Invisible women | Brenda Murphy

Dr Brenda Murphy, of the University of Malta’s Department of Gender Studies, on why the media has some catching up to do with society when it comes to gender portrayal

Dr Brenda Murphy
Dr Brenda Murphy

When controversy erupts over the portrayal of gender stereotypes in advertising – as recently happened in the case of the now infamous ‘Numero Uno’ ads – one invariably encounters arguments along the lines that ‘political correctness has gone out of control’.

Admittedly it is a difficult argument to counter. There can be little doubt that public standards regarding the portrayal of specific groups of people – be they ethnic or political minorities, or persons with disability, or any other category of human being – have become more restrictive. With the advent of social media, the propensity for public outrage seems to have multiplied in step with the ever-shrinking pool of what is considered ‘fair comment’.

From a freedom of speech perspective, this is bound to raise concerns. Have we really allowed our sense of political correctness to run away with us... or is there valid reason to reconsider the traditional stereotypes perpetuated by the media?

Taken as a microcosm of this global reality, the Numero Uno advert itself seemed to attract the attention of both sides. Deemed as ‘sexist’ for presenting a young attractive woman purely as an object of male sexual desire, the ad was nonetheless defended – among others, by women who felt the response was exaggerated.

Dr Brenda Murphy is a lecturer in gender studies at the University, and her department will be launching two separate Masters programmes which both specifically touch on the issue: an MA in gender studies, and one in Gender Culture and Society.

What does she herself make of the contrasting reactions to that advert? Did it surprise her to see women speaking out in its defence?

“Not entirely, no. In general terms, we haven’t been taught to be critical about such things. It’s not surprising to hear women arguing that it’s not such a big deal… that it’s not affecting me, or that ‘I don’t mind because I like dressing up that way.’ This is not surprising because we are all products of the same social context. It’s a little bit like the hamster on the wheel… it’s difficult to criticise the wheel till you step away from it and look at it …”

Part of the problem, she continues, is that the use of gender stereotypes has a long history that cannot be erased from one moment to the next. The ad in question, while deemed to be offensive, was in no way unique or unprecedented. Dr Murphy sees it as an extension of a motif that has been in place as long as ‘the media’ itself has existed as a social construct.

But how damaging is this motif in practical terms? Is there any research that attempts to evaluate the actual impact of this kind of objectification?

“When we talk about the way women get portrayed in the media, the first question that arises is one of visibility. We know statistically – regardless whether it’s small or big screen, print media or radio, or any other form of media – that there is more invisibility than visibility. There is an absence of women taking part in ‘the media world’, so to speak. Media statistics repeatedly find a ‘one third rule’ which is universal: for every woman visible in the media, there will be two men. It is true for both representation in the media, and for participation. Whether it’s on the screen, having a speaking role, working behind the scenes, or taking decisions within any media company… it will generally work out at two men to one woman as a best case scenario. So even just starting with visibility, we already know there’s a big problem.”

Even when women are visible, there is invisibility built into that as well. The absence of speaking parts or active roles, especially in advertising, is a good example.

The problem only gets worse when you look at the little that is visible.

“Even when women are visible, there is invisibility built into that as well. The absence of speaking parts or active roles, especially in advertising, is a good example. Advertising breaks all the rules when it comes to healthy representation of men and women. Apart from physical absence, you get ideological absences in the way women are symbolically portrayed. In advertising, for instance, women are often reduced to being just the ‘object of the gaze’: the Numero Uno ad was a classic case in point. Clearly, this positions all the readers/viewers as men. All the audience (males and females) are invited to look through an exclusively male lens…”

Another issue is that the portrayal of women is such that it often symbolically ‘silences’ them. “Media critic Jean Kilbourne has a lovely example of this: she spotlights all the adverts that show women with their hands over their mouths, or wearing a polo-neck pulled up to their noses… all subliminally imparting the message that women are not expected to speak. And those were the examples where the women’s faces were actually visible. In other examples, you only see parts of the woman: her hands, her legs, her breasts, and so on….”

