The United Nations Human Rights Council has commissioned a special working group to investigate discrimination against women in law and practice and submit a report to the Council in June of next year. The Working Group is currently considering discrimination in the context of culture and family life, and I was asked to submit testimony exploring discrimination against women in media as a component of culture.
In my past I’ve done limited research on the status of women in mass media—as owners, executives, producers, writers and directors—but more recently I’ve occupied the space of new and online media as a blogger for Thomson Reuters Foundation and Amnesty USA and an avid user of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms. This was a fascinating opportunity to take a look at the status—or shall I say absence—of women in decision-making roles across new and traditional media, and to then draw parallels between the misogynistic images we see of women in both platforms.
I admit that the overview presented here is a very Western, American view of (mostly straight, white) women in media. The West is where a great deal of the media that I consume is produced and it is where most of my particular experience centers, with perhaps the one exception of feminist activists from the global south whom I follow and interact with on Twitter. I mention this from the outset to acknowledge that a lot of the negative and misogynist images of women that I’ll explore, or sexualized abuse of women in online media, apply as well to women of color and LGBTQ individuals, though much of the literature and my direct experience does not articulate that; the Working Group would do well to include that as an additional line of inquiry in its report to the Human Rights Council.
So, without further ado: Women and Media—The Good, The Bad and the [Very] Ugly.
For starters, it merits saying that there is a good story to tell with regard to treatment of women in the media. In mass media, we’ve seen growing attention to gender issues with special focus issues and episodes of major platforms including The New York Times, The Guardian, Thomson-Reuters, Newsweek/Daily Beast, BBC, The Atlantic, Half the Sky (which began as a book, a New York Times Magazine segment, then a documentary and PBS series, and now an online movement). Recently we have witnessed production of excellent documentary films, including for instance Miss Representation and Girl Rising, as well as the launch of an anti-trafficking initiative by MTV, and celebrities like Geena Davis leading efforts to provide a gendered critique of mainstream media.
In the international development field, organizations are tapping into the power of media—from radio and TV spots to dedicated soap operas and serials—to shape gender norms, from curbing violence against women to promoting women’s leadership and economic empowerment. In Half the Sky, author Nicholas Kristof went so far as to suggest that the increase of household televisions in Pakistan, through which families were exposed to women in non-traditional roles on various soap operas, did more to change gender norms than targeted women’s empowerment programs.
Similarly, in new media, we have heard of the power of the internet as a democratizing force for women, from women’s use of Twitter and online organizing tools to not only participate in but lead political demonstrations and change movements from Tunisia to Tahrir Square. There is the rise of feminist blogs like Jezebel and Feministing, which give voice to feminist critiques of politics, news and culture. Women have developed online videos satirizing misogynist behavior in music videos, which have gone viral, and the reporting capacity to document abuse and harassment has exponentially expanded through platforms like Hollaback and Twitter accounts that broadcast where violence survivors can go for help.
ICRW and others have documented the power of information and communications techonologies, or ICT, as a driver of inclusive development and women’s social and economic empowerment through mobile banking or access to health information. Then there’s the powerful amplification of new voices and networks we have encountered in our newfound ability to link up with female activists around the world. My own Twitter feed is a portal by which I track women on the front lines of protests in Egypt, working to combat forced genital cutting and child marriage in remote Kenyan villages, and securing property rights for widows in Tanzania. It’s a way for them to assert their rights and demands to a global audience, document abuses of power, network for support and reinforcement, and for those of us in the global north to receive real-time updates and channel support their direction.
So, a lot of good things are happening for women in media.
A closer look at the ownership, editorial composition and citizenship of both new and traditional media institutions, however, reveals that progress is being made for women very much in spite of things, not because media is suddenly an equal and egalitarian playing field.
- In 2011 only 11% of protagonists in films were women.
- From 1937-2005 there were only 13 female protagonists in animated films and all but one sought romance as a primary goal.
- Men outnumber women 3:1 in family films, which is the same ratio as it was back in 1946.
- Women own only 5.8% of TV stations, 6% of radio stations and occupy only 5% of positions of clout in telecommunications, advertising and publishing.
