I love initiative. I love drive. Especially when it comes from journalism students. And, recently, there seems to be a lot of it, because, as we all know, the current media industry mandates that students must have drive to get jobs.
Some of these students are finding their experience by creating their own media.
But what if they’re work is making the world worse?
It’s been well-reported that college students need anything — and will take anything — to find a job while they are still in school.
The oppressive nature of unpaid internships — even at the nation’s most prominent media organizations — have received the most attention in the last year or so. (Disclaimer: I have been involved in the launch or creation of two non-profits that have provided “free” internships. Though students can receive academic credit for their work and may be paid for their efforts, its not always the same as employment a “real” job.)
Making the most (sometimes for little or no money)
What’s exciting about the changing media world is that the more entrepreneurial journalism students have made their own way into the mediascape by forming or joining start-up websites.
Here at Iowa, in addition to internships at local professional media outlets, students can work on a host of student-led (or student-driven) projects, including: The Daily Iowan, the Iowa Journalist, KRUI radio, IowaWatch.org, and Her Campus.
But how many of these projects get attention from professional media and media scholars about what goes on at these outlets — and what does their content mean to themselves and our communities?
Some work is being done
Erica Salkin and I have studied the effects of student media upon students’ perceptions of media independence. I wrote a piece about the effects of student journalism upon student development.
I once heard a really great paper about how college students change their personalities once they go live on student radio — and what that switch may mean outside of the newsroom. And I will be presenting a paper in the UK that I co-wrote with Jim Malewitz about the sociology of non-profit newsrooms, which IowaWatch.org is.
Of course there is a host of other scholarship (done by scholars other than myself ) that looks at issues of student-led media, but most of this work seems to focus on adviser burnout, student academic achievement, perceptions of ethics and career outlooks; little work is being done about what student media means to society.
More importantly, I wonder what would come from asking to what degree our push to make students productive while in college so that they can be employed later is worth the damage that some of this media may cause?
But what do I mean by “damage?”
Let’s take one of the examples I listed before, HerCampus.
The website, which is a national franchise of sorts, allows individual campuses to start-up their own local site. They now have 150 local sites, and keep calling for more.
To young journalists, there is something appealing to this: Be the ones on campus to talk about fashion, sex, relationships, and college-life. It’s People magazine for coeds. And, it’s a great resume-builder.
The founders boast:
Since joining the Her Campus team, our writers have been offered jobs and internships at Glamour, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Seventeen, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, People magazine, W magazine, Teen Vogue, InStyle, Lucky, O magazine, MTV, The Washington Post, and Women’s Wear Daily, among others.
But what does this site — and its content — mean for our college campuses?
My reading is that it exploits and degrades women by publishing sexist and insensitive messages. What’s most troubling is that these messages are often (but not always) published by women — for women.
Here are some things that could be looked at:
“Guy-approved” and guy-centered” sex sells
It’s good to know that the sites attempt to tell women the potential health risks of sex. One story talks about how sand can get anywhere on — or in — a women’s body if she “does it” on the beach. Another story tells of the dangers of UTIs that can come from sex in hot tubs. Good tips.
Yet, what of the emotional risks?
As this picture illustrates, the images of men and women on the site seem to provide men with the power of initiating and controlling sexual relationships.
While some images show men in controlling positions, casting their eyes down at the women, positioning the male body above the women, dominating the relationship, this image I’ve posted here reveals the opposite.
The woman may appear to be in control. She is on top, after all.
But the caption, “Don’t do it, Brody!” reveals his power to choose, to take what is his, which is all-too-clear from The Hills and other such TV shows Brody and others are known for.
Of course, images alone don’t reveal my concern about the sexually powerful men and submissive women celebrated on this student-run site. Let’s look at other content:
Want a popular hook-up joint? HerCampus tells us to try out the guys’ baseball dugout:
Head to your old high school or a Little League park close by (after hours, please – the children are our future) for a guy-approved romp.
Well, as long as the “guy approves,” I suppose…
Women: Celebrate your success, but don’t recognize your power
The site’s “How She Got There” series about powerful women is helpful in revealing how women can get somewhere in their career.
Discussing a women’s career prowess is something I’m sure some women of the past never thought would happen. That in of itself is exciting.
But while some stories celebrate the ability of women to target-in on that job-of-a-lifetime and encourage women to show “that guy” the “other options for him” in the bar when “he doesn’t turn you on,” power seems lacking in other stories that are selected for publication.
A series called “From a Guy’s Perspective” is most troubling.
One recent post on the UIowa version of HerCampus about womens’ “disgusting” period is a fair representation of how HerCampus allows itself to degrade the very women it may seek to empower.
Simply, the male writer says, men do not want to hear about “your” period:
If every guy said, “BONERSPLOSION” every time he got an erection, you probably wouldn’t want to hear about it either, and yeah, it does take some extreme self-control to not do that.
Just… why would you want to talk to a guy about it? I mean I suppose mentioning that you’re on your period as a bullshit reason to act like a crazy bitch.
Why in the world would a women’s publication wish to run this? And what do people think when they read this? A deeper question is why this joke is even culturally salient.