This brings us to some of the defensive reactions. Some people suggested that this sort of response is ‘extremist’, on the basis that… well, the reality is that many men look at women precisely that way. So why (runs this argument, which I repeat only for argument’s sake) should advertising not reflect what is ultimately a reality?

“The argument is: ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’? But that is at best a short-sighted vision. Take a look at today’s market, and the segments of the public that are purchasing. They are more diverse than ever before. Women in particular are actively purchasing more than ever before: whereas the traditional model was always that women tended to buy only the household products, while men took care of all the ‘bigger’ purchases – the car, the house, etc – now we are seeing independent women with their own disposable income, taking decisions that were previously seen as the domain of men. This is today’s reality, yet if we look at how it is portrayed in the media, you still see things mostly positioned from a male perspective.”

Advertisers flatly ignore such realities at their own risk, she adds. “Recently, Cynergi had an advert showing a close-up of a girl’s backside, with her butt-cheeks hanging out, that likewise attracted controversy. A lot of women reacted by publicly saying they would boycott the gym. So women are clearly acting with their feet. And within a very short space of time, Cynergi acknowledged the reactions and negative comments by taking down the advert. This is a fantastic example of consumer sovereignty in action.”

Nor does criticism (of this or any other ad) come only from women. “There are many men out there who are equally well-informed, and are also voicing the same objections. But the advertisers haven’t caught up with them, because there isn’t the critical mass… yet.”

The aforementioned reactions nonetheless suggest that mentalities are indeed changing, even if not everyone has caught the same bus. This in turn raises the issue of what can be done – if anything at all – to speed up the process.

“As a priority, I would say we need media literacy training in schools. Children as young as four should be able to watch TV and say,’ I know why they’re doing that… I know how that cartoon was made’. And we need gender equality to be built into that. Children should ask questions like, ‘why are the mice in this cartoon all male? Why are there no girl mice?’…”

It turns out the example wasn’t incidental: most cartoon characters, Dr Murphy explains, are in fact male. “As a general rule, in cartoons, the ratio works out at nine out of 10 cartoon characters being male. This is especially true of all the non-human characters…”

Exposure to gender imbalance in the media, then, starts at a much younger age than most would imagine. And it has a direct impact on how young children perceive gender roles, too.

“The message they are getting is that this is normal. And the message extends to the billboards seen by little children as they drive past in the back seat of cars. The message is the same for both girls and boys: ‘this is how women are meant to be viewed’. The girl accepts it; the boy accepts it; and both of them position themselves in relation to those values. So a four-year-old boy may turn to his sister, or his female cousin, and say: ‘You look nice today’. He’s already got the discourse of acknowledging the girl’s appearance… and the girl will already be waiting for the compliment. It’s as early as that that the rot sets in. Because immediately, from that moment, the young girl becomes a construct that is validated only by the way she looks. The message both girls and boys are getting is that girls are only valued for their appearance.”

Is it only on girls, though? It’s not as though advertising generally portrays men on the strength of their brains or their maturity, either…

“Yes, undeniably. Men are also told they have to conform to a certain body ideal: to be hairless, have to have a proper six-pack and so on. And that is equally problematic, for all the same reasons…”

But it’s a different type of pressure from that faced by women, she adds.

“I’m not saying it’s not damaging, or less damaging; and I certainly don’t condone it, either. But the psychological message sent out to men is not the same. At its most basic, the difference is that women are told to ‘reduce’, while men are told to ‘build up’. Symbolically, then, men are told they should take up space in the world… while women are told not to. I know it might sound like a hardcore rant… but that is how it translates in practice. And it does have an impact on how women occupy space. If a man and a woman sit on the same seat on a bus, in most cases the man will, in fact, be taking up much more space. Not just because he is physically bigger; but because of the way he positions himself naturally…”

The typical male posture (and here I must confess I find myself automatically closing my legs under the table) tends to be ‘expansive’.

