Tag Archives: television

Television in Fiji

Miss RepresentationThis week I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the film Miss Representation, a documentary about the way women are portrayed in the media. I highly recommend watching it, especially with your daughters. Like all activist documentaries, it’s full of shocking statistics that are completely decontextualized and un-cited, but the overall argument of the film is one that would be pretty hard not to agree with, at least to some degree. One doesn’t really need statistics to notice that there are problems with the way women are portrayed in the media, and that those portrayals are going to have some negative affects on women, especially adolescent girls.

After the film, there was a panel discussion during which one of the panelists offhandedly mentioned something that peaked my curiosity: a study that had been done on how the introduction of television to a rural Fijian area had affected the way adolescent girls thought about their bodies and eating habits. I did some searching when I got home, and found the original study, as well as a followup article that delved more deeply into the links between television and body image.

It turns out that Fiji is a perfect place to investigate this. Unlike Europeans and Americans, Fijians traditionally encouraged and celebrated what the primary author describes as “robust appetites and body shapes” (Becker et al, 2002: 509). A bit of girth was conventionally associated with strength and hard work, not laziness, and attempts to purposely reshape one’s body through dieting or exercise were typically discouraged. Prior to the introduction of television, there had been only one reported case of anorexia in all of Fiji, and other kinds of eating disorders were almost non-existent.

Given this kind of cultural foundation, the researchers asked, what kind of influence would television have? Would Fijian women and girls become increasingly body conscious and develop eating disorders like their Americans and European counterparts? Or would they retain their traditional body aesthetic and eating habits?

I should also note at this point that it wasn’t just the general technology of television that was being introduced to Fiji—it was also television shows and advertisements created in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. With the exception of a short local newscast, all the programming came from cultures where the definition of a beautiful body was thin, tall, and fit. The popular shows in Fiji were ones that many of us have also seen or at least heard of: Xena, Warrior Princess; Beverly Hills 90210; Melrose Place; and the Australian dramatic series Shortland Street. All of them starred men and women who had a distinctly different body type than the typical Fijian. And interspersed throughout these shows were advertisements, most of which featured…you guessed it…exercise equipment and diet formulas.

The researchers conducted two studies of adolescent Fijian girls, one in 1995 just after television was introduced, and one three years later. In addition to capturing basic body measurements and TV watching behavior, the participants also responded to an “eating attitudes test” that included questions about binging and purging. Those who indicated that they had binged or purged were then interviewed to learn more about why they did it, and wether exposure to these TV programs may have played a role.

The results are pretty shocking. In those short three years, the percentage of families with a TV rose from 41% to 70%, and the percentage of girls who had unhealthy scores on the eating attitudes test had also risen from about 12% to nearly 30%. The use of self-induced vomiting, which none had admitted to in the first study, had risen to just over 11%. A feeling that one should eat less was also significantly higher, and 74% of the girls reported that they now felt like they were “too fat.”

Now, we should also temper this with all the caveats, most of which are noted in the original study. The number of participants was relatively low, just over 60, and not exactly the same between the two measurements. The participants were also self-reporting, which can often skew results. Not all forms of disordered eating behaviors rose (the use of laxatives and diuretics did not change, nor did incidents of binge eating). Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the introduction of television was not the only aspect of Fijian culture that was changing during this period. Fiji, like most places in the world, was rapidly changing due to globalization, and Fijian girls had already been exposed to American culture via magazine and other print media long before TV arrived.

Nevertheless, these rapid and significant changes in eating habits certainly require explanation, and this is where the in-depth interviews with girls who reported binging or purging came into play. It is pretty clear from the quotes highlighted in the second article that many of the girls were trying to loose weight because they wanted to emulate the characters they saw on TV, primarily because those characters seemed so powerful, successful, and confident. The girls assumed that these qualities naturally flowed from the actresses’ tall, thin, and fit body shapes, and that reshaping their own bodies to match would be necessary in order to be competitive and ultimately successful in a quickly globalizing economy.

XenaOf particular interest was the girls’ desire to be more like Xena, who they saw as a strong and powerful woman who could successfully compete in a man’s world. In this sense, Xena provided a powerful feminist role model, but again the assumption was that her power came from her thin, athletic body, and not from her intelligence or integrity.

