In a recent experiment, elementary-school age girls and boys were told a story featuring a “really, really smart” gender-neutral protagonist. Then, they were handed four pictures — two men and two women — and asked to pick out the character from the story. By age 6, girls were significantly less likely to pick the pictures of their own gender, the study concluded. NationSwell Council member Amanda Mortimer is trying change the narrative. As the director of production at The Representation Project, she’s pointing out the stereotypes in our culture and teaching young people to overcome them.
Has there been a time when you’ve been affected by [stereotype] images from pop culture?
I grew up in the 1980s playing with Barbie dolls and watching Disney movies—experiences that taught me the ideal woman must have unnaturally long legs, a tiny waist and large breasts. It might not have been possible, but that was the ideal. As a teenager, when I leveled out at 5’3”, I had to reconcile cultural notions of beauty with realistic ones and, at the same time, learn to celebrate and embrace all of the other skills and traits that make girls great.
What inspired you to change the narrative?
In addition to limiting the gender narratives I absorbed as a kid, I was also part of the generation of girls who was told they could be anything and do anything they wanted. Together, these two narratives create a lot of tension: You can be President of the United States, but you should look like a swimsuit model. I didn’t realize how much these stories were hurting me and other women until I saw the documentary Miss Representation by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. It wasn’t that the documentary revealed compromising images of women I had never seen before, but it connected the dots for me in a powerful way between the limited ways girls and women are pictured and the limited ways women are represented in positions of power and influence.
Last November, our country bared its divisions by race, class and geography. Do you think there is still time to repair our ideas of one another?
The short answer is yes. Years before working in news and documentaries, I worked on political campaigns. Elections always teach us something, and this past presidential election gave us all a lot to think about. The truth is, we are experiencing one of the most extreme periods of economic and social inequality in our nation’s history; people are experiencing vastly different circumstances and opportunities in America today. Sometimes, the fear of economic insecurity can be manipulated and turned into a fear of others. But I believe we are all a lot more similar than we are different and that we actually all want the same things for our children and our parents. In order to move forward, we’re going to have to focus on our common humanity more and on our differences less. That said, I’m not sweeping centuries of structural racism and inequality under the rug. We still have major work to do to acknowledge, reconcile and make reparations for our history of racism and oppression in America.
In your mind, what’s been the most successful way The Representation Project has done that?
Our work is all about awakening minds and raising consciousness about stereotypes that are so pervasive in our lives we sometimes don’t even recognize them. Once you are aware, you can be educated about the costs and consequences of these messages, and then you can start to change attitudes, behavior and, ultimately, culture. We believe that media is both the message and the messenger, so we do a lot of work through media, especially film. We’re working on a third documentary now that will expand the conversation about how our values shape our culture, with a deeper look at how inequality is experienced in America in terms of race, class and gender.
How do you train the next generation of children not to be swayed by what they’re seeing?
Last summer [The Representation Project] held our first annual Global Youth Leadership Summit and brought together an incredible group of youth from all walks of life. The program of experts and celebrities taught these kids how to recognize limiting stereotypes in their media, explained why they are damaging and then taught them how to have conversations about those limiting narratives in their own communities.
Homepage photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.