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Mixed messages

Girls Re-Cast TV takes issue with programming

The medium is the message.

The medium is the massage.

Had he hung around long enough, Marshall McLuhan might have added this insight: The medium is the misogynist.

Sound a bit harsh? Then turn on the tube.

From adult shows that feature female leads like Fran Drescher’s nubile “The Nanny,” or the buff and bronzed “Baywatch” babes, to teen programming populated by beautiful girls with perfect skin and fantasy wardrobes, TV sets unreasonable standards for female perfection.

Add the lack of minority characters in leading roles and critics say there’s a lot of work to be done.

“You talk to the girls who watch TV, and they’ll tell you: They just don’t see themselves represented in the programs,” says Leslie Hoffman of Girls Inc., a national youth organization with about 350,000 members nationwide.

Faulty picture

According to a Harris Poll commissioned by the organization in 1995, children watch about 21 hours of television each week. More girls than boys watch TV, the poll revealed. It also found that girls are far more likely to find fault with the way girls are portrayed on television.

In an effort to learn how TV affects girls, and to help them put what they see on the small screen into perspective, Girls Inc. has launched a program called Girls Re-Cast TV. A TV information packet doubles as a survey, with questions such as “Who is the strongest, smartest and boldest girl on television?”

It also points out discrepancies, such as the fact that 13% of the U.S. population is poor, but only 1% of the people on TV are poor. Another departure from reality: single-family households. On television, half of such households are headed by men. In reality, that number is just 20%.

“Girls know that what they’re seeing on TV isn’t quite right,” Hoffman says. “Those who have been in (Girls Inc.) for a while will look at something like ‘Melrose Place’ or the daytime soap operas and say those images make them mad, because they know they can’t afford that car, they can’t get their hair to look like that and their boyfriends never look like that.”

Programs that get high marks include “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Sister, Sister” and, surprisingly, “Rugrats,” Nickelodeon’s animated cartoon about babies.

“Even though it’s about babies, there’s a character, Angelica, who is an outspoken 4-year-old girl whose parents abandon her for their work, and then she acts out terribly,” Hoffman says. “She’s dealing with real-life images in a safe place, and that’s important to girls.”

Self-reliance prized

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for all her heroics, gets low marks because she relies on males for help and guidance. Instead, girls gravitate to sitcoms such as “Grace Under Fire” and “Roseanne,” and classics like “National Velvet.”

“They see families struggling, and they see the world is not a safe place, which helps them feel that their own lives are not insane,” Hoffman says.

Minority girls and women have a particularly hard time with television, according to Jackie Joseph, woman’s chair of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. She serves as liaison between Girls Inc. and the union.

“A Latina girl recently told me, ‘The only Latinas I see on TV are maids, and I don’t want to be a maid,’ ” Joseph says. “So while we understand it’s entertainment, there’s a responsibility in the media now. It’s taken on the mantle of the educator. It didn’t intend to, but it accidentally became the reflection of society, so let’s be serious about this.”

Programmers say they are.

Nickelodeon, the most popular children’s network, can point to shows like “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo” and “The Secret Life of Alex Mack” as examples of smart and independent girls.

“I’ve seen a big change in the way we look at girls,” says Cyma Zarghami, general manager of Nickelodeon and senior VP of programming. “In the mid-’80s, when we launched ‘Clarissa Explains It All,’ it was a bold, adventurous move to put a girl in the lead, because the thinking had always been that boys watch TV and girls watch what boys watch.”

The show surprised the network by pulling in even numbers of boy and girl viewers. Today, the network looks for a good story told by believable characters.

“One of the key criteria for picking girl characters … is if a girl says the character seems like someone she would want to be friends with,” Zarghami says. “Our characters are based on ordinary kids going through ordinary stuff.”

The myth that girls programming can’t hold its own has always irked Carole Rosen, head of family programming for HBO. Before coming to HBO, Rosen was an educator specializing in arts and literacy in New York City’s public schools.

“I’ve always been extremely offended by the notion that girls programming doesn’t sell,” she says. “Fortunately, HBO doesn’t feel that way, and our programming shows it.”

Fairy tales for all

HBO started by running “The Babysitters Club,” from a popular book about a group of entrepreneurial adolescents. More recently, the network ordered 26 episodes each of “Little Lulu,” based on the comic strip character, and “Happily Ever After Fairy Tales,” which tweak classic fables by adding lead characters who are African-American, Asian or Native American.

On Rosen’s wish list is adding a feminist sensibility by hiring authors such as Maya Angelou and Wendy Wasserstein to script some of the fairy tales for future seasons.

“Television is influential, and programmers have the same responsibility to girls as they have to the audience in general in providing educational content,” she says. “The role models of the ‘Baywatch’ variety certainly can be fun and frivolous, but there should be substantive role models for very young girls and pre-teens and teens, and that’s what we as responsible programmers need to provide.”

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