Josie Olsen: Reflections on Media

As a History PhD student researching 1970s Vogue through a feminist lens, the review theme of women and media at CSW62 caught my attention immediately. I attended 10 sessions focusing exclusively on media over the 10 days of CSW, with topics ranging from community radio in Africa to Hollywood representation imbalances to Danish short films on elements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals featuring Helen Mirren as narrator, and many other sessions included some form of discussion of the impact that media representation or access has on women in rural communities/women human rights defenders/women in politics etc. Although the media sessions largely focused on women in film and television – both behind and in front of the camera – I found many links which reminded me why I picked my feminist, modern PhD topic.

One such link emerged from a discussion of “media diet” – almost everything we consume and enjoy was written, directed, acted and produced by white males. Even when some members of the process are female, the overwhelming bias is towards that white male point of view. A couple of examples of the problems caused by this bias that were brought up in sessions I attended:

-          On the news, women usually appear as personal testimony – women appearing as experts has increased only 2% in 10 years. (Global Media Monitoring Project)

-          In film and television in general, women are speaking a third less and on screen a third less than equal male counterparts in all roles – extras, supporting, leads. Women make up only 17% of extras. (Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient research)

-          Over 50% of film graduates are female, but most end up working in other fields after being pushed out of the boys’ club of film media (Geena Davis Media Institute)

All of these things are exacerbated by intersectional identities – the story gets much much worse for LGBTQIA/Rainbow women, women of colour, disabled women, and any other people who don’t fit the white male box.

Despite our feminist knowledge that this is rubbish, we tend to turn off our critical thinking when it comes to relaxation. We want to watch the shows that everyone else is watching, it’s a “fun movie” even if the only women involved in the whole process were the catering staff and the (mostly white, straight, and mainstream beautiful) actresses (who act as foils for the male characters), and honestly we just enjoy it! And if we like it, if it has a fun empowering lipstick feminist kind of message, and if it didn’t actively hurt anyone, then surely it’s a valid feminist choice?

A very similar point came up during my research on academic analysis of women’s magazines. To summarise a few decades of scholarship, researchers first focused on the terrible patriarchal messages contained within women’s magazines without considering how these messages were received. Then the focus shifted to the readers, with theories around the potential for subversion of these messages loosely supported by interviews illuminating what meanings and the audience picked out. The general trend here was a view of femininity as shown by women’s magazines being empowering in its own way – after all, since women bought, read and enjoyed them surely they were valid? In this view, criticising women’s magazines constitutes a denial of women’s agency and a denigration of women’s activities in line with treating embroidery or knitting as lesser than masculine fine art.

However, there are major fallacies in both these lines of thinking. In the case of women’s magazines, one of my favourite readings (so far) ended with the perfect mic drop on this issue:

                “In closing, we want to emphasise that, although postmodern readings draw attention to pleasurable aspects of reading women’s magazines and thus help to explain magazine appeal, we do not view pleasure as a measure of the empowerment of women. Furthermore, we feel there is a danger in romanticizing [sic] women’s agency through reading as resistance.”[1]

This definitive comeback holds true on the film and tv front as well, with the added factor that the behind-the-scenes power-holders in the film industry are far more likely to be white men than writers and editors of women’s magazines are (although the CEO, directors, and share-holders of the media company which owns the magazines are no doubt mostly white and male too). While there’s no feminist law that says we can’t read women’s magazines or watch Game of Thrones and old-school Disney movies with all their problematic patriarchal themes and production methodologies, these sessions served as a definite reminder to me of the problems inherent in our current media systems and the value of putting in the effort to find and support women in the media industry, and of course the value of calling out the crap when we see it.

As a final note on women in the media, Amy Schumer’s new film I Feel Pretty is a perfect example of postfeminist rhetoric – superficially empowering but super problematic in its individualistic and patriarchal celebrations of “ideal” femininity and confidence. Written and directed by a male/female partnership, with an equal gender split among the producers, and featuring a woman in a lead role in a film ostensibly critiquing problematic beauty standards, I Feel Pretty is a timely reminder that even when a film looks good on paper, it can still contain a whole lot of patriarchal nonsense. See the NY Times for more:

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

[1] Shelley Budgeon and Dawn H. Currie, ‘From Feminism to Postfeminism: Women’s Liberation in Fashion Magazines’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 18, 2, pp.173-186, 1995.

Posted on May 6, 2018 and filed under CSW62 2018.