So what should we take away from all of this? Should we blame the medium of television for these rather sudden changes in eating habit and body image? Or could that medium have been used to convey shows featuring other types of body shapes? For example, would the results have been different if the programming shown had been made in Polynesia or the UK? Or does television, as a predominantly visual medium, naturally favor actors who resemble the producing culture’s ideal body shape, and thus end up determining the content that comes across it?

Regardless of how you answer these questions for yourself, I encourage you to watch the film Miss Representation and talk about it with your daughters, nieces, and friends. We need to help young women see through the impossible standard of beauty that is paraded constantly before them, and find other kinds of powerful, confident women that they can turn to for role models.

Technological Domestication

When the iPad was first introduced, I read every review of it I could find, but one of them has stuck with me more than the others. The reviewer likened the iPad to a new puppy, something that filled your life with love and joy, but also annoyed you as it chewed up your favorite slippers, shredded your pillow, and peed all over your new carpet. The reviewer was anxious for the iPad to transition into that good old dog who sat by your side, provided unwavering companionship, and behaved the way you wanted it to.

What I loved most about that review was how it perfectly captured one of my favorite concepts from media and technology studies: domestication. Metaphorically speaking, new technologies are similar to untrained puppies; they create chaos and upheaval in their owners’ lives when first introduced, but their owners typically respond by domesticating them: reshaping their behaviors, and sometimes even their physical attributes (e.g. neutering), so that they better fit the existing social order. A house with a dog is never the same as a house without one, but a well-domesticated dog bends as much to its owners as its owners bend to it.

Domestication theory, like it sounds, posits that technological adoption is an active process where designers, producers, marketers, and consumers struggle to work out what a new device or system actually is, and what it is good for. As opposed to the more traditional view where technologies enter the consumer space and are assumed to have one-way “impacts” on culture, domestication researchers stress the ways in which people wrestle with and often reshape technologies as they fit them into their everyday lives.

For example, consider the introduction of a television into a household. I’m just old enough that I remember the first time my parents brought home a large (maybe 15″) color television. Before that, we had a very small black-and-white television that we sometimes watched, but this new color set was the first real TV we ever had. Although the artifact itself carried with it some suggestions for how it should be used, it did not completely determine how we fit it into our lives. It had the look of a piece of furniture, so it could have fit well into our main living area, but my parents were the sort that wanted to relegate the TV to a separate, designated room. This placement sent the message to us boys that watching TV was something out of the ordinary, something to be done occasionally and purposefully.

My parents also carefully regulated what we watched on that television, and when we watched it. My brother and I desperately loved The Six Million Dollar Man, but we also quickly learned that we had to remain on our best behavior to watch it, as it aired just after our normal bed time. Sadly, we missed many of the episodes due to our inability to resist fighting with one another, so I never did find out what happend when Steve Austin met the Sasquatch. Watching TV on a sunny day was also verboten; my mother was particular in her desire that we go outside and play whenever we had the chance to do so. Perhaps she just wanted to watch her own shows in peace….

Like all good parents, mine were also concerned about regulating the way in which we watched television: sitting too close to the set would reap condemnations and warnings that we’d soon go blind, which I’m guessing was a popular urban myth at the time. Sitting upside down on the couch, which seemed perfectly fun to us, was also never tolerated. If we were going to watch TV, we need to watch it, not play around. All of this communicated that watching TV was serious business, and not something you did aimlessly while you played with other things.

My point is that while the physical artifact and the programming streamed through it suggested or even encouraged particular patterns of use, they did not entirely determine how that device was incorporated into my family’s home. My parents domesticated that television: our house was never the same after it was introduced, but the physical placement of the device, and the way in which our use of it was regulated, reshaped our understanding of what it was, and what it was good for.

So where was the TV in your childhood house, and what rules did your parents establish (or not establish) regarding its use? How are you actively domesticating new technologies that are entering your life today? Are your domestication efforts proving successful, or are your new devices metaphorically chewing your coffee table legs to bits?

Review of The Young and the Digital

While preparing their yearly report on prime-time television watching in 2003, the Nielsen Media Research group discovered a rather startling statistic: over the previous year, the number of 18 to 24 year-old males watching prime-time television had fallen by a surprising 20 percent. This kind of sudden decline would have been bad news for TV executives regardless of the demographic group, but young males in particular are a key and lucrative audience segment. Advertisers pay a premium to get their messages in front of this group, and the Nielsen report seemed to indicate that TV was no longer the place one should go to find them.

