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

Miss Representation tells it like it is

Friday, 28 October 2011

A new film exposes the way representations of women in the media lead to under-representation of women in positions of power. And it's long overdue.

"You can't be what you can't see". The words jump out at us from the screen in the trailer for Miss Representation, a new film exposing and challenging the media's portrayals of women and girls, which is causing a stir in the US since its broadcast premiere last week.

Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film interviews teenage girls as well as famous faces like Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem in a quest to show the public just what's so wrong about the way the US media treats women and girls and what sort of effect it's having on their lives. Its findings are depressing, showing that while women continue to be seriously under-represented in politics, business and journalism, they're continuously judged on their looks, age and weight. Its aim is to get people thinking about just what is so wrong with all this.

"I'm hoping that we can start the discussion, and actually the discussion turns into action around valuing women in our culture. And that's huge," said Siebel Newsom in a recent interview.

Even if you haven't watched the trailer yet, with its footage of bikini-clad women in music videos interspersed with derogatory newspaper headlines about women politicians, you can probably reel off a list of the ways the media and popular culture makes it abundantly clear what us women are good for. We're the eye candy, the gender whose worth is bound up in how "sexy" we are. We're the bitches and the backstabbers and the lovers of "catfights". The "yummy mummies" and the "slummy mummies". The bosses from hell and the boardroom "ballbusters". When we go into politics, the newspapers run stories on our dress sense and cleavage rather than our achievements. Men turn up at our public appearances holding banners saying "Iron my shirt".

How is this making the women of the future feel and what's it doing to their ambitions? Miss Representation reveals all. It reveals how such toxic imagery is making girls and women feel devalued and ignored - as one teenager says, it's as if no-one cares about their brains, only their looks. It reveals how girls' dreams and ambitions change over time, as they find themselves trapped in stereotypes of what a woman should be and treated accordingly by boys, trapped by the perception that "feminine" or "like a girl" means "inferior".

It feels as if a film like this is long overdue. We've seen the reports on the value of really including women and raising them up to their full potential. The positive impact when they participate fully in the workplace, in the making of laws and the running of nations. And yet in countries like the US and the UK - countries seen as leading the way in other areas - women are being let down badly.

The way we're guaranteed to get media attention is by taking our clothes off. Of course the reception will only then be positive if we adhere to certain beauty standards, otherwise our "imperfections" will be raked over. Keeping our clothes on doesn't make us immune either - we're encouraged to judge and snipe from the off at unflattering cuts, visible body hair and unsightly bulges.

I hope the film will really make people think and start productive discussion about how we can combat these messages about women. All too often I think they're accepted as a fact of life. Even when people aren't happy about it there's a shrug of the shoulders and a roll of the eyes: that's just how the media is, right? Wrong. Something has to be done - and thankfully, Miss Representation isn't just a film: it's also a campaign.

By signing up through the organisation's website, you can become a Social Action Representative, download materials for use in schools and universities (US/Canada only) and access a conversation guide to help you bring up the issues the film raises with your family and friends.

I for one am excited about the impact all this is going to have as more people watch the film and are moved by its message. If taking action would mean more girls reaching their full potential and not being afraid to show who they really are, would you do it? By refusing to buy into and take notice of the stereotypes that bring us down and patronize us every single day, I think it's possible to effect change.

Check out Miss Representation on Facebook and Twitter for more news.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Photo via guelphguy's Flickr

A tale of two rape prevention campaigns

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Here is the poster for Rape Crisis Scotland's new campaign, "Stop Rape!"

 As the organisation's website says:

"Rape Crisis Scotland has adapted an apt and popular revision of the traditional approach to rape prevention in a new poster and postcard campaign. We hope this will help to reverse the popular trend of focusing rape prevention messages on women and instead transfer these towards more appropriate recipients - potential perpetrators." 

You can click here to read the list of "top 10 tips to end rape", which include "Don't put drugs in women's drinks" and "Don't forget: it's not sex with someone who's asleep or unconscious - it's RAPE!"

Here is a poster produced by South Wales Police, spotted in Swansea today by the eagle-eyed and subsequently enraged @welshfeminist. "Don't be a victim," it urges women, adding that "alcohol features in two thirds of all rapes".

It seems that every winter brings a fresh crop of anti-rape campaigns from the police or local authorities. It's the dark evenings, deserted streets - and the festive season with its "high spirits" and partying that sets them off. And every winter, you can guarantee that at least one of these campaigns will find new, catchy, and creative ways of victim-blaming.

