Taking Selfies Seriously

Those who are familiar with Women Are Boring will know that this is the first new research piece to be published on the site since the tragic death of our co-founder, Grace McDermott, on 1st May 2017. If you’re a new reader, and you’d like to learn more about Grace, please take a look here. If you’d like to donate to a charity in memory of Grace, please follow this link.

Taking Selfies Seriously

by Mary McGill

Selfie piece

Stupid. Narcissistic. Annoying. Typing ‘selfies are …’ into Google leaves no doubt as to how the phenomenon is generally regarded. It’s evident in the wry eyebrow arch when people hear about my research, that sniff of judgement suggesting in no uncertain terms that taking selfie culture seriously is a suspicious and fanciful activity.

In Western societies were atomisation is endemic, selfie culture is often used to symbolise our current malaise, typified by rising levels of anxiety, loneliness and intolerance. Young women’s fascination with the phenomenon can be particularly worrying, as sociologist Ben Agger underscored when he described the selfie as ‘the male gaze gone viral’.[1] Concern in these contexts is understandable. Dismissing selfie culture, however, and disparaging those who partake in it, brings us no closer to understanding its appeal. And if aspects of that appeal are unsettling or at worst harmful, dismissal brings us no closer to solutions.

As a researcher, I am drawn to the ‘why’ of the selfie’s popularity. My work explores young women’s (aged 18-30) subjective views on the phenomenon and the ways in which they position themselves in relation to it. It pays close attention to the following questions: if we say that selfie practices are indicative of a ‘culture’, what does that mean? And if this culture holds an appeal for women (as is indicated by research, not just opinion), why is this the case? Key to this is taking culture – specifically popular culture, the soup we swim in every day – seriously.

We use the term ‘culture’ in a variety of ways but it usually refers to popular entertainment, and issues of identity, community, and difference. Cultural studies, in the British tradition, understands culture as political, a site where meaning is made and power is challenged, negotiated and exercised. Central to this is subjectivity, how us human beings, as subjects, come to understand ourselves and the world through culture. As John Hartley succinctly puts it, ‘culture is the sphere of reproduction not of goods but of life.’[2]

Feminist cultural studies, the tradition I work within, began, as so often is the case, to redress an imbalance, namely the absence of women in cultural analysis, both as participants and as a focus. Its arrival on the academic scene contributed to the cultural studies’ axis tilting from arguments concerned with ‘ideology and hegemony to those concerning identity and subjectivity’.[3] While the melding of feminism and cultural studies is sometimes difficult, they do share some key concerns, most notably how power and oppression function, and how knowledge is created and naturalised.

In studying selfie culture, I am interested in how our impressions of this new phenomenon have been formed, especially in popular commentary. Such commentary often draws on disparaging tropes of female vanity and narcissism to explain why it is young women are drawn to the selfie. The more these conversations are had, the more these conclusions are reiterated and the more this perspective becomes accepted ‘common sense’, a process that is often as unhelpful as it is lacking in significant insight.

Now, there is no doubt that narcissism and vanity are critical factors. But failure to ask more complex questions of selfie culture (or to reflect on the social and historical relationship between narcissism and femininity) risks developing understandings of it that are at best superficial and at worst, woefully insufficient for unpacking its appeal. As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture. It fails to consider why and how aspects of culture become gendered. It also ignores the richness of women’s experiences and the potential for knowledge distilled from these experiences to challenge injustice.

 

 

As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture.

 

 

So, what does all this mean for how women engage with selfie culture? To begin, we need to situate the selfie as part of Western visual culture in which images of women created by men dominate advertising, film, photography, classical art and so on. Since the Second Wave, feminist scholars have sought to denaturalise these images, drawing attention to the power dynamics inherent in their construction and the function of such images as commodity objects in capitalist societies. These scholars also explored women’s personal relationships to visual and popular culture. For example, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan showed how iconographies of wifely domesticity differed from women’s subjective experiences of their lives in Fifties and Sixties suburbia[4]. This dissonance led Friedan to remark, ‘A geiger counter clicked in my own inner ear when I could not fit the quiet desperation of so many women into the picture of the modern American housewife.’[5] Images of women then, characteristically represent idealised notions of femininity which girls and women relate to in complex ways.

