Beyond Vassar

Documentarian Revisits Evils in Advertising

By Alexandra Grabbe ’69

Margaret Lazarus ’69 is a small, articulate woman with fire in her eyes, especially when she talks about social injustice, the subject of the documentaries that are her life work. "Such films are vitally important," she said, "because we can’t depend on the mainstream media to make them." Her 1994 film on domestic violence, Defending Our Lives, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject.

Lazarus is again making the class of 1969 proud as she refocuses attention on issues raised in her earlier films Killing Us Softly (1979) and Still Killing Us Softly (1987) — which drew attention to the objectification of women in advertising. A handful of her classmates were present when The Strength to Resist: Beyond Killing Us Softly opened to a full house at the Museum of Fine Arts theater in Boston in January 2001. (It has since won the People’s Choice Award at the 2001 Moab/Canyonlands Film Fest.) I watched with particular interest because my own daughter had become anorexic in high school, anxious to turn her body into that of a supermodel. Indeed, from looking at ads in most magazines, you might think you needed to be thin to succeed in life.

Lazarus, though, maintains that girls have other options. Her new documentary offers solutions on how to resist the negative impact of advertising. Beyond features delightfully strong women who discuss the battle against the media and the degrading images it produces. The film includes an examination of the impact of MTV and the Internet.

We first meet Carol Gilligan, Graham professor of gender studies at Harvard University, who launches the debate by commenting that something happens to girls when they enter adolescence: Why do they lose their self-esteem? Lazarus films a group of 12-year-olds in front of a Britney Spears video. Their feet tap as they lip-sync with the popular teen performer. As we watch, we realize these girls are imitating the singer without realizing her influence: Spears is pushing "little girl" innocence and sexual availability at the same time, a horrendous combination.

Boston psychiatrist Catherine Steiner-Adair, director of education, prevention, and outreach at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center, then reports that a 9-year-old patient of hers, who once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, had changed her focus by age 15. Now the girl concentrates on how she hopes to look. Steiner-Adair firmly believes such a focus can lead to depression, eating disorders, and learning problems.

In a Mentors in Violence Prevention classroom at Northeastern, while scantily clad models from Cosmopolitan flashed across the big screen, Dr. Gail Dines of Wheelock College warned, "Real women don’t look like this. Models don’t even look like this." The provocative professor points out that air-brushed images have been around for years. What makes the problem more complex is that pornographic poses have slipped into the mix, so that women are shown in positions of vulnerability, susceptible to abuse. Dines tells her class that when violent acts are glamorized, it creates a climate that legitimizes that violence.

Now that I have seen Beyond Killing Us Softly, I have started noticing photos of this fabricated ideal woman, and they are everywhere. She’s tall, thin, and beautiful. It is hard to avoid her. The images jump out from store fronts and the sides of buses. You don’t even have to buy the magazines to feel the pull. So what can be done?

The wise women in Lazarus’ film offer suggestions. Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, recommends getting in touch with reality by observing and interacting with real women. Cybercolumnist Amy Richards advises her "Ask Amy" readers at to become athletic and challenge their bodies in some way. Middle-school student Jamila Capitman describes her own experience, explaining how a month at an all-girls camp helped her gain respect for real women.

Lazarus knows the subject of her new video is not popular — certainly not one any slick magazine will be promoting. Anticipating a lack of media coverage, she has conceived an ambitious plan to get her message out. The filmmaker said, "Beyond Killing Us Softly is most effectively presented in an educational environment — in a classroom or at a community organization like the library — with educators leading well-focused discussions about the subject." A supplementary study guide is available to assist in these settings.

Lazarus believes we need to "reclaim our culture" if we are to successfully address the negative influence of advertising and lead real lives. "When we hear those voices in our head saying we really ought to be thinner, we need to tell them to shut up. We’ve got the choice to buy into this impossible, ridiculous ideal or get real," she said. For more information about Lazarus’ films, visit

Grabbe is a freelance writer who lives in Cape Cod, where she cares for her elderly mother, Beatrice Grabbe ‘32.