In response, TV executives simply didn’t believe the number. They argued that it must be an error, as they had never seen such sudden changes in their viewing audiences. Although the percentage of young men watching television had been declining in recent years, this kind of drop-off seemed impossible—how could a behavior like TV watching, which social critics had long described as addictive, be abandoned so suddenly?

In retrospect, the answer seems somewhat obvious to us now, but as Craig Watkins describes in his book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future, very few media executives anticipated the changes that would soon send shock waves through their industry.

Halobox.jpgWatkins notes that there were actually several things that combined to create this shift. First was the increasing number of homes and university accommodations with Internet connections. By 2001, half of all the homes in America had a connection to the Internet (up from 40% just a year before), and the percentage of broadband connections was also steadily rising. Second, these faster Internet connections were increasingly able to access on-demand streaming video, of which young men were the largest consumers (although Watkins does not discuss pornography, one can probably safely assume that a good portion of the videos watched by these young men were not entirely wholesome). Third, the participatory social networking sites Friendster and Myspace had launched shortly before this report, and young people in general were spending more and more time on them to the exclusion of older broadcast-oriented media like TV. Fourth, and perhaps the most important of all for young men, powerful gaming consoles featuring multi-player games, some of which could be played with others over the Internet, had been recently introduced and quickly adopted. Anyone who has spent time with young men knows the importance of video games for male bonding!

This shift of young men away from TV is only one part of Watkins’s excellent book, but I found it to be particularly interesting. My wife and I got rid of our TV back in 1995 and haven’t watched broadcast television since (we do watch some compelling shows on DVD though). Our decision was influenced in part by reading Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he explores the more corrosive aspects of the TV medium. So as you might expect, I was happy to read that young people are also abandoning broadcast TV for more social, creative, and participatory media, but I also find it strange that cultural critics seem to miss the positive aspect of this shift. In addition to discussing the potential evils of social media or networked games, it seems that these critics should also give young people credit for doing something those same critics have long implored the rest of us to do: turn off the TV.

Watkins bases his book on various kinds of empirical research, including in-depth interviews with avid users of social media and networked games. As I have written earlier, those who engage in this kind of research often find that young people are far more savvy about new media than most cultural critics assume, and that the dangerous effects described by these critics are typically overstated (see for example Barry Glassner’s classic book The Culture of Fear). This, I suspect, is due to those cultural critics spending more time reading shocking news articles about rare and isolated events than actually talking to those who are actively engaged in the new medium.

For example, Watkins concludes that the dangers of online predators has been grossly overstated, as young people use social networking primarily to interact online with those they already know offline. This is a necessary corrective to knee-jerk political responses, such as the Delete Online Predators Act (DOPA), which would have restricted computers in government-funded public institutions (e.g. libraries and schools) from allowing minors to access any kind of social communication tool, including email. Although DOPA passed the House in 2006, it was thankfully tabled in the Senate, as it would have severely restricted access amongst the poor and marginalized to what are quickly becoming essential research communication tools.

In another chapter, Watkins argues that although social media allows one to tinker with one’s identity, racial divides are still alive and well online, as evidenced by the higher percentage of Latinos and non-college educated minorities on Myspace compared to Facebook. Other authors have also pointed out that Facebook seems to cater more to the college and college-bound crowd than Myspace, but I wonder if this is more a temporary condition than a real “ghettoizing” of Myspace. Although I would certainly expect race to continue to be an important social dynamic online as it has been offline, it is a bit early to be claiming that particular social networks are developing racial affinities.

Watkins ends his book with a discussion of social media in the classroom. Like most other authors, he acknowledges the ways in which always-connected mobile devices can be a distraction to traditional teaching methods, but also balances this out with some examples of creative teachers using these devices to augment and deepen the educational experience. Whether new teaching styles can indeed transform these irresistibly distracting devices into helpful research tools is still an open question, but banning them from the classroom is already an increasingly difficult prospect, not because of the students, but because of their parents. Several teachers in Watkins’s study reported that parents routinely called or texted their children during class time, and resisted any attempts to ban mobile phones from school grounds for fear of not being able to reach their child in an emergency.

How have multi-player video games or access to online content changed your media-consuming habits? What has been your experience with race online? And how have you used your smartphone or laptop in the classroom, either as a distraction or as a helpful tool?