Sexism in the media relates to concerns about a range of gender inequalities – in content, employment, policy, decision-making, and ownership – that have been a major focus of women’s liberation movements throughout the world since the 1970s. Mass media matter to women everywhere. They play a central role in the formulation and dissemination of ideas and the shaping of public opinion, whether their format is news, entertainment, or advertising. In fact, the media’s influence is even greater today than ever, with 24/7 news channels, and hundreds of satellite and digital services offering everything from natural history to hardcore pornography and picture messaging via mobile phones.
Popular media such as film, television, newspapers, and magazines have universally tended to frame women (in every sense of the word) within what many have found to be a narrow repertoire of types which bear little or no relation to how real women live their real lives (Byerly & Ross 2006). Since the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of women’s liberation movements – also called feminism – within all nations of the world, women began to recognize and analyze these problems. For example, they saw the numerous ways in which historically they had been ignored or misrepresented by the news, as well as stereotyped in television programs, film, advertising, and magazines. Women also understood that having respectful, accurate, and progressive images and messages about themselves in news and other media was essential if they were to have a louder public voice and more fully participate in public life. The solution would not be a straightforward one, as sexism in the media springs, in large part, from women’s larger structural marginalization in society, as well as the more specific lack of control over hiring and content decision-making within media industries. While women’s particular relationships to mass media have varied somewhat from nation to nation, women have found a certain consensus in their concerns, which together comprise a feminist critique of mass media and a range of strategies for change.
Feminist Critique Of Media
Symbolic annihilation of women: the first point of the feminist media critique identifies women’s absence and trivialization in the news and other “serious” media forms. Such treatment has been called the “symbolic annihilation of women,” a concept originated by international media scholar George Gerbner (1978) and then applied to the specific situation of women by US sociologist Gaye Tuchman (1978). In her introduction to the foundational edited book Hearth and home, Tuchman said women are symbolically annihilated when they are made invisible, trivial, or otherwise misrepresented in television content. She included representations of women that “make them into ornaments” or needing men’s protection in this definition.
The hyper-sexualized woman: the second point of the critique revolves around the sexual exploitation of women, which occurs across all media forms, including advertising. The problem manifests itself in several ways. One is the undue emphasis placed on women’s sexual attributes over other qualities (e.g., intelligence, competence, achievement). A second relates to patriarchal (i.e., male superior) messages contained in the media content, such as advertisements for women’s products that say, in essence, you must use this product to achieve the right look if you want a man to notice or love you. A third way the problem occurs is in the implied or overt use of violence against women by men, including gratuitous depictions of women being harmed, or in humiliating positions. Women have argued that all of these instances affirm men’s social, economic, and political dominance, while reinforcing women’s marginalization.
Structural marginalization in the industries: the third point of the feminist critique of media sexism has focused on women’s exclusion from employment and decision-making in, and ownership of, media enterprises. The major issue here has been systematic discrimination that prevents women from being hired, promoted, and retained in news and other media industries. These levels of participation have been understood to hold central importance if women are to exert greater authority over messages and images, and be able to replace sexist content with that which more fairly represents women’s range of roles, concerns, aspirations and contributions in and to society. Feminist political economists have placed particular emphasis on women’s severe marginalization at the ownership and policy-setting levels and, by contrast, men’s overwhelming dominance in media ownership. This pattern, which has accelerated markedly since the 1980s through conglomeration and globalization trends in media industries, has tended to concentrate control of the industries (and the wealth that flows from it) in the hands of a few wealthy men. This gendered structural imbalance in media industries illustrates the material ways in which sexism manifests itself at the macro levels within and across nations.
Responses To Sexism In Media
Women have moved on a number of fronts throughout the world to redress and reverse sexism in the media. Some of these initiatives have been individual efforts, and others have been undertaken collectively in more organized ways. Together, these efforts constitute women’s media activism, something that has been central to women’s Sexism in the Media
liberation movements throughout the world. Byerly and Ross (2006), who have studied that activism, found that women have followed several paths, or approaches, in trying to reform mainstream media, change media policies, and establish women-owned enterprises. For example, some trained as media professionals have used their insider advantage to bring feminist-oriented content into news and other media, or to advocate for women’s advancement within media enterprises. South African journalist Crystal Oderson, for instance, has worked to encourage the hiring and retention of black women at her own broadcast station, while French journalists Virginie Barré and Natacha Henry have promoted women’s status in news fields through the Association des Femmes Journalistes (Byerly & Ross 2006). Other feminist media activists have formed advocacy groups that monitor the media’s performance and/or wage campaigns targeted at some specific problem. For example, Seeta Pena Gangadharan and Aliza Dichter co-founded the Center for International Media Action, in San Francisco, a US-based group that advocates for ownership limits in media through reformed federal policy that would expand women’s ownership, particularly in broadcast media. Women’s media action has also included the establishment of women-owned media – book publishing houses like Kali for Women, in India; syndicated radio programs, such as Women’s International Newsgathering Service (WINGS), Vancouver, Canada; and the online international Women’s eNews, based in New York, among others.
