On March 8th, I had the honour of being part of a panel at Carleton University as part of their International Women’s Day celebration. I was one of five experts talking about media, representation, and gender. Hopefully I’ll be able to upload a video soon of the discussion, but until then I have put my notes below!
My friend Dom (left) and I (right) with the panel’s moderator, MTV’s Aliya-Jasmine Sovani.
The topic of media representation of women can be quite abstract. Can you offer some concrete examples of the impact media misrepresentations have on people’s daily lives?
Media representation has a huge impact on our lives, both directly and indirectly. We all operate within these systems. Engaging in consumerism through the media’s regulation of gender is probably the most obvious response. This includes deciding which cosmetics to buy, how we approach “taboo” subjects like menstruation, to how we value skin colour through the advertisement of band-aids and skin care products. Less overtly is how the media perpetuates discrimination and oppression through the maintenance and reinforcement of harmful stereotypes. The media places limitations on everyone’s bodies and capabilities, especially women who wish to engage in politics, or the relationship between sexuality and differently abled bodies. From sex, to employment, to sports, the media is an important tool in regulating who has access to what, and how they can access it.
Have your perspectives on media representations of women changed over the years, and if so, how? Do you think they’ve gotten better or worse, and how do media representations of women in Canada compare to the rest of the world?
Definitely. I only became interested when I was 14, when I wrote in to Seventeen Magazine’s Reader Model Contest pretty much demanding to be included because I was sick and tired of not seeing any fat chicks in their spreads for “every day young women.” When I started working in the fashion industry, I learned a lot about how we decide which fat bodies are acceptable. It isn’t as simple as just being there, I’ve learned you have to constantly and actively resist misrepresentations. And of course throughout my studies at university I learned about so many other topics, like the representation of people who are differently abled. The more I learned, the more I realized misrepresentations haven’t necessarily gotten better or worse, but they’re a constant barrier, always changing and not always obvious.
To be honest, I think representation in Canada is worse in comparison to the rest of the world. That’s because not only do we misrepresent Canadians, but we also misrepresent women from every other country. You look at how the media portrays veiled Muslim women, for example, as helpless victims. Not only does North American media feel that they have the right to discriminate against Canadian women, but we also maintain stereotypes and ignorance about virtually every other demographic. I don’t think that’s something you see as much in media elsewhere.
What can we do to improve/encourage healthier representations of women in the media? When we challenge or “call out” sexism or misrepresentations, what are some ways we can promote dialogue as opposed to conflict? And how do we get men on board to help make the change?
You can get involved with Media Action! The REPRESENT. Project is pretty awesome. You can download an action kit and start a REPRESENT. Club or hold a REPRESENT. Event, and you can make a three minute video about an issue regarding media representation that you really care about. The action kit is a great start up kit for people who might not know where or how to start these conversations.
Calling out is hard, and it’s definitely okay to not know how to, or to be hesitant, or even avoid it in some circumstances. I think we need to be prepared for people to be embarrassed, ashamed, or even just uneducated when they make an offensive remark. The best way to approach it is to be understanding and patient. To avoid burn out or frustration, keep in mind change won’t happen in a day, but every small action counts!
Men are already on board, and to encourage more men to engage in these kinds of conversations, I think we need to remember that men are not excluded from the maintenance of hegemonic gender roles. Not every man is a rugged lumberjack who wrestles bears for fun, not every man has a penis. That is why we need to deconstruct gender in the media to view it as fluid, so that it really has no relevance or place in media messages.
Is there a right way for women in the public eye to react to problematic media coverage/sexist interview questions?
I think people like Hillary Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey all have mastered this art, and that is to answer in a confident yet humourous way. Humour helps make ignorant people feel less attacked, but still gets your point across. For example, when asked how she felt about paparazzi taking pictures of her getting out of a car with no underwear on, Anne Hathaway calmly stated that she was sad we live in a society that commodifies the bodies of unwilling participants. Hillary Clinton, when asked about where her clothing came from, asked the reporter if they would ever ask a man that question. Or when Bill Clinton presented at the Golden Globes, Amy Poehler commented excitedly, “You guys! That was Hillary Clinton’s husband!” These types of responses make people laugh at how silly sexism and misogyny is in the media, sometimes without them even knowing what they’re laughing at or realizing that the person’s response is actually a form of resistance.
Do you agree that women in roles like news casting are held to a higher standard of youth and beauty than men? And that the seriousness of the material assigned to them is lighter?
I 100% agree with this. Even in the journalism program at Carleton, we were taught what to wear, what not to wear, how to do our make up. To be fair, so were the boys, so we have to understand that a part of being in the spotlight is making sure your makeup doesn’t shine on TV, or you’re not wearing jewelry that will reflect light. But it does go beyond that. There are some excellent YouTube videos from the 2008 democratic primaries and presidential election that illustrate not only are women in politics under attack for how they physically look, but so are female newscasters.
A big problem with news journalism is the lack of female reporters, and the lack of female experts used as sources for news stories. Informed Opinions is working with female experts to develop the skills necessary to confidently act as a source for news stories, as women tend to be more hesitant if they are approached whereas men will immediately say they can speak on a topic. It would also help to work with news agencies to ensure they are including women and gender queer individuals in their roster of potential sources. Without that initiative, we have instances like the past year’s war on women where it was mostly men discussing and determining how women’s bodies and reproductive health should be approached.
Do you think having successful women in news media like AnnaMaria Tremonte, Diane Sawyer, Wendy Mesley, etc. is a sign that things are improving? Or are they the exception?
These women are definitely role models and signs that we can take women seriously. However, if you look at it in terms of how common women like these people are in the media, then they are definitely the exception. This relates to the last question, too. Women tends to be more prominent in hegemonically feminine categories, like fashion, home improvement, or talk shows. There are way less women in hard news arenas or sports news.
I notice that on panels of experts commenting on serious issues that women often appear underrepresented. Do you agree? Why do you think that’s the case?
I completely agree. I, as well as Informed Opinions, believes this is because women are not approached and are also more hesitant to agree to be an expert news source. Women are also not believed to be capable of understanding or reacting to “serious” issues, such as the military, because of this constructed care ethic and assumption that women are nurturers and therefore too sensitive.
Do you agree that there’s pressure on women in media not to be aggressive and outspoken…and if they are — like Nancy Grace — they’re labelled as “bitches” or “ball-busters” and made fun of?
100%. And again, that is because of the construction of the hegemonic female gender role as being passive, nurturing, emotional, and sensitive. Once women step outside these boundaries, they are behaving like men, and that’s not okay. The media coverage of the 2008 US election is a perfect example of this.
What is the role of social media? Are women themselves perpetuating the issue of poor gender image by emulating what they see in the mainstream media on Facebook and YouTube?
I definitely don’t think we can put the blame on women. Social media can be a powerful tool to build an identity, build community and networks, in addition to educating yourself and others about social justice issues. And who’s to say that women who adhere to feminine stereotypes aren’t doing so of their own choice? I think instead we need to look at how people respond to how someone presents their identity on the internet, and ask ourselves why we may respond negatively. Why do we think they’re being “bad feminists” or “bad girls”?