by Jenny McCurry
Although the debate over the stereotypical and damaging representations of women in public life has been going on for some time, two key events in recent months have brought this pressing issue to the fore.
Firstly, the Leveson inquiry was hailed by women’s rights campaigners as a ‘historic opportunity’ to tackle the portrayal of women in the press and the negative impact it has on their full and equal participation in society. It concluded that the press ‘often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women generally, and that there was a tendency to sexualize and demean women’. This supports calls for the establishment of an independent body to deal with complaints from women’s groups when acceptable standards are deemed to have been breached.
Secondly, with the emergence of claims that the deceased TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, had committed numerous sexual offences against women and girls, an email from Newsnight editor Peter Rippon questioned their validity because they came from ‘just the women’. This throwaway comment is indicative of a media culture that engages in disbelieving and blaming the women who are subjected to violence and abuse, rather than targeting those who are responsible for perpetrating it.
The ‘End Violence against Women’ Coalition is a group of UK organizations and individuals who strategically campaign to end all forms of violence against women.
Its members include NGOs, trade unions, universities and grassroots activists. As well as lobbying government to influence legislation and policy which aims to protect women from harm, they are also engaged in challenging a culture which normalizes, condones and tolerates various forms of gender based violence.
In their research report of November 2012, the EVAW Coalition and partner organizations analyzed the content of 11 UK newspapers over a period of 2 weeks. Their findings make for shocking reading, particularly in light of the fact that such material is widely visible and available to all age groups.
The analysis found that violence against women was regularly portrayed as ‘sexual and titillating’. Articles repeatedly directed the blame towards victims by sympathizing with the perpetrator of violence, often described as a ‘nice guy’ who been motivated to violence by circumstances beyond his control. Articles reporting rape and sexual assault were often published alongside ‘up the skirt’ shots of female celebrities and semi-naked pictures of glamour models.
Such portrayals dehumanize women, reducing them to the sum of body parts and projecting the aspirational ideal of female beauty as young, white and thin. BME women were under-represented, with the majority of images featuring them found alongside adverts for pornography and the sex industry. Another worrying trend identified was the spread of images which sexualize very young girls, often within the context of child beauty pageants and talent shows.
With the widespread proliferation of such messages confronting us on a daily basis, it is perhaps not surprising that violence against women does not always provoke the abhorrent reaction that we would expect. In 2005, NSPCC research found that 43% of teenage girls believed that it was acceptable for boys to act aggressively towards their girlfriends. A study also found that 1 in 3 girls, and 1 in 2 boys, thought that it was acceptable to hit a woman or force her to have sex in certain circumstances.
Guidelines published by the organization ‘Zero Tolerance’ highlight the responsibility of the media to report on the complex issues of violence against women in a sensitive and informed way. The aim here is not to curb freedom of expression or discourage journalists from addressing difficult subjects, but rather to promote recognition of the influential role of media output in shaping our identities, our relationships to one another and understandings of our role in society.
Key recommendations include the use of accurate facts and statistics about violence against women, rather than sensationalist narratives; replacing one dimensional accounts of women’s experiences with cases studies exploring the issues from a range of viewpoints; and being aware of the implications of language choice in how violence against women is portrayed.
In addition to guidelines to be observed by journalists, experts have advocated the widespread introduction of media literacy classes in schools. Such lessons would aim to equip pupils with the ability to critically evaluate the numerous media outputs and images which they are bombarded with on a daily basis.
Although these measures would be beneficial and a welcome step forward, the first stage of this process needs to be journalists and large media corporations reflecting sensitively on the consequences of what they write and publish. The ‘Just the Women’ report recommends that journalists should be provided with special training on reporting on issues of violence against women, and newspapers should encourage or require their staff to take it. As the research makes clear, it will take more than changes in legislation and policy to build a society where violence against women, in all its forms, no longer exists.