It was one of those lazy afternoons when the weather was too terrible to go out and my twin daughters who are in their lovely terrible-twos phase were bored out of their minds and wreaking havoc. So we turned the TV on and started dancing to “children-friendly” songs to keep them busy and, more importantly, keep them from tearing any more wallpaper off the walls.
We listened to the Frozen movie song “Let It Go,” loved by possibly every kid around the world. The song, although it had been playing on repeat for days on end until I couldn’t bear the sight of blue anymore, speaks of not conforming to social norms and being true to one’s self to release and fulfill your potential. It speaks about sibling bonds and, at the end, it is sisterly love, not prince charming, who saves the day. I loved the song and the movie; the twins and I danced happily to the voice of Elsa taking control of her talents and powers. Then the song “How Far I’ll Go” was on, from the movie Moana, and I was happy because it spoke of adventure, risking your comfort zone to fulfill your dreams and dreaming big.
Then YouTube suggested Nancy Agram’s “Ya Banat” (Girls), and I was happy because I do want them to listen to Arabic songs and read books in their native language fighting cultural imperialism and all. The song starts off really mellow, speaking about how nice it is to have daughters, how compassionate and giving girls are. It also speaks against traditional proverbs preferring sons over daughters; I was impressed to hear the line “wala shoft el ard ethadet wala mallet el hetta alaya,” in reference to the proverb saying that when mothers give birth to girls the earth shatters and the wall falls upon them. The girls were giggling and it was a very cute bonding moment. I was mostly twirling around with them, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the video clip. But then it happened; a sore monstrosity of a line shattered my cute Sound of Music bubble.
Agram sang in her melodic voice, “you are not afraid of the wedding, you’ve known ever since you were very young; you’ve been wanting the veil, you little bride, ever since you were in diapers.” No, just no; it can’t be that a song that is supposedly empowering girls is actually telling them that their one aim, their one childhood dream, is wearing the veil and becoming a bride to be wed. So the dancing stopped, I dropped the girls, snapped back to a sexist reality, repeated the track and started paying closer attention to the “childfriendly” song.
The entire music video is splattered in pink and cupcakes. All the activities carried out by the girls and Agram who seems to have a particular charisma with little girls take place in the kitchen or in front of the vanity table. They’re either baking chocolate cupcakes, playing dress up with bridal veils or putting on lipstick. Is that it for little girls? Is that everything they should hope for? Forget about being doctors or teachers or ambassadors; let’s frame little girls’ minds to be clad solely in pink and all its shades and chase after the groom who would fulfill their childhood dream of being a bride. Let’s do it ever so often that the mention of adult life would only evoke pictures of lipstick and happily ever after.
The song isn’t particularly offensive, neither is it downright sexist in the way it is presented. In fact, it is a song that allegedly empowers little girls, so parents may not pay close attention to what it insinuates, and this is why I find it even more problematic. The media, in the simplest interpretations, has strong agenda-setting effects; meaning that the media may not have the power to tell everyone what to think but it sure does tell us what to think about. It sets priorities in our minds through constant exposure to similar messages and topics. It lights a bulb of an idea in our heads which keeps shining brighter the more we’re exposed to it.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Ajram Team Turkey
But with young minds, those who are most vulnerable to outside influences, the media can greatly affect how they think and their beliefs. Erving Goffman’s framing theory from the 1970s suggests that our minds find it easier to process and interpret information, especially unfamiliar information, through tying it with frames. Those frames, either set naturally, socially or through the media, help us make sense of information we receive. Those frames work particularly well if the mind has no set frames, which is the case with young children, whose minds are clean slates shaped by their surroundings.
A study by Darcy Haag Granello in 1997 shows that girls aged 12 looked at the media to define how their lives would be in the future and believed that if they modeled themselves after the characters, they would achieve the same status and rewards.
The stronger those frames are set, through repeated messages, the more powerful they are in evoking certain feelings and beliefs surrounding the topic in discussion and, later on, influencing their choices. And repetitive as they are, a study by the Geena Davis Institute shows that children are subjected to an average of 16,000 images per day, including ads, logos, labels, songs, shows and others. When we frame marriage as the ultimate goal, as opposed to one aspect of a very diverse life, keep repeatedly telling girls we can’t wait to see them as brides and expose them to similar media messages, little girls will grow up obsessing about landing their prince charming. When we frame it as the natural evolution for any girl, when she turns 30 without having found the right guy, she will either be miserable because she feels like a failure even if she’s successful in every other aspect in her life or will end up marrying any guy who knocks on her door.
