I blame the media: equality, consumerism and sensationalism

Sunday, 30 October 2011

For the past two or three years, most newspaper coverage of the feminist movement has heralded its return, its new-found popularity and the renewed fervour of 21st century women to see gender equality realised. In the past I've written about how this has become tedious. How many times can you talk about the "return of feminism" - especially when you've done so on a regular basis since 2008 - before it gets old? And yet it seems that not all Guardian journalists feel the same way.

On Friday, a piece by Tanya Gold, entitled "I blame the media for ignoring feminism in favour of makeup", appeared. It's in the third paragraph that she says:

"I pondered why the feminist movement seems so comprehensively to have stalled. Feminism seems so tiny today, so niche, of such little interest to the outside world and even to women."

Stalled. Despite new groups of activists and campaigns and conferences and demonstrations and petitions and documentaries and blogs and tireless work by many people I know: stalled. I don't think the movement has stalled. It's just hard to be heard when the problems of the world are so numerous and women's voices are the most marginalized.

As we read on we see that Gold is referring to the depressing statistics we learn of on a regular basis. The pay gap, the workplace, the treatment of women in politics, the beauty industry, celebrity. It's not an attack on what the activists are doing, it's an attack on a society that refuses to listen and media organizations that won't give issues any coverage unless they're explosive and sensationalized. I don't always agree with everything Gold writes, but I really identified with what she's saying here, from the rage at government cuts to her recollection of how many people she knows react to the concept of gender equality.

"That was their comment on modern feminism – an indistinct, half-imagined dislike for Harriet Harman, although they cannot remember why."

It's all too familiar, isn't it? And it's a miserable thing to think about, the thought that as far as some people can see, our efforts as activists aren't changing anything because as far as the rest of the world can see, talking about "Millie's Fillies" is funny. We have "career women" and "working mums" but not "career men" and "working dads" and when you point that out to some people, they fall about laughing because you're just so ridiculous and then roll their eyes because "no-one cares". The media's favourite statistics are the ones that reinforce traditional gender roles, victim-blaming and negative stereotypes of women. The stats and reports that show men in a vaguely negative light don't get the same attention, because then men get upset, which just won't do.

The examples Gold uses of this lack of progress, of impact, from the movement, are numerous. The glorification of less equal times through television shows like Pan Am. The media's role as a vehicle for the fashion and beauty industries and the oft-promoted lie that consumption, spending power and rampant materialism equal "empowerment". This is one of my all-time favourite bugbears: the co-option of "choice" so that it becomes less about gender equality and more about the choice to buy a dress or a handbag, to feel "sexy" by using a certain product, empowerment by "doing what feels good" and spending your money on whatever you want, or choosing a certain brand of chocolate or tampon. "It's my choice, I want to do it, therefore it's empowering to me and how it affects other people doesn't matter". Nina Power calls it "Feminism TM", and Sian Norris has written more about it here.

Gold argues that feminism is now seen as so insignificant that it is not having an impact on these things that matter - objectifying and sexist imagery, or the idea of consumerism as empowerment. I would argue that these are not the only things we work for and that while it is critical, there are other things that we're focusing on that matter just as much. Consumerism and objectification are often criticized, when relentlessly focused on, as the concerns of privileged, middle-class women who prioritize such concerns over issues like poverty, the economy, race and VAWG, refusing to step outside the bubble and acknowledge the experiences of others. You've all seen the call-outs and the discussions. This is important and I think we all agree that the focus can't be so exclusive. But as Gold - and the rest of us - are sadly very much aware, these are the issues that get the media coverage.

