Women vs. Race: Media’s image not reflected in CSUN students’ realities

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Growing up as a black woman in Orange County, CSUN student Jeannie Williams said she received nonstop ridicule from other students whenever she dated white guys.

“(My classmates) used to call my (white) boyfriend and I names,” said the first-year communication studies graduate student.

“One particular comment that bothered me was ‘Oreo cookie,'” Williams said.

Williams is one of thousands of minority women on campus who face unique challenges based not only on their gender but also their ethnic background, issues such as body image, media influences and stereotypes, racial tensions and cultural traditions often steeped in the patriarchal past.

Williams does not like the images of black women she sees on television and films.

“When looking at television, it appears that black women should be in the streets and shaking their ass,” Williams said. “There is nothing positive. I just make it a point to do just the opposite.”

Williams said she would love to write for a sitcom for television and become an executive producer. She noted that black representation in the media is more than what it used to be, but still not enough.

Williams pointed to a recent comment made by radio talk show host Bill Bennett that she said further contributed to the demoralization of black women.

On Sept. 28, Williams said that on the radio program “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America,” Bennett said on the subject of abortion: “You could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

Williams said that in the black community, men and women should be looked at in a more positive light.

“The percentage rates of black Americans getting into law school and medical school are going up,” she said.

“On TV the other day I saw this guy saying how sad it is that blacks are still being portrayed negatively,” Williams said. “For one of the (Hurricane) Katrina articles, a young, black boy was on the cover and it said that he was looting, while a white woman and her son were searching for food.”

Williams said there are times when people she speaks to by phone meet her for the first time in person and are surprised to discover that she is black.

“The media shows that black men and women only talk ghetto slang,” Williams said. “But I talk proper. I don’t see a change happening grammatically in the media for a while.”

David Horne, a Pan-African Studies professor and adviser who teaches a class on race and critical thinking, said the media, particularly the music industry, has had a negative effect and influence on black women.

“Young black women are taught about being a hoochie in the media,” Horne said. “While cultural institutions do teach about being a lady, they are not rejecting media’s message enough.”

“Sex sells,” Horne said. “They are afraid of change. But there are artists who do not need booty shaking, demoralizing behavior in their videos to sell their music.”

Horne said since the rap group NWA came out in 1989, producing music has been about commodity.

Not all the influence is negative. Karin Stanford, an associate professor in the PAS Department said there are many examples of influential black women.

“Women like Oprah and Condoleezza Rice are very successful and famous black women,” Stanford said. “But it is almost like these women are untouchable to the average black woman. They do not even have the same ideology or base ideas that most black women have.”

Images of sexy and fiery Latinas in the media have a negative influence as well, said Denise Sandoval, assistant professor in the Chicano/a Studies Department.

“All women feel pressure to look a certain way or look like sex objects,” Sandoval said. “When women measure themselves against the media prototypes, a women’s worth is based on her hair products, make-up, and clothes.”

“The way Chicanas cultivate their behaviors depends on what generation they are in America, their income, class, education and where they live,” Sandoval said. “Cultural tensions occur between Chicano culture and American culture. Chicanas may have more restrictive roles at home and when they go to school, their roles change.”

Sandoval, who has a Ph.D. in cultural studies, has researched women in pop culture.

“The difference between Selma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez in media is that Latinas are not a homogenous group,” Sandoval said. “They are in two different groups: Mexico versus America. Hayek was born in Mexico and has a Spanish accent and Lopez was born and raised in America. Hayek has been turned down for certain roles because of anti-Mexican sentiment.”

Along with injustices in the media, Sandoval has also studied immigrant workers. She said that female Mexican workers are subject to abuse.

“Female immigrant workers become targets,” Sandoval said.

She said because these women are fearful of deportation and will not do anything to jeopardize their status in the United States, there is a high rate of rape and abuse among them.

Junior Yvonne Cienfuegos is a second-generation Latina from El Salvador.

“As a Latina, I do feel segregated in society,” said Cienfuegos, who is working on a career in social welfare. “Each culture is very different, and I never felt like I was a part of it.”

Her parents came to Los Angeles from El Salvador. Cienfuegos was born in the United States. She grew up in a Latino community but went to a school that was evenly split between blacks and Latinos. Her parents did not understand what it was like to be around people from other cultures.

“I feel comfortable on campus,” Cienfuegos said. “Everyone is on the same playing field here.”

Cienfuegos’ social life is different than the life she experiences on campus.

“I stick to hanging out with women of my own race,” Cienfuegos added. “I am more comfortable because we speak the same language, have the same look, and view men the same way.”

“When it comes to dating, I prefer men of the same culture,” Cienfuegos said. “When I have dated outside of my race, the cultures are very different. I want to have more similarities than differences.”

Cienfuegos has a conflicted view of Latino men.

“Latino men are a little macho, lazy but are romantic,” said Cienfuegos. “They love us for who we are.”

Cienfuegos has also noticed the virtually unattainable body image of Latinas in the media.

“A Latina should be thin yet curvy, have straight hair, and be tall,” Cienfuegos said. “But a normal Latina could be anyone. I do not take part of what is in fashion. I am not a part of the clothing trend.”

The issue of language can also be challenging for Cienfuegos.

“It is surprising when other Chicanos only speak to me in English,” Cienfuegos said. “They don’t consider that I know how to speak Spanish. It happens a lot to me.”

Freshman business management major Elainee Pantig was born and raised in Hollywood. Her parents are from the Philippines.

“I feel generally accepted at CSUN,” Pantig said. “It is a very diverse school. I hung out with a lot of diverse people in high school, especially Hispanics and Armenians. Hispanics had a tendency to stick together and I found myself hanging out with them most of the time.”

Pantig also pays attention to cultural roles in the media. As a Filipino, she looks for successful Asian role models.

“I look up to Lucy Liu because she seems to be one of the only Asians to really be making it,” Pantig said. “I don’t see a lot of Filipinos or a lot of Asian types in the media. Asians are always secondary.”

Pantig said if she feels excluded in American society, it is not because of race.

“I have friends who hang around me,” Pantig said. “They have money to go out and buy stuff. The main difference is I can’t really go out with them and buy the fancy
things they do. It is class that separates.”

When it comes to dating, Pantig and her parents disagree. Pantig wants to be able to date whomever she please, while her parents want her to date a Filipino man.

“My parents aren’t open to interracial dating,” Pantig said. “It is not the students or friends who make me feel this way.”

Rachel Levitt is the assistant director of CSUN’s Women’s Resource and Research Center. The senior communication and women’s studies major is a women’s rights activist, including gay and lesbian issues and sexual discrimination.

“What is happening now is not OK,” Levitt said. “Media depiction is important to the way we perceive the world. The media promotes the white-rich-heterosexual woman. But we are seeing a little bit of a change.”

Levitt said there are some misunderstandings about the way women are represented in the media.

“Women who are hajibs (women who wear veils) are portrayed as victims,” Levitt said. “It is the decision between religion versus choice. Some people see the veil only as oppressive, when it may be a covering that is resistive to Western media sexualization.

“(There) needs to be a more inclusive, balanced view of women in the media,” Levitt said. “There is potential for change.”

“If you don’t see yourself represented in the media, then what are you taught to think about yourself?”

Jeannie Williams, the Orange County resident, said she is hopeful for change.

“We have come a long way,” Williams said. “I see a future that will not have any (racial) boundaries.”

Michael Sullivan can be reached at michael.sullivan.843@csun.edu.