But it’s not just Agram’s song that’s problematic. It’s far from an isolated incident. It is a global problem that, although media professionals are slowly starting to realize the role they contribute to it, is far from getting solved.
A study by Oregon State University of 100 girls aged 14 to 18 exposed the respondents to four pictures, accompanied by a brief list of their accomplishments and biographies. The pictures featured actress Jennifer Aniston, model Heidi Klum, a CEO and a military pilot. The respondents rated Aniston and Klum higher on likability and believed them to be more competent and relatable than the other women. Yet the girls also felt that the CEO and the pilot were better role models. This shows that while the girls believe the latter are good role models in theory, in reality, because the media has been framing them as popular and appreciated by the wider audience, the girls have come to believe actresses and models are more likeable and more relatable, partially because they’re framed as such, but also because they are constantly in the media. And whereas they do admire professionals like businesswomen and pilots, they do not find themselves relating to them and they do not believe these are the kind of women appreciated or liked by society.
The media in the UK and the US seems to have realized that the rhetoric presented to girls and boys alike needs to change. And we have been starting to see movies like Maleficent, for instance, stressing that love isn’t necessarily just prince charming’s love, it’s also motherly bonds and friendships. Moana and Frozen are also great examples of telling girls to break norms and be true to themselves; especially Moana, who doesn’t conform to the predominant beauty standards of Disney princesses. Moana has thick ankles, a strong build, a larger-than-a button nose and wavy hair, something most girls can relate to far more than they can to the picture-perfect Snow White, among others. This is not to say that all messages coming from the West are positive; on the contrary, many are demeaning to girls, sexist and leave them obsessing over body image and the perfect nose, hair and lips. But at least there are both messages and parents can direct their kids, especially younger ones, to either of them.
Over on the more eastern side of the world, however, we’re still singing to little girls about marriage and marriage alone. Other suggested YouTube videos for children in Egypt were Hamada Helal’s “SpongeBob” and a song by a very cute little girl named Hala Al Turk, singing about being miserable at home and wanting to leave the house.
So we started listening to Donia Samir Ghanem’s songs, and the kids just love her. I think many kids do, as she is talented, knows how to put on a show and makes smart choices. But then I remembered a popular song she sang titled “Wahda Tania Khales” (A Completely Different Person), which speaks about a girl who has changed for a man she loves. I am all for improving to the better and compromising in relationships, but the song is far from that. The lyrics literally read “I don’t say no to anything he wants, I see life the way he sees it, I follow his orders to the dot; he simply controls all my life. I don’t speak to any other boys and he even picks my girlfriends out for me; what can I do? He doesn’t like most of them.” I would have completely understood had she been singing about how miserable he’s making her life and how she wants to leave him. But she goes on to say, “What’s weird is that I am happy that way.” So for the many young girls religiously following Ghanem’s songs and shows, for the many teenagers who take her as a role model of a successful singer, actress and mother, we are presenting a sadistic relationship as the norm and telling them they should conform and comply to keep their man, that this way they’ll be happy and loved.
It isn’t just the songs. I tried looking for Arabic books for our bedtime storytelling; I did find many nice books speaking about how kids shouldn’t play with electric sockets, about being giving and helping others. But I found absolutely nothing specifically targeting girls to empower them. Meanwhile, I have bought the twins a book titled Girl Power, a series of animated short stories with messages ranging from loving yourself with all the flaws, hair frizz and quirky teeth, to being a warrior saving and defending people, and not a princess waiting in towers to be saved. I would have loved to find something similar in Arabic, but we ended up buying Goha, which they absolutely love, and I absolutely abhor. There is also another book I am eyeing called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls that lays out the history of 100 influential women, including our very own Cleopatra, might I add, as well as astronauts and pilots and generally awesome women. As excited as I am to read this book to my girls, it did pain me that a country like Egypt does not tell little girls about our strong feminist heritage in a way that will appeal to them and frame being strong, kind, proud and successful as opposed to merely physical beauty and having long, flowing hair as desirable. Egypt has a long list of very powerful, pioneering women, from Cleopatra all the way to the first female pilot Lotfia El Nady, but very few girls, or women for that matter, are told about it.
It is important to remember that it isn’t only girls who are exposed to these messages; boys are too. So if we don’t change our narrative, and change it now, we will have yet another generation who are torn between messages of women’s empowerment, and others telling them that a girl’s place is at home at her husband’s beck and call.