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Currents: summary of essays

Margaret Wiley's "Women, Wellness, and the Media" opens with Barbara Barnett's “More Contradictions: A Framing Analysis of Health, Aging, and Feminism in a Magazine for Women Over Forty.” Barnett's stated goal is to generate discussion of media representations of aging women. To this end, she compiled a qualitative textual analysis of More, a magazine for women over forty, to see how it framed health, aging, and femininity. The central frame Barnett finds is that of difference. More suggests its audience is unlike women in previous times: it is a unique generation who will not accept the myth of declining with age. Yet Barnett notes that More's coverage could be better balanced. More's message is that determination and a positive attitude can minimize heath problems, but it ignores the reality that aging women are more likely to have health problems than younger ones. It also creates an idealized forty-something woman rather than offering a richer, more multifaceted characterization. Barnett finds More's messages about aging ambivalent; she also criticizes the publication for making assumptions about audience heterogeneity.

Katherine Boger is the senior director of Alianza Latina Inc. in Buffalo, New York. In “The Sum of Its Parts: Understanding HIV/AIDS as a Comprehensive Women's Issue,” Boger examines the socioeconomic, built environment, and cultural factors impacting the rapid rise of HIV/AIDS in black women. Drawing from a variety of scholars and her personal experience of working with poor minority women with HIV/AIDS, she articulates a wider, more thoughtful approach to preventing HIV/AIDS in poor communities.

“Knowledge of psychiatry is not owned by medicine,” notes Australian psychologist Desiree Boughtwood, author of “Abusing Anorexia: Media, Madness, and Mental Hospitals.” Boughtwood uses a poststructural discourse framework to analyze her interviews with twenty-five adolescent girls hospitalized for anorexia. She looks at the impact that modern films and confessions of high-profile anorexics have on the subjectivity of her anorexic patients and their reactions to their hospitalization. While acknowledging the media's impact, Boughtwood also notes that her patients launch counter discourses, refusing to accept media-based definitions of themselves as “bad, mad, and out of control.”

Joan L. Conners, in “'Pain or Perfection': Themes in Plastic-Surgery Reality Television” observes that the number of Americans undergoing plastic surgery increased 38 percent between 2000 and 2005. She argues that plastic-surgery reality TV shows might be partially responsible for this increase and compiled a convenience sample in 2006 from the following programs: Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, and Plastic Surgery: Before and After. She wanted to ascertain if these shows accurately represent both the demographic undergoing plastic surgery and the dangers patients face in undergoing these procedures. Her findings suggest that these shows feature teenage patients at a higher rate than actually undergo plastic surgery in real life and that little program attention is given to the very real dangers patients face. Conners also raises several ethical questions about plastic-surgery reality TV programs, pointing the way to future research. Are such shows “normalizing” plastic surgery? Are they empowering or disempowering American women and teens? Are they reifying hegemonic beauty ideals?

In “Keeping Away from Those Boys! Talking to Women about HIV/AIDS Prevention,” author Jena Nicols Curtis notes how women are still being given this dated warning, recycled today as “abstinence-only sexual education.” Curtis sees that misinformation and ideology have characterized federally sponsored AIDS education efforts, as she traces these efforts from 1981 to the present. Initially seen as the “gay plague,” AIDS was virtually ignored by the U.S. government until it started appearing in the heterosexual population in 1985. Once in the heterosexual population, AIDS morphed into a middle-class menace, prompting the federal government to place increased emphasis on abstinence-only sex education. Curtis criticizes abstinence-only sex education for being ineffective and for targeting women rather than men. She believes it targets women at least partially because women have been considered the enforcers of sexual morality; their sexuality has been contextualized as less urgent than men's. Furthermore, abstinence-only sex education programs teach that condoms are not always effective; total abstinence followed by marital chastity are presented as the only ways a woman can protect herself and her unborn children from disease. Yet this information is false. A woman can never be sure that her partner has not had sex with other women or with other men. In the United States and abroad, abstinence-only sex education programs harm women in two ways: by disseminating false information and by marginalizing women already infected.

