November 15, 2011 | Culture and Media

From Miss Representation to Real Representation

Fighting Gender Stereotypes in Media

Image courtesy of Women's Media Center

Image courtesy of Women's Media Center

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK CITY –- In the summer of 1993, Jennifer L. Pozner was a rising sophomore at Hampshire College, a journalism major with dreams of becoming a columnist - the next Barbara Ehrenreich or Molly Ivins, she hoped. Then The New York Times Magazine published an excerpt from Katie Roiphe’s “The Morning After,” a controversial book questioning the existence of date rape on college campuses, and Pozner, shocked at seeing the Gray Lady run such a “grotesquely inaccurate” story, swerved off her career path.

“I was going through the story with a red pen in my hand,” she said. “I was a first-year journalism student, correcting these lies and factual inaccuracies that were being spread far and wide,” as the story caught fire, re-appearing throughout the mainstream media. The founder and director since 2001 of Women in Media and News (WIMN), Pozner has made it her mission as a media critic to increase women’s presence in the media and monitor inaccuracies and depictions of women that perpetuate false or unhealthy stereotypes.

Since that day in 1993, the mainstream media – telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising – has lagged far behind many other areas of American life in its depiction and employment of women. The statistics punctuating the new film Miss Representation, a new documentary about how the media’s under- and misrepresentation of women and girls contributes to fewer women in positions of power, tell the story best: Women comprise 7% of directors and 13% of film writers in the top 250 grossing films, for example. A recent global report by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that only 27% of top management jobs in news media are held by women. Furthermore, women hold only 3% of “clout,” or decision-making, positions in the broader mainstream media. Writer, producer and director Jennifer Siebel Newsom connects these numbers to ones that might be more familiar: women hold only 17% of seats in Congress right now. Women are only 3% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.

According to Madeline di Nonno, Executive Director of the Los Angeles-based Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, when 97% of decisions in media are made by men, the results are “wildly unrealistic.” Studies by the Institute found that family films feature 2.42 male speaking characters for every female one. Since the ratio behind the camera is even worse - 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every female - it’s hardly surprising that content emerging from a male-dominated work environment depicts a world where only 29% of females talk.

Di Nonno and her colleagues meet regularly with studio executives, directors, producers and writers to share their research on gender in media, which spans 20 years and focuses on content aimed at children ages 0-8. They’re often shocked by the numbers she presents.

“It’s not something they’ve thought about,” she said. “There isn’t a conspiracy going on.”

Julie Burton, President of the Women’s Media Center (WMC), has also found media companies amenable to criticism. When MSNBC host Ed Schultz called radio personality Laura Ingraham an unprintable word on television, WMC put up an action alert on their website, only to get a call ten minutes later from MSNBC promising an apology and extending an invitation to Burton and WMC co-founder Gloria Steinem to the studios. Within a week, the show featured an all-female panel analyzing the deficit commission.

It may have been a coincidence, but, Burton remembers with a laugh, “It was so, so beautiful.” The bottom line, says Burton, is that “It does work to have these meetings.” The Women’s Media Center also works to get the public engaged, with online campaigns like “Name it, Change it,” an initiative launched in 2008 to combat the sexist coverage of female political candidates. Readers report the date, time and the news outlet where they’ve spotted misogynistic coverage, and the incident will be mapped onto the “Pyramid of Egregiousness.” The Center also does substantial media monitoring of Sunday political talk shows, advocacy (it played a hand in getting NBC’s “The Playboy Club” cancelled), media training for women to appear on-screen, curates original content on a blog, and maintains She Source, a database for journalists looking for female sources with subject-area expertise.

With more than a decade of experience in these same areas at WIMN, Pozner has come to see the importance of looking at media from a holistic point of view. Problematic content must be addressed head-on as it arises, she says, but it’s also equally important to look more deeply at structural factors, particularly media economics. In her recent book “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” an in-depth study and critique of the regressive stereotypes propagated by reality television, Pozner looks at the economics of media production, a major factor in what gets produced.

Unscripted programming, she found, is 50% to 75% cheaper to produce and provides an incredible stream of product placement revenue, even before a single advertisement has been sold. Meanwhile, as Mike Darnell, a leading “alternative entertainment” executive at Fox, stated  - for reality television to be successful, it has to be “built around social ideas,” code language, she says, for “as regressive, sexist and racist as you can make it.”

Paradoxically, the rise in unscripted programming has also fueled demand for quality documentaries, said Debra Zimmerman, Executive Director for Women Make Movies, which helps fund and distribute independent films made by women or focusing on issues that affect women’s lives. She points to “Sin by Silence,” an award-winning documentary on women survivors of domestic violence who are currently serving sentences for killing their abusers.  “Sin by Silence” aired on Investigative Discovery, a channel that also features series' like “I Married a Mobster.”

“By having Sin by Silence on Investigative Discovery, we’re reaching a very, very different audience,” she said. “Maybe they turned on the TV thinking they were going to see yet another new show about women murderers or a hot new trial, but what they’re seeing is actually really different.”

In “Project Brainwash: Why Reality TV is Bad for Women,” one of the lectures and media literacy workshops Pozner conducts at campuses and events around the country, she teaches everyone from students to parents how to think critically about what’s on the tube. One of her most rewarding moments was watching a gum-snapping, eye-rolling bored teenager transform into an indignant feminist over the course of a 75-minute lecture. Newly aware of the absurdity of shows like The Bachelor, in which 20 women compete for the affections of one man, the teen approached Pozner afterwards to blow off steam.

“I used to think these shows were romantic, but now I hate them!” she fumed. “Why should I compete with other women for a man? I should be able to do the picking too!”

Pozner was delighted; the “lightbulb moment” had arrived.

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.