How often do you read a newspaper? Every day? On a lazy Saturday morning? I have a challenge for you. Get your hands on a British tabloid newspaper and cut out all the photos of men and all the photos of women that it contains.
Now let’s play spot the difference!
Have you spotted it?
Yes – only the men are wearing clothes! The majority of women are probably not.
On Sunday 25 November 2012, a coalition of UK women’s organisations – Eaves, End Violence Against Women Coalition, Equality Now, OBJECT – published a new report investigating the level of sexism in eleven British newspapers over a two-week period in early September. You can read the full report – Just The Women’- here.
Why is the Report coming out now?
Today, Lord Justice Leveson will publish his findings about the ethics, practices and culture of the British media. The Leveson enquiry was launched in July 2011 after the revelations of endemic and illegal phone hacking at News International (owners of The Sun and now defunct News of the World). These organisations which campaign for equality are determined to keep sexism on the agenda and are in favour of press reforms.
The name of the report – ‘Just The Women’ - also refers to the BBC Newsnight editor who wrote this comment in an email concerning the lack of other authorities for evidence of Jimmy Saville’s abuse.
Women’s portrayal in the media – why is it important?
The British media helps to produce the culture which surrounds us – millions of people read newspapers every day. Advocates for women’s rights are concerned about the potential of the media – TV, music, websites and newspapers – to create, reinforce and perpetuate sexism and discrimination against women.
We also live in a culture where cases of violence against women are increasing at an alarming rate as the statistics mentioned in the report highlight:
- Almost one in three girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school (EVAW Coalition, 2010).
- Every year one million women experience at least one incident of domestic violence – nearly 20,000 women a week (Home Office, 2009).
- 3.7 million women in England and Wales have been sexually assaulted at some point since the age of 16 (Home Office, 2009).
Campaigners recognise that violence against women and girls cannot be halted until society’s attitudes that excuse and normalise violence are changed. Alarmingly:
- 36 per cent of people believe that a woman should be held wholly or partly responsible for being sexually assaulted if she is drunk (Home Office, 2009).
- 1 in 2 boys and 1 in 3 girls believe that there are some circumstances when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex (Zero Tolerance, 1998).
Various high profile figures have acknowledged the British media’s role in condoning, tolerating, eroticising and normalising the abuse of women. This is serious stuff. For example, Alison Saunders, head of the Crown Prosecution Service in London, suggested the media portrayal of young women could affect rape trials. ‘If a girl goes out and gets drunk and falls over, they are almost demonised in the media, and if they then become a victim, you can see how juries would bring their preconceptions to bear.’
One thing is clear from the report - the media helps produce the culture of sexism in which we live, work and breathe.
A summary of Just The Women Report – how are women portrayed in the media?
Worryingly, the Report found over 1,300 examples of sexism in eleven British newspapers over a two-week period in September 2012. The Just The Women Report analyzed these illustrations and organised them into a number of key areas:
The creation of rape culture
The Just The Women Report accuses the media of helping to create a rape culture in Britain. What does this mean? The media contributes to an increasingly conducive culture of rape and sexual abuse. How? By trivialising the abuse suffered by victims and reinforcing myths and stereotypes about victims and perpetrators. The report concludes that this misleading and harmful coverage ‘sends a clear message to perpetrators that their behaviour will be understood, rationalised and draw sympathy [with]; And it sends an equally clear message that the victim’s behaviour will be scrutinised and blamed.’ The Just The Women Report is not alone in concluding this – 70 per cent of 1,600 respondents to a Mumsnet survey agreed that they feel that the media is unsympathetic to women who report rape. The Just The Women Report illustrates this with various examples from the media including ‘upskirt’ photography where celebrities have not consented to their photo being taken in such an intimate way – women’s explicit lack of sexual consent is presented to the reader as ‘exciting.’
