Canadian communications scholar Yasmin Jiwani says that “news performs the role of the bard, disseminating myths which offer the nation a sense of imagined community.” The news, in other words, tells the stories of a group of people who are contained within the boundaries of a nation. In speaking to the nation, the news also tells its readers and viewers stories about themselves.

Let’s start with some basic data about the representation of women in the news. The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) is a longitudinal study of the representation of women in the news. A longitudinal study is one that unfolds over time and makes comparisons between different historical moments. Every five years, volunteer researchers—they include grassroots feminist organizations, university students, and media researchers—work together to collect data from a single news day. Beginning on January 18, 1995, GMMP volunteers in countries across the globe monitor local newspapers, television, and radio reporting of the news.

We’ll watch a 9 minute video about the project. As you watch, pay attention to the ways that the GMMP defines terms like:

  • underrepresentation
  • misrepresentation
  • blatant and subtle gender stereotyping
  • gender-blind
  • gender-aware
Who Makes the News
View Time: 9:37 Minutes
Video source

For those interested, visit the link to the Canadian 2010 report for GMMP or the infographic detailing highlights from the study.

BIG IDEA: Symbolic annihilation

The world we see in the news is a world in which women are virtually invisible.

Gallagher quoted by Sue Thornham, “Media and Feminism” in Media and Society, 2010, pp. 75

In 1978, communications scholar Gaye Tuchman introduced the term “symbolic annihilation” to refer to the exclusion, trivialization, and marginalization of women in the media. In her research, she gathered data from studies of a wide variety of mass media, including the news. What she discovered was a persistent under-representation of women. Men made up the overwhelming majority of those represented in films, television, and newspapers. Just as importantly, Tuchman observed persistent patterns in the limited representations of women: when women were represented, they were often portrayed in traditional roles of wives, mothers, and sex objects. As a result, women and girls were rarely presented with powerful role models, and both men and women consumers of mass media were presented with a distorted image of women’s status in the social world.

Although it may be tempting to use the theory of the symbolic annihilation of women form the mass media in order to develop strategies for more realistic representations of women, Tuchman points out that representations are always interpretations of the world. This perspective suggests that the work of the feminist media scholar is not so much to strive for accurate representations within the news and other forms of mass media, but rather to analyse the ideological functions of media representations. From this perspective, media is a set of representations that reflect and reproduce dominant ideology.

Ideology is a term that is drawn from Marxist social theory that describes how the dominant beliefs, or taken for granted ideas about the world at a particular time, benefit those in power. We can define ideology broadly as the shared values and beliefs of a group. For Marx and other critical thinkers, it’s important to note that ideology is a system of illusory beliefs, which means that the ideas that a group shares may not reflect their reality. From this, Marx suggests that ideology may produce false consciousness of the world.

False consciousness is a concept that has had a lot of traction in feminist scholarship. In the middle of the twentieth century, American feminist and journalist Betty Friedan pointed out that the mainstream news and entertainment media produced a feminine ideology—a shared idea about the ideal version of femininity—that was not only unrealistic, but also damaging for women. She called this representation “the feminine mystique,” but we can also easily describe it as feminine ideology. Like other forms of ideology, the feminine mystique was a story about women that functioned to justify their social status. As an ideology, the feminine mystique encouraged women that their highest fulfilment would come from motherhood and housewifery. For middle class white women, work and interests outside the home were discouraged, and participation in the public sphere of work and politics were left to men. The feminine mystique was an ideological force—by shaping ideas about socially acceptable womanhood, it functioned to reproduce patriarchal systems of domination and oppression.

Notably, the feminine mystique as Friedan described it was part of a dominant gender ideology of mid century North America that blatantly ignored the lived reality of women of color, non-heterosexual women and men, and made it nearly impossible to imagine lives lived outside heteropatriarchal gender norms.

Ideology functions by shaping our ideas, worlds, and capacity to imagine new ways of being in the world. So the news media aren’t just reporting the facts of the day—or in the current 24 hour news cycle, the facts of the moment. The news plays a vital role in contributing to our sense of who we and where we are in the world. The point that we’ll take from this observation that the news contributes to national myths and imagined communities is that contemporary Canadian news media is deeply embedded in gendered legacies of oppression. If we look carefully at the news, and especially at the ways the most vulnerable and most oppressed members of our communities are represented, we discover that the news is haunted by colonial, racist, sexist, and classist presumptions and ideologies.

Getting Ready to talk about Violence

This module will examine representations of victims of violence in Canadian mainstream news media. We’ll be exploring big ideas like gendered violence and rape culture. Before moving on to the lesson and assigned readings, we’ll watch two videos that have been produced by the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre. The first identifies and challenges sexual assault stereotypes; the second draws on experts from the University for definitions of terms like sexual assault, coercion, and consent.

Unpacking the Sexual Assault Stereotype and Rape Culture
View Time: 3:21 Minutes
Video source
Understanding Sexual Assault and Consent
View Time: 6:53 Minutes
Video source

The videos produced by the University of Alberta’s Sexual Assault Centre are grounded in feminist analyses of sexual violence. Violence against women, and sexual violence perpetrated against women, men, and children, is an issue that feminist scholars and activists have frequently foregrounded. In this module’s reading assignment, we’ll see how feminist scholars have analysed racialized representations of women in the news rely on key concepts like “rape culture” and “victim-blaming.”