Not So Plain Jane

by Sara Schwartz Gluck, PhD, LCSW

“JANE, 17 – Ripe with young womanhood, lustrous dark skin and flashing eyes – hurries through the crowd.” Ross Putman, a Hollywood producer, recently released descriptions of female characters from actual scripts he has reviewed. He couldn’t help but notice that the physical attributes of those characters were an integral part of the plot lines that were laid out by scriptwriters. In an act of courage that validated feminists everywhere, Putman released quote after quote verbatim via twitter (@femscriptintros) changing nothing but the character names, which he switched to JANE.

“JANE, 22, makes her grand appearance. She is a breathtaking young woman, a vision of natural beauty.”

If it weren’t so blatantly sexist, it may actually be laughable. Why is a woman’s appearance the first thing that is prioritized? What if Jane were not breathtakingly stunning? What if Jane, the female lead in any storyline, would be in her mid 30’s, with crow’s feet around her slightly tired eyes, a rounded stomach, and a brilliant mind? Well, then maybe she would be appreciated for her internal qualities, instead of being viewed as an object. But that would likely make viewership decline, create a drop in ratings, and gross less profit.

“JANE, with lengthy blonde hair, enters. Attractive in an effortless way, she carries an alluring and yet forward charm behind a bold smile.”

The media at large often wants us to believe that women must meet certain standards of beauty in order to be worthy of love, of happiness, and of being noticed at all. These standards are often unrealistic. How many people can look devastatingly gorgeous while succeeding at a demanding career, being stuck in a rainstorm, or even more simply, being a mother to young children? Oh, and that beauty must be effortless in order to count- it cannot be admired if it the character is shown spending an hour on hair and makeup. No, the flawlessness should never be marred by messy, behind the scenes effort.

So many researchers have shown that the unrealistic portrayal of the ‘ideal woman’ that is shown on screen is very harmful to women. Women who are exposed to images of idealized women are more likely to develop low self-esteem, eating disorders, and body image problems. The challenge is that almost all of us are exposed to perfect long legs, impossibly thick lashes, smooth silky hair, and rosy, pouty lips on models and actresses each day. It can be difficult to separate our own values from those that are subtly planted in our psyches.

The first step, as Ross Putman showed this month, is awareness. Simply noticing the way that women are objectified on screen is a powerful beginning. And then, let’s question and critically analyze the media that we see. Let’s allow ourselves to disbelieve the myth of effortless physical perfection. As a media researcher, I tend to watch TV with a cynical commentary that goes something like this:

“So, she just woke up and her hair is mussed in perfect ways and her skin is glowing. Hmm, I wonder how many hair and makeup people it took to achieve that look?”

“She just ran up to the door through a blizzard and the only effect of that was that her face looks radiant while her nose miraculously does not start running and her hair stays shiny and in place- that’s hilarious.”

“She is a successful FBI agent and her stomach is completely flat and toned- I wonder how many hours she would get to work her abs each day if she really had that job, instead of being a paid actress in the role.”

That’s all it takes to start the process of change- just being mindful of the subliminal messages that are being shown, and allowing ourselves to see them for the contrived illusions that they are.

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