The ugly truth about pretty pop culture

Lily Allen in Chanel campaign

Lily Allen made an appearance on Neighbour’s last night showcasing her song ‘22’ which is currently at number 13 in the Aria Top 50 Single Charts.

‘22’ is about a woman who had the world at her feet at 22 but now she’s almost 30 years old and doesn’t have a career or a boyfriend.

According to the song lyrics, “It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over. There’s nothing to do and there’s nothing to say ‘til the man of her dreams comes along, picks her up and puts her over his shoulder.”

But how many number one singles, movies, magazine covers or product endorsements does it take for celebrities like Lily Allen to realise they are ‘society’?

Through their power and popularity they can influence the world in a more positive way and via popular culture, they can potentially change the way society looks at women in general.

Popular culture is like a low priced hooker on a slow night, it’s cheap, easy and accessible but it is also a strong driving force in influencing people’s perceptions and ideas about the world in a non confronting AM radio type of way.

As a woman in her 30s who is single, I am constantly bombarded by images of desperate women in their 30s in popular culture, newspaper reports about my ticking biological clock and the declining chances of finding a man in my 30s and harangued by relatives, friends and strangers asking me why I’m not married. But I’m not alone, not in spirit anyway.

According to a recent survey by Relationships Australia, 54% of my X-gen counterparts aged 30 to 39 feel the same and haven’t had children because they simply haven’t met the right partner.

It always feels that it never matters how accomplished or educated you are as a woman; your self worth is always linked back to a man to give your life a sense of purpose. Contrary to popular view or Lily Allen, I’m not a damsel in distress or waiting to be rescued.

For every song that has charted in the last ten years that seek to empower women and celebrates women’s achievements like ‘I’m fine’ by Mary J Bligh, ‘Independent Women’ by Destiny’s Child and ‘Ur Hand’ by Pink, there are ten songs that are self deprecating like ’22’.

And don’t get me started on hip hop and rap songs and their portrayal of women. That is a whole other post. There are enough singer/songwriters like Pink, Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson to be able to address that balance and the portrayal of women.

Women in chick flicks are often portrayed as neurotic women desperately seeking love (The Ugly Truth, He’s Just Not That Into You, Sex and the City and Bridget Jones). Chick flicks seem to fall into a few categories such as the makeover type movies if you want to find a man, ditzy women who have a career and friends but always put a man first or a race against the biological clock to find a sperm donor.

A career, friendships or self development are always secondary to the pursuit of love or put on the backburner if the ‘one’, ‘two’ or even ‘three’ makes his approach.

The Centre for the Study of Women in TV and Film found that women comprised only 16% of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 US grossing films in 2008 so women are very much unrepresented in all facets of the film industry. Yet even though Katherine Heigl was an executive producer on The Ugly Truth, the film still seeks to reinforce stereotypes of women that finding a man should be their sole focus.

Bromance films on the other hand such as ‘I love you man’ and ‘The Hangover instead embody themes of male bonding, camaraderie and adventure where pursuit of a female often comes a poor second to male friendships, fun and career.

Men are often portrayed as eligible bachelors who do not neglect their career for relationships and do not obsess over finding a partner by a certain age or their biological clock, although I know from personal experience, these issues still play on their minds.

Popular culture sends out the wrong messages to women and society that finding the love of your life should be your life, women’s friendships are expendable when it comes to romance, that women need to be ‘fixed’ in order to attract a man and it’s never the responsibility of the man or the fact he may just be a jerk.

No wonder men see women as emotionally needy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the desire to be in love but to condemn women simply because they have not found the right one or settled for ‘Mr Right Now’ before the dreaded milestone of 30 is not fodder for entertainment, it’s just downright cruel.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy escapism as much as the next person but does entertainment need to be at the expense of women’s image and being portrayed as needy, desperate and hung-up on finding a partner? Just remember that when you’re watching a movie or buying a CD, you might also be buying into outdated stereotypes of women and the misogyny of women.

Published on The Punch, Copyright Gillian Nalletamby 2009. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to email notifications.

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  1. Nik, 9 September 2009, 7:55 pm

    Good one my dear 30s on fire!

