Ballet beats bloodshed

Date: January 18, 2010
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This article may be used to:

  • debate whether international media stereotypes Africa;
  • discuss the inclusion of marginalised voices in the media;
  • talk about stereotypes surrounding men;
  • debate whether certain categories of women are stigmatised.

Trainers’ notes:
In terms of global media, African voices remain marginalised, whether due to the largely Western ownership of international media or to the fact that stereotypes about Africa perpetuate a certain portrayal of African voices as victims of poverty, illness or conflict. Given these perceptions, it is ironic that voices from within particularly prolonged conflicts, such as that ongoing in Sudan, remain some of the most marginalised of all.

The voice presented here breaks the mould in terms of these stereotypes in many ways. It presents an atypical narrative from a conflict setting that highlights not the conflict, but a positive, grassroots response to it. It is a powerful account because the subject speaks for himself, an opportunity not afforded to many vulnerable populations in conflict.

The story also speaks to stereotypes about men, whom are often portrayed as violent, aggressive and domineering or confined to occupations associated with conceptions of masculinity. The author is a dance instructor, a vocation usually associated with women. Moreover, he recounts how a positive male role model, his father, also challenged these conceptions of masculinity and had a positive impact on his life. Lastly, the author presents us with a third male character that again challenges negative masculinities successfully in Terrance – a refugee and the most the most avid of Wassid’s students.

Terrance is of particular importance from a reporting perspective because he is not only an atypical representation of a man but also of a refugee. Refugees are not only a vulnerable population in many ways but also a neglected one in terms of media coverage, which often only highlights the population in the context of war or refugee camps. Indeed, Wassid encapsulates what is a subtle attack on negative masculinities when he writes: “We teach young men to accept people of all faiths and to shun both the violence and racial discrimination that have dogged Sudan in recent years.”

Lastly, the article breaks a particular type of gender stereotype as experienced by many Muslim women, who experience stereotyping two-fold as women and a particular “type” of women in the media’s eyes. Journalists often paint a one-dimensional and generalised portrait of all Muslim women as oppressed by a supposedly patriarchal religion that relegates them to heavily veiled garb and the private spaces of the home. Wassid’s female students, in contrast, are free to express themselves in very public spaces – in the studio and on the stage.

Data on men’s representation in the media are rare, according to Professor Jeanne Prinsloo of South Africa’s Rhodes University. In her work with South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, she maintains that much of the existing work on the subject has shown that while men dominate the media as news makers and subjects of news, they are less likely to inhabit certain genres, at least in television, such as comedies or soap opera that locate them in domestic or familial spaces, thus reinforcing gender roles as well as negative constructions of masculinity that may place the burden of care – whether of children or family members – squarely on the shoulders of women and girls.

Discussion questions

  • Are Africans stereotyped in the media? Why or why not?
  • What are some of the negative stereotypes that surround men and how to they shape society?
  • Are Muslim women the only women who carry an additional burden when it comes to stereotyping? What are stereotypes that surround other categories of women?
  • First-person narratives are extremely powerful but what are their pros and cons in terms of publishing? How does the editing process change when we edit first-person narratives or does it?

Training exercises:

  • International media may stereotype Africans but do we as Africans stereotype other Africans closer to home? Explore some of the stereotypes about African immigrants to your country in a story – it may be a news article, a vox pops or a photo essay however make sure that whatever piece you do works to unpack and disprove broad generalisations about any certain group. (Remember vox pops or comment from people on the streets is not about numbers, keep at it until you have at least six comments of substance – not everyone has an opinion on everything and comments need to be interesting to readers. Your subjects should also be equally split between men and women).
  • Examine how people define masculinity. Ask men and women to define what “being a man” means. How do they think this shapes society? What influences their perceptions of manhood? Compare their perceptions to the media’s portrayal of men by examining how men are portrayed in articles over a period of time. Is media sending a message? If so, what relationship does it have to the construction of manhood you found among those you interviewed?
  • Conduct research into what it means to be a woman from a marginalised group or a minority? How do women like these feel about how they are portrayed in the media? What would they like people to know about their experiences?

Links to training resources:

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