In 2009 we had the Association of Chief Police Officers telling women to "Let your hair down, not your guard". The campaign's poster aimed at men, on the other hand, said "Rape: short word, long sentence". But when the media got hold of the story, the focus, as usual, was firmly on the fairer sex. "Women hitting the town for Christmas drinks are being warned not to make themselves easy prey for rapists," said Sky News, while the Metro's story told us that "Women heading out for Christmas drinks have been warned not to make themselves easy prey for rapists". It's telling that I haven't managed to find a standfirst explaining that "Men have been warned to think about the consequences of committing rape this festive season".

I'm sure you can think of similar campaigns. Another that came to mind for me was TfL's campaign, also from 2009, warning women of the consequences of getting into unlicensed taxis.

I love Rape Crisis Scotland because they make it their mission to challenge victim-blaming culture through in everything they do, including the brilliant Not Ever campaign. And this new campaign is a great example of how all the old lines used against those who have been raped can - and should - be turned around so that they place the blame firmly where it should really lie. I've read a few discussions on the campaign this week and among all the support there's been a smattering of voices claiming that it's "extreme", "patronizing" and "anti-men". Of course the wording sounds a bit patronizing - as is explained, it's reversing the usual, thoroughly patronizing messages that women have to put up with from other campaigns. You think telling women to be careful about how they dress, where they go and who they talk to isn't patronizing?

Actually, a lot of people don't, because it's what we're used to. As women, we need to be "warned" and "encouraged to stay safe" because that's just how it's done. And so we've ended up with a situation where some people feel "uncomfortable" about campaigns targeting perpetrators because it seems, well, you know, a bit harsh and unfair.

I noticed that Rape Crisis Scotland have promoted the Welsh Government's "Stop the Blame" campaign from Christmas 2010, which used traditional victim-blaming excuses - alcohol, clothing, flirting, being in a relationship with the perpetrator - to emphasize that it's time to put the onus on those who rape to stop. Clearly South Wales Police missed the memo. Discussing alcohol could have been a good opportunity to turn the message around because I'm sure that it's a pretty major factor in the choices rapists make. But alas!

"Don't be a victim" is such a negative slogan. It implies shame; it implies that the matter is probably more trivial than the person who has been raped thinks. It encourages people to think of themselves as having done something wrong. I would say that it certainly gives out a message that could discourage people from reporting a rape, something that's already a huge problem due to the current level of victim-blaming exhibited by these campaigns, by the media and consequently, by the public.

When will the police take notice?

Thinking positive about women in the church

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Today I have a guest post up on Anna Blanch's blog, Goannatree, entitled "Thinking Positive about Being a Woman in the Church".

"Being “a woman in the church” is fraught with problems. We know this because we experience it, we think about it, we write about it. A lot. 

 It is absolutely vital that we discuss what it means to be a woman in the church and the things we come across that upset us, that make us feel patronized or limited or ignored. Some years ago, I was struggling with finding my identity and wondering whether or not it was okay to just be myself at church. I was a bit concerned that it wasn’t okay and that this was backed up by a lot of books and other materials aimed at women, which tended to talk about “Biblical womanhood” as if this was a specific set of personality traits and skills. How wonderful it was to find different voices out there, through blogs and through books; women who felt the same way as me and who have helped me immeasurably on my faith journey."

Click to read on

This Saturday I will be at the Christian New Media Conference at City University London and am really excited about learning a lot from the sessions and talks on offer, as well as getting to meet some online acquaintances. You know what do if you spot me!

Image via State Library of South Australia's Flickr.

Return of the round-up

Monday, 10 October 2011

Feministing - Topeka, Kansas considers decriminalizing domestic violence to avoid prosecuting cases

"Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, facing a 10% budget cut, announced that the county would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors, including domestic violence cases, at the county level. Finding those cases suddenly dumped on the city and lacking resources of their own, the Topeka City Council is now considering repealing the part of the city code that bans domestic battery."

Observer - Joyce Carol Vincent: How could this young woman lie dead and undiscovered for almost three years?

"The video cut away from Joyce to the Wembley crowd and I thought of her, backstage, in her element, on a high, talking to Anita Baker and Denzel Washington, shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, in a room with verifiable stars. She was 26 years old, ambitious, beautiful, full of hope for the future. She had her whole life ahead of her but in 13 years she would die and nobody would know and nobody would notice."