Debbie Danowski examines the messages on the covers of five best-selling U.S. women's magazines during the year 2000 in “Cover to Cover: Contemporary Issues in Popular Women's Magazines.” She looked at Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, Woman's Day, and Redbook, organized their material content into seventeen different categories, and counted how many times each category item appeared. Danowski raises two major concerns about these magazines' Women, Wellness, and the Media cover content. First, the categories of food/cooking and weight loss are the two categories appearing most often. There is a near absence of women's fiction on the front covers of these magazines, and few travel stories are featured. These covers thus stereotype American women, most of whom work outside the home, as being interested primarily in rather narrow topics. Danowski, who has written extensively on eating disorders, is also concerned about the placement of food/cooking articles alongside articles dealing with diet and weight loss. The implications for consumers is that we have to be aware of media messages; this is especially true for teenage girls, who might not have the necessary critical skills to assess such messages.

Carol-Ann Farkas also examines women's magazines in “Well or Weak? The Construction of Knowledge, Aging, and Competence in Women's Wellness Magazines.” She looks at three American fitness magazines—Shape, Fitness, and Self—noting that these magazines define wellness for us, yet these definitions are informed by social forces seeking to limit women's power. Like Danowski, Farkas points out that fitness magazines generate millions in profits, and she criticizes them on several fronts. She asserts that they exploit female insecurity; they give readers information with no context: they give the same credibility to advice from a personal trainer as they do to the latest findings from a research university; and they define the individual woman in terms of success and failure based on her ability to deny and discipline her body. Farkas draws upon readings of Foucault and Merleau-Ponty to argue that rather than trying to help women achieve wellness, these fitness magazines disempower women by reinforcing their obedience as subjects.

Martha N. Gardner's “'Smashing' Philip Morris' Successful Promotion of Virginia Slims Cigarettes through Women's Tennis, 1970–1994,” looks at the social and cultural underpinnings of Philip Morris' long and profitable relationship with women's tennis. Gardner contextualizes the Virginia Slims advertising campaign as it successfully linked smoking with tennis in the 1970s in spite of the 1964 surgeon general's report connecting cigarette smoking to cancer. The campaign marketed a particular kind of woman: not a strident feminist but a fun, attractive, athletic, liberated woman who, of course, liked to smoke Virginia Slims. The campaign deployed language and images to associate the liberated woman who smoked Virginia Slims with both earlier suffragettes and 1970s feminists. The slogan “You've come a long way, baby” subtly referenced women's history. The shorter slogan, “smashing,” brought to mind simultaneously the image of a beautiful woman and the image of a tennis ball whizzing over the net. Thus, in spite of the fact that every box of cigarettes sold in the United States carried the surgeon general's warning that smoking could lead to cancer, Philip Morris successfully marketed cigarettes as a symbol of freedom and strength.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette notes in “Hormone Nostalgia” that one hundred years of menopause demonization should have come to a halt in 2002, when the Women's Health Initiative of the National Institutes of Health ended its hormone replacement therapy (HRT) study because of concerns regarding cancer and heart disease. But it did not, and Gullette points an accusing finger at both the media's failure to accurately cover the HRT debate and the “ageism” rampant in American culture. Gullette, well known for her work on women and aging, wades through the research on HRT, pointing to what should have been obvious to all of us but was not. The problem was estrogen, not menopause. Menopause, instead of being treated as a normal part of every woman's life, was being marketed as a pathological condition requiring medical intervention. Gullette cites medical journals and the popular press and draws the conclusion that the powers that be are invested in demonizing menopause for profit. Gullette, notes that our culture defines what happens to our bodies and tells us how to feel about it. The rhetoric of sickness and health, aging and beauty is, loaded with meaning. She closes the essay with practical suggestions about how readers can resist dangerous, media-driven ideologies.

