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Where we belong: on the Status of Women in US Media

by Seher Ali

Every year, the Women’s Media Center compiles a report on the Status of Women in the U.S. Media. It compiles statistics regarding the representation of women in news, television, film entertainment, film reviews, video games, book editing, and more, highlighting the need for gender parity in these fields.

I’ve been keenly aware of the lack of brown women in the media since I was a kid, even without necessarily knowing the statistics or having the language to discuss it–and even though this report doesn’t include statistics about women of color in every field (something that should be improved in the 2015 report), I probably could have guessed the results and not been too far off the mark. It’s no surprise to me that there is a staggering statistical disparity between white males in every sector and basically everyone else, but especially Black, Latina women, and Asian women, as well as all other women of color included in the data (referred to as “some other ethnicity”–it’s unclear whether “Asian” refers to South and East Asian, or just East Asian). For example, 63.7% of newsroom journalists are men; 72% of TV show directors have been white men while only 2% are minority women; and women make up 47% of gamers but 12% of video game developers.

In 2012, I interviewed eight young women between the ages of 16 to 24 about what would make them want to be civically engaged in their communities and asked them to name some women in the media who inspired them. All of them except one either had such a difficult time thinking of a woman that they couldn’t answer the question, or they said Michelle Obama. It was a conversation, so the pacing may have put them on the spot; however, when I asked them to name inspirational male leaders, I received a slew of names from every single interviewee. Gender parity in the media is both a matter of taking steps to ensure that women have as many opportunities for work as men and making sure that when women are in various fields that these women are highlighted and represented in order to encourage young girls and women through their visibility.

One of my best friends, who is in her final semester in business school, is an Indian woman who wears the hijab. She feels the pressures of being in a male-dominated environment where she is a minority in several senses of the word. Despite women comprising 56 percent of professional workers in the U.S., they only comprise 25% of tech workers and head 11% of fortune 500 tech firms. Oh, and they earn roughly half of what men earn. I was disturbed to read that the number of first year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science dropped 64 percent points between 2000 to 2011. These statistics may indicate that my friend’s feelings of isolation, rejection, and frustration could be felt commonly by minority women in professional work and the media. I am sure there is a multifaceted combination of reasons these numbers have dipped, but the lack of representation, visibility of women leaders in IT and business, gender bias during hiring, and the disillusionment that can be faced by white women and women of color when navigating male-dominated fields with wage gaps are contributing factors.

The decision of who gets to be represented is most often made by those at the top, and this is most often, as the statistics show, white men. The report shows that when women are in charge (i.e. are casting directors of films, news reporters, etc.) then there are almost always greater numbers of women either hired by them or quoted by them in news stories. The same generally applies specifically to the hiring of women of color by women of color. This demonstrates the urge to construct our own narratives among historically marginalized groups. I feel the same way when I write for SPARK: taking control of the way we are perceived and the ways in which our stories are told is paramount to how we help shape the minds of young girls; it isn’t just visibility in and of itself that will determine our positive impact. How we are represented and who represents us plays a crucial role. Who is telling our stories? Are we speaking for ourselves, or are we being directed by others? And when directed by others (i.e. in a film), how are we being represented? Not a single person of color, nevermind a woman of color, was in management at the four TV stations in Little Rock, Arkansas, where 42 percent of the population is black and the Latino population is almost 7 percent (and growing).

Without control over their own stories, people of colour are left to navigate media rife with tired tropes and racial stereotypes about themselves that lack wholeness and authenticity. The report shows that of all female characters in 2013’s movies, Latinas are the most likely to be dressed in “sexually revealing” clothing or partially nude. Among the Hispanic women who were cast, 41.1 percent were hyper-sexually clothed, compared to 32.8 percent of white women. Of the women on TV in 2013, 12 percent were Black and 78 percent were white. When women were surveyed about the way black women were presented on TV, 82 to 90 percent of them reported regularly seeing stereotypical representations including the “angry Black women,” “baby mommas.” and “uneducated Black women.” I get the impression that there is an underlying message of “just be grateful you’re here and take what you get” being sent to women of colour who wish to be a part of the media they consume. The numbers of representation are so small that when they do get jobs, they often lack the agency to control how they are seen, and racist representations persist.

Furthermore, when Latinas are hyper-sexualized the way the stats show, it exacerbates violence against Latina women. When Black women are stereotyped, this exacerbates violence against Black women. If there were more statistics about Asian and Middle Eastern tropes, perhaps we’d have a clearer understanding of how violence against women belonging to these backgrounds is perpetuated in part by media representations (hint hint, WMC Report on the Status of Women in Media 2015). It is important I reiterate how these representations (and lack thereof) have concrete impacts on the way young girls and women grow up seeing themselves, the career paths they choose, and how they are treated by others.

The way young girls and women are utilized by the media is made clear by this report. The median age of female actors in movies in 2013 was 34.8, while the median for men sits at 46.5. According to the film industry, the younger the woman, the more appealing she is on screen. In 2012, 13-20 year old females were more likely than those aged 21-39 to be dressed hyper-sexually or partially naked on screen. The number of teens dressed sexually increased 22 percent between 2009 and 2012, and between 2007 and 2012 the number of teen girls partially nude on screen rose by 32.5 percent.

Let’s contrast this with the ages and genders of news columnists. The average age of news columnists is 60, and 105 of the 138 columnists at the nation’s three biggest newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal) were men, mostly white. So, what are we good for in America? According to the media market, a woman’s sexuality and youth is worth more in dollars than her intellect. Perfect for beauty industries, too—the media can start imbuing us with insecurity about our appearances from a young age, and all those wrinkle-reducing, hair-removing, diet-pushing, skin-lightening and tightening, youth-obsessed products will fly off the shelves.

Given all of this, I also want to say point out that this report didn’t look at the representations of trans women in the media. The failure to include statistics on transgender women in any field researched, but especially in reports like this, is unacceptable. There were nearly one million Americans who identify as transgender in 2013. They have every right to be accounted for. The oppression and violence faced by transgender women in America is terrifying and significant, and the fact that they are not being included in this report invalidates and ignores their struggles to be a part of professional workplaces and the media. This year, women of color “are being spotlighted in this report for the first time.” Next year, trans women must be included in this research.

I got so tired reading this report. I felt cynical, digging and digging for some glimmer of hope in this barrage of dudes pulling all the high stats as per usual. But feeling like I can’t get my foot in when there are odds stacked against me is just giving in to the message that I should stay where I supposedly belong. And let’s be real—there is amazing work being done by organizations like Black Girls Code, which teamed up with the Latino Startup Alliance, and Girls Who Code, which responds to the gender and race divide in high-tech. There are production companies like Tangerine Entertainment, which only produces films directed by women, and groups like AFFRM, which focuses on distributing films made by black creators. There are many organizations—SPARK being one of them–which inspire and motivate young girls and women to realize their potential. Carving out these spaces will give us control over our own stories. It will grant us representation that we insist upon.

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2 Responses to “Where we belong: on the Status of Women in US Media”

  1. [...] though, television seems overwhelmingly white. It wasn’t always this way. I grew up watching shows like Good Times, A Different World, The [...]

  2. [...] though, television seems overwhelmingly white. It wasn’t always this way. I grew up watching shows like Good Times, A Different World, The [...]

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