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What are girls made of?


GROWING UP was never the carefree process many adults reminisce about. But in a society still adjusting to rapid changes in women's roles, there's a case to be made that girls have an especially rough road to adulthood -- and that most of the fare they see on television doesn't make it any easier.

This week television found itself in the spotlight, with a major national report on violence in television programming, the release of the annual report card from Maryland's own Campaign for Kids' TV (noting slight improvements in programming), and the unveiling of a long-term "media literacy and advocacy" project sponsored by Girls, Inc.

The Girls, Inc. project kicked off last week by announcing a new survey offering a girl's-eye view of television images that have transcended the category of "media" influence to become a part of the cultural wallpaper.

Television is not the only reason we find fourth-grade girls obsessed with losing weight or convinced that unless they are pretty and poised and cooperative they will never find happiness. But neither can we underestimate the messages the small screen beams into our houses and heads.

"Strong, smart and bold"

Girls, Inc., once known as Girls Clubs, jumped into this issue for a simple reason. The organization's admirable goal is to encourage girls to become "strong, smart and bold" -- and television programming often shows them the opposite kinds of role models.

Louis Harris & Associates, which conducted the nationwide poll of 2,000 school children, found that girls are much more dissatisfied with what they see on television than boys are.

"Television is really getting out of hand with women," said one Massachusetts girl. "It makes us look like the only important quality about women is our body, or that we have no mind or strength."

Given the chance to imagine their own shows, girls said they want to see characters who look like them -- not just women who are drop-dead gorgeous. They want to see girls who struggle with issues familiar to them -- puberty, getting along with friends, juggling social and academic pressures, handling family problems like divorce or unemployment.

Sounds a lot like "My So-Called Life" and other critically acclaimed but short-lived series.

Part of the reason for this campaign, dubbed "Girls Re-Cast TV," is to create a stronger voice in support of programs that do go beyond stereotypes and attempt to portray real people coping with real-life challenges.

Like it or not, television is a major teacher for boys and girls. Dr. George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, says that the stories that shape children's lives are no longer told primarily by parents, schools or churches, but rather by television.

That pervasive influence is reflected in the Harris poll. Children in grades 3 through 12 told surveyors they spend nearly 21 hours a week watching television; nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said they have a TV set in their bedroom.

Careless violence has gotten a lot of attention -- and the criticism seems to have had some positive effect on the industry. But violence is not the only problem with television, and Girls, Inc. is on to something when it worries about the inane television images of girls.

To succeed in school, to avoid unintended pregnancy or substance abuse, to grow into capable women, girls need strong role models, not just in daily life but also in the cultural icons that influence their view of the world. We're all better off when girls have role models who are strong and smart, not just cute and helpless.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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