Digital technologies have enabled women and other minorities to self-represent online, a welcome disruption to the traditional regime of image production, circulation and reception. While the ability to self-represent in a world were representation for all is still a work in progress is a positive, it is not without issue. As French philosopher Michel Foucault puts it, ‘Visibility is a trap.’[6] Foucault refers to the ways in which the process of being seen, whether real or imagined, can be used to instil discipline. Sensing that they are being watched, human beings monitor their behaviour and the behaviour of others. This dynamic influences the kind of behaviour which is deemed socially acceptable and which must be punished.

In representing ourselves on social media using artefacts like the selfie, we claim space through visibility. In doing so, we simultaneously open ourselves up to new, more intense forms of judgement and surveillance. If you have ever posted a tweet that went wrong or a selfie that got no likes, you will know exactly the kinds of feelings that this digital system of ‘being seen’ can inspire. In this climate, I find myself considering whether selfie culture alleviates the kind of dissonance Friedan describes or presents fresh and potentially even more invasive iterations of the same old dynamics. For instance, images of women have long been used to fuel consumer dreams. Thus, in the age of an internet that is designed and dominated by corporations, we need to remain cognizant of how images of women, even those taken by women themselves, can be utilised as commodities by a system that is as patriarchal as it is neoliberal.

Just as ‘the personal is political’ shapes feminist activism, it also informs feminist scholarship. I am regularly struck by how rarely young women’s perspectives feature in mainstream discussions on their relationship to selfie culture. This is exclusionary and short-sighted. In collecting and analysing data from women themselves, feminist scholars have succeeded in challenging flimsy presumptions while providing nuanced understandings of social phenomena. The young women I interview are no dupes; they are well-aware of how the selfie is regarded because they navigate those assumptions every day. Their relationship to selfie culture is complicated and illuminating, but you would never appreciate that if you wrote it off as narcissistic or frivolous, refusing to take the time to listen.

For better or for worse, be it on Instagram or Snapchat or some new-fangled app, the selfie is here to stay. Taking the phenomenon and its enthusiasts seriously is the first step to unpacking its appeal and learning how best to tackle its challenges. If visibility is a trap as Foucault suggests, it is only through attentive, open-minded research that we will be able to identify selfie culture’s worst effects while also gaining useful insights into that which makes it so compelling.

References 

[1] Agger, B. (2013) Quoted in ‘Putting Selfies Under a Feminist Lens’ by Meghan Murphy, Georgia Straight. 3 April 2013. Online at: https://www.straight.com/life/368086/putting-selfies-under-feminist-lens

[2] Hartley, J. (2004) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, p.51

[3] Franklin, S., Lury, C. and Stacey, J. (1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, p.6

[4] Shiach, M. (1991) ‘Feminism and Popular Culture’, Critical Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 37–46.

[5] Friedan, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, p. 29.

[6] Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon, p.197.

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Women and the Forensic Thriller

By: Elena Avanzas Álvarez

Every time I tell someone I am pursuing a PhD in the Humanities, it is clear to me that they do not think I am in my right mind. Then I tell them that I am doing this with no fixed income or scholarship to support it, and I can see fear in their faces. But my favourite reaction comes when I tell them I am writing a thesis about forensic crime fiction: ‘Why do you write your thesis about trash/airport/commercial literature?’ And every time I tell them that there is more to crime fiction than CSI. There is even more to CSI!!! And here is why:

Crime fiction has been – along with romance – one of the most popular literary subgenres since the 19th century. People are addicted to crime, especially if it comes from a book, as it appears to be a shallow but safe entertainment.

As Umberto Eco said, fiction offers readers different forests in which to get lost: No immediate or physical harm comes from reading a crime novel, and if it ever gets too much, we can always close the book and start another one, or turn the TV on, or simply go for a walk to clear up our minds. It is that simple. However, despite our historical preference as a society for crime stories, we are quickly to dismiss them as low-quality cultural products. Think about the contradiction between CSI’ audience ratings during its 15-year run (2000 – 2015), and how it is perceived by most people. Where does this tension come from?TemperanceBrennan

Historically, crime fiction has been regarded as corrupting literature, contagious stories that could turn readers into deprived human beings. Despite this belief, writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are well-known even to modern audiences. They were big back then, and they still are. The passing of time has turned them into classics, but what do we have to say about the men – and especially the women – writing crime fiction nowadays? This is the reason I chose to focus my PhD thesis on contemporary authors: They are writing as we prepare our meals, go to school, go to work, or simply have a bath. Many of them are making a living of their writings, and some of them have changed the way in which we define ‘detective fiction’ in the 21st century. It is our duty, as well as a privilege, to enjoy their work, but also to support it in order to keep the arts going and evolve as a society.

