Despite the increase in the number of women entering journalism and the advancement of some women within media hierarchies it can be said that mainstream media content has seen little change.
The reproduction of traditional stereotypes continues to dominate coverage. Why is this and how has the status quo been maintained? There is no simple explanation and several factors working in tandem have brought this about.
Gender Stereotyping: A double edged sword
One of the major reasons why women in the media have failed to change the traditional gender stereotypes is due to a realisation of the power and advantages that traditional female stereotypes are able to bring.
Rebekah Brooks was arguably the most powerful women in Britain since Margaret Thatcher. Her status as the editor of the Sun newspaper gave her a unique opportunity to alter the media landscape by eradicating of the most potent symbol of sexism within the print media, the infamous Page Three.
And yet on Brooks’ first day as editor, the Page Three girl was Rebekah Parmar-Teasdale; the caption to the picture was “Rebekah from Wapping.” This is an important moment that deserves some reflection. The fact that Brooks projected her new found status and power through Page 3 hints at the contradictory nature of gender stereotypes in relation to a woman’s position in the media.
Catrin Nye a specials reporter at the BBC describes this best when she says that, “sexism in the media is like a double edged sword. On the inside (within the organisation and newsroom), it exists and you can be treated according to the typical stereotypes that society views women with. Yet being a woman has been useful on the outside through my job as a reporter. As a woman people are more ready to speak to me, tell me things that they wouldn’t tell men. In a way the power that a woman has through attraction is greater.”
The pressures of commercialism
The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai Brown says that “all publications depend on images of female beauty to sell papers. That is the depressing truth about human beings-men particularly.”
In this light it may be said that Brooks and other women at the higher levels of the media are somewhat constrained in the choices they can make. The USP of The Sun and what it is most known for by its readers is Page Three. How then do you go about just dismantling this at the inevitable expense of readership numbers?
According to Yasmin Alibhai Brown there is no short term fix but there is some hope. “Having very strong, feminist columnists – who were not in the papers before- are able to influence opinions and do so. I mean Zoe Williams, Tanya Gold, myself, India Knight and others. I think more women coming into the industry and rising up does change a culture, but very slowly.”
The relationship between commercialism and women’s representation in the media is also seen in another feature amongst the modern battleground for readership. Many newspapers have particular sections of their papers and online platforms dedicated to women’s issues. The Mail Online’s Femail section and Guardian’s Women section are examples of this.
This has created a space for women to write and broadcast their issues without ‘diluting’ the mainstream coverage still dominated by men. Although this can attract more female readers to create the larger consumer base it does so without upsetting the mainstream male hegemony.
Advancement! What advancement?
Roy Greenslade mentions in relation to a study carried out by Women in Journalism (WiJ) that “it was clear from the study that women are less likely to be in senior positions.” Greenslade shows how in the print media, “eight out of the top ten newspapers have almost twice as many male editors as women editors”, whilst anecdotal evidence also points to this trend across media platforms.
An example of this is radio where twenty per cent of solo radio broadcasters were female. During peak time shows this decreased to twelve and a half per cent. Whilst discrimination may play a part in this another phenomenon that is at play here deserves some consideration. The fact that there are fewer women in senior roles compared in proportion to those that come into the industry can be explained among other things through the life choices women face.
This is particularly the case when they approach an age where enough experience has been gained to command senior roles that would allow for content and agendas to be altered.
Catrin Nye again provides an interesting case study in this regard. At thirty years of age she has been working in the mainstream media for eleven years. Having worked her way up she is now at a stage where the next five years she is faced with choices that could hinder her progression.
“If I want children, realistically I’m going to have to have them between now and thirty five. This is going to have an impact on my career in terms of progression but as a woman it’s the choice I’m faced with.” Whilst this is not the only reason behind the lack of progression it is a factor that certainly contributes and must be acknowledged.
Page 3 on crack cocaine
The relative success of the right wing media in comparison to its leftist counterpart has also impacted heavily upon the lack of change in terms of content pertaining to gender stereotypes.
The Murdoch tabloid press as well as its broadcast arm alongside the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have adapted far better to the decline in print and rise of online in terms of maintaining readership numbers.
The fact that the online platform lends itself far more to picture heavy content has allowed for the continuation of sexy imagery to attract readers, viewers or even voyeurs. This not only maintains audience numbers but boosts the stereotypical gender content, a Page 3 on crack cocaine one may say.
Also these papers are traditionally far less inclined to the feminist ethos than their leftist rivals, meaning the exposure of content that may challenge traditional stereotypes is somewhat limited.
A failure of feminism
So there is no single reason why traditional gender stereotypes continue to dominate media content. The number of males in comparison to females in mainstream media outlets across all platforms is undoubtedly a factor, as is the commercial alchemy that is sex and beauty. In an industry that continually battles against falling commercial revenue, traditional stereotypes are being used as somewhat of a last resort to stem the tide.
Biology and lifestyle choices are also a determining element that ultimately contributes to the lack of women occupying positions which allow for the necessary change to take place.
But amongst all of this the failure of modern feminism in determining its own unique template of power has been detrimental. The obsession with proving your worth as a woman is too often equated with copying what the man has done previously. This process brings about more of the same and will continue to do so.