Syracuse Symposium panel discusses how women can control their image through social media

By Marléna E. Ahearn

November 4, 2015

The 2015 Syracuse Symposium recently hosted three scholars, including Newhouse Associate Professor Harriet Brown, to talk about the media’s portrayal of women and how women can control their image in media.

The panel discussion, titled  “Glamour and Damage: Women, Scandal, and Social Media Networks,” took place in the windowed Sutton Pavilion at Syracuse Stage.

The panel also included Kal Alston, professor of cultural foundations of education in the School of Education and senior vice president for human capital development at Syracuse University, and Christine Courtade Hirsch, assistant professor of communication studies at SUNY Oswego. With Brown, the three talked about women in the media. The panelists discussed how challenging it can be for women in powerful positions to manage everything about themselves online and on social media.

The discussion explored the topics of women’s bodies and how they have been “shamed and censured” for years. Panelists were asked to comment on how social networks “characterize, victimize, shame, sensualize and sensationalize women and instances of so-called ‘scandal.’”

In the wake of the 24-hour news cycle and omnipresent social media, the shaming, censuring, and policing of women’s bodies has only gotten worse, according to the panelists.

“Social media, in some ways, allows for more judgment because everybody’s in your living room,” Hirsch says.“I think it makes everybody a little too intimate.”

This intimacy, discussed throughout the panel discussion, makes it difficult for women in media to claim their own bodies and voices. The battle of choosing what to reveal and what to hide shapes a person in the public’s eye. A moment of confidence or empowerment one day can turn into a scandal overnight on social media because of the over-sexualization of women’s bodies, according to the panel.  

“When young women, like high school or college students, (take pictures) because it’s empowering in the moment, they’re not giving consent for those to be used in the future,” says Harriet Brown. 

Not all women fall victim to critical eyes in media, though. The panelists discussed the opportunity for women to claim their power online and in social media by selecting what they share. By contrasting Taylor Swift with other pop culture icons, the audience and the panel attempted to identify how a woman’s brand is affected and shaped by her social media habits.

“Taylor (Swift) is in control of her image, and she didn’t have to get naked to have that success. Rihanna and Katy Perry, they made different choices,” Alston says. “And I’m not going to judge any of them on those business choices.”

Panelists addressed the idea that there is power and control in both hiding sexuality from the media and flaunting it online.

The panel also addressed how there is a way to reclaim space in media. Though social media can be a minefield to navigate for women in powerful positions because of intense scrutiny, there is also power in being able to comment on and reclaim the story. The panel used actress Jennifer Lawrence’s recent photo scandal as an example of this.

While Lawrence’s revealing photos were not meant for public consumption, they were released. Instead of allowing this attack to define her, panelists discussed how Lawrence created a conversation on privacy and sexuality from the scandal. Today, women can use social media to not only shape their image, but also to call out narratives in media.

“Live-tweeting and commenting is all about taking the narrative and transforming it,” Brown says. “That’s the way in which social media gives us individuals some power in the sphere.”

Marléna E. Ahearn is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.