Objectification, Your Honor

This is a guest post by Jessica Mack. You can find Jessica on Twitter here.

Last week, there was a new and interesting twist to the Leveson Inquiry – the ongoing public trial of the British Press following last year’s phone hacking scandal. A handful of women’s rights and rape prevention groups in the UK are insisting that the media’s portrayal of women – namely its accomplice in sexism, objectification, rape culture, and misogyny – be investigated as part of its general scumminess.

While the Leveson Inquiry has been primarily focused on the invasion of privacy of celebrities, a wrongdoing for sure, the groups, which include End Violence Against Women, Equality Now, Eaves, and Object, are asking that the investigation focus more on the women and girls whose lives are influenced everyday by a sexist and unaccountable media.

“Leveson is not just charged with looking at phone hacking but for the entire relationship between the press and the public,” said Jacqui Hunt, director of Equality Now.

In a 27-page document, they provide explicit instances of “poor reporting of violence against women stories which were either intrusive, inaccurate, which misrepresented or were misogynistic, victim-blaming or condoning violence against women and girls.” (sound familiar?) From sexualized images of women (see the ‘Page 3 girls,’ of The Sun), blatant sexualization of underage women (‘countdowns’ until actor Emma Watson and singer Charlotte Church were of legal age), pejorative portrayal of sex workers, and rape victim blaming, the list of offenses is horrid and seemingly endless.

Media is the lens through which we view, create, and reflect cultural realities, including biased gender (and racial, class, etc.) portrayals. From sexed up ads to tongue-in-cheek references to floozies or hoes, the media can and does contribute both subtly and explicitly to the sexism around us. But because it’s “the lens” or the medium through which we receive messages, it’s harder to turn the microscope on it itself.

There is this continuing myth that journalism is objective. Maybe that’s what it aspires to be, but even on a good journalist’s best day, 100% objectivism isn’t possible. On a bad journalist’s worst day, moral depravity, libel and sometimes oblivious accomplice to downright misogyny is not just possible, but it happens time and again.
We know it’s there – in the US, in the rest of Europe, and really everywhere in the world. But this seems like one of the first and most public efforts I can think of to not just name it, but attempt to make the press legally accountable for being schmucks.

But could such a public and potentially legal reckoning of media’s role in rape culture or misogyny ever happen in the US? Should it? And what would it take to get this rolling?

In many ways, I think the blogosphere, and particularly the feminist blogosphere, is already serving as media watchdog on these terms. Efforts in the past few years to blow the cover off the egregious use of Photoshop in magazines and advertisements, from sites like Jezebel and Adios Barbie, are one good example. Just last month, thanks in large part to the sharp critiques of feminist bloggers, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board pulled an ad campaign that turned the blame of rape on victims drinking alcohol.

After the New York Times terribly fumbled their coverage of the gang rape of an 11-year old girl – portraying her attackers as innocent boys and suggesting the girl might have been culpable with her dress and actions – Irin Carmon called them on it. She didn’t give up, either, but blew the whistle on their poor attempts to recover again and again. Writer Jen Pozner has been dogged in her criticism of reality television, debunking the myth that it’s “real” at all and rather pointing out the myriad ways in which it’s hurting girls and women. There are also a number of coalitions and groups which further serve as fulcrums for critiques or platforms for the bloggers making them.

Yet while these critiques are pointed and smart, and have helped effect some real changes, things haven’t elevated to the judicial level…yet. But maybe that’s something we should aspire to.
Back in the UK, it’s serious business that these media critique are being made in the context of a highly public federal investigation into the smuttiness of press overall. It means the stakes are higher and more people are watching. So who knows, maybe the verdict will change the way we view media or the way media views us, but either way should be fascinating to watch it unfold.

7 comments for “Objectification, Your Honor

  1. Norma
    January 6, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Hunt makes a good argument, although this does seem far outside the scope of the inquiry. Still, I hope this campaign gets attention and taken seriously.

    But could such a public and potentially legal reckoning of media’s role in rape culture or misogyny ever happen in the US?

    It would be hard. You can’t sue over it in the US, and to get a similar kind of congressional inquiry, you’d first have to convince Congress that something was wrong. In the UK there seems to be a much greater awareness that sexist portrayals of women are bad for British women, at least in terms of health (that’s partly the motivation behind the banning of misleading airbrushed ads).

    On watchdogs… Miss Representation is also working a lot on sexism in American media, right?

  2. Matt
    January 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    I’d imagine the more expansive conception of free speech in the U.S. would make it exceedingly difficult to address from a legal perspective.

  3. matlun
    January 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    There is this continuing myth that journalism is objective. Maybe that’s what it aspires to be, but even on a good journalist’s best day, 100% objectivism isn’t possible.

    Is there such a myth? Most people I know have a very low opinion about the general objectivity of journalists.

  4. Anon21
    January 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    So, just as a matter of describing the state of the law, I think it’s possible that the FCC could do something about regulating misogynistic speech for the broadcast TV networks and radio if it wanted to. Then again, maybe not. The precedents establishing the FCC’s authority to regulate the content of broadcast television were mostly laid down in a different, less speech-protective legal era, and if the agency geared up to do a lot of new regulating of content, it might find itself with less authority than it had before.

    On the policy merits, I don’t think imposing legal consequences (such as fines or jail time) for offensive speech is a good idea. As you point out, Jessica, there are a lot of talented feminists out there monitoring media portrayals of women and girls and calling entertainment and news providers on misogynistic bullshit. In a better world, we wouldn’t need this deep media watchdog apparatus, because the people who run major media corporations wouldn’t be so eye-deep in misogyny. But I really doubt that the way we get to that better world is by levying fines based on the content of speech.

    On the other hand–investigation, public shaming, governmental condemnation, Congressional investigations–all great, some perhaps necessary before we get to a point where reflexive misogyny is viewed as an “objective” way to report the news.

  5. sarah
    January 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    This issue may get more traction with the Leveson Inquiry than people credit. The UK has been under pressure since the publication of the Bailey Review – a review of the impact of the media’s impact on children and young people through their representation of a plethora of issues, from alcohol and gambling to sexual content and imagery. The review was commission by the Government and conducted by Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union in the UK. The MU have influence with a significant set of voters in the UK, and regulatory and other bodies are taking it seriously.

    In addition, there is a small but relevant political groundswell in the UK against the representation of women and body image in UK media. Together, these two issues could well mean that the Leveson Inquiry takes a more serious look at these issues than might otherwise be taken.

    Thanks for covering it – London, UK.

  6. Annabelle
    January 6, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    But could such a public and potentially legal reckoning of media’s role in rape culture or misogyny ever happen in the US? Should it?

    I think this would ultimately do more harm than good. Giving the government the authority to fine or censor media over misogynistic content opens the door to all sorts of dangerous policies. What happens when a conservative administration decides that the discussion or portrayal of contraceptive use is damaging to teenagers?

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