The media is failing women. We need to rethink the news

The media is failing women. We need to rethink the news

Looking back at my teenage years, I remember thinking how lucky I was. The future looked bright for girls and women. We were no longer required to marry young and stay at home caring for a husband and children. It was no longer acceptable for men to hit women. We were encouraged to go to university, not to find a suitable husband but to study. Our career choice wasn’t limited to secretarial or teaching jobs anymore (although it was still implied that only the pretty women able to catch the attention of the boss – always male – would succeed). We were to be strong, successful, independent women.

I would spend hours daydreaming, my walkman (the latest, auto-reverse one) in hand, listening with pride to the mixtape I made. I remember getting an incredible sense of satisfaction from making mixtapes, spending many hours by the stereo, waiting for the radio station to play my favourite songs so I could record them (I would, inevitably, miss the beginning). 

Over a grunge soundtrack I would imagine myself an accomplished woman, juggling career, kids and a thriving social life. Like all the women who were starting to smash barriers and change their industries at that time, I too would somehow change the world.

This was the 1990s in France, and we, girls and women, were tricked to believe we had achieved equality. This was blatantly obvious in the media. Although there were a few female heroes on screen (it was the era of Thelma & Louise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed), the media’s images of women were mostly anchored in sexist stereotypes.

There were two types of women: the good and the bad. The good ones were sexy, sometimes educated and independent, but their role was largely bland and ornamental: their function was to look good and to be rescued by competent, strong and irresistible men. There always was, at some point, a passionate (read forceful) kiss, in which the man would prove his virility and the woman “surrender”. This told us that even if the main female characters were smart, successful and independent, men would always end up taming and marrying them.

The bad women, on the other hand (who I’ve always personally found more interesting) were ambitious, aggressive, hard, and cold. They were everything a good woman was not supposed to be – the opposite of the feminine, caring, passive “good” woman. They were, consequently, lonely and embittered spinsters. It was the price they had to pay for being assertive and ambitious.

Game shows, weather reports and adverts would also worship youth and beauty in women. There was a constant competition to find which woman was sexier, which one could attract more viewers or sell more. In the news, women were underrepresented, and when they appeared, they were ridiculed or portrayed as victims.

In 1995, the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) published its first report on the global state of women’s representation in news. They showed that women made up just 17% of the news on radio, television and in newspapers. As interviewees, women mostly appeared in stories covering health, social issues and entertainment, whereas men were interviewed about business, the economy and politics. In those stories, women featured less than 10% of the time.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. Although women have made great strides and are in positions of leadership in many fields, their representation in news departs markedly from reality. Every five years since their initial research, the GMMP has studied women’s presence in relation to men, gender bias and stereotyping in news media content. Their latest report shows glacial progress, with figures showing that news remains far from being inclusive for women and historically marginalised groups. 

Today, women represent only 27% of online news stories (only two points more than in 2015). The past five years have seen small incremental changes towards parity in broadcast news, but the pace of change remains mostly stagnant.

The COVID-19 outbreak led to one out of every four being related to the pandemic – for instance, news about rising social and economic inequalities due to the novel coronavirus – but women have remained largely unseen. They are the subject of 24% of all COVID-19 news stories on Twitter, 31% on television and 27% on radio. Only one out of three health experts featured in the media throughout the pandemic was a woman.

Media is the most powerful force influencing the way we perceive the world that surrounds us. Present everywhere in our daily lives, it imprints messages in our consciousness, shaping the way we think and act. By underrepresenting women, and portraying them in a stereotypical and limiting way, the media presents an incomplete and distorted reality: one where men are competent, and where women’s power lies in conventional femininity. 

That’s why we created NADJA. We are on the mission to close the gender gap present in mainstream media. We aim to bring you the untold stories of the women shaping our society and our future, stories that will make you rethink the world and rethink the news. Because deep down, I am still dreaming of changing the world.

Alia Chebbab

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