privilege life in terms of education. Her father was a doctor, who supported four children that all went to private school in the twin cities and respectable universities afterwards. But it meant there wasn’t a lot left over to spend on clothes, music, and up to date accessories.. “Even though our family looked like a typical nuclear family with a dad in work and a stay at home mom, my dad made sure all of us got a good education” said my aunt. This remark reminded me of the Leslie’s recollection of her father in the chapter “We Didn’t Have Any Hannah Montanas”: Girlhood, Popular Culture and Mass Media in the 1940’s and 50’s. Leslie recollects, “My dad was way ahead of his time…he wanted his four daughters to be able to take care of themselves and not have to be dependent on a man. And I thank him for that”. (123). Doesn’t look like all men of the late twentieth century expected women to wear high heels and skirts for the rest of their lives.
Although my aunt seemed to pay less attention to the female roles molded for her by media, she still had her favorite movies, and books she enjoyed. When I asked her what her favorite movie was and why she responded “Probably The Sound of Music because I like music, and the mountains, and it’s kind of a cool story about escaping from the Germans during World War II. Yes, Maria was a nanny, but she was strong. She had to wake up every morning, was in control of seven children, and was (in the story) a major influence getting them out of Germany. Maria was not a doormat, but at the same time I don’t ever remember thinking I wanted to be like her. I don’t remember any movie where I want to be just like some character.”
In a way, just because a lot of movies might follow the stereotypical gender roles, doesn’t mean a person who watches them hopes to fit into those positions. Author Janice Winship supported this from her novel Inside Women’s Magazines (1987): “I felt that to simply dismiss women’s magazines was also to dismiss the lives of millions of women who read and enjoyed them each week”. (54, Gauntlett) Similarly, by bashing movies that featured stereotypical women’s roles could be seen as laying off the women who watch them for fun. I believe it’s important to understand that difference, even though at first it might seem backwards.
Women’s profiles in the media have changed, whether it be in movies, music, theatre, advertisements, clothing etc…Although my aunt didn’t familiarize herself with a lot of popular culture of her time and today’s, one thing I thought worth pointing out in her last remark about the changing roles of women in media, was on the Minnesota Orchestra which is something she has enjoyed for much of her life. “The Minnesota Orchestra used to have auditions for places where applicants played for the judges, but now they do a blind auditions, so judges don’t know if its a man or woman playing. When they started doing that more women made up the orchestra. When you think about a blind auditions, there are very few professions where you can display your competence without them seeing your face, or indicating your gender. If you look at the violin section now, there are so many women there and same with the cello section. There are still instrument sections that are mainly dominated by men (the brass for instance) but there’s a lot more women in the orchestra than when I first started.” The funny thing is, I don’t think twice about whether the soloist on the radio is a female or male, all that matters is how well they play and not the gender which I believe is how it should be. Times have definitely changed.
Even though a lot of the media requires gender identity for their entertainment, (like role casting etc…) I think the orchestra observation is a small example of how women are filtering the workforce more and more. It’s a small step in a big staircase but still significant. More women in the orchestra gives them a bigger shot at getting a solo, and maybe someday becoming a conductor. In the film industry, the more women in powerful leading roles, the more society will have to recognize women are just as capable as men in many of the traditional male positions from the past. In the past forty years women have seen a lot of role change, and I would also like to add men too, especially in the twenty-first century. Today, it’s not certain that superman will always be the one to save the day.