Slutwalk and protests against Playboy get the attention because they're "titillating". It means the media can talk about sex and print pictures of young women. It means the trolls can castigate the protesters for being "ugly" and everyone can have a good smirk at the shrill, bitter harridans who clearly just need a good shag. Equality legislation, issues surrounding race, pregnancy discrimination and anti-victim blaming perspectives on the justice system aren't titillating or explosive enough - and so coverage is limited to the feminist blogs and the couple of daily newspapers that are more sympathetic to the cause. And it's not in the interests of the media to denounce capitalism and criticize the things they're so invested in - beauty, materialism, celebrity. It happens up to a point, but at the end of the day money has to be made. When you start to discuss these things with people outside your own little bubble, you remember that not everyone thinks consumerism is a problem. For many, it's an absolute joy.

A friend said on Twitter yesterday:

"To me, it always feels as though women are being encouraged to consume to please some huge 'other'. It's as though you're always being told to strive for perfection, and the only way to achieve perfection is by buying more shit."

Even for many who set themselves apart from the unbearable side of mainstream consumerism, it's still about defining themselves by the things they've acquired and cultivating an image carefully based around said things. And this, no matter what, will always trump "boring" reports on various aspects of equality from the women's sector. So do we change tactics to get the media coverage and hope it brings about more change? And does this inevitably involve "dumbing down" and sidelining the issues that "no-one cares about", the issues that invariably involve women of colour and working class women?

When Caitlin Moran criticized the obsession with beauty and handbags in her autobiography, discussing sex and body issues and relationships and clothes, thousands of women read the book and many said it made them think about things, for the first time, that they'd never really considered before. But many others were perturbed that it focused on, "yet again", the concerns of the privileged and ignored the wider concerns of the women's movement. It got a lot of media attention and a lot of hype.

Next month, the Fawcett Society will hold a day of action in London. Women are being encouraged to come to march dressed in "50s get-up" (pinnies, rubber gloves, dresses, headscarves, chains) to symbolize the way the government wants to "turn back time" on women's rights. We are also being encouraged to hold "Don't turn back time tea parties" to raise awareness locally. It's a nifty gimmick. Remember the approach to freedom and equality in the 50s? That's what we could return to! So let's make like it's the 50s and make sure people sit up and take notice, right? Some people are unhappy with the gimmick. Tea parties? 50s housewives? Hardly representative of the experience of all women! Is it a great way to protest what the government's doing - or is it dumbing down and excluding voices in the name of hoped-for media coverage?

The concerns of today are just as important as the fights for equality legislation and involvement of women in public life four or five decades ago. The spectre of consumerism today, however, is larger and it's seen as laughable to challenge it, despite what has happened in recent years with the economy and everything else that should have sounded warning bells. The media is driven by sensationalism and sex, and while feminism may be "back", gender equality is still a big joke to many, including those in positions of great power.

It's difficult to know which track to choose in the quest to see change happen. Go for the marketing and focus on popular culture, like the industries we criticize, or watch as yet another successful protest, another victory, happens largely without coverage? How can we make sure that the media cares about the issues that affect those other than the privileged? As we feminists like to say, it's problematic.

Image: Barbara Kruger


RedHead said...

Dear Tanya - read Caitlin Moran's book, now. It's simple enough for you to understand.

lipsticklori said...

Grear post! I want to say more, but Monday has a grip on my and my brain has yet to wake up, so I shall simply retweet and let other more eloquent folk comment.

Becca said...

It really needs to be about picking battles. Total equality is obviously the ultimate goal, but it just cannot be achieved all in one go, and concentrating on the feminist issues that relate to personal taste (the use of Ms/Miss/Mrs, pornography as an industry, chivalry) just belittles the important issues that actually affect people - violence, lack of freedom, excessive consumerism, limitations in the workplace.

I've tried to think of an analogy, as I'm not particularly good at phrasing things:

It's like trying to nurse a starving person back to health. Sure, cleaning their teeth will make them healthy, but can you get the toothbrush out of the way so that we can feed them first?

Hannah Mudge said...

Yes, and then at the same time those sort of stories - the ones about porn and makeup etc, will get comments from people thinking they're being clever, saying 'Oh, for goodness' sake, why don't you feminists concentrate on actual issues and things that matter!' Of course we ARE doing that, the media just don't care, so it trivializes all we do.


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