  2. Onadrought, 10 September 2009, 10:16 am

    This is really interesting. I don’t know that Lily Allen song, but what a terrible message to send out. I actually don’t know that much current music but from what you say, I am dismayed at the message they are sending young women. Girls outnumber guys at uni, they can become anything they want, but why is it that in this day and age we are told to feel like lepers if we don’t have someone by 30?

    We need to see that being single is not the booby prize, but that it is a valid option. Even though Sex and the City was one of my all time fave shows and I loved that it was about single women, it was disappointing that they were always angsting over men. We need to see women getting on with life without even thinking about men. Not that I’m anti relationship, but it’s in the search that I lot of misery occurs. When we are single we should live like that is our life and not and in-between, until the next man comes along “oh when will I meet him” stage.

    It’s funny what you say about music and media – recently am obsessed with tv show “Mad Men” set in the early 60s and have been listening to the music from that era. One song talks about putting on makeup and dressing for your man or he’ll run off with someone else. All talk about that show (and era) is that times were so different. Sadly, I don’t know about that, plus ca change ………..

  3. Adam, 18 September 2009, 12:41 pm

    I think @onadrought and Gillian have missed an important point and that is that movies and TV shows are often supposed to be entertainment which is largely dollar driven. How often do we see a TV show consistently make social commentary that makes us change our values? Rarely – simply because we *value* our own values, we like the way we are. (That is why we call them “values”).

    As an example, I recall Star Trek: The Next Generation where Data, an android, was searching to become human. Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) help him in many episodes explore what it means to be human. But reruns of Sex and The City still rate more highly than ST:TNG, I would hazard a guess as to the reason being that sex and scandal sell better than exploring humanity.

    For the most part we (humans) do not like our values to be challenged, which is why shows appeal to the masses. We like something we can agree with, and enjoy, for the most part without having to think. Sometimes we’ll do a crossword or soduku when we want a challenge, but how often does the average person sit down and decide they want their values altered, or to be told what they believe in is wrong?

    In a free market economy, a true capitalist will try to get the most dollars you can. A purveyor of entertainment in a free market economy will try to sell escapism as that is what the people want, even if it means betraying some values for others (dollars).

    As a 25 year old male, I found the article interesting and I agree that it is terrible that women are portrayed that way. At the same time, I feel it is terrible that men are portrayed the way Charlie is in Two and a Half Men but the sad truth is, the masses pay for it because that is what that is how they want to be entertained. They either like seeing the stereotypes that are just like them so they can feel a sense of “I’m not alone” (eg Sarah Jessica Parker), or they like seeing stereotypes that are not like them so they can laugh at it (eg Charlie Sheen). This will cover the majority of viewers and there are exceptions, but they are not the rule – at least not at this point.

  4. M, 29 September 2009, 12:57 pm

    I haven’t heard the Lily Allen song, but I find it so weird that 30 is thought to be old. Even marketing professionals classify young as being 18-34. Unless you live in a small town in the western world, most people are not aiming to be married at 22 and tied to a demanding job, some people would say the same as 30 as far as marriage is concerned. Movies make women sound whiny and insecure, and the men are dominating and dumb. In real life, women and men are more alike than they are different.

  5. Gillian Nalletamby, 11 October 2009, 5:42 pm

    My point Adam is that popular culture can shape the way we think about the world in a way that is not intimidating or confrontational. I wish that popular culture was just meaningless entertainment but it is so much more than that.

    In the UK for example, Cambridge University contacted leading soap operas like Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale to include a storyline about a character going to Cambridge University to shed their elitist image. They have recognised that a communications tools like popular culture is a good way to communicate this message.

    Using the examples of UK soapies again, it is interesting how they can have multi-cultural characters in the shows and have multicultural relationships and it’s very seamless and natural. I think it’s disgraceful that in 2009 that soapies like Neighbours and Home and Away cannot do the same. They have a few ethnic characters here and there but I don’t think I have ever seen a member with dark skin as cast as a permanent member one of these shows. I could be wrong. I think cultural differences and inter-culture dating would be more accepted in Australia if they were portrayed on shows like these.


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