Marianne Schnall on Changing the Media's Stereotypes of Women

Author, interviewer and activist Marianne Schnall has spent more than two decades propelling the feminist movement forward. She is the cofounder and executive director of Feminist.com and the founder of the new platform What Will It Take, focused on advancing women's leadership. Marianne is also the author of What Will It Take To Make a Woman President? and Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice, and a contributor to a plethora of respected publications. All of this has given her an up-close view of the role media plays in the expectations and views of women in society.

“There are two stereotypes that are most concerning to me because they’re so damaging in so many ways,” says Schnall. “One is definitely the focus around women’s looks. I suffered this myself as a teenage girl – I and most of my friends had some sort of variation of an eating disorder.” Fixated on the models in Seventeen magazine, Schnall says she was sidetracked from what her worth was, believing that it wasn’t about her intelligence, her spirit or her voice. Rather, she defined herself by her looks. “These unrealistic ideals are perpetuated by the media and by advertising,” she says. “It’s a whole system that preys on you. And it continues to prey on you all your life.”

This contributes to what Schnall sees as the other problem that concerns her the most – the negative media portrayal of powerful, ambitious and confident women. “This is why we don’t have more women leaders,” she says. “Women are so often groomed to be liked and to please. If they assert themselves early on, confident girls are seen as bossy. What’s so insidious about it is that it has become such a part of our culture that it’s subversive. We don’t even consciously realize it.”

Having role models who are bucking the media’s stereotypes is key. Schnall has spent her career interviewing women – such as Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, Dr. Jane Goodall, Melinda Gates and Oprah – who do just that. But there are many more women she has spoken to who remain unrecognized for their work and contributions to society. “Literally every day I’m inspired by so many women whose names you may not know, but who are doing so much incredible work,” she says. “The problem is that we need to see more of them. It’s not because there are no incredible women. It’s that they aren’t getting air time or being celebrated.”

In both the corporate world and in government, the number of women in powerful positions is devastatingly low. Women make up less than 20 percent of Congress. And the 2016 Fortune 500 list included just 21 companies (4.2 percent) with female CEOs. “It’s sort of a self-perpetuating problem,” says Schnall. “The media is discouraging to women who are rising up. And not having more women who are reaching those visible positions leads to less role models.”

So how do we fight these disheartening forces? On a daily basis we need to speak out against the sexism that we see in our daily lives. We need to be conscious media consumers – supporting positive media and speaking out against negative representations. Now, more than ever, Schnall sees an opportunity to make real strides. “I’ve been in this space for over two decades,” she says. “While I feel very discouraged about so much that is happening right now, one of the few positive trends I see is the rising of women. Women are awake. We’re galvanizing together as a movement. I think that’s something that will be amplified and we need to harness it and be a transformative force right now.”

Interview by Shannon Sharpe. Marianne Schnall is one of the inspiring panelists for the upcoming event Women in the Media: Breaking Stereotypes, cohosted by Global Women 4 Wellbeing.

Mikki Brammer