Women consumers of media must flex their muscles

Women consumers of media must flex their muscles

Date: January 1, 1970
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Media is about money. This is a truth that is often forgotten in the sometimes idealistic discussions about freedom of expression, fair representation of minority groups, the development of culture and community and indeed, about diversity.

Media is about money. This is a truth that is often forgotten in the sometimes idealistic discussions about freedom of expression, fair representation of minority groups, the development of culture and community and indeed, about diversity.
This truth also impacts heavily on the way in which women are represented in the media today. In a “cents”, money determines who we see, who we learn to relate to, and as a result who we become. How does this happen?
The type of women one sees in images presented to us through the media I argue, are only those types of women we will willingly pay to see… or rather, expect to see. In other words, we are presented with images that it is assumed we want. The problem with this is twofold: on the one hand we consume stereotypical images of ourselves because it is assumed that this is what we want (not that we are asked!); and on the other, our silent consumption of these images simply perpetuates the stereotypes.
As women, we know that we are not seeing ourselves in the media we consume in all our magnificent diversity. We are aware that our interests go beyond the best stain removing power of washing powder and that we often fall outside of the neatly defined categories of “woman” targeted through the media. We know that we dance, sing, laugh, love, negotiate power and share passion with people other than their husbands. We know that our families are often central to our lives, but are not the only and most important part of who we, what we do and what defines us. We know that we are mothers, caregivers, supporters, sexual beings and sometimes victims. But we also know that we are much more than these things.
Despite this, as women many of us are not fully aware of our power (and rights) as consumers of media and as such have not used this power effectively. But the blame should not be solely ours. The truth is that media producers themselves are to blame as they have not actively (apart from a few notable exceptions) engaged with women on issues of representation and diversity.
Margaret Gallagher has written about power and influence of female images, created by men, and how women have failed to question these, in most cases uncomplainingly accepting these without critique.
Even though the media have come under increased critique and scrutiny over the past decade, contemporary images of women in the media reveal that media messages continue to be constructed from the masculine gaze. As women, we are seeing ourselves in the way men see us. If we accept this without question, then we begin to accept that this is who we are, what is expected of us and what we should expect from others. But this is not new and media activists have been making these arguments this since the onset of feminism, which begs the question, why has this not changed?
In my view, nothing has changed because of the tensions between government policy, economics and media structures. In countries where government policy does not lend itself to ensuring the empowerment of women’s rights, the media can only report on what should be done, not what is being done. Women have seldom had sole control over their bodies and their sexualities, and when government policies limit this expression further, the media has little choice but to risk all or conform to ensure their own survival.
In countries such as South Africa, where the rights of women are considered as important as any other rights and where the media embraces its role as a watchdog, the failure to provide diverse representation comes from two areas. Firstly, I believe that media transformation, although a widely spoken ideal has been superficial. In addition most work on media transformation in South Africa has focused on race and not on gender.
The second area of failure comes from the economy itself. The vast majority of women in South Africa, specifically under-educated black women, do not earn enough money to be of any interest to advertisers of expensive items. Advertising is core to the way in which the media see their consumers. If men make the money and make the financial decisions in the home, then advertisers are going to market their campaigns to men, and as a result, media content is going to be male-centric.
The lack of a fair, honest representation of women’s interests and women themselves can never be solved by forcing the media to report on these issues. Rather the media must instead work towards encouraging women to demand more diverse representations of themselves and their interests so that they become actively aware of the messages they are receiving. The interference of financial stability on the structure and nature of media content has created a shift where people, men and women alike, are no longer treated as active members of an audience that can be engaged with, but instead as members of a consumer society that can pick and choose their products.
If this is the trend of media today, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that women must then be taught of their own spending power, and their own agency to develop and control content that they can choose to pay for or reject. The media however, can not hide behind ideals of diversity and follow a reality of economics. This will result in a deepening of the mistrust people have for the work the media do, and will jeopardise any work the media attempts to sincerely do as part of its developmental mandate.
Christine Davis is the Writing Programme Coordinator at the Agenda Feminist Media Project. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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