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Desperately seeking role models of intelligence, wit and independence

By Lisa O'Brien - posted Friday, 17 October 2008

Youth Minister, Kate Ellis, and the Federal Government should be applauded for their recent move to combat body image and self-esteem problems among young people by introducing a code of conduct for the media, fashion and advertising industries.

Never before has a generation grown up under a force as constant and omnipotent as today’s media with its ever-growing selection of technological tools to prettify and sex up the images it disseminates.

Scarily, we are only just beginning to see the destructive psychological impact of such exposure. But ironically, the proposed code of conduct - which includes guidelines for the appropriate use of digitally altered photographs in magazines - is a superficial “Photoshop” solution for a much deeper issue that is going to take more than a mouse click or two to fix.


As a result of our constant engagement with the media in all its forms, particularly the Internet, the average person today is more media savvy than all of their ancestors put together. We live in a world where updating the minutiae of our lives via Facebook is de rigueur, and to do anything but post our holiday snaps on photo site Flickr the minute the plane touches down just would not be acceptable.

Before we click “upload”, we just might spend a few seconds using Photoshop or myriad other software to remove red eyes, whiten smiles and deepen the golden hues of tropical sunsets.

In recent years, these picture applications have migrated out of city publishing houses and into the suburban homes of teenagers and young people all over Australia. By and large, we know how they work and what they’re capable of.

This is not to say that we are immune to the effects of manipulated images and their perpetuation of unrealistic ideals of beauty, indeed we are more vulnerable than ever. But flagging the use of Photoshop in editorial and advertising is the easy part.

In a society as image-conscious as ours, the hard part is convincing teenagers and young women that there is more to life than being beautiful. Photoshopped or not, girls do not have to look far to find role models of beauty, but they do have to look a little further to find role models of intelligence, wit and independence. This is where the efforts of the government and youth organisations really need to be targeted, in making the search for inspirational role models in the perilous terrain of the mainstream media an easier one.

A glance at the television guide on any given week provides an interesting insight into the current priorities of the broadcast media.


With only some exceptions, television programs which promote beauty - Make Me a Supermodel, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway - are shown in prime time while programs which feature strong, independent women - The View, The Ellen Degeneres Show, Oprah - are left to languish somewhere between the morning and afternoon school runs. The View especially, which is a ratings winner in the US but still relatively new to free-to-air TV in Australia, is proof that shows made by women, for women, can be about more than the latest face creams and kitchen gadgets.

The talk show features a panel of well-known women, including journalist Barbara Walters and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, debating topical issues in front of a studio audience of hundreds and a television audience of millions. Each weekday, young American women can tune in (even if it is only with a cursory glance over their mothers’ shoulders) to see well-informed women discuss everything from Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s credentials to actress Charlize Theron’s marriage. Furthermore, its messages of empowerment are clear: one recent episode featured an interview with Dreamgirls actress Jennifer Hudson in which it was noted that with Hudson and Goldberg in the studio they were in the presence of “two of the three black women to ever win an Academy Award”.

The View provides regular exposure to women who are witty, intelligent and on TV for more than just their ability to look good in a bikini.

While such shows are generally pitched at women over 35 and do not look to court a younger audience - an audience that the research suggests would rather be surfing the internet anyway - the fact that they exist is encouraging. What is concerning is their lack of Australian counterparts.

Can we blame young women for aspiring to be the next skeletal, bronzed “celebutante” when there is no diversity in the female role models they see in the Australian media? Where are the female journalists and commentators on our screens debating the current economic crisis? Why aren’t Australian actresses and comedians given air time or press pages to discuss the Garnaut report, or the upcoming American election, in a clever and engaging way?

It is the answers to these questions that need to be tidied up first, not the images.

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About the Author

In 2007 Lisa completed a Bachelor of Arts in Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is currently undertaking her Master of Arts in Journalism at the same university. Lisa is a freelance journalist with extensive experience in print publishing. She has written for Time Out Sydney, Girlfriend, MANIA and Blue Mountains Review magazines, as well as Macquarie Network's Amazing Australians website. She is also experienced in sub editing, having edited the Arts and Entertainment section of local Sydney newspaper Precinct.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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