Images have Consequences
This week’s edition of Time Magazine noted the passing of Evelyn Johnson who held the record for being the oldest flight instructor and training the most pilots over a lifetime. By the age of 102, she had flown 57,635.4 hours, putting her at second place for the most flight hours achieved by a pilot. Despite these accomplishments, the editors decided her life warranted but a single paragraph on page 21. By comparison, page seven showed three women breastfeeding their preschool aged kids, a follow-up to the previous week’s cover story featuring women who breastfeed their teenagers. I exaggerate, but only a little. The now notorious magazine cover featured a three year old standing on a chair suckling his mother’s breast.
In a sane world, the aviator would have been on the front cover and fringe parenting practices would be wedged in the middle of the publication or left out altogether. While much has been written about the degradation of journalism, greater damage, I fear, is being done to the image of women when the sideshow fringe takes center stage and women of substance languish on page 21. The image of ‘woman as ever-nursing earth mother’ is not the only troublesome depiction of women on display. There are the loud, petty, and not terribly smart women of reality television and the affable but neurotic women of sitcom. They’re not exactly inspirational role models.
Not to be outdone by Hollywood, politicians seek to shape the image of women for their own ends. There’s Julia, the Obama campaign creation, who exemplifies even celebrates ‘woman as government dependent.’ She is but one tactic in a campaign strategy aimed at convincing voters of a Republican “War on Women.” The whole cynical scheme presents women as helpless creatures who need government programs and mandates to give them a leg up in life. And here I thought that ‘woman as damsel in distress’ went out with ‘villain with large mustache.’
Time will tell if the “War on Women” and the escapades of Julia capture single female voters in November. There are 55 million unmarried women eligible to vote in this election according Jessica Gavora’s The Washington Post editorial. While married women are more likely to vote Republican, single women lean left. They are less likely to register and vote, however, than their married peers. Getting these women to show up at the polls is essential to the Obama game plan. Democrats hope these women will relate to Julia, the damsel in distress, and reward the big government hero with a vote.
This cynical strategy may work but at what price? Images impact perception. They reinforce stereotypes and influence behavior. Depicting women as weak and dependent is worse than characterizing them as crazy brideszillas or ever-flowing sippy cups. Women have worked too hard for too long to be treated as equals and acknowledged for their strength, independence, and contributions to be undermined by the idea that they need to depend on government to realize their dreams.
As a single woman I admit I take greater offense at such portrayals than do some. I would like to see less of ‘single woman as needy’ and more of ‘single woman as capable.” Evelyn Johnson, a widow, spent the last three decades of her life as a single woman. She flew airplanes until a leg amputation took her out of the cockpit at 96 but she continued to manage the Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, TN until her death. Whether in a magazine or on a campaign website, women like this should be on page one.