The sexualisation of young girls
This is a hot topic with the British government. In 2011, Cameron commissioned the Bailey Review to investigate the issue, but it failed to address the depiction of young girls in newspapers. The Just The Women Report concluded that newspapers are often contradictory in their treatment of girls. For example in early September 2012, there was widespread condemnation of a beauty pageant for young girls in the British tabloids. However despite being critical of the pageant, the newspapers still published a significant amount of images of children as young as three years old in bikinis, make-up and high heels. The Sun ran an article with the subheading 'CAVORTING provocatively in a tiny pink swimsuit and clutching a cuddly stuffed kitten, little Ocean Orrey struts her stuff in a British beauty pageant – aged
just FOUR.’ The Report concluded ‘whilst apparently concerned for her welfare, this portrays a young child as acting in a sexy and knowing way.’
The objectification of women
In many ways, young women in the United Kingdom are in crisis. In April 2012, Future Foundation’s survey concluded that 1 in 4 young women have low self esteem. 89 per cent of 1.6 million people in the UK who are suffering from an eating disorder are girls. Unsurprisingly the Just The Women Report provides evidence to demonstrate that the media consistently undermines the body confidence of women: ‘The portrayal of women as sex objects, coupled with a persistent scrutiny of women's bodies, represents a form of discrimination, misrepresentation and stereotyping which is unparalleled for men, and it paints a damaging picture of gendered relations in which men are portrayed as active participants in suits and sportswear, and women as trivial decoration who exist to look sexy for a male audience.’
The Report hones in on The Sun’s Page Three and the Daily Sport’s constant inclusion of near naked women on every page. The semi-pornographic images create a culture where women are viewed as a ‘sum of mere body parts’ and are not valued for their talents and giftings. Worse, the constant inclusion of these photos creates a drip-drop effect which makes it seem normal for women (not men) to be treated like that. The spot the difference challenge at the beginning of this article demonstrates it.
Reinforcement of gender stereotypes and invisibility
The Just The Women Report argues that its exploration of newspapers produced numerous examples proving the invisibility, stereotyping and humiliation of women in the media.
Invisibility of women (‘Sometimes seen, but rarely heard’) – on many occasions, there could be several pages in a newspaper without reference to women at all. For example on the main page of the Daily Star online, women were only mentioned in terms of ‘babe.’ Think only the tabloid press are guilty of this? Think again. The Times online’s main page contained no women on 6 September 2012.
Stereotyping women (‘Looks are everything’) – when women are included, reports emphasise the importance of women looking attractive and being good at the traditional roles of mothers and wives. Newspaper headlines illustrating this point include ‘Why working and being a domestic goddess don’t mix’ and ‘Any woman worth her salt knows she’s supposed to wear matching underwear.’
Humiliation of women (‘Ideas above her station’) – articles often attacked women in authoritative positions simply for being women. Worryingly, these articles seem to take enjoyment in humiliating women. For example as a result of the Cabinet reshuffle in September, the Daily Mirror ran an article entitled ‘Why do the majority of [female MP’s], as well as not being able to permeate the Cabinet, seem to have no sense of style?’ These women are reduced to what they wear. Very few male MPs suffer this type of contempt.
Just another report? What can be done?
It will be interesting to hear Leveson’s recommendations later today but this coalition of women’s organisations have their own ideas to put forward.
- The creation of a new press regulatory body which will allow for third party complaints making it easier for individual women to complain about their representation in the media.
- A new ‘Editors’ Code’ which promotes equality for all people and respect for women.
- Abolition of sexually objectifying material in newspapers. Why should there be a watershed of 9pm in TV for adult material and no regulation of the print media. The Just The Women Report argues that if newspapers want to continue publishing sexually explicit material they should not be available to u18s.
- An enquiry by the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee into sexism in the media.
What do you think? Do you think the media, in particularly newspapers, are guilty of reinforcing gender stereotypes? Do you think violence against women is glamorised? Have you come across any examples of the objectification of women? Join the debate by contributing to the comments box.
Photograph from The Guardian
Dr Claire Rush is GB Europe Youth Co-ordinator, Esther Generation Project Co-ordinator for GB England and Wales and a local leader of a rural Girls' Brigade group in Northern Ireland. She is passionate about culture and enabling others to consume it in an active and critical way. Feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or join the conversation by leaving a comment.