Interview with Stephen Hinshaw, author of The Triple Bind

As my readers know, I was very impressed with Stephen Hinshaw’s book, The Triple Bind, which describes the serious pressures on young women today. He characterizes these pressures as falling into three categories:

1. The pressure to be a straight-A student and/or excellent athlete who gets into a good college and goes on to a successful career, embodying what Hinshaw describes as “traditionally male” skills of competitiveness and career ambition.

2. The pressure to be nurturing (as a caretaker of siblings, friends, or family members) and romantically nurturing, in pursuit of relationships, what he refers to as “traditionally feminine values.”

3. The pressure to be sexually attractive to an extreme degree, what Dr. Hinshaw refers to as “impossibly perfect,”  as embodied by women and teens on film, television, and in popular culture. In today’s culture “sexual self-objectification is continually presented as the epitome of self-confidence, empowerment, and individuality,” so that women are told they’ll feel better about themselves if they buy that lipstick or fit into a certain dress size. His chapter “Bratz Dolls and Pussycat Dolls” examines reality shows and children’s toys to discuss the sexual objectification of women in mass media.

These mixed messages result in girls being asked to “perform like a man but feel like a woman…and then encouraged to believe it’s their own fault if they can’t do both,” while being held to an extreme standard of physical beauty. As a result, many of the young women he interviewed for The Triple Bind feel as though they are trapped in impossible situations, torn between fulfilling family obligations, doing well in school or at work, and being in successful relationships.

In one heartbreaking case, he describes a teen trying to balance her AP classes and her boyfriend’s desire to socialize. When her boyfriend subsequently broke up with her because she was too occupied by her courses, the young woman struggled with depression, declining grades, and her own sense that her efforts to please everyone  had been in vain. Similarly, many young women reported they have difficulty balancing all areas of their lives. One sixteen-year-old described her ‘greatest concern’ this way:

“I think the biggest thing is, like, time. How you’re gonna do everything–like if you have those expectations, how are you going to fit in that time, if you only have twenty-four hours in the day, and have to sleep eight of those or nine or however many?” 

Reading his work, I felt the issues raised by The Triple Bind could apply to women of all ages. I contacted Dr. Hinshaw, who is a professor at UC-Berkeley, and he graciously agreed to respond to my questions. His answers are in bold, below.

1. I was struck by your chapter on objectification (“Bratz Dolls and Pussycat Dolls”) and how you describe the ‘sexualization as empowerment’ narrative as the most difficult of the binds to escape. I would argue that this narrative is increasingly difficult for women of all ages to avoid (I see it in my twenty-something peers and in media portrayals of older women, too–what’s a ‘cougar’ but a Pussycat Doll of a certain age?), but do you have any suggestions or strategies for women who want to resist this objectification?

This would be the topic of a new book, entirely. A few thoughts: teach girls (and boys, too, of course) critical thinking–e.g., differentiating ads from facts, understanding the un-reality of the looks of many models, etc.  How to empower a new generation to realize that identity and meaning aren’t tied in explicitly with how you ‘look’?  This will take ‘real’ parenting strategies, active defiance of media images, and a culture in which ‘real’ narratives come to replace the fake [and] looks-only ideals that still permeate our society.

2. What about educating young men and the parents of young boys, about the dangers of by what Peggy Orenstein calls ‘age-compression/sexualization’ of little girls? As a professor and the father of boys, do you have any insights?

The messages that girls hear [and] see are the same ones that boys experience, too.  If boys can learn to handle the almost-impossible adjustments foisted upon them by adolescence and our culture (just as girls need to learn to handle such, too), we might have more of a reality base for communication across the gender divide, which would be a clear first step.

3. Much of your research and interview work seems to indicate that we live in a culture of the gaze (possibly an evolving form of what art history calls the male gaze?) that is obsessed with how women and young girls present themselves–looking effortlessly athletic, sexy, and brainy seems to have replaced actual exertion on behalf of a goal. Do you think that is an accurate characterization?

Gaze–and capturing quick impressions of people–is not just a current scenario, but almost timeless, i think, across our species’ history.  Still, in the crowded and media-saturated world in which we now live, quick gazes (and the impressions they create) may land us on a kind of island of ‘stability’ or ‘being sure’ in a world pervaded by such oversaturation.  But this is a false security, because there is much to learn about people’s ideals/intentions/plans far underneath initial impressions.

4. To elaborate on question 3: Rather than seeing female protagonists struggle, for example, we are usually presented with film montages that elide or compress hard work and struggle into a few moments with a catchy tune (I’m thinking of Reese Witherspoon’s ‘LSAT studying’ montage in the film “Legally Blonde” here). Likewise, our freshmen and sophomore composition courses here often ask students to examine advertisements, and many of my students have stressed that advertisements for/with women are usually set in a studio, often show passive and isolated female models meant to be looked at, etc. By comparison, men’s ads are usually more active–they are shown in groups, outside, or actively pursuing something. Is there anything in the psychological literature that discusses how or why this would be the case?

Not that I’m immediately aware of, but it raises the perennial question of whether media reflect or shape current cultural patterns.  Probably both, of course, but such images promote a female-passive self-view.  One alternative is increased coverage of women’s sports, even team sports–very positive at one level, unless one has to be a ‘hot’ athlete in such sports in order to ‘matter’  (e.g., Hope Solo, recently).       

Thanks again to Dr. Hinshaw for his time & attention. –HB

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