If artists have it difficult, imagine women artists. We still live in a patriarchal society where the roles of child-bearing and caring are primarily associated to the women in the family leaving them – us! – less time to develop our careers and passions than our male counterparts. This is why I have also chosen to focus my research on women writers, especially since the crime fiction has always been considered a masculine genre that, nonetheless, has had some of the most successful female writers in the past century. Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (1889 – 1955), Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995), Margaret Millar (1915 – 1994), Liza Cody (1944 – ), Eleanor Taylor Bland (1944 – ), Ruth Rendell (1930 – 2015), P.D James (1920 – 2014), and Sue Grafton (1940 -), are some of the most well-known, but their works can be considered classics, even though some of them are still writing nowadays. So, instead of researching more about the past, I decided that it would be worth researching the type of crime fiction that has made of the detecting process a complicated and exciting combination of science, technology, and brains. That is, I chose to focus on forensic crime fiction because many of us cannot understand the detecting process without forensic science.

It all started in 1990, when Patricia Cornwell published the first novel in the Kay Scarpetta series. Postmortem (1990) tells the story of doctor Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Virginia, as she investigates the serial rapes and killings of Richmond’s young professional women.PostMortem

The novel is historically relevant as it inscribes DNA profiling in literature. Back then, recent forensic developments were considered yet another form of hocus-pocus and Scarpetta has to fight for DNA evidence to be performed by the laboratory.

However, the novel’s strength comes from the main character herself, who inscribes the struggles of the 1990’s feminism as her struggle against a male-dominated police department who doubts her abilities as a doctor takes central stage. After the success of Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell has written 25 Kay Scarpetta novels – the latest one published in 2016 – in which the middle-aged female forensic doctor has faced the difficulties typical of her gender, job, and situation as a main character in one of the most successful crime fiction series in America.

Cornwell’s success quickly inspired other female writers to dip into forensic thriller territory. Kathy Reichs being the most remarkable of them in the 1990’s with her debut novel Dèja Dead (1994).

deja-dead

If her name does not ring a bell, the television adaptation of her novels surely does. Author of the Temperance Brennan series, Reichs has seen how her fictional alter-ego has been transformed in one of the most beloved television characters in Bones (2005 – 2017). Even though Cornwell has a remarkable knowledge about forensic science, and she keeps herself constantly updated on the latest developments in the field, Reich has the advantage of writing about what she knows best: Forensic Anthropology. Like Brennan, Reich is one of the best forensic anthropologists in the USA, as well as a remarkable scientist, who has been working in humanitarian causes for the last 40 years. With the Brennan series, she has inscribed a very specific field of study in popular fiction, and she has offered women all over the world the opportunity to discover forensic anthropology as a field of study: If she can see it, she can be it.

From the rise of the forensic thriller in the 1990’s until the present day, the introduction of female forensic doctors in contemporary popular fiction (‘fiction’ here understood as any text in any format, television shows included) has become a tendency. And we, as an audience, love it. If you think of any crime fiction television show that you enjoy, it is very likely to star a female forensic doctor. Some of them feature this doctors as secondary characters, such as Castle (2009 – 2016), and CSI: NY (2004 – 2013). But there were also productions that focused on a female forensic doctor, who also did some detecting work. Think of Crossing Jordan (2001 – 2007), Body of Proof (2011 – 2013), or even Bones.

CrossingJordan

Crossing Jordan

All these women have something in common, and that is their ability to transform detection into a whole new process by including the latest advances in science and technology. Furthermore, they are qualified experts in reading bodies. If the corpse is the raison d`être of the crime narrative, forensic doctors are the ultimate sleuths, as their medical and scientific knowledge allows them to read a body and produce a narrative of the victim’s lived experience.

Crime fiction may be commercial. A crime novel may also be the best choice to keep to keep your attention during a flight, or while you wait for the train back home. But crime novels have so many layers, that they allow for both light and in-depth reading.

It is up to us to choose whether to focus on the thrilling page-turning quality of the text and dismiss it – why do we still equal easy with bad? – or we can choose to see the social prejudices, tensions and developments that build the story. In any case, something is clear: We like crime fiction. We read detective fiction. And we should study it.

