Women and Media, a Critical Introduction

Judy McGregor (Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner,New Zealand Human Rights Commission)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 14 March 2008




McGregor, J. (2008), "Women and Media, a Critical Introduction", Gender in Management, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 148-151. https://doi.org/10.1108/17542410810858349



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Let us be honest. The first 100 pages of this book are depressing. Its gloominess is not inherent in the style or tone but is caused by the content, a simple reflection of the status of women and the media, globally, no matter whether you live in a developed or a developing country. No examination of women and the media and women in the media could do otherwise than depress. It is not an uplifting story.

Women and Media is a book of two halves. The co‐authors say in the preface and acknowledgement that they did not set out to write the book that was eventually published. Several years before publication they were engaged in completing a different book, an edited collection, which as it got under way, called out for a companion theoretical volume which mapped women and the media as well as women's work with and in the media as researchers, activists and media professionals.

The end result is a two‐part publication with a critical history of contemporary scholarship about women's relationship with the media at the front end and a section on women's media activism in a variety of forms in the second part of the volume. Readers will need to decide for themselves whether the conjunction works as a text and as a primer for action.

Part I is entitled Research on women and media: a short history.

The chapter on Women in/as entertainment concludes with a comment about the contradictory impulses and the uneven nature of women's progress in both film and television and argues for greater female control over the representation of women's lives. The chapter on Images of women in news and magazines emphasises the systemic, structured nature globally of the framing of women in restricted and negative ways. The chapter on Women as audience concludes that it is hard to generalise about female media habits and the chapter on Women and production that looks at women and production discusses briefly the influence of media ownerships, rehearses the macho nature of newsrooms and discusses harassment of women in media workplaces.

Much of this section reviews current scholarship and some well‐worn themes such as women as victims, women watching crime and violence, the dynamics of gendered audiences, women and magazines, and the problems for women in current media ownership structures. Underpinning much of this, whether explicitly stated or implicitly implied, is Gaye Tuchman's seminal but despondent notion of the symbolic annihilation of women by the media through omission, stereotypical depiction and trivialisation.

This section and the compendious 32 page bibliography will be extremely useful for students relatively new to the vexed and continuing relationship between women and the media. It provides a ready‐made literature review for women and media dissertations. Future editions would be enhanced by greater attention to the role of women in the production and the economy of the internet and access to the public sphere of the web and new media.

It is perhaps ironical that a book that in part dissects journalism, suffers too often from a dense style of writing. Students will be frustrated by sentences that need several readings for sense‐making such as, For many black and minority ethnic women filmmakers, issues around cultural identity are often in flux, deterritorialized by colonialism and migration, by patriarchal marginalization, and by the unreflexive incorporation of their own lives and stories in an homogenized “women's cinema”. Add in mixed metaphors such as … “patriarchal capitalism whose globalizing tentacles currently threaten to strangle the fragile flower of change”. The book would have benefited from firmer editing for readability.

Given that many of the chapters criticise what is missing in other critiques, it is worth mentioning the relative absence of Australasian scholarship in Part 1 of the book, while a brief citing of Louise C. North's (2004) critique of the newsroom in Tasmania makes the short history section. This is disappointing given the increasing Australasian scholarship published both domestically and internationally looking at both the participation of women in media industries and at the representation of women in the media.

Part 2 moves on from a problem‐focussed approach to women's relationship with the media to see how women have worked around, over and through the media to have a public voice, either to each other or to wider audiences. Based in part on original research this is more optimistic and this section of the book recognises that progress is being made. Part 2, for those with a background in feminist media issues is the more interesting section of Women and Media, because it reports on a large cross‐cultural research project about global media activism.

However, whether the proposed Model of women's media action contained in the first section of Part 2 of the book either advances women's media activism through role model activity, or does serve as an analytical framework for interpretation as advanced is a moot point, even while acknowledging the authors' claim for it as an “intermediate step” toward a more fully‐defined theory on the subject.

Women's media activism is described in the book as – any organised effort on women's part to make changes in established media enterprises or to create new media structures with the goal of expanding women's voice in society and enabling their social advancement. The introduction to this section then usefully describes some of the activities that constitute media activism; such as increasing numbers of women in the media, influencing media policies, challenging stereotypical representation of women and interventions such as media monitoring projects and advocacy campaigns around sexist advertising.

No one who has researched or worked in the area of women and the media will disagree with the authors' contention that these activities are “both under‐investigated and under‐theorized in feminist and media scholarship” (p. 101).

But the claim that while women's media activism is rooted in early women's rights campaigns in the nineteenth century, it may be best understood as a modern phenomenon that grew out of women's liberation movements that emerged throughout the 1960s and 1970s is contestable. The claim may reflect historical relativity and where the authors put their emphasis.

For example, a history of women's media activism in New Zealand would show no more powerful demonstration than suffragette Kate Sheppard's use of pamphlets (Ten reasons why the women of New Zealand should vote, 1888) and of a petition signed by a third of the country's adult population that propelled New Zealand towards being the first nation state to grant women the vote in 1893. While Kate Sheppard would not describe herself as a feminist media activist, that is only because that language was not available to her, not because she was not one.

The model of women's media action is based on cross‐cultural research conducted by 90 women in different countries across Africa, Americas, Europe, South Asia, Middle East and Australia between the 1970s and 2004. Well‐known feminist media activists were chosen for interviews either online or face to face with two‐third involved in print or broadcast media activism. The remainder were involved with film, video, internet or book publishing. Basically the women are regarded as change agents around women's rights to communicate and participate in and through the media in public life, challenging persistent stereotypes and barriers along the way. The research leads the authors to conclude that there are four patterns or distinct pathways evident in global media activism.

While the titles of the first two pathways might be confusing – “politics to media” and “media profession to politics” the levels of activity are distinct. The first refers to the decision by the activist, not necessarily a media professional, to begin to use the media as part of feminist political work by producing media products of some kind to promote women‐related issues, help women's voice or to mobilise women. The second describes the strategy used by media industry women who use their insider status to expand women's content, remove sexist content, or reform the professional status of women in the media. Women following the third path of “advocate change agent” pressure the media to improve the treatment of women and the fourth path, “women's media enterprises” involves those controlling the production and distribution of their own media. Four chapters of the book elaborate on the pathways with examples which are appropriately instructive for others who are thinking about social change interventions.

The book concludes more optimistically than it opens, with a useful recital of the rationale for women's media action – its ritualistic function declaring women's desire for self determination, its connective function for women across the globe, its educational function ensuring feminist ideas are available for public discussion and the social alignment function of gender issues intersecting and cross‐cutting with socio‐economic and civil and political issues and race, class, ethnicity and sexuality.

While I do not disagree with the future research themes outlined in the book, I think it would be useful in future explorations of feminist media activism to add in the examination and critique of the effects of media activism through the prism of female media consumers. While media cause and effect is a scholarship in itself, the reporting of outcomes from women's media activism, largely from the perspective of those doing the doing, while valuable, may not be as liberating as knowing more about whether the activism has transformed others. That said, Women and Media, a Critical Introduction, is an immensely intelligent addition to feminist scholarship and provides contemporary insights into global women's media activist strategies and interventions. No library that caters for feminist researchers, policy makers, civil society and individual women should be without it.

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