Monday, 7 March 2011

Where are the women - speech

I'm going to start by talking about our own findings of where women are often absent in the media, alongside the research conducted by UK Feminista in this area, and share with you how clear and manifest this kind of discrimination that renders women invisible is. I'll then explore with you where women are represented in the media, and how this can so often be problematic.

Bristol Fawcett began collecting data in 2007 and in 2008 and 2009 Bristol Feminist Network joined in, to try and discover and understand why we always had this nagging feeling that the way women appear in the media and in our cultural landscape just wasn't quite right, that there was something missing or something that didn't match our experiences of being women living in the UK. And so we started counting, collating and recording where and how women appeared in the media. The results shocked even us, who had expected to be shocked.

We found, for example, that in November 2008, none of the comedy venues in Bristol featured any women comedians. A random sampling of turning the TV on and off during the month found that whilst men appeared on the the screen eight out of ten times, women only appeared 5 out of the 10 times. The rest of time was a man and a woman. This was even more exaggerated on the weekends when men's sports dominates the schedule. In this period women only appeared 13% of the time, men appeared 64% of the time.

One woman counted the number of images in the November 2008 Observer Sports Monthly, to find that out of all the pictures, 177 were of men, 13 were of women. In 2009, one volunteer took this a step further, counting all the images of women in the sports pages of the Guardian over November. She found that out of 1048 images, 1019 images were of men, and 28 were of women. Further, none of the images of women were of women doing sport. None of them showed the energy, passion and vitality of women actively engaging in sport. Instead they showed women crying, dressed up, in the crowd, WAGs and the head shot of a journalist.

Film was a similar story. Sue, who is sitting here, counted the number of films showing on one day in the summer of 2007. None of the films showing in Bristol were directed by women. In 2009, she repeated the experiment over the month of November, counting how many films were directed by women and showing in Bristol. At first the results were encouraging. The numbers had gone from zero, to a whole 17 in 2009. Until we realised that 108 films had been directed by men. These numbers are backed up by UK Feminista's findings in 2010, where they found that only 7% of film directors were women. Similarly, according to UK Feminista only 7% of BAFTA winning screenwriters have been women.

Keeping on the film theme, I'm going to read you some reviews from Venue magazine taken from Sue's research in 2009:

.gratuitous gore and nudity…..pleasingly unpleasant….Special mention should be made of the game Betsy Rue, who remains completely naked throughout her sub plot. This is so enjoyable that only afterwards does one realize it was entirely superfluous”

you may be persuaded to give this a go if we tell you that it features a cameo by Miss Nude Australia, who inevitably gets an extended shower sequence

What this shows is that not only are films overwhelmingly being written, directed, created by men, but that very often the presumed audience of a film is male. These reviews are not addressing a womanly film audience. They are maintaining the status quo that men are the default, and that women are 'other'. And Sue will be talking to you more about what this means and why it's important.

Of course, films aimed at women do exist. But they tend to be a very narrow kind of rom-com, where women still play the props to a male character, rather than have their own independent storylines or lives. In the world of mainstream cinema, women's lives revolve around men! Our happinesses, successes, conversations and friendships all orbit the ultimate male character. Unsurprisingly, many films aimed at women also tend to originate in the mind of male directors, from SATC 2, Bridget Jones's Diary, No Strings Attached and that sexist celebration, He's Just Not that Into You. Rom coms that are directed by women, such as Mamma Mia are rather sneered at by the critics and movie buffs, but could its popularity be explained by this being a film, directed by a woman, that was full of silliness and fantasty, but actually spoke to women in a fun and honest way?

Literature is my passion. I did an English lit degree and my head is always in a book. It is well documented that women are bigger readers than men. Surely then, as the leading audience, women writers would be top notch in the representation stakes? However, research from UK Feminista shows just how little women's writing is represented in the important publishing awards that mark out which literature we see as being canonical.

