Page 3, rape myths and bikini bodies: media misogyny at Leveson

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Today saw representatives from several women's groups speak about media misogyny at the Leveson Inquiry. Speaking on behalf of Equality Now, Eaves, Object and End Violence Against Women, they called for changes in the way newspapers operate around a culture of sexist stereotypes and objectification, while perpetuating damaging myths and insinuations regarding violence against women and girls.

No-one can say this wasn't long overdue. One of the issues I have been most passionate about - since I first began writing gender-equality themed missives in my journal and before this blog existed - is the way the media rarely manages to portray women in a positive light. Whether it's the obvious grim sexism of Page 3 and the thankfully now-defunct Daily Sport, the misogyny masked as "women's interest" pieces on working mothers (boo! hiss!) and body image in the Daily Mail, or the frankly disturbing way some media outlets will do anything they can in an attempt to paint rape victims as "evil liars", there's often nothing for us to be encouraged about. Even positive coverage of all things woman-based is relegated to the "lifestyle" sections of the papers, with the fashion and the recipes and the dating ads.

I was angered afresh on seeing old stories mentioned as part of the evidence. The time the Daily Telegraph misrepresented research findings and completely made up others in order to run a story entitled "Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists". The story was quietly pulled after several people had debunked it, but the intention was there. Then there was the time the Daily Mail, in one of the most unpleasant instances I've ever seen, took 12-year-old girls who had been gang-raped to task over their clothing, Facebook profiles and upbringings, describing what happened to them as an "orgy" and calling them "lolitas", while discussing how the allegations would probably have ruined the careers of the accused.

All this, of course, was punctuated by numerous tales of upskirt shots and headlines about celebrities' breasts - and what happens to those who speak out against this culture. Clare Short, lest we forget, was vilified by The Sun as "fat" and "jealous". A woman in the public eye who speaks out against media sexism is letting herself in for accusations of being humourless, bitter and "ugly" - just as we who blog about it expect these comments from trolls below the line.

Some people might dismiss all this. Why take notice of such trash? They're tabloids - what do you expect? But for many people, it's not a case of being to tune out and dismiss it all and look down their noses. We should care about media misogyny because it influences public opinion, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding VAWG. The tabloid rape and sexual assault narrative, that there are "good" (virginal, wealthy, attacked by a stranger in a dark alleyway) and "bad" (working class, dressed in a miniskirt, in a relationship with their attacker) rape victims - has become the narrative many members of the public ascribe to. The disproportionate coverage of "false accusation" cases and "women ruining men's lives" has led to these sort of things being the first thing people often mention if you bring up rape cases. It has been getting worse for several years now, as outlined in the 2008 report Just Representation? Press Reporting and the Reality of Rape. Victim-blaming is the norm.

So what effect does this have on women who have experienced rape and assault? The End Violence Against Women Coalition's submission to the inquiry states:

"Coalition members tell us that when the media reports stories in a way which implicitly or explicitly blames women for attacks on them, they receive a spike in calls from new and former service users who are ‘retraumatised’ by this continuing implication that what happened to them was in some way their fault."

One thing mentioned at the inquiry today was the way women being abused or even murdered by their partner or husband is reported in a decontextualised way, the actions of a "psycho" or a "monster", drawing attention away from the fact that violence within relationships is, in fact, incredibly common and often perpetuated by men who appear to their friends and colleagues as "normal", the "average family man". The insensitivity of journalists towards service users in their quest for sensationalism is also highlighted:

"They commonly ask for case studies who are willing to forego anonymity (with little thought to the consequences of this for some), and who, more sinisterly, fit a certain ‘type’ which they (or their editor) has calculated will suit their editorial line or their perceived readers’ prejudices (victim should be young, should be attractive, should be British, should have no criminal record etc). It is rare for the journalist to ask any question about, or make any provision for, the impact of giving an interview on the victim and any follow up afterwards."

It's easy to dismiss media sexism as the preserve of pathetic rags that aren't worth our time, but the impact of the damaging messages they use to shift copies hits women hard and affects the way people see VAWG. They're also unacceptable at a time when such material wouldn't be permitted on television before the watershed, and in some cases has actually been censored for content by the inquiry. All this and yet it's freely available in the daily papers for all to see.

The groups appearing today called on Lord Justice Leveson to consider regulation of the press to ensure more balanced and contextualised reporting of VAWG, with journalists receiving training on the myths surrounding the issues. It's so important that we see changes take place. Although I sadly can't see the tabloids changing their tune on objectification in the near future, will the inquiry be the start of something good?

Further reading
New Statesman - Helen, 28, has some thoughts on Page 3


gherkingirl said...

A few years ago when I was working for a rape crisis charity, we tried to get some publicity for a client (using a pseudonym) with Cosmopolitan.

We got an email stating that they didn't want to interview her as it was 'a bad news story' and the fact that she was still traumatised and (even worse) still single meant they didn't want to feature her for fear of 'upsetting' their readers. We were gobsmacked and when we phoned to complain, it became apparent that we had been sent an internal email by accident and should have had a polite brush off instead.

I know they aren't a tabloid, but it fits in with the media's obsession with the very narrow definition of an 'acceptable' rape victim. It also worries me that they are only featuring women who appear to fine now, leading other women to feel even worse that they haven't got over rape (or DV) and are a failure.

It also pisses me off that you're seen as ok again after rape as long a guy wants to be with you and you're acceptably sexually attractive. It's creepy and it taps into the idea of women always needing rescued by a Prince Charming instead of being ok on their own or with the support of other women.

I've done a tonne of press over my rape case to highlight the problems with the police and the compensation authority and they all just wanted to know if I had a nice boyfriend now...

Hannah Mudge said...

This doesn't surprise me - I had the same experiences during the brief time I worked with women's magazines and tabloids on 'real life' stories. There is a major agenda about the most 'acceptable' sort of women to feature, even down to the way their look or their ethnicity. It was one of the things that really put me off working with these publications.

The horror at her being 'still single' is classic women's mag. Everything has to have a happy ending where the girl 'gets her man' and overcomes her trauma. And it really distorts the experiences of women.

RedHead said...

Gherkingirl - Cosmo are the tabloid of womens' magazines. The number of stupid headlines I read about celebrities 'dressing for their men' and 'how to make HIM wild for you in bed' are basically trying to turn us into exactly the type that are ridiculed in the Daily Mail. I bet there's an agreement going on.


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