Uncomfortable? You should be.

Every October, YWCAs across Canada mark a “Week Without Violence” during which they hold a series of community events and campaigns focused on violence prevention. The Vancouver Metro YWCA, one of the largest in the country, creates its own public awareness campaign. This year, it decided to focus on the sexualization of girls, saying “Seeing girls and women as sex objects makes people more tolerant of sexual violence and the exploitation of girls and women.

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Source: YWCA Metro Vancouver

I love how this ad says “develop a critical eye and speak out against sexualized images” because what it is really saying is “media literacy is important.” If you’re new to the idea of media literacy, check out FAAN Mail (Fostering Alternatives and Action Now!). FAAN is a media literacy and activist organization formed by women of color, based in Philadelphia. It has great resources on media literacy, which is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media. Being media literate means that instead of taking media at face value, we instead pause and ask ourselves a few questions:

Who created this message?
Who is the target audience?
What is the message?
What is left out of the message?
Who is harmed and who benefits?

The YWCA ad above directs people to its website, where they can find a guide to media literacy for girls. This is a great idea, and I think it’s the first PSA I’ve ever seen that explicitly encourages media literacy development. If you know of more, please send them my way!

As far as the framing of this ad goes, it chooses not to change the frame and instead asks the viewer to take a critical look at his or her own reaction to it by saying “Uncomfortable? You should be. Develop a critical eye.” I admit that I felt a little bit shocked myself when reading that, because it made me realize that I actually hadn’t been that creeped out by the image at first glance. Whoa. And THAT is why media literacy is important. Without it, we start absorbing these images with less and less resistance.

If this ad had simply used the current frame (“little girls = sex objects”) and switched the “Uncomfortable…” line to read something like “Little girls are not sex objects” it would have completely failed at getting people to think critically about the frame of “little girls = sex objects.” This is because when someone says “Don’t think of an elephant” (which is actually the title of a great book on framing) suddenly, it becomes a struggle to think about anything else. If I show you a little girl dressed in a sexy, adult way and tell you “little girls are not sex objects”, you may think to yourself “I agree! That’s terrible!” but your brain is stuck thinking about little girls as glamorized mini adults. To get your brain unstuck, I have to completely change the frame by showing you another way to think about that little girl (maybe with an image of her riding a bike or doing homework). The YWCA ad, however, chooses not to reframe because it wants us to stop and look at the image with a critical eye. It is teaching us a skill; the ad itself is an exercise in media literacy.

One important thing to note is that the ad language does not refer exclusively to girls. It says “seeing girls and women portrayed as sex objects…”. So why does it choose to use a picture of a sexualized young girl? Because ad space is already flooded with pictures of sexualized, objectified adult women (check out The Gender Ads Project if you have any doubts). We’re already so desensitized to those images that they might make us angry, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as an image of a sexualized young girl.

I found out about the Vancouver YWCA’s yearly campaigns through an awesome Pinterest follower who posted an image from the YWCA’s 2012 campaign on my group board. Stay tuned for a separate post on that campaign – which is very different from this one – later today. 

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