Role/Reboot - Men Still Frame the Debate: Baseball, Banking and Why it's Not the End of Gender

"It is still considered important to be tough when participating in areas that are traditionally male-dominated. In fact, many women consciously try to avoid seeming feminine or naïve when they interact with men in professional and even casual settings. Although more women have become doctors, it’s important to note that few men have become nurses. This begs the questions: is it that women have learned to participate like men in male culture, while men have not really been forced to change their behavior?"

Public Religion Research Institute - Evangelical Woman Criticizes “Biblical Womanhood” By Embracing It

"My purpose in embarking on this project is not to belittle or make fun of the Bible, nor is it to glorify its patriarchal elements. It is simply to start a conversation about how we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. In the end, I hope my misadventures inspire women to cut themselves and one another some slack….because the truth is, we all do a little ‘picking and choosing’ when it comes to biblical womanhood!"

The Simple Pastor - Should A Church Be Excellent?

"OK, maybe I’d be a little more gracious than that. Perhaps I’d say this, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t think our worship service was excellent in every way but we were never going to get there. We are just ordinary people loving an extraordinary God who loved us when we were his enemies and getting it all wrong. And sometimes we still get it wrong but we’ve found a freedom and a love and a grace that means we don’t have to be excellent to be loved, we don’t have to be excellent to be accepted, we don’t have to be excellent to be a success...’ "

The Independent - Why equality is a distant dream: Girls, boys and the real differences between them

"Fewer than half of British boys agreed that it would be good to have the same number of women as men leading top companies. And British girls are twice as likely as boys to clean the house and help with the washing and cooking. Although the vast majority of girls in the UK think that boys should help in the same way, only 71 per cent of their male peers agree. 

Almost two-thirds of UK boys think that a woman's most important role is to take care of her home and cook for the family – something less than half of girls agree with. And 39 per cent of British boys think that men should have the "final word" at home – compared with 20 per cent of girls."

Joy Bennett at A Deeper Story - Burn, Ladies, Burn

"She thinks God made a mistake. And to be honest, I’ve often thought the same when all I saw around me were lines I wasn’t to cross and barriers to keep me out. What is a woman supposed to do with that fire? Why would God give us such unquenchable passion to right wrongs and stand for justice, and then hem us in? 

I tell her she’s right about one thing - God did give her that fire in her belly. But God did not make a mistake. God does not forbid women from taking action."

Guardian - Is Iceland the best country for women?

"Parents here talk strongly of community support, of collective care for children, and there is no sense that motherhood precludes work or study, which effectively changes the whole structure of women's lives. "You are not forced to organise your life in the 'college-work-maybe children later' way," says Thorunn, who is a single mother to a young daughter. Andrea says when she had her first child, on her own, at 19, she took him with her to school, "and the teacher would hold him while I was studying"."

Barna Group - Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

"The research points to two opposite, but equally dangerous responses by faith leaders and parents: either catering to or minimizing the concerns of the next generation. The study suggests some leaders ignore the concerns and issues of teens and twentysomethings because they feel that the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have their own children. Yet, this response misses the dramatic technological, social and spiritual changes that have occurred over the last 25 years and ignores the significant present-day challenges these young adults are facing."

Women in Afghanistan, 10 years on

Friday, 7 October 2011

Will Afghanistan's women see more positive changes in their lives in the decade to come? Many fear the future.

This Friday will mark the 10th anniversary of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan. Its goal? To dismantle the al-Qaeda organization, remove the Taliban from power and create a more democratic state. In the last decade, billions have been spent, thousands have died - but the war has ensured that progress has been made.

As this anniversary approaches, organizations are assessing the effect the last decade has had on the people of Afghanistan, and plans are being made for the country's future. We can expect much discussion and assessment from world leaders, ahead of a conference in Bonn in December, where representatives from 90 countries will come together to talk about the country's future and plans for withdrawal of troops, currently planned from 2014 onwards.
Several organizations have this week released documents focusing on the situation for Afghanistan's women and among them is A Just Peace? - a report from ActionAid, which has obtained a rare insight into the lives of Afghan women by polling them about the issues that matter to them.

One of the major promises made by politicians ten years ago was that life for women would improve as a result of the war. The situation for women under the Taliban is now notorious, characterized by violence, forced marriage, a ban on having a job, no going to school beyond the age of eight, restricted access to healthcare, and restrictions on appearing in public.

