Three-D Issue 29: The need for structural and cultural change in media industries

#MeToo is trending worldwide; women’s voices are being heard and having an impact. The stories that women are telling break the complicity of silence that has existed across media; and we are now seeing media industries naming and shaming male celebrities and politicians alike. Crucially, these women’s stories also represent a moment, a ‘tipping point’ and an opportunity. These stories are not one off events, but reflective of a set of underlying sexist power cultural structures which normalise the abuse and harassment of women. Meaningful change can be effected through challenging these structural and cultural ‘norms’.

Refusing to work with these men, and removing them from appearing in films and on TV is a great start. But structurally, we still have a Western media industry that is dominated by predominantly white men: only 7.5% of women are film directors and only 2 of those actual directors in the top 600 films are women of colour; women are underrepresented in both the production of news and the news stories that we see and hear; (and beyond media we also know that women are underrepresented and subject to sexism in politicsacademiaindustry etc etc, the list goes on). As long as white men are overrepresented in the structures which form the backdrop of our daily lives, it is perhaps unsurprising that their collective interests, by default, dominate.

Changing our mediated power structures also requires cultural change. Media coverage has been less focused on those women who are not celebrities, what about the cleaners, the school kids, the coffee shop workers? Will their experiences really change due to this media exposure? It seems unlikely while we live in a densely sexualised cultural context and our cultural output remains focused on the male gaze. Only 4% of news stories actually challenge gender stereotypes. Anachronistically, and despite a powerful campaign, we still see Page 3; perhaps the ultimate symbol of everything that is wrong with the cultural representations of women as available for heterosexual male desire.

Plot lines in films and TV shows show rape as a normal part of our daily cultural lives. Calls for the advertising industry to reflect on the harm caused by underlying sexism has been met with a belittling responses which demean and undermine the very micro level experiences of ‘Everyday Sexism’, which in isolation may be very small (or not), but cumulatively form a cultural backdrop, which legitimate and normalise sexism and its manifestation in sexual assault, harassment, violence and abuse. We need to ask some urgent questions about the cultural climate that we live in which sees 1 in 3 women worldwide subject to sexual violence, and women continue to murdered by their male partners.

Removing the guys who have harassed, assaulted and abused from our screens is important, of course, and hearing these women’s stories is immensely powerful. Crucially though, we also need to think about both the structural over representation of male interests in these industries, and the cultural content that is being produced. The ways in which women, in all their diverse forms, are depicted (or not) in culture matters. The opportunity to effect meaningful change that lies not only in replacing individuals, but in fundamentally rethinking the ways we normalise and legitimate sexual assault, harassment and abuse in our culture. Let this not be an opportunity lost.

Posted by Einar Thorsen