Girlhood and Media in the South

My mom was born in 1950 in the state of Georgia. She grew up with a younger brother, a librarian mother, and a father who was a veteran of WWII and a manager of the Georgia Power Company.

Because her mother was a librarian and a teacher, learning and academics were highly valued in their family. After school my mom and her brother would spend the afternoons in the library while my grandmother worked.

She read all of the “teen” books like Nancy Drew, but also branched out into sections of the library and was intrigued by politically oriented books for adult readers.

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She traces her interest in politics to when she was 10 years old during the summer of the Democratic National Convention. She remembers watching it with her Grandpa in his farm house and being very interested and curious about the political process and the Kennedys.

When I asked if she had an idol or hero/heroine, she recalled the Kennedys being her celebrities. Jackie Kennedy especially was treated like a star by the media because of her attractiveness, glamor, and connection to the political realm. My mom likened the media’s treatment of Jackie to Princess Di or Kate Middleton.

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Although she had celebrities she identified with, my mom did not mention or relate to the “rabid fandom” mentioned in the reading, similar to the women in the study.

My mom’s exposure to media was primarily facilitated by the media that the adults around her were watching. She also watched the Yankees games with her grandparents and listened to the Braves’ home games on the radio out on the porch. She remembers the emphasis being more about spending time together and the company of the people your are watching with, as opposed to the media being consumed.

Music wise, my mom and her family listened to the records of the popular “classics” of the time, such as Sinatra and Andy Williams. They also listened  to “church music” like Handel’s Messiah. Similar to the women in the reading, my mom played the piano as did her mother. However, she did not seem to be as affected by popular music as the women in the article.

At home, my mom’s family watched sitcoms on Saturday nights. It was incorporated into the evening ritual as the children had their fingernails trimmed and they prepared for church the next morning.

My mom related how she was not aware of the sexism of the shows while she was a child. However, when she went back and watched them as an adult, she found shows like “The Honeymooners” to be difficult to watch and “degrading to women.” When looking back, she said she now sees the husband as abusive.

Since her family situation, and those surrounding her, was very normative and reflected the stereotypical gender roles portrayed on screen, she did not question gender roles.

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On Saturday mornings, my mom and her brother would watch cartoons. She remembered Popeye most clearly. She remembered the feisty but weak character of Olive Oil and likened it to the character of Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan from the show M*A*S*H. Both female characters were highly sexualized and given just enough agency to be entertaining, but not enough to be effective on their own.

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My mom pointed out that the character of Olive Oil was absolutely helpless and indecisive and is constantly being won over by Popeye. On the other hand, Major Houlihan was a nurse (though still not a doctor) in the middle of a Vietnam war zone, which exhibits a little more agency.

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Unlike several of the women in the study, my mom did not mention “a desire for strong female characters.” I asked if having a brother affected the media she was exposed to or made her realize that she did not have a relatable female character while her brother could take his pick. She responded that since she was not exposed to media that gave her the option of a strong female role model, she did not know that she should miss it. She did not feel entitled to a strong female character.

This lack of female characters created a situation in which her main role models became the political figures of the time, her teachers in school, and the people with whom she interacted. Her grandmother became a role model for much of my mom’s life. My mom describes her as “loving, capable, and balanced;” not adjectives used to describe the average woman displayed in media of that time.

It seems that through spending time with the real people in her life my mom identified more with them instead of characters or personas created within the media. This is similar to the article which states that “most participants rejected the idea that media characters or personalities were role models, instead of identifying real people as having influenced them” (Hains, Stern, Mazzarella 124).

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2 thoughts on “Girlhood and Media in the South

  1. I do a lot of research on the history of celebrity gossip, and in the 1960s, there was no bigger celebrity than Jackie — it’s like if we take our fascination with Kate Middleton and mix it with Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber.

    I like how you mention that your mom relied on actual people in her life as role models — but I wonder what happens when you don’t feel that your mom, or anyone close to you, is the type of role model you seek? Or do they just become your role models because your mom is your mom, and thus automatically a role model?

  2. I think what you say about education being valued is very interesting. It relates to what I wrote about, in terms of accessibility being very important to the consumption of women in our mothers’ generation. For my mother, education and reading was not very encouraged, but then she had no women figures in her life that had much to do with education.

    My mom’s response to a lack of female role models was also similar, turning to the news, especially TIME magazine, for more powerful and influential characters. Like your mother, mine was also oblivious to the sexism involved in every tv program; it was just normal. My mom says that had she been the oldest child in the family, perhaps her perception would have been different–this makes me wonder if your mother had been younger than her brother and seen that she was not allowed the same experiences as he was (in terms of role models, for example), would she have recognized the sexism in MASH?

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