Women's Leadership & Mentorship Program at Robert Morris University

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Feminism and the Media

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By Cassidy Turner, WLMP Cohort Member 

The media, whether it be social, television, film, music/music videos, print, literature, or art, is one of the cornerstones of culture in American society. Nearly everyone has a Facebook or Twitter account, Netflix has become a way of life, news corporations like NBC and CNN keep us up to date with constant streams of information, and while MTV doesn’t play music anymore, the MTV Video Music Awards are one of the most buzzed-about events of the year, especially in younger generations. The media is literally everywhere, and it’s especially prominent in the digital age. As such, it heavily influences our culture and beliefs, often without us even realizing it. This can be dangerous, especially when the subliminal – or outright – messages we receive through the media are harmful towards oppressed groups in society.

A big problem with media in the U.S. is that it often portrays events through the eyes of white, cisgender, heterosexual men. This structuring of media around the most privileged group in society is called the male gaze. The male gaze is dangerous because it presents the viewpoint of the white, cisgender, heterosexual man as the viewpoint that is the most valid and correct (Shaw & Lee, 2012). This allows for casual misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia to be displayed as good or correct views to have. For obvious reasons, this is damaging. The male gaze also makes media less accessible to marginalized groups in society, meaning that truly talented individuals are often not given a chance to showcase their talents because of their minority status.

In her essay Thinking About Shakespeare’s Sister, Virginia Woolf discusses the various ways in which media is made inaccessible to women, especially women in the time of Shakespeare. Woolf argues that if Shakespeare had had a sister, equally as talented as he was but unable to express her abilities because of the nature of the times, she would have killed herself. The oppression of her creative abilities would have been so strong and so prominent that she would be lead to this decision. This sad fate, Woolf argues, would have been true of “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century” (Woolf, 1929). I think the argument could be made that the awful effects of the oppression of creative talents in women is true for women born long after the sixteenth century, given that Woolf herself committed suicide twelve years after she wrote this piece.

Social media is the newest form of media, and I would argue that it is one of the most influential. Tom Watson discusses the power of social media in Rush Limbaugh and the New Networked Feminism. When Limbaugh called a Georgetown University student a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she addressed Congress about the high cost of contraceptives, he was met with a massive feminist response. Through social media, word spread about Limbaugh’s actions at incredible speeds. Feminists were outraged, as they rightly should have been, and their campaign against Limbaugh led to him losing the support of 2 radio stations and 12 advertisers (Watson, 2012). This isn’t the first instance of feminist social media campaigns causing real change, and it certainty wasn’t the last. As social media becomes more accessible and more and more people begin to use it, it gains real potential as a tool of political change.

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter has had a long, successful career as an R&B artist, making her possibly one of the most influential music stars of our time. Fortunately, Beyoncé uses her influence for good, as Sophie Weiner discusses in Beyoncé: Feminist Icon? The reading takes a look at eight of the most feminist acts Beyoncé has done during her career. From her songs such as Run The World (Girls), Survivor, and Telephone, to her performances and interviews, many of Beyoncé’s actions are pro-feminism (Weiner, 2013). One of Beyoncé biggest feminist actions, in my opinion, that the article doesn’t mention is her performance at the 2014 VMAs of songs from her most recent album, including the anthem ***Flawless. The most remarkable part of this performance was whenever the word FEMINIST took the screen with Beyoncé standing right in front of it, proclaiming her stance loudly and proudly.

Media has a heavy influence on society, whether that influence is for the better or for the worse. It is because of media that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ song Blurred Lines was the biggest Top 40 hit of 2013, even though it was literally about rape. The messages portrayed in Blurred Lines aren’t even subliminal. The lyrics are vulgar and explicit with the line “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two” and the repeated “I know you want it”, and the music video just as bad, if not worse. Still, Blurred Lines flew to the top of the charts and stayed there. It was nominated for countless awards, and Thicke and Williams won many of them, including the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Duo or Group. The NAACP! When rape and sexual assault is made so commonplace and accepted in our society that you get the NAACP giving out awards for a song about it, you know you have a problem.

YzU4ZjViODczMiMvZHVkYVBXUGx2ODNteVpibHlZSUk5Zy1NN1hzPS8xMHgxMDo1MTEyeDMxMjgvODQweDUxMy9maWx0ZXJzOnF1YWxpdHkoNzApL2h0dHBzOi8vczMuYW1hem9uYXdzLmNvbS9wb2xpY3ltaWMtaW1hZ2VzLzUzMzVlNzU1NzE5NTA3MTA0NDI1NjkxN2QyN2E2NmYwNzRkNGE4ZmYzMzJkMDk4ZjcyNGJmOn the other hand, it is also because of media that countless feminist social media campaigns have been successful. Social media has become something of a news source, one that covers events that the mainstream media refuses to. One prominent example of this is Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster in Texas. When Davis took to the Senate floor to filibuster an incredibly restrictive anti-abortion bill put forth by GOP senators, not a single major news outlet covered it. In fact, it wasn’t until around hour 9 of her filibuster that most people other than Texas feminists caught word of it, and this only happened because of pro-Davis social media campaigns taking place on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. The hashtag #StandWithWendy soared to the top of the trending topics on twitter, and nearly 200,000 people tuned into a livestream of the filibuster, myself among them. Without the social media campaign to bring awareness to this subject, the various injustices the GOP made that night (including taking a vote after midnight) would have likely occurred without much resistance from the public.

Media is not a perfect thing, and it never will be. However, I do believe that one day we can turn it into a more positive force than ever before. Feminism is slowly, slowly chipping away at the male gaze and its hold on media. Feminists and other social justice activists are taking to social media to spread awareness, educate, rally, and raise funds. Beyoncé is promoting feminism through her music, and even going as far as to loudly and proudly declare herself a feminist on the MTV Video Music Awards; her actions are reaching an audience of younger girls that may have never heard of feminism before, and painting the movement in a positive, empowering light. With continued actions, campaigns, and education like this through media, feminism has an almost endless amount of possibilities to change the world.

References:

Shaw, S., & Lee, J. (2012). Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

Watson, T. (2012). Rush Limbaugh and the New Networked Feminsim. In Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Weiner, S. (2012). Beyoncé: Feminist Icon?. In Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Woolf, V. (1929). Thinking About Shakespeare’s Sister. In Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Image Sources:

http://msmagazine.com/blog/2014/08/25/beyonce-at-the-vmas-feminist-and-flawless/

http://mic.com/articles/80229/23-inspiring-feminist-digital-campaigns-that-changed-the-world