“A woman, on the other hand, will sit with her knees closed, consciously trying to occupy as little space as possible. And that sense of containment – of holding yourself in – is physical; it’s psychological; it’s social; and it’s cultural. So it flows out in everything else…”

Speaking of psychological effects: how much truth is there to the view that this sort of pressure gives rise to psychiatric problems? One reads of a correlation between the so-called ‘body ideal’, and cases of depression, self-harm and even suicide.

“There is a correlation between media representation, and certain issues such as body dysmorphia. We know, for instance, that social media brings about a lot of pressure, and that not everyone can cope. There are studies which show that young women – and not just young women, but we are talking about gender issues here – will look to social media platforms and interpret what they see as ‘reality’: even if people only post the pictures they want others to see. The ‘reality’ you get when you look at sites like Facebook tends to involve lots of ‘friends’ looking their best, and always looking happy. It’s the only type of social reproduction that takes place on social media. And that can be exceptionally stressful, especially for young adolescents who are going through more than just that in their lives. The message they are getting is: everybody else is happy; all their friends look happy, too. Yet they themselves may be less happy…”

From there, it is a small step to conclude that they are the exceptions; the only ones with problems, in a world where everyone seems problem-free.

“The psychological impact can be profound. And social media is only a sliver of the media world – much of which is equally ‘unreal’ – to which people are exposed all the time. Ninety percent of the images you will see in the media, in advertising, on TV, are likewise ‘unreal’: they will have been photoshopped to remove blemishes, or the actual subjects themselves – the models, the actors – will present an image of perfection that is equally unattainable. And that is the standard that many people feel they have to live up to. The vast majority of the world that doesn’t look anything like those models, will feel they are themselves falling short… like they are exceptions to the rule.”

This impacts not only people’s self-perception… but also how they are perceived by others.

“Apart from getting that message themselves, the men in their life will get it too. ‘This is how women are supposed to look… so why don’t their partners, or their wives, look like that?’ This expectation from partners and potential partners is likewise built on unrealistic standards. There is a shortfall built into the system: and ultimately, it only sets people up for really bad relationships, and for really flawed beliefs about themselves and others. This breeds a highly toxic environment for everyone.”

Given that there is plenty of evidence to confirm these harmful effects… shouldn’t these known dangers be addressed through legislation? Should gender representation be regulated through legislation… as after all, the advertising of other products like cigarettes or gambling is already regulated at law?

“Ultimately, the strongest argument for change is that it doesn’t really make economic sense to perpetuate gender stereotypes. There will always be backlash… you will get consumers voting with their feet. And there are more creative, inventive ways to get a message across than simply resorting to the same old template that was invented in the 1950s…

There is, in fact, an irony in the fact that old stereotypes are still relayed through advertising. “Are we to understand that the ‘creative industry’, of all things, hasn’t moved on? As I see it, that’s a classic case of not being creative at all.”

As for direct regulation, Dr Murphy favours a multi-directional approach. “Rules and regulations can definitely play a part; but there are other ways for change to come about.  I don’t think it should be a top-down or bottom-up approach… ideally, it should be both. There is need for changes in policy, and changes in regulation. Legislation, if properly enforced, does drive change… we know that, from experience in other areas. Just a few years ago, no one wore seatbelts in this country. When legislation came in, this changed. People do wear their seatbelts nowadays – not necessarily to avoid smashing through the windscreen in the event of a crash, granted. Some might only be concerned with not getting a fine. But the culture did change, and the prime cause was legislation…”

On top of that, however, there is also a ‘bottom-up’ approach.

“Education is by far the most important tool to challenge stereotypes. Media literacy is a language like any other… so it should be taught in schools as a language like any other, alongside French, German, Maltese and English. At other levels, training can be provided for journalists, media administrators, and anyone involved in broadcasting. The EU already provides an abundance of training resources for the media in this respect, (and we in Malta have been part of EU projects which developed these training kits); there is room for local initiatives, too. Ultimately, the more educated the general public, the likelier it will be to develop an advocacy approach to issues: for instance, to object to things which don’t sit comfortably with their values.”