For example,
• 78% of the authors shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction in the past decade have been men, and men make up 70% of winners  (10)
• 38% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the past decade have been women (11)
• 70% of the winners and 68% of those shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year in the past decade have been men (12)

One of the interesting issues in women's representation in literature is that whilst women are happy to read books written by either gender, research has repeatedly shown that men tend to gravitate towards books by men. Could this explain the dominance of men in the awards stakes? And yet, the best selling Booker Prize novel of all time was written by a woman, Hilary Mantel. So it isn't that people aren't buying books by women. But when you put this research next to the recent report that women are underrepresented as reviewers in book journals, with only 74 women reviewers at the London Review of Books, compared to 343 men, and the idea that male reviewers tend to gravitate towards books written by men it becomes clear why this discrimination in whether men or women write award worthy literature comes in. These journals decide which books should be taken seriously, so it is easy enough to see why women writers struggle to get their names on the awards lists when they can't even get their books reviewed. Another interesting point to make before I move on, is that the books we traditionally associate with women writers, such as historical fiction, fiction about emotional or family relationships, are rarely seen as counting as serious literature by the male-dominated reviewers's world.

So there's a snapshot into women's lack of representation in the media. I'm now going to briefly discuss about where women are represented, and whether this is really how we want to be.

Back in 2008, we took a quick survey of magazine covers in WhSmiths and Borders. We found that whilst 85% of magazine covers showed men being active, as in being cover stars for being political, creative, sporting, powerful etc, only 15% had equivalent images of women. The flip side? 15% of images of men on magazine covers showed men in idealised poses, compared to 85% of women. The women on magazine covers were almost universally white, cis-sexual, straight, able bodied, long haired, slim, smiling, young and conforming to our current beauty ideal. Whereas men were allowed to deviate from this young, sparkling model, with wrinkles, grey hair and not universally slim, women were homogenized until we were overwhelmed with a virtual tsunami of idealised, blank women. The only older woman we saw was on the cover of a caravan magazine.

What does this tell us? Well, we believe that it is symptomatic of the objectification of women in the media. It shows us that whilst men are allowed to be portrayed as do-ers, sports stars, musicians, politicians, business leaders, car or fishing enthusiasts, women are told to sit still, and be looked at. The women on these magazine covers are performing for the gaze, rather than being subjects themselves, active agents in the world.

There is cross over of course and we can argue that whilst sports stars, for example, are active on the covers, they are also idealised. But at least they are allowed a bit more variety, a bit more humanity, than simply being teeth, hair, eyes and tits.

Women were also portrayed as being highly sexualised, both in women's and men's magazines. But never in a way that hinted at women's pleasure and women's own sexual desire. Instead, women's sexuality was portrayed on our magazine covers as a performance for a male gaze or audience. Lesbian sexuality was also overwhelmingly shown as a performance for men, rather than as an authentic female desire. And whilst some men were sexualised also, on the covers of gay magazines or men's health magazines, men were never the object of the female gaze (not that this isn't problematic – i'm not saying that men should be treated solely as objects too!) and although there is one documented occasion of a man appearing for the female gaze on Marie Claire, this has never been repeated as far as I know.

The problem with reducing women to sex objects to satisfy a presumed male gaze – in that some images are aimed at women but we have taken on a male gaze to view other women as objects performing their sexuality – is that it reduces the potential for women to be anything else. It also reduces and narrows our definitions of what it means to be beautiful, sexual and desirable. Rather than being a symptom of a sexually liberated society, or a society which is comfortable with and celebrates women's sexuality and desire, it is commodifying and narrowing women's bodies to sell a version of sexuality and beauty back to us that does not reflect our reality and is often unattainable. It measures women's success on their ability to meet a certain level of hotness.

The reducing of women's potential results in issues such as those we saw at last year's general election. Whilst the press couldn't get enough as to whether Sarah Brown or Sam Cam had better pedicures, or indulged in moralistic tut-tutting at Miriam González Durántez
not having the same name as Nick Clegg (would you want to?) women politicians were no where to be seen. It was Where are the women indeed! The result? We now have more graduates from Magdalen College than we do women in the cabinet and Quentin Letts spends his time writing nasty little articles about how our women politicians are not as hot as their world counterparts.

I've gone through a lot of numbers today and to finish I am going to share some final figures with you.

Anna and myself spent Thursday evening doing our bit to save Venue by buying the mag and doing a quick count of how women were doing in the representation stakes in our city. We re-visited film, comedy and, because it's happening this weekend, the Bath Literature Festival.

Here's what we found:

44 male acts
3 female acts

37 films directed by men
2 films directed by women
0 films directed by a man and woman

23 male led events (1 man or all male panel)
8 woman led events (1 woman or all women panel)
4 mixed events (most of these had more men than women on the panel)

The numbers are there. They matter. They clearly show that the nagging feeling we had all those years ago that women just weren't there was entirely justified. So, the question is, why does this matter and what are we going to do about it?

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