Investigating how gender bias continues in the media

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Not for girls?: Would Nestle have got away with saying it wasn't for the disabled?

By Katy Ladbrook

A trendy Gloucester road art gallery is filled with women flicking through stacks of old magazines. They’re scrutinising cleavages and comparing the merits of Nutz and Zoo in the name of feminist activism. The Representations of Women in the Media project (“Reps” to its friends”) will enter its third year in November. This grassroots volunteer project takes place in Bristol to investigate how women are misrepresented in the media and provides guidance to support more realistic representations.

Reps began in 2007 with a day of action. By 2008 it had developed into a month of research culminating in public exhibitions and workshops. Findings were presented to the NUJ Women’s Conference and have recently been picked up by the Home Office. This year the project twins with activists in New Zealand who will be compiling evidence from their own media to compare with the findings from Bristol.

No one is surprised to find there is still a significant gender bias in the media; but the evidence and observations generated by the research helps to legitimise calls to address the problem. We know that magazines value women as pretty faces for their front covers, but it’s much more useful to be able to cite that women are featured on covers 86% of the time because of their appearance, and only 15% for what they do. We can see how often women are being represented as things to be looked at. It helps us to understand the impact of the media on gender bias in our culture and how it is damaging the identity of women.

Relentless imaging of people with idealised, model-type appearances has the effect of normalising a certain body type and excluding the majority of people from a narrow view of what is attractive. This goes for stereotyping of gender roles and values. Women are more likely to be portrayed as consumers than professionals, as sexy celebrities rather than valued contributors to society.

Indeed, the Reps researchers have found that the most overwhelming misrepresentation of women in the media is still of women as sex objects. The mainstreaming of, and our increased exposure to, magazines featuring very sexualised images of near-naked women has normalised a sexist stereotype that advertisers in the 1970s would have been lambasted for. The 2008 research found that the most frequent form of newspaper imaging of women was of “ladies without much on”, as the ten-year-old daughter of one researcher put it.

We have become used to seeing yards of fleshy front covers, displayed just above the newspapers and comics for children. The activists who object to this are not seeking to censor lads’ mags and pornography or demonize the readers; it’s just that they don’t want to have to see it when they go to a newsagents. They assert that the right to access porn is not more important that everyone else’s right to not have to be exposed to it. It’s a bit like smoking; we don’t all want to have to breathe it in. Clean it up, cover it up or put it on the top shelf please!

Feminist campaigners such as Object have come under criticism by those who claim that lads’ mag-type publications liberate women, or that women are comfortable identifying with that image. Although some arguments within feminism disagree with those positions, I think a more useful way forward is to try to represent other experiences and portrayals of women proportionally. We must respect the principals of press freedom, but also acknowledge the damage caused when the only women pictured in a publication are models or actresses.

Misrepresentations limit women and girls in society; whether directly by negatively influencing girls’ self-image, or indirectly by reinforcing prejudices which then have to be fought against. When gender bias is created or amplified by the media, I believe media professionals have to take responsibility.

Negative gender stereotypes, particularly of women, are thriving in the media and we need to do more to challenge this. Are we responding as vigorously as we would to unfair representations of people’s ethnicity or age? It appears that certainly in advertising people are prepared to push the limits of acceptability on gender further than they would dare for the other equalities. I doubt Nestle would have been able to advertise Yorkies with the slogan: “It’s not for homosexuals” or that the Nuts advertising campaign would have been explained away as ironic if it read: “Disabled people! Don’t expect any help on a Thursday!”

Lessons learnt in feminist actions like the Reps project can be applied to combat the creeping sexism against men, such as the patronising portrayals of men as hapless around the house or clueless communicators. We can apply what we have learnt even more widely to challenge the stereotyping of elderly people or to address the lack of representation of people with disabilities. Equitable, respectful media representation benefits everyone, let’s step up and make sure we are representing people fairly.

The 2009 Representations of Women in the Media project is due to take place over the month of November and organisers are calling for volunteers to undertake research tasks ranging from 30min to one-month observations.

Participants will be asked to document representations of women by a chosen medium, such as newspapers, radio, TV etc. Data is gathered and analysed to provide evidence for campaigners. The project is also interested in women’s and girls’ experiences of the media and encourages creative, accessible presentations of the evidence.

Workshops will be scheduled to support volunteer teams and individuals and the research will be collated on 27th November ahead of a public presentation on the 28th. For more information please visit www.bristolfeministnetwork.com/representations-of-women-in-the-media.html

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  1. Ian says:

    Good to see the Bristol Feminist Network so active recently. But whilst we’re on the subject of gender issues, how about the Bristol NUJ look at Secretary Tony Gosling’s sinister links to anti-feminist anti-gay and anti-worker websites such as PrisonPlanet, hmm?

  2. One of the areas ignored by the media in respect of gender bias is in the family courts where in both public and private cases the rights of children to see and live with their fathers is frequently ignored.

    What about help with the Child and Parent Alliance campaign to redress the balance and reform family law.

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