You?ve Come A Long Way Baby, The Voice

Date: September 27, 2002
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Women in Botswana are applauded for seeking economic independence from men and succeeding in leadership positions, but cautioned to avoid becoming feminists.
Women in Botswana are applauded for seeking economic independence from men and succeeding in leadership positions, but cautioned to avoid becoming feminists.

This article may be used to:
  • Illustrate gender stereotypes and examine media messages on feminism

Trainer’s Notes

While the media has started to report on issues of gender equality and gender activism for women’s rights, it rarely uses the term feminism. And, when it does, it depicts it as an ideology which advocates for and leads to the break up of families and society.

For example, in the August 8-14, 2003 issue of the South African Mail and Guardian, the Women’s Day insert carried an article entitled ‘The fading roar of feminism’. The article portrayed feminism as a ‘radical’ ideology which had led women away from the ‘traditional values’ of marriage and bearing children.

Feminists are stereotyped as women who hate men, or as frustrated and scorned women seeking revenge for being abandoned by men. Journalists tag women, not by the women’s own choice, as gender activists or feminists in stories on issues of gender or gender equality. The latter is used by the media for women who are viewed as stepping out of the conventional traditional identities and who have chosen to define their lives not according to the socially-defined gender norms.

The articles on feminism not only reflect the media’s misunderstanding of the term and inaccurate reporting, but also an emerging false distinction by the media between gender activism and feminism.

Feminism, defined as the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary), is the ultimate goal of gender activism. In other words, it is the ideology upon which the fight for women’s human rights and equality is based.

The media however, has drawn a line, finding some aspects of gender activism for equality in the public space ‘acceptable’, while reinforcing unequal gender power relations in the ‘private’ space (e.g. the media message that feminism leads to the breakdown of the family).

The case study is a good example of the points raised above.

The female writer immediately starts the piece by declaring that she ‘is not a feminist’. She equates feminism to party politics and describes it as a theory which ‘adds no value to her life’. Feminism also is referred to by the writer as a theory which takes away one’s freedom of speech.

These views reflect the writer’s own perception of feminism, rather than its correct meaning. Professionally and ethically, journalists should base their news reports, and also editorials and columns, on facts, not individual biases and views.

The writer describes feminists as ‘unfeminine’ in looks and behaviour, and also refers to them as ‘weirdoes’.

Feminism and feminists are trivalised by the writer in the same  way that gender issues are reduced by the media to being of little worth or importance. The example she gives of feminist behaviour, for example, is women chasing away a man who brings a cake forgotten by his wife to a women’s meeting.

The writer also makes the false distinction between feminism and the women’s movement. She applauds the women’s movement for opening the doors for equal education and women’s access into the public space. And it is clear in the article that she sees no connection between this movement and its achievements and feminism.

The headline is a slogan from an advert which equated women’s ability to smoke in public with achieving equality. The image of women at a political rally, clad in party T-shirts, shows women as ‘followers’ rather than ‘leaders’ in party politics, while the caption sends the subtle message that women should use their power to vote for men and maintain the status quo which does not threaten gender power relations.

Training exercises
Exercise one:
  1. Write down the definitions of feminism and a feminist on two cards.

  2. Stick the cards up on the wall under the headings feminism and feminist.

  3. Discuss the definitions.

Exercise two: Read ‘You’ve come a long way baby’ and discuss the following:
  1. What is the writer’s definition of feminism?

  2. How are feminists portrayed in the article?

  3. Does the article make a distinction between the feminist movement and the women’s movement? Explain answer.

  4. Why is this distinction inaccurate?

  5. What gender stereotypes are reinforced by the article?

  6. What message does it send to women and men?

  7. How do the headline and the caption reinforce or contradict the article’s general message?

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