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Ownership, not content!

cbyerlys Icon Posted by Carolyn Byerly

April 6th, 2008

I’m reflecting on Lynn Ziegler’s story in Women’s eNews of 4/2/08 about women’s low representation in television. She was reporting on the event sponsored by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, held at University of Southern California a few weeks ago at which numerous presenters recounted what is by now a familiar tale of how few women there really are on screen to symbolize what amounts to half the human population.

Ziegler noted, among other things that:

Today we have more programs with stronger female characters: “Cold Case,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Law and Order.” But the fact that women make up more than half the world’s population is not reflected on-screen. The male-female on-screen ratio is still only 1-in-3, up from a more dismal 1-in-5 two decades ago.

There is a lot of excellent research documenting what sociologist Gaye Tuchman called the “symbolic annihilation of women” back in the late 1970s. But few are asking why this pattern persists four decades into the modern feminist movement. I wonder, more specifically why feminists haven’t long ago focused more questions and attention on the source of the problem: media ownership.

Let’s face it, content doesn’t arise out of a vacuum. Some of it, as Ziegler says, is the problem of unconscious creative folks, like the guy she described who was putting the one “ideal” woman in a crowd scene of otherwise all men that he was composing.

Mostly the problem is bigger than what we watch when we click the button. It amounts to who controls the industries and sets the values and goals those industries will turn into pictures, prose, stories.

Susan B. Anthony got it right back in the 1800s when she said that women would never be heard until they owned the newspapers. She lived before TV, but I bet she’d say the same thing about TV (and radio, etc.) today.

Me, I’m an advocate of women doing more than studying and clamoring about content, which is certain to endure in its exclusion and misrepresentation of us under the present system, which sees women in the low single digits of ownership. Under-representation and mis-representation are good starting points, but they are not the whole journey.

We have to be smarter than that. Our turn to mobilize a new movement is clearly at hand.

We need to reshape public communication policy, open up capital to women, and tear down the glass ceiling in telecom industries that prevents women from gaining the management and financial management skills they need to buy and own broadcast, cable, movie and other media enterprises.

Till then, I’m with Susan B.

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