The 2011-2012 Essay Contest Winners:
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Place

High School Division

First Place

Sarah Beth Schuessler
Grade 11
Oshkosh North High School
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Disability Prejudice in the Media

How are individuals with special needs or handicaps portrayed in the media? While watching television one night, I realized that my favorite programs included at least one character with a mental or physical disability. The characters in these shows are not always as accurate as I believe they could be, and it disappoints me that most are depicted negatively. As the producer of one of these shows, I would want to see special needs people be accepted into society as another sibling, parent, co-worker, neighbor, spouse or friend. Programs such as Glee, Monk and CSI are just a few that make people with special needs appear as if they all cannot function in society normally.

A good example of not having prejudices would be Glee. I have watched Glee since the first season aired and I have fallen in love with the characters and the music. The storyline might jump around a lot, but some of the messages are good. The glee club is a show choir group in a high school made up of many kids in different social circles. Most of the time, the diversity causes issues that stir up a lot of drama. In each episode, however, the Gleeks will help one another out and get closer to those they never would have thought they would be close to. Artie is one of the main characters, and just so happens to be in a wheelchair. He proves that even though he cannot walk, he can still contribute to the glee club. The show also features a girl with Down syndrome and helps the cheerleading coach in a positive way. As the producer of this show, I would feature the girl with Down syndrome more frequently and add her into the storyline as a new addition to the glee club.

The television show, Monk, has some positives and negatives regarding prejudice. Former homicide detective, Adrian Monk, has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that the television series describes as a comical thing. Adrian Monk uses his disability as a tool to help solve mysteries by using his keen eye at the crime scene. I have a friend with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and it is a frustrating thing to deal with, rather than amusing as Monk portrays it. If I were the producer of this series, I would introduce some more characters with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and exhibit the difficulties and challenges with this condition.

CSI and other fictional crime shows often tend to portray people with mental disabilities as cold-blooded killers. These crime shows regularly characterize people with mental and physical disabilities as criminals. This saddens me that these people are being misrepresented. If I were the producer, I would make more shows like Life Goes On, a television series that ran on ABC from 1989-1993. The show was about a family that included a son with Down syndrome and a daughter who was very gifted, but socially awkward. The parents really pushed to have their son put into a public high school, instead of an alternative program for those with Down syndrome. The son was a positive representative for people with special needs, eventually getting a job, a girlfriend and getting married. We need more shows like this today on television.

I am very passionate about this subject because I am a very involved member of a club at my school, whose goal is to reach out and include socially awkward and special needs kids my age and help them feel included and get them to help out in the community. I hope that others watching these shows on television will recognize these people as contributing members to society and not as if they are worthless, deviant or a criminal. Men and women with disabilities and handicaps have feelings, desire a sense of belonging and hate being ignored. I hope that the media will portray the people with special needs differently in the future, because they are some of the most loving, kind people a person could ever meet.

Second Place

Brittney Diane Tracey
Grade 11
Oshkosh North High School
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Heroines in Training

"It's not right for a woman to read, soon she starts getting ideas, thinking" (Beauty and the Beast). As a young girl, I can remember sitting in front of the television screen hearing this statement and thinking, "I like to read...?" This is said by Gaston, the egotistical male character of Disney's classic tale Beauty and the Beast. This is just one example of how the media is sexist in the view of women in past and present society. The media is everywhere; it is unavoidable even to impressionable young girls. The image of a beautiful princess clad in a sparkly dress being serenaded by a handsome prince is constantly in the eyes and minds of these girls. We all want that, or do we? Has the media tarnished the image of honorable women and realistic love?