More about women in crime fiction and the author here:

booksandreviewsblog@gmail.com

https://booksandreviews.wordpress.com/

https://uniovi.academia.edu/ElenaAvanzasAlvarez

 

Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

by Ashleigh McFeeters

As acts of political violence flood local and international news media outlets, it is imperative that academic study scrutinises, and if necessary, challenges, these news media representations. For the majority of people watching, listening to, or reading the news, these representations are the only information that they will receive. Hence, the content of these portrayals and how they are produced, have a significant impact on news consumers’ ideologies and understandings of political violence.

What is more, violence (and most threats to security) are deemed a primarily male domain. Women’s involvement in political violence jars with this ‘masculine endeavour. Women who commit acts of political violence are not depicted simply as combatants, freedom fighters or terrorists, but their representations in the news media are gendered. The terms female combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist are pregnant with gendering, as not only does the adjective ‘female’ come before combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist, which highlights her gender before her actions, but the fact that her gender must be qualified speaks volumes about the palatability of women engaging in political violence.

As the news media have a significant role in mirroring, creating and perpetuating social norms, the consequences of this is that the categories of representation can be adopted by news consumers and repeated and reiterated through dialogue and socialisation. The news media may be guilty of underpinning, rather than confronting, the dominant patriarchal culture and subsequently participating in women’s marginalisation in public life.

In society, women are generally defined by traditional gender roles, and these narratives are picked up by the news media and bolstered by repeated depiction. In the news media, women are still depicted using a formula of gendered accounts, especially with a focus on appearance. For example, hits in Google for Amal Clooney are blogs dedicated to her fashion sense. Unfortunately, her impeccable style looms large over her career as a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. Moreover, Michelle Obama is as well-known for her clothes (Weaver, 2017) as she is for her campaign for female education. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with referring to someone’s clothes, when this becomes the be all and end all of a person’s characterisation this is where it is detrimental to women’s equality. If women’s news media portrayal is distilled down to an outfit, this constrains women’s roles to one-dimensional symbols of beauty rather than as figures of change.

This is particularly notable with regards to female combatants, as their acts of political violence are also framed by gender constructions. For example, the online New York Post’s headline ‘She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist’ (Rosenbaum, 2015) gives the impression of puzzlement. Why would a beautiful woman choose to be a terrorist as surely her beauty could have been better spent elsewhere?! The currency (and commodity) of beauty is a valuable and looked-for bargaining chip in society, “[t]hey call her the ‘beautiful terrorist with a Mona Lisa smile’ and she’s as wanted as any work by Leonardo da Vinci”(Rosenbaum, 2015). The choice of the word “wanted” alludes to her being sought by authorities for terrorist offences, but also wanted as in desired sexually. The portrayal of her appearance and associated sexuality have overshadowed her political activism, and the fact that the allusion to her looks precedes her occupation underscores the notion that her appearance is more important than her political agency.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-12-21-05
Source: http://nypost.com/2015/10/26/turkish-police-hunt-for-smirking-female-isis-suspect/.

Furthermore, the interview of Viner (2001) and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is saturated with gendered connotations: “international pin-up”; “the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye”; “Her cheekbones are still like knives; her eyes are gentle but flicker when moved”. This effusively gendered account of Khaled champions her appearance over her acts of political violence in 1960s and 70s. The oxymoron of the ‘beautiful terrorist’ suggests an uneasiness as beauty and terror are conflated. The paradoxes of sharp cheekbones as signifiers of attractiveness and knives as deadly weapons, and of delicate hands holding lethal arms, are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, the female combatant is aesthetically pleasing by adhering to the accepted norms of beauty, however, on the other hand, her beauty is balanced with the ugly acts of terrorists. It is challenging to negotiate and navigate between the two notions in the news media. Therefore, in order to acquaint the female terrorist with the news consumer, familiar frameworks of understanding are utilised.

One such framework is the theme of hypersexuality. The Independent.ie calls Idoia Lopez Riano “the seductress ‘Tigresa’ lost her lust for killing” (Govan, 2011a) that alludes to her sexuality and female libidinousness which portrays her as a lascivious profligate. Frequently, female sexuality is referenced to undermine a woman’s credibility and ability. Moreover, an ‘oversexed’ woman is portrayed as having aberrant sexuality which has led her to murder, rather than a conscious and deliberate choice based on political acumen. The “green-eyed femme fatale”(Govan, 2011b) is a seductress rather than a political activist.