- Among one survey of more than 1500 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% producers were female.
Given that landscape, where women are neither the owners nor the top decision-makers in mass media production and programming, we’re hardly surprised to find misogynist and unrealistic, unhealthy images of women depicted in shows, music videos, airbrushed on magazine covers, and of course, in the 50 years of continued reign of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. It further takes little imagination to connect the dots between these images and the plethora of female eating disorders and cosmetic surgeries, though that is not the subject of this particular review.
For new media, the other side of the open-access coin is that the Net still remains a Wild West for harassment and abuse of women. According to Pew Research Center, men and women are using the internet in roughly equal numbers, but online abuse is targeted mostly toward women. Indeed, an entire lexicon of misogynistic online abuse has emerged, from trolling, to doxxing, to stalking and direct threats. And for the most part, we don’t have the proper tools to deal with it. For instance, in the United States, one of three federal statutes that has been used to prosecute online abuse was penned in 1934, and includes provisions on the telegram. Jurisdictional issues like this and a lack of understanding or commitment by local law enforcement have impeded progress in holding a sea of anonymous perpetrators to account.
That brings us to the ugly: the connection between misogyny in the media and the proliferation of rape culture. Online abuse is actual abuse. A recent survey of domestic violence survivors by Women’s Aid found 48% had been harassed online by their abusers, and 38% had been stalked online. It’s not hard to imagine, then, why women are leaving the internet. In 2010, 92% of founders of internet-based companies were male, and the percentage of women in computer sciences peaked in 2000. When feminist bloggers and activists have reported abuse and exploitation to online platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist, they have been slow to take action, saying users assume risk or it’s a matter for local law enforcement (though Facebook at least was known to moderate racist posts as hate-speech and breastfeeding as “pornographic”).
We’ve yet to explore compounding disparities by race, age and sexual orientation, which as I said from the outset surely do not improve matters. Women of color and LGBT women have even less ownership and agency in mass media, are less likely to be cast as heroines or leading characters, and are more likely to be sexualized and stereotyped. Young women and girls are at risk at earlier ages than ever to online exploitation and bullying, sexting, and the like. And gay male bloggers encounter many of the same sexualized hate mail and threats as women.
Then there’s gaming culture. Grand Theft Auto is one video game that has long been subject to my ire for its promotion of violence against women—players can rape and kill a prostitute and get their money back. This is particularly chilling given emerging links between violent images in games and videos and men’s attitudes toward rape and harassment. In real life, there’s the chilling use of cell phones to document and broadcast rapes and sexual harassment.
The Way Forward
So, what is to be done? Out of all of this we can distill a few key areas for reform:
1. More Women in Positions of Power: Clearly we have an unacceptably skewed scenario in terms of male versus female ownership and editorial privilege across mass media, new media and ICT. Just as we have actively promoted the rise of women in science and technology, the media industry must establish incentives, quotas, mentoring platforms and other mechanisms to increase the numbers and influence of women in the field.
2. Active Citizenship: Media users and producers alike have a responsibility to promote an inclusive dialogue that is critical of misogyny in the media. Feminist social media users are “trolling the trolls,” banding together to subvert online abuse. Breakthrough is one organization doing this work in the US and India, and Search for Common Ground is developing a television program starring a female president in a fictional, Arab country that will air throughout the region. This effort will only be successful if it includes men and boys as active participants and change agents. Happily, groups like Man Up are promoting gender equitable messages through sport and music. ICRW has pioneered a program that helps middle schoolers critique gender norms in family and cultural life and disavow gender-based violence.
3. Justice for the Modern Era: Perhaps most importantly, at least in the world of online media, we need better tools to end abuse. We need updated legal codes tailored to the internet, not the telegram. We need training for law enforcement to help understand that online abuse is abuse, and how to respond. And the Twitters and Facebooks of the world must take responsibility for ending abuse on their platforms rather than shirking responsibility. And we all need to develop a dialogue that more adequately teases out redlines around hate speech, harassment and abuse in the context of First Amendment freedoms.
Given the current state of affairs, this is bound to be a long process. But feminists from Geena Davis to the women at WAM! are already charting the path; it’s just up to us to join them.