Last year was remarkable year for women in the media. The 65th Emmy award ceremony saw more female directors nominated than ever before. More and more TV shows, such as New Girl and Parks and Recreation, are written and directed by women. Malala Yousafzai, famous for her struggle for women’s education, was named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2013.
Undoubtedly these are positive signs for gender equality. Overall however the media has again failed women in 2013.
For women, the ideal that the media creates is one of both of beauty and passivity. These are incredibly harmful to women and gender equality. The image of beauty that is projected is based on fantasy. It is an ideal cannot be fulfilled by anyone. Advertising media is almost universally photoshopped. The viral video Body Evolution demonstrates this perfectly.
It shows woman posing before the camera. She’s beautiful and skinny by anyone’s standards. Professional lighting, makeup are added and while a hair stylist does their work to boost the images towards the desired quality. Then the photo is taken and we see it being treated on a photoshop computer program.
The model’s eyes are enlarged and her face is distorted to become symmetrical. Tummies are tucked and legs, arms, neck and hands stretched. Parts of her stomach and leg are cut out. Even her skin tone changed. By the end of the process it is as if we are looking at a different person.
Advertising based on these unattainable standards of beauty is all pervasive. For women, it is used to play on insecurities of self-perception created by the divergence between reality and a fantasy in order to sell products. “Buy this and you will become that person and then you’ll feel better” is the unwritten injunction. When targeting men, the advertisement is based on sex appeal. This further fosters unrealistic expectations.
The internalisation of these body and beauty images of women that mass media creates are massively harmful. You are made to define your own self-worth on a metric you can never win on. The pursuit of this self-worth at its most extreme drives people to eating disorders, a set of conditions that disproportionality effect women and have quadrupled in their prevalence since the 1970s.
The harm from the traditional role of passivity is perhaps greater. It is true that this is a trend that is slowly being subverted. In music videos, women are ancillary to the rapper, eye candy on a yacht or dancing in the background of a club. Female singers tend to be preoccupied with a male love interest. If they are a position of dominance like in Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ it is usually derived from their sexuality and by implication their appearance.
The charge of “hysteria” is a recurring motif in current affairs. The current Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbot, described former Prime Minister Julia Gillard as a “bitch” to the glee of the Australian media. Fox’s Megyn Kelly was told she shouldn’t be so dominant on her segment on women as breadwinners.
Photos of Hillary Clinton looking furious in the wake of the Benghazi affair were used to undermine the former Secretary of State. What is interpreted as authority or passion in a man is still described as hysteria in a woman.
Femininity was seen as something negative in the media. Pundits criticised more female presence in sport and the army as ‘feminisation’, using this as a bad word. Women with real views or grievances were also belittled. Rape was dismissed or blamed on the victims. Wendy Davis, famous for her filibuster, which blocked a law trying to ban abortions after twenty weeks, became known as “Abortion Barbie”.
The harm of this is enormous. Any role model a young girl may identify with in current affairs tends to be labelled by popular culture as defective. Strong females are all too rare in today’s entertainment. This also causes society to find the idea of a strong female alien. This severely limits the freedoms of women, even if there is full legal equality.
The media occupies a special role in society. It communicates a message directly from its source to a wide audience. Mass media frames our political, social and cultural discourses. Not only is this discourse framed through the editorial decisions of news broadcasters, it is also framed through entertainment.
When we consume entertainment, we tend to be passive. We are there to enjoy, not to learn. It is because of this that we are more uncritical and accepting of the premises put before us. Our expectations determine what we express approval of or disapproval of.
This reinforces social norms by influencing people’s behaviour. These social norms are then picked up by media and the feedback loop begins. What we see is that media is far-reaching and collectively defines our expectations of both ourselves and of others.
This power is both unique and enormous. No other institution mediates identity so effectively or so invisibly. There is a duty for that power to be wielded responsibly because of the massive effects it can have. 2013 has been a progressive year for the media but it is not nearly enough. Here’s hoping for something better in 2014.