By Jessamy Baldwin
(This Blog post was adapted for a newspaper article in Le Nurb. To read the original version click on the image at the bottom of the post or follow this link to download the PDF)
I think this is an issue people often push aside. “O god not the ‘woman’ issue again”. Many insist we live in a world where women have more agency and freedom to do what they want. Of course this is true to a large extent. Women go to university, have successful careers and juggle motherhood along with conference meetings. But this is not the case in every country, let alone for all women in Britain or in the ‘west’ as it were.
Our media will condemn how women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive or the recent cases of extreme violence towards women in India. But what are we doing about issues going on right here, in our country. A recent study suggests half of girls in Britain are victims of sexual taunts and a quarter say they have been touched inappropriately. We need to wake up and look at the discrimination going on right before our eyes.
I did a quick Google search yesterday using the phrase ‘women should’ and this is what came up…
So the key word here is ‘shouldn’t. Goggle, a huge social prism is making suggestions for us, that women should not do the things they think they can and should.
We are constantly fed socially conditioned representations of what a woman should be in terms of her physical appearance, intellectual capability, dress sense or life goals. Of course we have examples of strong, independent women in the public eye –Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Kate Aide, Jessica Ennis, Caitlin Moran, JK Rowling – the list goes on.
BUT these women are still seen as exceptional, in-ordinary – special because of their ability to succeed as a woman in a society which is still very patriarchal.
We are so used to living in a world where men are the political heavy weights, the presidents, the prime ministers, the war reporters or sports superstars that when a woman does the job there is extra focus or ‘gaze’. To see if she can handle the pressure or juggle her work along with her biological clock.
It is not surprising that only 9 out of the 72 people listed on Forbes most powerful people of 2013 list are women. Gender equality? I don’t think so!
Of course, this discussion is ignoring the stereotypical images projected of men– that they should be strong, aggressive or unemotional. There are fundamental issues here too. But I feel that while men experience discrimination in the media, it is not to such a violent or silencing effect.
Women are represented through a series of Stereotypes. We have the glamorous sex kitten – think the new Marks and Spencer advert, the eagerly anticipated pop-culture extravaganza a.k.a The Victoria Secret Fashion Show or Rhianna constantly dressed (or rather undressed) to impress. Then you have the ‘victim’ of domestic or sexual violence, the slut or whore – a stereotype reinforced by porn and magazines such as nuts/zoo.
This ties into the idea of women as sex objects. I’ll say it now, whoever wants to try and defend Kanye West’s new Bound 2 video for its racial radicalism (placing a black man at the centre of a self-proclaimed white trash emulation) is completely missing a huge – slap you round the face obvious – issue. There is a bored looking, naked woman bouncing her bazookas all over the place. Why? If it was for her own enjoyment I would be all for it. But it isn’t.
Then we have the sainted mother. How obsessed did the world become with Kate Middleton when she was pregnant? A quick glance at Daily Mail online will reveal about a quarter of the articles being about ‘burgeoning bumps’ and ‘glowing mums to be’. Society is fascinated with the mother as both a knowable and mysterious figure, someone who is familiar and yet distant all at once. Motherhood is shown to be the pinnacle of existence for young women and these kinds of articles deeply ingrain such notions in our minds.The woman as housewife or domestic goddess also pervades the media.
Then we have weak damsels in distress as heroines?! Anastasia from Fifty Shades of Grey is the masochistic virgin straight out of uni who likes to be dominated by her pretty twisted, hugely successful boyfriend Christian. WHY was this so successful? Because people still find excitement and desire through female domination.
Other stereotypes include the devious or deceiving bitch, the spinster, the career dragon or the dumb blonde. These ideas pervade the media and serve to discriminate women as the ‘other’, able to be categorised and thus suppressed.
Many of us don’t realise how saturated we are every day by violent images of women – whereby women are the victims of violent behavior. I can’t show the images on here for Copyright reasons. However, if you do a quick Google Image search, you can find countless examples. Two cases: a Valentino advert showing a man strangling a woman and Jimmy Choo advert with a dead woman about to be buried by a man in a suit. Not good.
The media often takes advantage of women’s bodies in order to promote or advertise a particular brand, product or ethos. This makes them sex objects – because their bodies are used to promote sex. Tom Ford, Marks and Spencer, American Apparel and Dolce and Gabanna have all been guilty of exploiting the female body and its domination in their campaigns. Again – do a quick Google image search.
I think what we have is a crisis in Femininity. Air brushing, size zero celebrities, botox advertisements, supermodels posting selfies on social media, unattainable bodies promoted in magazines – these are all factors contributing to girls and women having unrealistic representations of what constitutes femininity, what it means to be a woman.
The recent scene from the television show ‘I’m a Celebrity’ involving Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington (where she broke down crying as a result of body insecurity) has been picked up on in the media. Tanni Grey-Thompson has now spoken during a debate in The House of Lords about how ‘body image has become more important than health’ for many young people, warning that many teenagers ‘would rather be thin than healthy.’
I don’t dispute that we have strong, independent, confident women in the media. They are forces with which to be reckoned. But huge issues still need to be addressed and if you think this isn’t a huge issue then you are naive.
Indeed, one research organization found that women’s magazines are ten times more likely to contain articles and advertisements related to dieting than men’s magazines, and that 3/4 of women’s magazine covers feature articles about overhauling one’s physical appearance.
Yes, women are the main consumers of these magazines which misrepresent them – I don’t deny that. It is also mostly women who go on websites such as Daily Mail online, which cement the stereotypes already mentioned. But I believe women are only doing so because the media is compelling us to read about how to lose weight, how to be the perfect cook or buy the most flattering outfit because our society is enforcing this as the norm.
Are things improving though? Yes, on some levels. For example, from 2015 men will be able to share parental leave – making things far more equal following the birth of a child. But, the 2013 report by the Women’s Media Centre predicts it will take until 2085 for women to have as many leadership roles as men. Also, male front-page bylines at top newspapers outnumbered female bylines by 3 to 1 in coverage of the 2012 American presidential election. Last year in America, male directors outnumbered females 4 to 1 in a review of 3,000 episodes of prime-time TV.
Change will only come when we have informed editors, producers, journalists and politicians who refuse to bow down to a long tradition of female misrepresentation. We can make a change – but it will take people with the guts to stand up and say NO.