Another theme used to characterise female combatants is that of motherhood imagery. Kendall (2015) reports that Mairead Farrell, a member of the Provisional IRA, endeavoured to distance the female volunteers from the Mother Ireland image “because it didn’t reflect what we believed in…we’d moved on from that”. The iconic maternal figure wholly undercuts any form of agency within female combatants by reducing them to flat characters with meaning imbued upon them, rather than revolutionaries with their own agency.

The themes used in the news media categorise the female combatants/terrorists/freedom fighters in such a way as to undermine any form of agency or choice. The female combatant is difficult to articulate to a mass audience, thus short-hand stereotypes paint her with broad brush strokes and whitewash her political activism to present a less threatening woman, rather than a violent agent of change. A significant outcome of preserving the image of traditional feminine passivity in the news media, is that the imagery is internalised by news consumers and this affects how female combatants are seen. By manipulating gendered cultural norms to advance their cause, women have a vital role in paramilitary organisations where certain activities cannot be performed by men without attracting unwanted attention and detection. However, this further exemplifies and solidifies women’s secondary role in society by fostering gender inequality. Women’s emancipation is truncated because social values, expectations and assumptions about women are preserved.

Women are underestimated because of their presumed non-threatening nature; they are not important enough to warrant investigation. Due to this, women can infiltrate areas without detection or suspicion. In addition, the sensitivities to searching women’s bodies allow women to feign pregnancy in order to hide bombs (Bloom et al., 2011).

Therefore, when the news media keeps these gendered narratives alive it is misinforming the population about female combatants’ capabilities. Perhaps this is over-reading and over-stating the news media’s role – however, as news media accounts of female combatants (and women in general) still present them as sex objects, these representations must be analysed and confronted. It is important to examine gender as a category of experience and a social process, but it must not be overemphasised as a reason for actions. When political violence is reduced to gendered reasons, such as the Chechen Black Widows (Stack, 2011), this only allows the female actors to be understood through the prism of gender, which is a social construction. This is internalised in social cognition and can have devastating effects upon women’s equality, as it fosters the male as the norm and female as the other.

Not only do gender stereotypes in the news media harm gender equality, they also impede counter- and anti-terrorism security measures. Nacos’s advice is that in order to combat terrorism, the opportunities for the manipulation of gender prejudices by terrorists must be shut down. A suggested method is to allow and encourage gender reality to inform counter-terrorism policies by removing the gender stereotypes of female combatants in the news media, as these stereotypes “reflect and reinforce deep-seated societal attitudes”(2005: 448).

To finish, this analysis of the news media endeavours to be critical rather than pessimistic as the news media also have the power to defy pre-existing norms by refusing to use familiar gender stereotypes to represent female combatants and women in general.

 Sources

Bloom M, Gill P and Horgan J. (2011) Tiocfaidh ar Mna: Women in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 4: 60-76.

Govan F. (2011a) How the Seductress ‘Tigresa’ Lost her Lust for Killing. Available at: http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/how-the-seductress-tigresa-lost-her-lust-for-killing-26795118.html.

Govan F. (2011b) La Tigresa Kicked Out of ETA After Renouncing Violence. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/8910436/La-Tigresa-kicked-out-of-ETA-after-renouncing-violence.html.

Kendall B. (2015) What Drives Women to Extreme Acts? Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-33600267.

Nacos BL. (2005) The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28: 435-451.

Rosenbaum S. (2015) She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist. Available at: http://nypost.com/2015/10/26/turkish-police-hunt-for-smirking-female-isis-suspect/.

Stack A. (2011) Zombies Versus Black Widows Women as Propaganda in the Chechen Conflict. In: Sjoberg L and Gentry CE (eds) Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 83-95.

Viner K. (2001) ‘I made the ring from a bullet and the pin of a hand grenade’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jan/26/israel.

Weaver H. (2017) The Significance of Michelle Obama’s Bold Red Dress During Her Final Speech as FLOTUS. Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/01/michelle-obama-final-speech-red-dress.

 

 

 

 

The Media Gender Gap…and what to do about it.

by Grace McDermottAAEAAQAAAAAAAAWSAAAAJDg3ZjU3ZTU4LTlkMzEtNDJmYi04NDI5LWViMGQ0NzgzYmEzNg

“ The news is still, by and large, made by men for men. Research from the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), based on 114 countries and released today, shows that only 24 per cent of persons seen, heard or read about in the media are women. In online news reports the figure is almost the same, at 26 per cent. The findings amount to “a severe disparity between the representation of women and men in news media.”

