A few weeks ago I was invited by Ashleigh Thompson of the Women in Tech group at Queensland University of Technology to be part of a panel at a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary about the representations of women in mainstream media, and the implications of such representations for their consumers. Also on the panel were three stellar people – Jenine Beekhuyzen, director of the Tech Girls Movement; Danielle Neale, recently named by the Sydney Morning Herald as a rising star in Information & Communications technology; and Isaac Pursehouse of Guerilla Welfare, and I felt very privileged to be speaking with them.
I’ve been a feminist since I went to uni and discovered what feminism was, so I’ve been reading about it for close to two decades. Even so, this film still knocked my socks off. It was written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom who was worried about what kind of world her young daughter would grow into. The media is crucial in shaping this world because people spend so much time watching TV, films, the internet or their smart phones.
From a very early age, Newsom explains, girls get the message that what’s most important is how they look – that their value and worth depends on this, and boys also get the message that this is what’s important too.
As a bright and brave school girl observed, ‘There is no appreciation for women intellectuals – it’s all about the body, not about the brain.’ I wanted to start cheering, not least because I’ve had my fair share of men who have only been interested in my tits, rather than the knowledge that I’ve gained through four degrees (including a PhD in literature), two novels, overseas travel and a disability.
The film was clever in that it cut between fully clothed, regal female leaders in history, and contemporary depictions of women which are sexualised and degrading. The message I took away from the screening was that the more power women gain, the more the media tries to diminish it by demeaning women and by denying them a voice. And the stats show that the media is male-dominated. 7% of directors and 10% of writers are in the film industry are women. Only 16% of protagonists in films are female. Women in their teens, 20s and 30s are 39% of the population yet make up 71% of television roles.
Actress Geena Davis commented in the film that all of Hollywood is run on one assumption – women will watch stories about men but men won’t watch stories about women, yet no one has ever really proved that this is true. The same might be said of the book industry – it’s assumed that men won’t read stories by women. Marketing has a huge part to play in this. As author Maureen Johnson writes:
if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.
She inspired a wonderful project of swapping book covers so that you can see the marketing process at play. From personal experience, many men who have read A Curious Intimacy wouldn’t be seen dead with the second imprint (pink and red, with two women necking) in their hands on the train, but all commented to me that they thoroughly enjoyed the story.
If more women can tell their stories through film and literature, the representations of women inevitably become more nuanced, intelligent and complex, which demonstrates to girls that there are a multitude of roles and shapes they can inhabit, rather than the photo-shopped ideal of a hairless, big-breasted, big-lipped Barbie.
By brainwashing girls to believe that Barbie is the best way forward, they inevitably become anxious about their bodies, which has flow-on effects. As the film noted, the more women & girls self-objectify, the more they’re likely to be depressed, have lower ambition and lower cognitive functioning. They’re also likely to have lower political advocacy, which is the idea that your voice matters in politics and that you can create change. If we therefore have a whole generation of women who self-objectify and who are damaging themselves physically and psychologically on account of this, then we have a whole generation that’s less likely to run for office and less likely to vote. The emphasis on appearance distracts women from making a difference & becoming leaders. Focussing on women’s appearance also trivialises them, for it emphasises what they look like rather than what they’ve done.
Representation is not just about visual imagery, it’s about the way in which language is used. Hilary Clinton has been called a bitch, and the word “Mrs’ is used instead of ‘Senator.’ In the newspaper, when commenting on how politicians speak, a female politician ‘complains’, whereas a man ‘states.’
Although the film was about American media and politics, many, if not all, of its messages can be transferred to Australia – simply witness the brutal verbal attacks upon Julia Gillard during her time in power. Tara Moss has also just released a book about the representations of women, with a similar litany of facts (such as that 70% of bylines of Australian newspapers are by male journalists, despite equal numbers of men and women being employed as writers).
If language is a way of taking women down, it can also be a way of building women up and increasing their representation through stories and characters that are complex and multi-dimensional. Women are more than their bodies, and stories can show this.
The Australian Women Writers Challenge and prizes such as the Stella, Dobbie, Kibble and Barbara Jefferis are enacting change by drawing increased attention to women writers and their stories. Women themselves can also create change because they are consumers – in the US, women have 85% of the purchasing power, and I imagine it would be a similar story in Australia - so they can decide which books are bought and which authors are supported. On Twitter, women who are jack of the catcalls, the lack of promotion, the rapes, the physical assault, the privileged white male who gets out his gun because he thinks he’s entitled to women, the pay gay, the touches on the arse, the being told it’s their fault for being assaulted because they were walking alone in the evening, are speaking out by using #YesAllWomen. It makes for a depressing read, but it’s also inspiring. My father once said to me that after two generations of feminism, women ought to be getting into positions of power. Of course they should, but misogyny is entrenched and often invisible until people speak of it. By telling women’s stories, and by naming the injustice and making the problems clear through screenings such as those organised by QUT’s Women in Tech group, we can move towards equality.