In “The Selling of Breast Cancer: A Feminist Critique of Breast Cancer–Related Advertisements,” Julia Mason analyzes breast cancer–associated advertisements that appeared in Self magazine's annual October, Breast Cancer Handbook between 2000 and 2006. She notes three troubling aspects of these advertisements: they present a narrow picture of who gets breast cancer; the ads are often coded with implicit messages about race, class, beauty norms, and gender; and they encourage individual, rather than societal responses to cancer, thus obscuring any relationship between the environment and breast cancer. She also looks at the impact of cause-related marketing, a marketing strategy in which a corporation associates itself with a particular cause. Mason notes that the average American who buys a product bearing a pink ribbon label assumes that a chunk of the company's profit will be going to fight breast cancer. Yet use of the pink ribbon is not regulated: consumers have no way of knowing how much they are really contributing to breast cancer–related causes by buying a certain product. Several companies engaging in breast cancer cause-related marketing also produce products that scientists believe are carcinogenic. How sincere are these companies about breast cancer prevention and treatment if they continue to produce chemicals linked to, breast cancer? Moreover, cause-related marketing — like many breast cancer–related advertisements — encourages an individual rather than a societal response to breast cancer. Because significant evidence now links breast cancer to the environment, we need to do more than go shopping. Feminists must demand a societal response to this disease.

Shelly McKenzie, in “Weak Hearts and Wedding Day Figures: Exercise and Health Promotion in the 1960s,” takes us on a romp through 1960s culture, where cold war tensions had reified gender roles, and American women were exercising along with Debbie Drake and Jack La Lanne. McKenzie looks at the period's TV shows, newspapers, and magazines to shore up her argument that American women were being encouraged to exercise not to maintain their own health and well-being but to remain sexually attractive to their husbands. There was little encouragement for men to exercise; many physicians believed that exercise was not that important. Yet the public got concerned as the incidence of coronary artery disease increased in American men. Both the media and the medical community made it clear that good wives took good care of their husband's health. Men, unlike women, were now expected to exercise to stay healthy. But ironically, and in contrast to the amount of information available concerning women's exercise, there was little information in the popular culture of the period as to how much a man should exercise and what sort of activities would be most beneficial. McKenzie suspects that men were just expected to know how to exercise, having grown up in a culture in which boys routinely played sports. Her thoughtful discussion underscores the strong impact gender roles played in getting fit in the sixties.

In “Gladys, Take Your Medicine! Menopause in North American Popular Culture since 1800,” Cheryl Krasnick Warsh notes that cultural ideas about female reproductive status and sexuality inflect the way in which menopause is represented. She discusses nineteenth- and twentieth-century treatments for menopause and points out, as does Gullette, that only women who were troubled by menopause sought medical help; unfortunately, this small percentage of women became the ones whose symptoms defined menopause in medical texts and lectures. Madness and depression seemed to be common themes. Yet physicians ignored the socioeconomic challenges faced by middle-aged women, changes that might cause depression and anxiety, and focused instead on “treating” menopause. Warsh, like other contributors to this volume, decries the modern association of beauty with youth. In the 1930s, synthetic estrogen was synthesized and given to women, even though reports linked it to cancer. Initially, it was supposed to alleviate menopause symptoms. But by 1960, it had become the fountain of youth for older women. Warsh observes that popular culture presents us with few positive images of aging women and draws many examples from television and film to shore up her argument. As the boomers age, one would think that advertisers would pitch their products to this cohort. But, Warsh wryly notes, perhaps they are making too much money selling us pharmaceuticals.

Keira Williams argues in “From 'Monster' to Mentally Ill: The Cases of Susan Smith and Andrea Yates” that cultural changes in the way Americans perceived motherhood shaped media response to two heavily publicized cases of infanticide. In 1994 Susan Smith confessed to murdering her two sons by letting her car roll into a lake. In 2001 Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub in her suburban home. Historically, infanticide has been framed as more about the mother's transgressive sexuality and social climbing than anything about the institution of motherhood itself. Smith, a divorcée seeing a wealthy man who did not want to be involved with small children, seemed to fall nicely into this frame. Yet as her history of sexual abuse and bouts of depression unfolded, the public began to feel sympathy for her. Seven years later, Andrea Yates was seen by society as a victim of postpartum depression. The media did not try to link her behavior to either transgressive sexuality or social climbing. Williams argues that changes in the way our culture configured motherhood were responsible for the way these cases were handled. The 1980s and early 1990s were characterized by an “overwhelmingly idealized version of motherhood.” By the mid-nineties, this idealized version of motherhood came under attack by feminists and mainstream moms alike, who began replacing it with more realistic images. While Williams is quick to agree it is good that society is more aware of postpartum depression, she suggests the consensus on motherhood should not be limited to a discussion of postpartum psychology.

  • by Margaret Wiley