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Misrepresentation in the media: Women

by: Kay Selisho - 29 October 2014

“Men categorise women in one of four ways: mothers, virgins, sluts and bitches.

Of course none of the above is suitable for the modern business woman BUT you can create your own image by selecting pieces of each archetype that work for you. For example, the sexual attractiveness of the slut… the wisdom of the mother… the integrity of the virgin… the independence of the bitch.

This leaves men confused and unable to pigeonhole you. What they are forced to do, instead, is take you seriously.”

– Six (played by Amber Heard in the movie Syrup).

Getting people to stop pigeon-holing you is easier said than done. The need to put people into a box is ingrained into each and every one of us. It allows us to create a foundation upon which to build our understanding. The thing about categorisations however, is that they are not always accurate.

They are often simplifications of things that can be more complex than they appear to be (as explained in my first piece on misrepresentation).

Women – actually, humans in general – are the personification of complexity, yet they are repeatedly simplified. Women are reduced to mothers, virgins, sluts and bitches, either portrayed as domesticated or hyper-sexualized. These characterisations happen across a number of media.

Adverts fabricate ideas of beauty based on the ideals held by those with the power to push their agenda. The simplest illustration of this would be for you to Google the word “beauty” and click on the images tab. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Tweet me your thoughts on what you see. These fabricated ideals of beauty and their pervasiveness are probably the reason why someone who is already as light as Beyonce is would be photoshopped a few shades lighter in order to sell cosmetics.

Source: beautyredefined.net

Source: beautyredefined.net

Magazines feed off the ideals and agendas of the advertising industry. Even though there have been countless movements promoting self love, magazines still sell women the idea that they are not enough. Their image, personality and lives are presented to them as projects in constant need of improvement. Like the advertising industry, magazines have a great effect on ideas about beauty and body image. They dictate an unattainable standard through images that are extremely photo-shopped.

TV shows and movies – especially in SA – seem to be having a hard time challenging the typical roles assigned to men and women. Men are heroes and leaders. Women alternate between playing the side-kick/assistant, wife, girlfriend or seductive temptress – all supporting roles. If a woman is cast in a powerful role, she’ll likely be hyper-sexualised, like Thishiwe Zigubu in Hard to Get.

Thishiwe Zigubu in Hard to Get.Source: durbanfilmfest.co.za

Thishiwe Zigubu in Hard to Get.Source: durbanfilmfest.co.za

Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey attributes this to what she calls “the male gaze.” In film, women are depicted as objects to be gazed on as the camera acts as the masculine eye from a male view point. Inevitably it leads the spectator to look at women from a male perspective that reflects masculine desires. Women have also learned to view themselves and other women through this gaze.

Often, women in leadership are questioned on the basis of their gender. Case in point: Thuli Madonsela and all the Olivia Pope-type butt-kicking that she is doing. If she was a man posing threat to the corrupt status quo, a variety of accusations would be levelled against her in order to call her credibility into question. But, because she is a woman, politicians and civilians alike simply call her out based on her gender and they insult the way that she looks.

This has happened so often that Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula came to her defence during an ANC breakfast briefing with journalists in Johannesburg in March earlier this year. “We may have differences and issues of concern [about the Public Protector’s Nkandla report], but to start judging her [Madonsela] because of her nose, is wrong. This would not have been done to a man with a big tummy. It’s sexist to judge a woman by her looks. People must look at the context of the report and challenge her based on that.”

In a video compiled by The Representation Project, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC states, “If you are female, while you are also all of those other things, men who you defeat in arguments will still respond to you by calling you hysterical and telling you to calm down.”

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Source: twilightsaga.wikia.com

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Source: twilightsaga.wikia.com

In spite of all the aforementioned examples, media does not only exist to limit, misrepresent and stereotype women. It also has the ability to empower us through the nature of the content produced as well as the involvement of women in the creation of this content. From female-owned production companies (in a number of genres, including porn) to recognition of female producers, directors and editors at major awards ceremonies all over the world.

The success of franchises such as The Hunger Games (containing a strong female lead who isn’t sexually objectified) are also examples of the way in which media empowers women and challenges ideals. It is this positive reinforcement that should be the focus of the media moving forward. It would go a long way towards combating the negative effects that misrepresentation has on society.

Damaging portrayals of women reinforce the negative societal views held about them. This has a limiting effect on what they consider beautiful as well as the roles that they may one day hope to aspire. These are not the ideas that I would want my younger sisters to internalise as they get older. It is about time that more people became aware of the harmful effects of media and contributed to the fight against misrepresentation.

Follow me on Twitter: @Kay_Tatyana

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