Most young girls, myself included, grow up yearning to be a princess like Cinderella, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, or Belle. Disney has created these young women to be role models for young girls, yet, their themes differ from the original written tales. In the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, mermaid Ariel falls in love with a prince and wants to be human so she can be beautiful and have human legs. The hideous octopus woman Ursula grants her this wish. I believe this is stereotypical because Ursula, the villain, is a fat ugly monster woman while Ariel is a beautiful thin girl who gets what she wants. In the end, the prince falls in love with her (because of her appearance?) and they live "happily ever after." In the original tale of The Little Mermaid, the legs Ariel is granted cause her a great amount of pain to symbolize the sacrifice she made giving up her true mermaid self. Once she is able to meet the prince, she discovers that he is already in love with someone else and he soon marries this other woman. I find this outcome much more relatable. This is what actually happens in real life! In reality, it is rarely happily ever after, and so many things get in the way of even having a chance at love. Honestly, I would rather watch a movie about something that could and actually does happen, and be able to learn from it. If I worked for Disney I would point out that the girls watching these movies are impressionable and should be watching movies about how even after heartbreak, one can rebuild and become a strong, independent person.

An example of this kind of strong, independent woman who unfortunately turned typical Disney princess is Cinderella. At the beginning of the tale, she was a poor, hardworking woman but eventually she was magically turned beautiful and popular and found her prince. What bothers me is that the prince loved her based on her appearance, not the fact that she was this hardworking independent woman. I feel that this was the perfect opportunity for Disney to show young girls that it is okay to be yourself and be proud of your work ethic. Instead, they again chose the path of happily ever after based solely on appearances. I already live in a world, called high school, where everything is based on appearances. In high school, one is judged for how they look and act. The students with the impressive work ethic are often made fun of, even though they should be the ones rewarded for their endeavors. I cannot understand why the honorable students are looked down upon, and I believe that this extends to the view of females in high school. When a female is "smarter" than a male, she is seen as a nerd or dork that has no life. The female stereotype in high school is that we are dumb blondes, and when we are something different such as a successful student and athlete, males are shocked and feel intimidated. I feel that because I am a successful female student and not involved in athletics, I have the label "boring and only interested in academics." Is this male mentality based on the film industry? In these popular Disney princess movies, women are seen as weak and in need of a man to complete their life. Belle was able to change her true love into a human with the power of her love, but then gave up all of her dreams and aspirations to be with him. Again, Disney had the opportunity to display that a woman does not have to give up herself to be with a man. Belle could have fallen in love with the beast, and they could have traveled the world together as Belle originally wanted to.

Although sexism has dissolved, it is still around because movies are keeping it in present society. Most movies are about a girl loving a boy who does not love her, and she eventually falls in love with another man who has been there all along. Why does she need a man? Can she not be alone and focus on her future and career? I believe that if more movies were about strong independent women, this sexism against women would decrease. I understand that young girls and even adults love the uplifting Disney films, and I do too. There can still be happy uplifting movies with Disney characters, but with a more realistic and positive outcome. In the typical princess movies, there is an underlying meaning that is teaching girls at a young age that their goal in life should be to get married. The media supports this message by promoting the princess lifestyle, when they should instead be promoting the heroine lifestyle. A heroine can still be a fun sparkly princess, but with morals and accomplishments in life. I believe that a true honorable woman would not be ashamed to succeed in life and always pursue her goals, despite what the media says about women.

Third Place

Kimberly S. Mejia-Cuellar
Grade 12
Media College Prep High School
Oakland, California

Portrayal of Arabs in the Media

Violent, incompetent and socially-backward. This is the most common portrayal of Arabs in the American media.

Especially after 9/11, the media's demonization of Arabs has escalated. Arabs have been continuously depicted as one-dimensional characters with nothing but malevolent intent. "To Americans, the Arabs are a people who have lived outside of history," said historian William E. Leuchtenburg.

Americans have created the stereotype of Arab men as oppressive and power-hungry. Women, in turn, are depicted as subordinate, mistreated victims destined for a life of servitude. Arabs are seen as Islamic fundamentalists, ready to do sacrifice their lives for religion. This inaccurate portrayal has stood the test of time.

Dr. Jack Shaneen's documentary, "Reel Bad Arabs," demonstrates how Arabs have been dehumanized in cinema. Shaneen studied 1000 films from 1896 to 2000 featuring Arab and Muslim characters and discovered that over 900 of the films depicted Arabs negatively. In the media, the use of extremists, fanatics, even terrorists, are not uncommon descriptors of Arabs.