Especially interesting is that the piece is written to YOU: Every women everywhere.
It is not written ABOUT women, but seems to be a call to action FOR and TO women to conform to what this MAN says YOU should do, how disgusting YOUR body is (when it’s clothed and you’re not on YOUR back, I suppose).
A reader can say that this article represents one person’s opinion and isn’t a reflection of the medium or the message that is being delivered elsewhere via HerCampus.
But simply, that argument doesn’t recognize the production aspect of media.
That there is more than one writer who edits, controls, and maintains the brand, the overall message, the editorial agenda, and the meanings of the publication ignores the discussions, decisions, and actions of a multitude of writers, editors, and business managers who dictate what a publication should be.
It’s OK: Show ME your body
Another column, by the same author as who wrote about “your period,” discusses issues of “viral relationships.” Cybersex-for-men.
In this piece, the author recognizes that viral (virtual) relationships are not “real,” whatever that means.
He — and the rest of the HerCampus team — ignores the fact that there are people…with feelings…emotions… that enable them to make choices about who they are, what they should look like even in online communities and relationships.
Virtual identities are real. There’s research on this, too.
So, go ahead, strip for me. From this, I “get off” and you get to “feel good” about yourself. What else is an online relationship for, anyway?
HerCampus endorses the “guy’s perspective” that
To keep a guy remembering who you are and your relationship it is best to avoid just texting. Reading a text is kind of a soulless thing to start with, so I would suggest writing letters back and forth (it’s totally viral!), talking on the phone, and WEBCAM! Webcam is a way to talk like you’re almost in the same room and because Skype, iChat, Stickam, and other webcamming programs exist; it has never been easier to do this.
But, remember, “WEBCAM” with your clothes off.
Why do women need directions about how to “get” and “keep” a guy online — or anywhere? Why do they need directions from a guy? Of course, generations of men — and women — who have read Playboy and other websites — to see “what girls want” and one might say, “Women deserve the same.”
But the presentation of romance advice, health tips, and study spots on HerCampus isn’t about creating powerful women. It’s about bowing to men with an understanding that this is how women reveal their power.
It’s power if I take my clothes off first:
What does this image from HerCampus say?
The man’s clothes are still on, and the women — reaching up to him — may at first seem to be in a position of power by revealing her sexuality by removing her clothes first and, presumably, taking his off for him. He is subject to her sexual power.
But I read this image this way: To get the man’s attention, she must first strip and reveal herself. If accepted, he may take his pants down all the way. She MUST seduce him first. Her pleasure comes only after his acceptance of her.
The stiletto heels are another symbol of her mistaken power. Gigi Durham in her book The Lolita Effect does a great job of identifying the misplaced power that people associate with stilettos — that somehow these shoes that wreck the back, feel like shit, and look goofy are a woman’s attempt to reveal long legs, sexual power, business savvy and a strong, powerful identity.
In fact, these heels are tricks by shoe and fashion corporations and men who say: “Wow, you are a strong women.”
Does this image mean that to HerCampus people? To the readers? Do they even know it? Or, more importantly, is anyone asking these questions?
Short answer? No one at HerCampus, apparently.
Colie Lumbreras, the founding campus correspondent at Iowa, said that she just manages the content, other people write it, and that she takes the content “at face value.”
Recently, the national HerCampus team has pushed for more perspectives of guys to appear on the site and that such information fills a gap that girls have.
“Girls want to know what guys (think) about things,” Lumbreras told me, such as “his thoughts on birth control” and “female grooming.”
HerCampus may be like Cosmo — focused on making men happy by making women the way men want them to be — but that, Lumbreras said, is kinda the goal of the website.
If HerCampus were to “empower women” by ignoring their sexual needs, desires, and interests, the website would be like anyone else interested in “slut-shaming,” Lumbreras said.
(Disclaimer: Colie and other HerCampus Iowa contributors were once students of mine.)
In the end: So what?
I am not saying that womens’ publications should not be about sex, about “hooking up,” about vaginas, style, boobs, whatever. I am not saying that womens’ sites should be without controversy, or, really, whatever women want the site to be about. Women must not be prudish.
But shouldn’t women be empowered? Perhaps stories about finding jobs, what to do during finals week, and working out are empowering, but underneath all of the content in HerCampus is evidence that the point of this work is not to empower them at all.
Is a women’s power measured only in business and finding a job?(Remember, even Rosie the Riviter over there doesn’t hold a single meaning — that of women-power).
Do these stories at HerCampus represent how the women who create this content see themselves?
Does the range of stories on this site reveal the confusion that young women have about their identities?
Do HerCampus contributors see issues of power within their stories, their representations of men and women over identity, gender roles, a focus on physical features of a specific type?
What meanings does local media produced by local students (local women) carry with the audience?
Lots of research has been paid to issues of women and identity in media. But my concern is that we have an emerging level of media — that produced by students and youth — that for some reason has not yet caught-on.
Maybe it’s because it’s not taken seriously.
Certainly, HerCampus, isn’t Cosmo, but we must not disregard student-led media and its cultural meanings just because its led by students. This is especially true if we — the educators and the industry — are pushing media students to produce.