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Why Media Matters for Women

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

November 4th, 2006

The following article is adapted from the anthology BitchFest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine, at the request of Reclaim the Media, which is using it as part of their and of the National Organization for Women’s NW Organizing Project.

The piece was published, without the links, on CommonDreams.org, on Friday, Nov.3. If you’d like permission to reprint the piece in full in your magazine, newspaper or blog, contact me at director@wimnonline.org

–Jenn

Why Media Matters for Women:
From Content to Production to Policy, Media is a Feminist Issue in Election Years and Beyond
by Jennifer L. Pozner, Women In Media & News (WIMN)

Ask a feminist to identify the most important issues facing women this election year, and she might mention reproductive freedom, violence against women and children, the disproportionate burdens women bear in light of the growing gap between rich and poor in America, or the many ways in which war specifically impacts women. Chances are she wouldn’t immediately point to the media. But she should.

Without accurate, non-biased, diverse news coverage and challenging, creative cultural expression it is virtually impossible to significantly impact public opinion of women’s and human rights issues or to create lasting social change. Indeed, corporate media are key to why our fast-moving culture is so slow to change, stereotypes are so stubborn, and the power structure so entrenched. Pop culture images help us determine what to buy, what to wear, whom to date, how we feel about our bodies, how we see ourselves and how we relate to racial, sexual, socio-economic and religious “others.” Journalism directly links and affects every individual issue on the socio-political continuum in a national debate over the pressing matters of the day, from rape to racism, hate crimes to war crimes, corporate welfare to workplace gender discrimination. By determining who has a voice in this debate and who is silenced, which issues are discussed and how they’re framed, media have the power to maintain the status quo or challenge the dominant order.

And how have media used this power where women are concerned? With a vengeance.

Let’s start with female politicians. Ever wonder why American women are still stuck with only token representation in the House, the Senate and the Supreme Courtor why the closest a woman has come to the Oval Office was Geena Davis on a short-lived ABC drama? In part, it’s because women audacious enough to seek political office are routinely dogged by double-standard-laced news coverage that focuses on their looks, fashion sense, familial relationships and other feminizing details that have nothing to do with their ability to lead. From the recent headlines speculating about whether or not New York Senator Hillary Clinton “had millions of dollars or work done” to make her look less “hideous” to the New York Times likening Representative Nancy Pelosi (poised to become the first female Speaker of the House if the Democrats unseat the Republicans) to a nagging grandmother, this sort of coverage implies that women should be taken less seriously and are less electable than their male counterparts. Even the most powerful women in America suffer this media indignity: when Condoleezza Rice wore black leather boots last year, the Washington Post described the Secretary of State as a “dominatrix”; on the day she was chosen as America’s first African-American female national security adviser, a front page New York Times story reported that “her dress size is between a 6 and an 8,” and she has “a girlish laugh” and “can be utterly captivating — without ever appearing confessional or vulnerable.”

Media content matters, and not just to women at the highest echelons of power. In fact, the more vulnerable women are, the more hostile media coverage becomes. Young, low-income mothers of color have been derided for decades as “promiscuous,” “lazy moochers” and “brood mares” supposedly popping out babies for welfare checks by a bigoted and misogynistic press. A Newsweek editor once even insisted that “every threat to the fabric of this country from poverty to crime to homelessnessis connected to out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy.” The end result of this scapegoating? Punitive welfare reform that decimated the social safety net for poor women and children.

As feminists, we need to prioritize media among our top political concerns. Is sexual assault your most urgent issue? Media still imply that women “ask for it,” as when a recent Wall Street Journal column blamed rape and murder on “moronic” women who don’t have enough “common sense” to keep themselves safe. Think antiabortion violence is a threat to women’s safety and to our reproductive freedom? An American antiabortion fanatic attempted to blow up a women’s health clinic in Iowa on September 11, 2006, yet only one newspaper in the entire Nexis news database deigned to report this terrorist attack. Against the war? When three pretty, blond country singers are called “Dixie Sluts” by major magazines and TV news reports, banned from airplay by ClearChannel, Cox and Cumulus Radio and censored with radio-funded CD-stomping spectacles simply for expressing anti-war sentiment, it’s a safe bet that corporate media won’t be giving much press to Iraqi women who complain that their safety and autonomy are now curtailed by new Sharia laws imposed by the U.S.-approved Iraqi Constitution.

Sexist, racist media content is fruit from a poisoned tree. The demonization of women and the near invisibility of progressive feminists’ perspectives in American media are the result of institutional factors, including: the financial and political agendas of mega-merged media monopolies; the pandering of news networks and entertainment studios to advertisers’ profit motives without regard to the public’s interest; the limited access of women, people of color, low income people, LGBTQ people, Native people, immigrants and other marginalized constituencies to the means of media production, distribution and technology; decades of right-wing investment in media messaging, production and advocacy; and, funding restrictions of independent media alternatives. Also at play is the systemic underrepresentation of women and people of color in content (on op-ed pages, network newscasts, cable debate shows, as hard news reporters) and in the industry (as top-level executives, board members and owners in news and entertainment companies), as dozens of depressing studies document.

Luckily, a vibrant movement for change is gaining steam at the grassroots level, and there are plenty of ways to begin to fight for a feminist vision of media justice and reform. Here are just a few places to start:

The fight for media and gender justice needs you. The Right has prioritized media messaging, production, policy and ownership since the 1970s, which is in large part why the American political and media landscapes have become as problematic as they are today. If we truly care about women’s rights and social justice, we cannot afford to be overwhelmed by the scope of the problems in our media system we must simply roll up our sleeves and begin to tackle them.

Jennifer L. Pozner is the Executive Director of Women In Media & News, a women’s media analysis, education and advocacy group. She lectures on women, media, politics and pop culture at colleges across the country. This essay was adapted for Reclaim the Media and NOW’s NW Organizing Project from an essay in BitchFest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine.

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