Even in the child-favorite "Aladdin" the main villains are Arabs. The movie opens with a disturbing song, "Arabian Nights" in which the villain sings "Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place/ Where the caravan camels roam/ Where they cut off your ear/ If they don't like your face/ It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." This song simply reinforces the belief that Arabs are backward and incredibly violent. It is a message that is even spread to our children, brainwashing them to believe this distorted vision of a people.

This one-dimensional view of Arabs is disheartening and not true. The media is oppressing these people and holding them responsible for the actions of a few failed leaders. It is unfair to demonize a group of people and to pass judgement based on actions extremists took. You can even see this reflection in mainstream politics. When speaking of Palestinians, Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich recently labeled them "terrorists" during a presidential debate (Guardian, 2011).

This caricature has real-life consequences. Americans have taken Arab stereotypes as truth. This can result in hate crimes, like the burning of mosques. According to CBS News, a mosque was set on fire in Nashville last year because some neighbors feared the facility would serve as a "terrorist training ground." This is just one example of the public taking what they learn through the media to heart. Their perceptions of Arabs are so negative that they are instantly suspicious of people when they learn their heritage or religion.

I have seen it myself with my friend Shima, a Yemeni native. She is an intelligent and compassionate person--she is anything but the media's stereotype of Arabs. But to others she is only viewed as a threat by society.

Shima told me about the time she visited Yemen. When she was going through American airport security, she and her family were singled out and taken for additional inspection. Nothing could compare to the emotion Shima felt right then. She told me she was used to being regarded as suspicious by her peers because chose to wear a hijab to school. But having her family targeted because they "looked" Middle Eastern was something else completely.

The media's portrayal of Arabs as one-dimensional violent individuals makes these overreactions a common occurrence.

One of the reasons the media has been able to reproduce racist stereotypes is due to the lack of diversity in the newsroom.

Nearly 9 in 10 newsroom members are white, with minorities only making up a fraction of the press, according to Unity Journalists, an organization that aims to increase the number of minorities in the media. Thus, the media is influenced by these individuals' values and biases.

My school is trying to change this negative perception of minorities. Media College Prep High School, based in Oakland, California focuses on engaging minority students in media, from graphic design to journalism to broadcast radio to television.

I am also Editor-In-Chief of my school newspaper, the Green & Gold. I was News Editor last year and I decided to become EIC because I realized the potential our journalists have. I love helping fellow students grow as writers and create something they can be proud of. Being a leader is stressful but fulfilling: it has taught me patience and the power of teamwork. As EIC, I make sure our stories are balanced and our features are diverse.

Being on the newspaper has enabled staff to get the recognition they deserve, including my friend Shima. We won fourth place Best-In-Show newspaper in America at the 2011 National High School Journalism Convention in Anaheim. I was immensely proud to know that as a public school, we beat out many top private schools.

During that school year there was a story written on Shima, where she had the opportunity to explain her culture. It described Shima's henna (Arabian tattoos). Shima is nothing like the stereotypical Arabs portrayed in the media. She is also an accomplished writer that wrote on our school's academic achievements.

As an editor of a major newspaper, television station or movie, I would make sure to include a more racially diverse cast or newsroom. Minorities come from a different background. They can offer a different perspective when it comes to the way news is reported and broadcasted. More often than not, minorities experience discrimination in the media: Hispanics are seen as gang members, blacks are seen as dropouts, Arabs are extremists, and whites are always the victims.

By bringing more racially diverse people into the newsroom, we can help provide a more balanced, fair perspective to all ethnic groups.

Read the High School Honorable Mention Essays

Middle School Division

First Place

Joyce Hida
Grade 7
Vernon Center Middle School
Vernon, Connecticut


Imagine for a minute the fair princess Rapunzel from the movie, Tangled or from fairy tales. With her beautiful, glowing, long locks of hair golden as sunshine, thin physique, and rosy cheeks, she is the image of beauty, the very definition of a princess. Now erase that picture. Instead, visualize a girl with the same long hair, but a face filled with so many pimples no amount of Pro-Active could fix it. Imagine, a greasy forehead filled with acne scars and blemishes. This is how I will portray Rapunzel, a good-hearted soul who has fallen upon misfortunes when it comes to beauty. A hormonal disaster.

