Today’s Boston Globe reports on the naming of former Olympic Gold Medal winner Tenley Albright to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Albright’s is a wonderful story of accomplishment, from polio victim to champion ice skater to Harvard Medical School-trained surgeon to brilliant innovator and tackler of societal challenges in health and medicine. (Plus, she is a warm and charming person.) But today’s feature by Bella English dismisses in one sentence the other local woman among ten inductees this year into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
Seneca Falls was home to the very first women’s rights convention, in 1848, and its Hall of Fame celebrates women whose accomplishments have been of significant value to the nation and the world. This year’s honorees include Jean Kilbourne of Newton, whose lifelong work has been devoted to the impact of media and advertising on public health issues, especially eating disorders, violence against women, smoking, high-risk drinking. She has also tackled the problem of media-created sexualization of children.
Kilbourne’s approach to such issues has been to educate individual and institutions about media literacy. Her goal has been to teach people how to identify and critique messages they receive from movies, television, magazines, radio, video games, music and other platforms. The idea is that, if we understand the pressures we’re either aware of or unconsciously experiencing from the media, we can behave more in line with our own health and well-being.
Kilbourne was a pioneer in the field of media literacy, something needed today more than ever. We still need to be reminded of advertising’s false promises of sexual appeal, beauty, power, popularity, to consumers of particular products. Kilbourne notes that the $200 billion per year advertising industry has had major effects on our behavior, how we think of ourselves, how we relate to others. She says “the average American is exposed to over 3,000 advertisements a day and watches three years’ worth of television ads over the course of a lifetime.” These are appalling statistics and have scary implications if we are not savvy consumers of media. Was writer Bella English directed to give scant attention to Kilbourne because of the centrality of advertising to newspaper revenues?
Today, media literacy goes beyond advertising. We need to be critical consumers of news of all sorts. But Kilbourne was a ground-breaker in the field and is being rightly honored by induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Congratulations to her, and to the other inductees as well.
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