With any social struggle, change occurs simultaneously alongside resistance to change, in a dialectical process. Thus, women have had some important successes in overcoming sexism in the media, while at the same time they remain vigilant of the persistent sexist patterns described earlier. Some success can be measured quantitatively. For instance, since the 1970s, women have established hundreds of women-owned media companies throughout the world, including feminist-oriented book publishing houses, magazines and newsletters, radio programs, film and video companies, film distribution centers, and, more recently, websites and weblogs (blogs). The last of these, accomplished through new technologies, enable women with computer access to transcend national boundaries, as well as traditional boundaries of private and public spheres. Media scholar Gillian Youngs (2004) has called cyberspace the “new feminist frontier” because it enables women to engage in multiple forms of networking, information sharing, political analysis, collaboration, and agenda building.
In terms of women’s representation in the traditional media, there are some signs of change. For example, there are stronger and more plentiful roles for women today in both film and television programming in many nations, and women of varied races and of lesbian identity have found a place (though still limited) in many films and television dramas. There are, of course, also the enduring sexist stereotypes, as well as women’s graphic victimization as forms of entertainment. In terms of news coverage, many of the issues that women have agitated for (e.g., rape law reform, an end to domestic violence, AIDS prevention) are being covered with greater regularity and sensitivity by many news organizations (Byerly & Ross 2006).
However, the 70-plus-nation Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), which has been conducted every five years since 1995, found in its 2005 round that women are truly at the periphery of most news. Very little news around the world – only 10 percent of all stories – focuses specifically on women, with Canada (23 percent) and the US (20 percent) leading. In addition, women are rarely central in stories that comprise the bulk of the news agenda – politics (8 percent) and the economy (3 percent). Reporting on gender inequality (which exists everywhere) is almost nonexistent – only 4 percent of all stories highlighted equality issues. In 2005, 53 percent of those stories were reported by men – something welcomed and encouraged. However, because such a small percentage of the stories do discuss gender equality, the news agenda, overall, can be understood as still dominated by male priorities and perspectives (Gallagher 2006, 19–20).
Some of women’s progress in overcoming sexism in the media can be seen in the creation of large-scale strategies with long-range goals. Central here are the more than two dozen media monitoring and advocacy groups functioning in nearly as many nations. Margaret Gallagher, who coordinates the largest of these, the GMMP, places considerable importance on the role of monitoring as a change agent. Monitoring produces data that can be used to advocate for changes within the news media, she says, but also to build on in important ways (Gallagher 2001). For example, the 2005 round of the GMMP utilized its findings to, first, develop an “advocacy toolkit,” containing training materials that local advocacy groups use to work more productively with media professionals to improve coverage of women and to bring about other social change. Second, eight regional training workshops were held to teach local community organizers how to use these toolkits. Third, GMMP sponsored “global weeks of action” (February 8–March 8, 2006), something endorsed by UNESCO and other international groups, to focus attention on women and news. And, finally, a GMMP website on media monitoring and advocacy was established to provide resources and specific “how to” procedures (www.whomakesthenews.org).
Gender Links, a monitoring, advocacy, and training organization headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, is an example of a regional organization that established a network in 2004, called GEMSA – Gender and Media Southern Africa. GEMSA’s action program brings media professionals together with women’s activists in order to develop best practices for integrating gender into news and other media. The first international effort of its kind, GEMSA conducts research on media policy, media coverage and representation of women, training of both male and female media professionals, and a range of other advocacy organizations (Morna 2004).
Thus, feminist-led efforts to end sexism in the media occur at many levels, simultaneously. Latin American sociologist Pilar Riaño (1991) emphasizes the importance of such, particularly at the local level, as something that constitutes women’s participation in grassroots public arenas through communicative practice (Riaño 1994, 122). At the same time, large-scale regional and international efforts, such as those carried on by GMMP and Gender Links, illustrate how women are making institutional reforms at policy and production levels. The optimistic view of these efforts, taken together, is that change is coming and will continue to come, and that an important role for communication researchers is to follow and evaluate their results.
- Byerly, C. M., & Ross, K. (2006). Women and media: A critical introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Gallagher, M. (2001). Gender setting: New agendas for media monitoring and advocacy. London: Zed Books/World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).
- Gallagher, M. (2006). Who makes the news? Global media monitoring project 2005. London: World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).
- Gerbner, G. (1978). The dynamics of cultural resistance. In G. Tuchman, A. K. Daniels, & J. Benét (eds.), Hearth and home: Images of women in the mass media. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 46–50.
- Morna, C. L. (2004). Getting it right: Gender and media in southern Africa. Johannesburg: Gender Links.
- Riaño, P. (1991). Myths of the silenced: Women and grassroots communication. Media Development, 2, 20–22.
- Riaño, P. (ed.) (1994). Women in grassroots communication: Furthering social change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Ross, K., & Byerly, C. M. (eds.) (2004). Women and media: International perspectives. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Tuchman, G. (1978). Introduction: The symbolic annihilation of women by the mass media. In G. Tuchman, A. K. Daniels, & J. Benét (eds.), Hearth and home: Images of women in the mass media. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–38.
- Youngs, G. (2004). Cyberspace: The new feminist frontier? In K. Ross & C. M. Byerly (eds.), Women and media: International perspectives. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 185–208.