As imaginable, this sudden ugliness could have serious impacts on the way the audience and other characters in this movie react to the change. There would probably be many examples of prejudice. For instance, the prince in Rapunzel probably wouldn't love her as much. Sadly, most of the princesses are known only for their beauty, not their personality. In fact, 75% of the time, when somebody is asked to use one word to describe a princess it's beautiful. Anyway, the prince wouldn't want to marry a hideous girl no matter what her good qualities are. Rather than "Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair," it would be more like, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel don't bother!" The depressing fact is, though true beauty is on the inside, many people judge others on their appearance, as if a bad haircut means you're a bad person.

Also, the audience may be discriminatory against the change. Let's face it. What kid would want to see a movie about a revolting princess? Kids look to princesses as role-models, and as people to fill their fantasies with. A hideous princess with acne problems would fill my nightmares rather than fantasies, and though Rapunzel is a kindred spirit, children would rather look up to a princess with the whole package: beauty and kindness. Iris Hida, a 3 year old princess lover, says, "I love princess's pretty pink dresses. I want to be as pretty as a princess when I grow up!"

All in all, not many kids would want to see a movie about an ugly, pimply princess, not many parents would take their kids to see it as it may ruin their image of a perfect role model, and the Prince in the movie would not love her as much, though she's the same on the inside, and he possibly wouldn't rescue her from the tower. Appearances just mean too much to us these days.

Though the chances seem slim, over time the audience may come to understand or respect the difference in this character. Parents may use it to teach their children a lesson about inner beauty, and how it's the manners and emotions on the inside that count. Kids might be sympathetic with Rapunzel. The prince could learn a lesson too. He could learn that though physical beauty is a great quality, inner beauty is a thousand times more valuable, and that he will never find a kinder, sweeter, funnier person than Rapunzel and that happiness should come before an image.

In fact, this is a lesson we should all learn. After all, how many times have you heard "Don't judge a book by its cover," or "Appearances can be deceiving"? Just like in school, when something is repeated a lot, it means it is important. It's like an orange. The skin of an orange is what we see and visualize, but it's the substance on the inside that is important. After all, what would we do with a bunch of orange peels with nothing in them? In the words of Kahlil Gibran, "True Beauty is not in the face: it's a light in the heart." So, open your hearts, after all we are all human beings. We come in different shapes, sizes, nationalities, and genders. But in the end, we are the same. We all breathe, we all blink, we all love, we all rejoice, we all cry, we all have hopes and dreams, and we all will die. So if one person is black and another is white, and one person is ugly and another is good-looking, why does it matter? We're all here for one reason, to make a change. And to make a change in our world we must first make a change in ourselves. Being prejudiced has no good effect whatsoever; it only makes people take umbrage.

"Be the change which you wish to see in the world."

Second Place

Katie Lord
Grade 8
West Hills Middle School
West Bloomfield, Michigan

What If

Take a second to imagine if in i-Carly...the two main characters Sam and Carly were dating. Yes, they are both girls, but why not expose our children to this? It sort of seems like bisexual, gays, and lesbian people are being hidden away. Exactly what message does that send children? Are we trying to tell them that these things are bad...that it is wrong to be lesbian or gay? Are we trying to keep this awful prejudice against other human beings alive for yet another generation? If we expose our children to this, they won't think it's a terrible thing. They won't think it's an awful thing if they themselves are gay. Imagine how many kids have not been exposed to gays and lesbians, so now they themselves feel ashamed of whom they are. Is this the impact we are looking for? Why is it so wrong if Carly and Sam date, or even Freddy and Gibby? I feel we should show kids that being different is not a bad thing, and that they don't have to hide who they are.

I feel it is important that we teach kids that it is OK to be different. This way they will not feel pressured to be someone that they are not. It's terrible that kids have to live in shame of what they are their whole lives. They should know that being different is not a bad thing, but a unique thing that makes them special. It really makes me wonder how many people have to put on a façade everyday so they don't get made fun of. We should all be accepted for who we are no matter what.

