Why Media Representation MattersOctober 23, 2009
While I was in graduate school working on my master’s degree in public communication, I focused my attention on issues facing women in the media. (In fact, my thesis was about how the media covers sexual violence.) These issues are important because, while they may seem harmless, they can have long-lasting effects on how women and girls perceive themselves as well as how society in general perceives women and girls.
The Shriver Report – A Woman’s Nation includes a chapter entitled “Where Have You Gone, Roseanne Barr?” and it’s refreshing to read about more than just the offensive depictions of women or the lack of women’s representation in the media. While the author, Susan J. Douglas, does talk about those issues, she goes right at the root of the problem:
“Why should policy makers pay attention to media images of women? Because the media—and especially (although not exclusively) the news media—may not succeed in telling us what to think, but they certainly do succeed in telling us what to think about.”
This is particularly a problem when you only see super-thin, emaciated models (such as this infamously retouched Ralph Lauren model), glorified depictions of violence against women, or, as Douglas points out, the overrepresentation of women in high-level, high-power positions.
There is a stark contrast between women working in the real world and what is represented on TV. As AAUW said in an announcement back in June, “In 2009, women made up more than half the U.S. labor force; yet, the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies stands at 13. In Fortune 1000 companies, only 25 women hold that position. At the current rate, it could take 40 years for the number of female CEOs to equal the number of male CEOs.”
Additionally, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, women’s representation in employment and their ownership of media is pretty dismal. True, while improved representation in employment does not necessarily mean there will be an improvement in how women are depicted and talked about in both the news and popular media, it still would be a progression for women in our society. Female experts are not being consulted, and women’s voices are not being heard. According to The Op-Ed Project—an initiative that works to get more women represented as op-ed contributors, columnists, and general experts accessible to the media—men control 85 percent of the “national conversation.”
What all this boils down to is the issue of accurate representation. As Douglas states in her chapter, “These distorted reflections contain and perpetuate significant class biases by either ignoring or silently ridiculing most women who make less than $100,000 a year and aren’t media perfect in appearance.” We need those accurate depictions to show what life is really like for all women, not just those who have successful careers and are wealthy.
We need to see more of those women who may or may not be in relationships, those who may or may not have a family, those who may or may not be caregivers, and the list goes on. It’s about giving a voice—and representation!—to a multitude of experiences rather than seeing and hearing from a select few.