Girls need role models in positions of power
THE network television show "Commander in Chief" is generating a significant amount of attention. Many viewers, especially those who tend to disregard the impact (at least the positive impact) of television programming on our society, are wondering, why all the fuss about this show? In fact, the script is interesting and fascinating, even though a bit superficial at times. Geena Davis' character explores a woman's leadership, the pressures a woman faces from gender stereotyping, and the dynamics and stress of working parents raising children.
But what is the significance of this network program to our society? Its significance lies in the fact that the program addresses a full array of issues and opportunities, showcasing how a powerful woman navigates these challenges. This portrayal of a powerful woman serving as a positive role model is a rarity on television in this day and age.
Although women have long been involved on the periphery of politics, no woman has ever held the position of president of the United States, not even on television. Considering that the first woman to run for the office of president (Victoria Chaflin Woodhull) ran in 1872, it is interesting to note that it has taken this long for a television program to place a woman in the White House.
Role models are critically important for young women -- especially role models who highlight the nontraditional opportunities that exist for women. For girls to dream beyond the narrow ideas of what society "says" women can achieve, they need to see successful women enjoying careers in nontraditional fields such as engineering, politics, aeronautics, scientific research and, of course, public office.
The television industry would do well for our society by examining the lack of balance that media programming foists on our youth today. Programs such as "Sex in the City" and "The Bachelorette" might be entertaining, but the messages they deliver to young girls can be quite harmful.
This lack of balance is not limited to the television networks in the evening. Check out the Sunday morning political talk shows. A 2005 study by The White House Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing women's leadership, showed that women were underrepresented, rating only 14 percent of all guest appearances. This statistic is important because television's power effectively designates which issues and which spokespeople are important and which are not.
Common sense and learned discourse suggest that young women, especially during their fragile adolescent years, should be given a balanced opportunity to define themselves, adopt a value system, and develop a sense of confidence about who they are and whom they want to become. In this regard, observing female role models in positions of power, influence and respect (both in our community and on television) should be a part of a balanced media presentation about people in positions of power and respect.
We must create environments where girls and young women are not merely encouraged but expected to take pride in their abilities, sharpen their self-confidence and project their own voices. It is generally recognized that four basic prerequisites must be met if a society is to flourish. These prerequisites are: quality leaders, access to education, freedom of the press and women actively participating in public life. Societies that exclude women from public life grossly handicap themselves by ignoring the talents of one-half of the population.
Where does America stand on the question of women in public life? The numbers speak for themselves:
» According to a Deloitte & Touche study, 79 percent of Americans agree completely or somewhat with the statement, "If women are to be truly accepted as leaders in this country, nothing is more important than seeing women in high political office."
» According to a 2001 Gallup Poll, a majority of Americans (57 percent) say that this country would be governed better if there were more women in political office.
» There have been a total of 25 female governors in American history. Eight (16 percent) of our current governors are women.
» In Hawaii we have been fortunate to see women such as Gov. Linda Lingle and trail blazer Patsy Mink in positions of authority.
Lingle is right on point when she states that we must not characterize the role model/leadership issue solely as a women's issue. We do not want to portray women as victims; rather, we want to focus on women in leadership roles while actively encouraging the next generation of women to get involved. This call to active encouragement is our responsibility. We must educate and lead our young women to active participation in the economy and to assume the role of a productive citizen -- a citizen who willingly gives back to her community.
Indeed, we have been overwhelmed by television programs that make their mark on the viewing public by providing a constant barrage of snide wisecracks about raging hormones with nymphomaniac or "hounddog" overtones. However, by generating public discourse on the role of women in America, the program "Commander in Chief" is making a positive impact on America. Not bad for a TV show! It is a welcome harbinger for better and more equitable gender definition on our high-definition television screens.
White is the principal of Sacred Hearts Academy, a school for girls in Kaimuki.