This post is by Elena Rossini.
“For the first time in human history, most of the stories about people, life, and values are told not by parents, schools, churches, or others in the community who have something to tell, but by a group of distant conglomerates that have something to sell.”
– George Gerbner, media scholar
Four years ago I had a eureka moment that ended up determining the trajectory of my life and career. I’m mildly embarrassed about sharing it, because it’s something that may be obvious to most. It just took me some 27 years to finally “get it.”
At the time newspapers, magazines, TV newscasts, and a myriad of websites obsessively documented the turbulent lives of a small set of “starlets,” singers and actresses. The protagonists were invariably the same: Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears. All beautiful, wealthy, under the age of 30. Followed seemingly every minute of their lives: having lunch at an L.A. hotspot. Shopping for clothes. Partying. There were daily reports of wild nights out, wardrobe accidents conveniently caught by paparazzi, feuds between “frenemies,” dramatic weight loss… Presented as serious issues worthy of news reports.
My reaction was always the same: who cares? I found it disheartening that more people knew about Paris Hilton than Rita Levi Montalcini. Many questions started to dog me: why all these reports? Who are they benefiting? Why the lack of reports on accomplished professional women doing inspiring work? Why are women over 40 almost invisible in our media? What does this all mean?
The realization? Superficiality is extremely profitable. By saturating our media and public spaces with messages (explicit and implicit) that youthful looks and material possessions matter above everything else, a multitude of corporations could reap large profits – beauty, fashion, diet, and the pharmaceutical industry to name a few. Even mass media themselves, selling tabloid magazines like hot cakes and advertising space for vapid “reality shows”. What’s unfortunate is that in the eyes of marketing executives, intelligence and maturity aren’t seen as readily lucrative.
What particularly disturbed me was the realization that this applies not just to advertising, but also to the content itself of TV newscasts and newspapers. Men would invariably dominate reports of “serious” issues – business and politics – while women would consistently be portrayed as eye-candy. A small oligarchy of media conglomerates is responsible for this, acting as “gatekeepers” of our information and effectively shaping our views of the world and society. There are countless studies documenting the long-term effects of television viewing on shaping, or ‘cultivating’ the public’s conceptions of social reality.
Upon realizing all this, I decided to take action. I started to research these topics reading dozens of tomes on marketing, media theory, sociology, gender studies, and body politics. And my documentary The Illusionists was thus born.
In the one hour, forty minute film that’s currently in development, I will talk about the commodification of the body and the marketing of unattainable beauty around the world, exploring the “why” and “how” of these phenomena. No holds barred.
One of the most memorable incidents I found was discussed in Gloria Steinem’s essay “Sex Lies and Advertising” – which perfectly illustrates the real motives, dirty tactics, and strong censorship of the advertising industry.
The November 1980 issue of Ms. Magazine won several awards for its brilliant reportage on the lives of exiled Soviet activists. But it also made the magazine lose lots of advertising money. The reason? In the words of Ms. founder Gloria Steinem, “This journalistic coup [undid] years of efforts to get an ad schedule from Revlon. Why? Because the Soviet women on our cover [didn’t] wear makeup.”
Ironically, as a young female filmmaker I had to fight against some of the same attitudes that are prevalent in our media. Virtually every TV network or production company I approached would treat me in a condescending way because of my age – 31 – and my gender. Those interested in discussing the film, would invariably aim for the lowest common denominator. Namely: salacious stories over real substance.
My goal: to speak with sociologists, historians, media critics, psychologists, magazine editors, advertising executives and various other experts from seven different countries. For a balanced, intelligent discussion on these issues, digging deeper at the historical roots and economic motives of the commodification of the body.
TV networks’ goals? Something very different.
A female TV producer, in her early forties: “I hear Madonna gets Botox injections in her armpit so that she doesn’t sweat. You should put that in the film.”
The head of a prestigious network renowned for highbrow programming: “I’m not interested in your experts. I once saw a documentary in which a female director who was 35 walked in front of construction workers. They didn’t whistle or say anything, so she went back to them and said, ‘You used to catcall me when I was 25. Why don’t you do that anymore?’ I loved it. You should do something like this.”
The head of documentary production of another TV network: “I don’t care about Noam Chomsky. Remove 70% of your experts and put yourself in the film. You should be a guinea pig and have beauty treatments. The public will love that!”
Needless to say, hearing these suggestions from people with such great power was a fantastic motivator – to make the documentary and do it independently, outside the system.
I recently set up a fundraising campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com and the response has been tremendous: from professional women’s associations, to body image and girl empowerment activists, media literacy groups, and hundreds of individuals, I have managed to raise over $32,000 of funding for my documentary in a month. I’m set to start filming interviews in London this September.
This quote from Rosa Parks has been a great motivator: “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” So true.
Elena Rossini is a film director, cinematographer and editor originally from Como, Italy. She has studied in the United States and has been working in Europe for the past five years. In addition to THE ILLUSIONISTS, recent projects include the short film IDEAL WOMEN commissioned by the Louvre Museum and ARTE Web, cinematography for THREE DAYS TO SEE (a documentary about Helen Keller) and LILI’S JOURNEY (a documentary about women’s social and economic empowerment). Elena is also the creator and editor-in-chief of NO COUNTRY FOR YOUNG WOMEN, a multimedia platform whose aim is to promote positive role models for women.