Thursday, 3 December 2009

Representations of Women in the Media 2008/2009

bit out of date now...

On the 1st November, the Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett Society teamed up for a second year to run the Representations of Women in the Media Project, a month long investigation into how women appear in the media, discovers where they are absent, where they are represented and where they are misrepresented.

The project was set up three years ago by the Bristol Fawcett Society, brought on by an uneasy feeling that the way women were being represented in the media was not reflective of society. Bristol Fawcett spent a day in June 2007 collecting evidence, from the number of films showing in the local cinemas that were directed by a woman (none) to how many pictures in the newspapers were of men and women (twice as many of men).

The idea was to gain a snapshot of representation of women in a moment in time, to try and illustrate and quantify the sense of unease that was felt about how women were appearing (or not appearing) in the media. As the research over the day was collected, it became more and more apparent that the myth of equality of representation was indeed just a myth. Everywhere they turned in the media they found men were more present than women. The only exception was in the realm of women’s and lad’s mags, where the women represented were idealised, airbrushed and passive.

The project grew in 2008 when, joining forces with Bristol Feminist Network, the two organisations decided to take a snapshot of how women are represented in the media over a month long period, between the 15th October and the 15th November.

The results were shocking.

Firstly was the shock of absence. We counted how many women performers, artists and directors were featuring in Bristol’s “alternative” venues. In one arts cinema, out of 28 films on show only 4 were directed by women, whilst a second arts cinema and gig venue had 1 woman directed film out of 19 films in total. Comedy also showed its exclusive side, in one month a local alternative comedy venue had no female comedians performing. The shock we felt was palpaple. By looking at alternative venues we had trusted to find a fairer representation of gender. It turned out that the only time women were present was in a small local theatre running a “marginalised writing season”. If ever we needed more proof that women’s creativity was not the norm, this was it.

And if alternative media has let us down, how would the mainstream fare?

Children’s media is an interesting place to start. Children’s TV is a place where children can learn about and see the world beyond their front door. Would the programmes children watch break down or reinforce gender stereotypes? How do children experience gender representation in their formative years? One mother in our group decided to find out. She watched Cbeebies over a November day, to find that none of the stories told on the channel that day had a female narrator. Character representation didn’t do well either. 70% of the characters on the Cbeebies shows that day were male, whilst only 30% were female.
The conclusion she came to was that, via the world of children’s TV, we are teaching children that “men tell the stories, there are more men than women in the world and that girls are obsessed by the colour pink.” You only have to leave the TV set to see these ideas reinforced, from the rows of pink princess magazines on the racks of newsagents to the strictly segregated blue and pink toy floors in Hamleys. This gender divide is no good for boys or girls, for just as we tell girls to keep quiet and wear pink, we equally tell boys to be tough and wear blue. Can it really be right to still be promoting these sterotypes?

Regular TV didn’t offer much respite, as one volunteer recorded who was appearing on her screen as she switched it on throughout the day. Whereas a woman appeared on the screen 5 out of 10 times, men were present 8 out of 10 times. This is a neat continuation from what we found on children’s TV. In the world reflected by the media, men outnumber women. In the world reflected by the media, men tell the stories.

This data is just a snapshot, and we recognise that it isn’t the most scientific approach. But what it does provide is a sense of of the day to day, real life experience of women’s absence in the media. When you realise that cinemas can happily show no films made by women, when you look at a comedy line up and no women appear at all, when you watch TV all day with your daughter and no female voiceover is heard you realise with a jolt, with a shock, just how absent women can be from our cultural lives. And it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that women’s voices, women’s creative experiences, women’s laughter is so culturally invisible.