After the fall of the Taliban, equal rights were enshrined in the country's new constitution and women are now, in theory, free to do the things they could not before. But it's not that simple. Women still continue to suffer discrimination such as forced marriage and domestic violence. Women who take an active role in public life are the targets of attacks and threats. Many women vote only on the direction of their husband or father. There is concern that they are also being "frozen out" of the peace process, which could have dire consequences should the country see a return to Taliban control. Just recently, Afghanistan was named as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman.

Without the participation of women in political decisions, the clock could be turned back on the gains made. And as ActionAid's report shows, Afghan women are deeply concerned about this. Almost three quarters of those ActionAid talked to said they felt their lives today are better than they were 10 years ago.

Unsurprisingly, 86% of those surveyed said they were worried about a return to Taliban-style government, rising to 92% in urban areas. One in five of these cited their daughters' education as their main concern here, while another major concern across women of all ages was sexual assault. In fact, more women singled it out as their biggest fear above abduction, being kidnapped, and being caught in an explosion combined.

So going forward, what do Afghan women want? They want to see an end to conflict in their country, but they also want their rights respected and are clear that they do not want a government that does not give them equality. This is why ActionAid and other organizations are calling on the international community to ensure that they support this vital part of the peace process, consider funding struggling women's rights groups in Afghanistan and fully include women in decision-making.

How can you get involved this week? For a start, take a look at this video giving a glimpse into women's lives, 10 years on.

Check out the #10yearson hashtag on Twitter to join in the discussion, share links and raise awareness of the importance of this Friday. Urge your MP to acknowledge how crucial women's rights in Afghanistan are. 

Earlier this week, Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi spoke at a session at the Conservative Party's conference in Manchester. She has already urged David Cameron to make sure Afghan women's lives are at the top of the international agenda. The UK government can make a difference and you could help.

On Friday, the No Women No Peace network, which includes ActionAid, will be launching actions, including a petition to the government, to mark the anniversary of military intervention. Follow @nowomennopeace for more information.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via DVIDSHUB's Flickr.

Links on women's ministry

Monday, 3 October 2011

The role of women's ministry and how it is done is a major area of concern for me, something I've discussed at length with other women online and something I've written about before, so I was really interested to read these two posts from Sarah Styles Bessey on how she feels about women's ministry and what can be done to tackle these issues.

My church doesn't have a "women's ministry" program, which I do quite like because I think this encourages all the things that Sarah talks about wanting - studying together, genuine fellowship, praying together, offering up our skills to serve - without compartmentalizing and falling back on stereotypes. But when I read about such programs, conferences and events I'm always left wondering whether they are serving all women as best as they could.

In her post from Saturday, In which I write a letter to Women's Ministry, Sarah says:

"Please may we be the place to detox from the world - its values, its entertainment, its priorities, its focus on appearances and materialism and consumerism?

So here is my suggestion: Please stop treating womens' ministry like a Safe Club for the Little Ladies to Play Church.

We are smart. We are brave. We want to change the world. We run marathons for our sisters, not so that we can lose weight. We have more to offer to the church than our mad decorating skills. I look around and I can see that these women can offer strategic leadership, wisdom, counsel and even, yes, teaching.  We want to give and serve and make a difference. We want to be challenged. We want to read books and talk politics, theology and current events. We want to wrestle through our theology. We want to listen to each other. We want to worship, we want to intercede for our sisters and weep with those who weep, rejoice with those that rejoice, to create life and art and justice with intention."

And in her follow-up post today, she invites readers to talk about what might be done to address the issue and wonders if women's ministry as an organised, structured thing is even necessary.

"I know one church in my personal sphere that does womens' ministry incredibly well. (I wish I could get there for their weekly meeting but it's too far away.) They inspire me with their passion. The women of the church are ferocious for love, beauty, justice, honesty, true relationship and sisterhood. Even though they do the girly-thing sometimes, its balanced out well. And they work tirelessly out in the community, empowering each woman to use her gifts to make space for God in her family, her friendships, her work and her sphere of influence. They truly are a prophetic voice for peace and wholeness and the kingdom of God as a sisterhood.

So it can be done.

Since there are so many of us, waving our hands and saying YES! to my letter, what do you think we can actually do to bring our perspective forward within the context of the Church - with humility, love and a heart to learn?"

If you haven't read the posts and joined in the discussion, I thought you might be interested in doing so. As Sarah says, I don't think it's as simple as telling women to go out and create the women's ministry they want, if that just means another program that achieves little. It's an issue that needs more consideration.

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