Media Smarts

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Ann Dort-McLean, Executive Director of Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta, quoting from the recent documentary Miss Representation.

“That really sums up the whole concept of media literacy.”

From her office in Fort McMurray, Dort-McLean oversees the Media Smarts program for girls, which is supported by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.Media Smarts

At Media Smarts, girls aged 9-11 learn to critique and challenge the messages they see in films, television, music videos, advertising, video games, and social media. 

According to the American Psychological Association, the highly sexualized portrayal of women and girls in media has a strong negative influence on girls’ confidence, sense of self-worth, and body image. It also influences which careers girls think they should have.

“All they see is scantily-clad girls that hang off men and don’t think on their own or make their own decisions,” says Dort-McLean. “So of course they think that’s how they should act.”

During one session, the girls were analyzing the images in a Canadian news magazine when one of them said: “There’s no women!” The group went back through every page: the only photographs of women were in the advertisements. Incensed, they complained in writing to the magazine. They didn’t hear back, but as Dort-McLean says, “It was so important that they spoke out.”

Learning how media is created helps the girls realize how false it can be, which often comes as a surprise. As one girl said, “It helped me understand how they can trick you.”

The girls also make their own media message: They choose a topic, analyze their target audience, and decide which format to use: a video, poster, or something else. Once, the local cable company helped the girls create a short video on bullying, with the girls working on both sides of the cameras; the video was later shown in local schools.

By the end of the twelve-week program, they are thinking critically about the messages that surround them. One parent was watching television with her daughter, when the girl suddenly turned to her and declared: “You know what? That’s not real!”

Like all programs for girls funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Media Smarts is designed for girls only. 

“An all-girl program is the best way to help girls discover their voice,” says Dort-McLean.

Media Smarts is supported by the Canadian Women’s Foundation and delivered by Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta. The program is currently offered as part of the school curriculum in four Northern Alberta communities: Fort McMurray, Anzac, Fort MacKay, and Janvier. It will soon expand to ten sites.