– The Independent, November 23,2015*

When it comes to discussing issues of inequality people get uncomfortable. The good news is, I am not here to talk about whether or not inequality exists, the numbers show that. Instead, I want to talk about what we can do to fix it.

I was a participating researcher on the Irish team of this year’s Global Media Monitoring Report, and can honestly say the experience changed my understanding of the news. Though I had studied representation and news cycles in the past, as I poured over this particular data I was surprised.  Digging through headline after headline, I was astounded to find virtually no stories about, or even authored by, women.  The few stories I did find were for the most part, sitting in the gossip column. Certainly there were women who had stories to tell, and moreover, other women who wanted to tell those stories. But, where were were they?

The Media Gender Gap is a pervasive and widespread issue impacting female media professionals, the industry, and the wider public alike. Though the seldom-discussed inequality of female representation in the media, and by the media, is a large systemic issue there are simple steps we can all take to work towards a fairer industry, and more equal-society. Starting now.

By the end of this piece you will:

  1. Have a better understanding of the Media Gender Gap and your role within it.
  2. A simple, practical, and free step you can take everyday to help end media inequality.

 

The Findings:

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) is a major international research initiative that has been running since the late 1990’s. The project focuses on tracking and analysing the representation of women in the media and is widely cited by the likes of the United Nations, among others. This year’s report unfortunately, uncovered a similar pattern to years past. The results prove gender equality in news stories or in media professions remains a serious and largely unchanging issue.

Although women make up about 50% of the general worldwide population, only 24% of the persons heard, read about or seen in news media are women. – GMMP

Among other staggering statistics the GMMP’s overriding findings illustrated that women are largely invisible in not only our news, but our newsrooms. 

Only 37% of news media stories are reported on by women, globally.- GMMP

Even in the would-be “progressive” nations of  Ireland/ Scotland/ England/Wales (the segment of the report I worked on), representation of women in the newsroom was disproportionately low. As only 32% of all news stories in the UK, Ireland-sample were written, or spoken by women.

How does the gap happen? 

The question of “how” inequality happens is quite possibly the most complex and simultaneously important one. Unfortunately, the answer is multifaceted, non-definite, and constantly debated.

What we do know is that the media gender gap emerges is a range of different, but interdependent ways. There are too many dimensions of the issue for me to cover in the space of this article. Instead, I will touch three main ways inequality is entrenched in our media. The first type I will call “financial disparity” and the second, “objectification”. The third is arguably the most overlooked and the one the GMMP hones in on, “invisibility.”

The first factor, “financial disparity” is tied to the ways we try and discuss inequality within the realm of “industry” or “capitalism” . When we talk about inequality: race, gender, religion etc. in these contexts, we generally connect it to economic terms. How many cents does a woman make to a man’s dollar? How are her earnings influenced by childbirth? Even less obvious ones like: Why are there less females engineers?

These questions have explicit connections to monetary wealth. This is because we understand earnings and dollar signs to be an illustration of an individual’s relative worth, and overall quality of life. For this reason we can look at money and say: “If two people are equally qualified, and performing the same role, in the same environment, they should earn the same amount. If not, something is unequal”.  Of course you could debate the reasons for this inequality, however, you could not debate the fact that one person earns more than the other. You could measure this, or set it up like a math equation and it would still make sense.

Activists, Researchers, and the general public love to talk about inequality in these terms because they are clear cut, concise, and hard to argue with. This is the dimension of “inequality” most of us have a baseline understanding of. This is not because it is necessarily the most important or only type of inequality, but because it’s the easiest to understand.

There is also a another type of inequality most of us understand. This is objectification. In recent years the objectification of women in the media has come to light, though it has certainly not gone away. When it comes to sexualising, or objectifying women, explaining the issue is relatively simple. Similar to “financial disparity”, “objectification” is easy to identify because it is something you can see and touch.

For example, we can hold a picture and say: “I see that woman, I see the environment she is positioned in, I see what she is wearing, I see the words surrounding her, etc.”