Absence was not the only issue we encountered in our exploraton of the media. Objectification was another huge and pressing matter we wanted to explore. A major concern for many feminists has been the rise in the sexual objectification of women, the pornographisation of culture and the rise of the lad’s mag. It cannot be escaped that whenever you enter a newsagent or supermarket you are overwhelmed by a wave of highly sexualised images of women’s bodies and a highly stylised image of female sexuality. We believe that the images of women proffered by lad’s mags represent the censorship of women’s bodies. The version of sexuality they suggest censors the varied, exciting, multi faceted nature of human sexuality. Reducing sexuality to tits, ass and pout is reductive and incredibly one dimensional, and disallows the possibility of other types of sexual beauty and attraction. Contrary to the argument that anti objectification campaigners are puritanical censors, we would argue that instead we are demanding the end of this censorship of women’s bodies and human sexuality. To help display our argument we spent an afternoon flyering lad’s mags in city centre newsagents to try and help demonstrate how normalised pornographic imagery is in society, and how we are endlessly confronted with women’s bodies on display, for sale, for looking at. We made a film of our exploits ( to argue against this frighteningly one dimensional view of male and female sexuality.

Lad’s mags are not the only place where we encounter daily objectification of women’s bodies. We counted weekly and monthly magazine covers to discover the percentage of idealised women and men, and active men and women on display. Once more we were shocked by the results. 85% of magazine covers in WhSmiths and Borders that month showed idealised women, 15% of covers showed idealised men. And, in an uncanny reversal, 85% of covers on display showed active men whilst only 15% showed active women. We could only find one cover featuring an older woman (on a caravanning magazine) whilst plenty of magazines celebrated older men, from Paul Weller to Bob Dylan. We also noted how, when men were being idealised, it was still as an object of the male gaze, either in gay magazines or men’s interest magazines and that men such as coverstar Leonard Cohen were “ideal” because of their talent, not their physical appearance. Meanwhile women’s bodies were idealised for both male and female consumption.

This increased idealisation of the male body is equally as worrying as the consistent idealisation or criticism of women’s bodies. From beefcake covers on men’s fitness magazines to the lad persona portrayed in lad’s mags, we recognise the dangers men face through their representation and misrepresentation, and the effects such portrayals are already having on male self esteem, especially in young men. We believe this is something that needs to be addressed now, and quickly. We want a future where men and women’s bodies are not objectified and served up to be criticised, or held up as an ideal.

This snapshot aptly illustrates that 37 years after John Berger wrote that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”, and over 100 years since Baudelaire postulated the flaneur and the passante, we still see women as the object of the gaze, whilst men act and do and look. It also shows us that slowly but surely, objectification is beginning to affect men’s bodies too.

The research we collected last autumn went beyond the confines of the group and out to the public, with a sellout presentation and film evening at Bristol venue the Cube, a presentation at the National Union of Journalists Women’s Conference and the research has even been picked up by the Home Office. So this November Bristol Fawcett Society and Bristol Feminist Network are relaunching the project. We’re looking at airbrushing in magazines, and how minority ethnic women are represented. We’re exploring how queer women are represented, and how women appear in adverts. We want to know whether children’s media still enforces gender stereotypes and whether films are telling men’s stories more than women’s stories. We’re finding out how often women appear on comedy panel shows and, when they do, how often they speak. We’re checking how domestic violence and rape is reported in the news, and finding out how women are represented in news programmes and papers.

Our research is based around counting and stats, but it is also based on creativity, making films and collages and zines, giving women a voice to express how they feel about and experience representation in the media and offering methods to explore how we want to be represented. We know that our method may not be scientific, but our research creates a snapshot of how women are experienced through the media today, and offers strong and sturdy examples of how women are misrepresented, represented and not represented across media. Our evidence testifies that, contrary to popular belief, women do not have equality of representation in the media, whether from absence or objectification or idealisation. It confirms the nagging sense in our minds that the world reflected to us from the media does not match the world we live in.

We are gathering the evidence, we are gathering the research and we are ready to organise and act upon it to affect change.

Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett Society will be presenting the project findings at the Malcolm X Centre, Bristol, on the 28th November. We are setting up at midday and the talks will begin around 3pm. Please keep checking our website for further info

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