In the show i-Carly, the main character Carly is portrayed as a pretty and nice girl...who just happens to date boys. This show and any other kid show I can think of have this same similarity; not once have I seen a kid show that was any different. But if the show were to make this one little change, the whole world of kid shows today would be impacted. For starters, the plot of the kid shows might change. Many kid shows have to do with two best friends that are boy and girl and fall in love. Can you even imagine if you flipped to Disney or Nick and you saw two girls who fall in love? Many may think of this as inappropriate, but who are they to say that? It is the same thing as if it was the boy and the girl.

I feel this major change would also impact the audience and give them an insight onto gays and lesbians. It would teach kids at a young age as well as their parents that being different is not the same as being wrong. The audience would also begin to accept those around them who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, or even begin to look at themselves in a whole new light. We could make a change, and help so many people out there who just want to be accepted. We need to take a stand and show others that they belong in this world just as much as the rest of us do. So many people would also start to respect others for the way they lived their lives. Together...we can start a movement.

As you can see, I feel strongly that we all deserve to be happy. No matter what you are, what you belive, or what you want in life, we should all get a chance to feel like we matter. I don't care if you are lesbian or gay, African American or Caucasian, Christian or this world we all need love. We all need to feel like we belong, no matter what. The choices that we make can affect people for the rest of their lives...and we need to make sure that that is going to be a positive impact instead of negative. It all comes down to us, and the choices we make.

Third Place

Jenna Kiraly
Grade 5
Carl Traeger Elementary
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

How would the story of Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz
change if she had autism?

Recently, my school had an assembly where we learned about autism. With this in mind, I thought about how Dorothy would struggle to get to the Wizard and return to Kansas. It is true that people with autism are different from others, but they just think and do things differently. People with autism can have a hard time following directions, socializing, and regulating their senses. Sometimes, it is very hard to express thoughts and emotions. With these struggles, Dorothy's story will change. You will come to realize that people with autism just see the world differently and do things different.

Dorothy might have issues following all of the directions that were given to her along the way by the Munchkins, Glinda, and the people of Oz. I learned that some kids with autism have a ten second delay for understanding directions. If Dorothy had autism, she might get overwhelmed when the Munchkins sing, "Follow the Yellow Brick Road." The repeated direction would be helpful, as Dorothy processes the direction slower than someone without autism. When Glinda the Good Witch comes to Munchkin land, she gives Dorothy directions to stay away from the witch, to head towards the Emerald City, and more. With all of these directions, a person with autism can get confused and not get to where they need to go.

Many people with this disability have trouble socializing with others. If Dorothy would have autism, she might have trouble communicating with others. This would change her story a lot because inviting people to come along with her to the Wizard was very important to the story. If Dorothy had autism she might try to talk to someone about a special interest she has or try to be funny, but the only reason people like that do this is because they don't have many ways to get friends. People with autism don't always socialize with other people as well as those people without autism. A person with autism normally have a special interests that when they try to make friends they talk about it and talk a long time about it.

Dorothy's story could also be affected by her sensory input. Dorothy has to get to the Wizard, but falls asleep from the poppies. Then the snow wakes her up, but if Dorothy had autism she could have sensory issues. Having these issues Dorothy might sleep through the falling of the snow that wakes her up or wake up and almost hurt when the snow hits her. Also when the alarm goes off or when people sing it might hurt her ears that will upset her. People with autism senses might be turned up too high or low, giving them unbalanced senses.

If Dorothy would have autism she probably would have a hard time expressing her thoughts or emotions. Sometimes, people with autism emotions come across differently than what they intend. For example, when Dorothy met the Lion, she was afraid. If she had autism, she may have had a fit or acted sad, when she really was afraid. Also when Dorothy landed on the witch she will have trouble telling people how she feels because people with autism have very simple emotions. They get upset when they can't express themselves. Also some people might make fun of them for that, but the individual struggles to control how he or she acts.

Now that you see how Dorothy's story would change, you realize what people with autism go through. You can not force people with autism into the real world or make fun of them for that. The first step is to step into their world and see the world from their perspective. People with autism think and do things a little differently. So let's come to respect them for who they are and give them understanding. Also doing something different doesn't make it wrong.

Read the Middle School Honorable Mention Essays