If there is a debate over “objectification” it would usually centre on the meaning  or impact of an image, rather than the the existence of the image itself. The “artifact” (picture, text, image) that contains the inequality serves as proof, or at least, a tangible point for debate. In this way, objectification is a clear-cut, and relatively obvious form of inequality that for the most part we all understand.

So, why does invisibility matter?  More importantly, what can you do about it today?

Lastly, there is invisibility. This is the dimension of inequality that the GMMP seemingly centred on. I would argue very few of us think about, understand, or consider, inequality in these terms because you guessed it, it is invisible.

Despite the lack of conversation surrounding the invisibility of women in the media, its effects are equally serious to other forms of discrimination.  The impact of invisibility is bigger than the lack of women in professional media roles, it literally alters the news itself. Embedded in nearly every piece of news you consume (according to the statistics) is a predisposition to feature, discuss, and refer to exclusively, men.

Only 28% of Irish news “sources” (meaning the people quoted, interviewed or paraphrased) were women.The women who make up this 28% were as a majority in “homemaker” or “celebrity” roles, with an extreme disparity in contexts that called for “experts”. Females represented only 10% of the science technology/engineers mentioned overall; 15% of the teachers, academics, or educational professionals; and a mere 3% of athletes, or sports personnel included. – Regional  statistics: UK, Ireland GMMP

So what is wrong with what the media is not showing us?

Before you ask: “what’s wrong with talking to men? Hear me out. Talking about or with men is not the problem; never speaking with, or about women, is.

Unsurprisingly,  the report found that female journalists, were more likely to include female subjects within their writing. Proving that diversity in staff, feeds diversity in story.

  • Women reporters were nearly twice as likely as men to write stories which had a central female focus and women were twice as likely to write stories which challenged gender stereotypes than men. – Regional statistics: UK, Ireland GMMP

 

A media researcher, John Thompson’s work better explains the social impact of invisibility in the media.  Thompson claimed that the media was “the domain of the visible” in modern societies. He argued that it worked as not only the primary forum for publicising social values, but also a formative element of these values themselves.

Basically, according to Thompson, when things appear in the media, particularly in the news, they signal to the public: “Hey! this thing is worthy of your time and consideration. This thing matters.” When this message is disseminated, the ‘thing’ that was pushed out in the media,becomes immediately more important to the public.

Invisibility works covertly to the contrary. If things aren’t publicised in the media there is little chance we will find out about them, which limits our ability to care. This doesn’t mean they fail to exist, but rather, that we don’t know they exist. Which if you ask me, is pretty much the same thing.

This is kind of like the: “if a tree falls in the forest” scenario. If a tree falls, a person exists, an issue exists, but our news station doesn’t tell us, our ability to consider it vanishes.

Enough about what’s wrong, what can I do about it?

According to Thompson, and many other media studies, this process of invisibility is a two way thing. What the media tells us impacts how we think, but what we tell the media, impacts what they tell us. So, this is where you come in. And the best part is, you don’t even need to get up from the couch, or off of your smart phone.

When we seek out, spend time, and tweet about certain topics, the news listens. News networks operate off  of a bottom line (no matter what they say!) and that bottom line is driven by you. Digital is the space where news consumer’s actions are the most quantifiable. Thus, what audiences read and share online has become a key element of how news networks determine what stories make the news.

The GMMP not only found that women were widely absent from mainstream news, but also, digital news and stories circulated through social media alike.

The report found that only 26% of online news reports included women. – GMMP

News producers know what you read, what you search, how long you spend reading, and even where your mouse hovers. In the constant bombardment of puppy/baby/fail videos it is hard to strike a balance between what you want to watch, and what you should  watch. But this is what makes for a responsible news consumer.

Turns out, all that time we spend thinking of Kim Kardashian’s new outfit takes away from our consideration of other news items. But don’t worry, I am not saying you should never read the gossip column.

What I am saying is that: Your mouse, and your smart phone are the equivalent to your media ballot.

This doesn’t mean you have to delete Perez Hilton from your bookmarks. Instead, I am suggesting that you occasionally make a conscious effort to seek out a story about, or authored by, a woman. If you want to go one step further take that news story and talk about it. Do this once a week, once a day, and voila! You have done something useful, and can now call your internet procrastination meaningful.

Have you reinvented the wheel? No.

Abolished global oppression? No.

Sent a message to your news providers that you want to hear from and about women. Yes.

A small step in the right direction, all from the comfort of your smart phone. What’s not to like about that?