May 03, 2010

Researchers pan films’ depictions of college women

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- In college, the women are pretty, and they major in men. At least, that’s the way it is in the movies.

“All these movies about college women focus on their appearance and their ability to land a man,” said Tamara L. Yakaboski, an assistant professor of higher education and educational administration at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“They’re set up with women as objects, and while women might be the ‘leads,’ they’re on the periphery, secondary to the male characters.”

Yakaboski and her research partner, Saran Donahoo, decided to have a closer look at the movies after taking in a matinee of the 2008 film “House Bunny” at their local mall. Written by women (the same pair responsible for “Legally Blonde”), the screenplay’s plot turns on a former Playboy bunny who becomes housemother to a sorority of Plain-Jane nerdettes.

“It’s basically an ugly duckling story,” Yakaboski said. “The smart women have to get physically and socially transformed by the former bunny in order to get male attention.”

She and Donahoo hated it.

“After we left, I spent the next hour writing about it, I was so mad,” Donahoo recalled.

“We said, ‘There have to be some good films about college women.’”

That quest led them to “Sydney White,” a re-telling of the old fairytale “Snow White,” complete with seven dorks, a wicked Rachel Witchburn, a campus “Hot or Not” Web site reflecting the hottest of them all and a poisoned Apple computer. As with the original, Sydney finally winds up with the aptly dubbed (Tyler) Prince.

“The film shows that sex appeal is the main thing that women have to offer in a college environment,” said Yakaboski.

“Rachel has it and uses it to ‘rule’ campus prior to Sydney’s arrival, though as a powerful woman, she has to be taken down at the end.”

Added Donahoo, “And Sydney gets the guy. The goal of college in this movie is still getting that MRS degree.”

So why does it matter -- it’s just a movie, right? Wrong, say the pair.

“Before students come to college, they get certain cultural messages about what it’s all about, and many of these come from films -- movies have an impact on beliefs and perceptions,” said Yakaboski, who has a poster from the iconic “Animal House” on her office wall.

“‘Animal House,’ for example, has taught generations about what college is and how they should behave.”

That media impact on beliefs and behavior particularly affects the present generation, which is more connected than any that went before, said Donahoo, whose research partly focuses on media.

“The Millenials (a designation encompassing those ranging in age from 13 to 29) are much more media savvy and media directed, but ‘savvy’ doesn’t mean ‘critical thinking,’” she noted. “They know how to use and access the material, but they don’t stop to analyze it.”

“Futhermore, women are more prone to see themselves through the media lens, so when movies completely erase academics and tell women their role is to get married, it’s a concern.”

Millenials also tend to believe that sexism no longer exists, Yakaboski said, and because it’s now largely underground, they have trouble recognizing it.

“They don’t see that these movies are telling them their options lie in their looks and getting a man,” she said.

As women begin to outnumber men on college campuses, university officials need to understand -- and counteract -- the pressures these students face.

“It used to be that women came to get husbands and happened to get degrees,” Donahoo said.

“But these days, the good students, particularly those who go into fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, aren’t going to have time to lie out on the Quad in their bikinis and go to dances. We have to do more to support those who come for the education and who may or may not get husbands.”