As feminists, we’re almost constantly talking about the power of media. It has the potential to open new worlds, give voice to the voiceless, offer somebody to identify with, and shift the way we think about ourselves and others as we move about the world.
As a media researcher, I’ve seen this all in action first-hand. I quite literally watch the news and push-back against misinformation for a living, and as a feminist, it’s disheartening to see the media perpetuating myths about race, gender, class, and sexuality and prioritizing the stories of only a set group of people.
This has stunning implications for all of us. It means that the media we consume can impact the way we see our own bodies, our perspectives on races, cultures, sexualities, and genders.
It can even normalize experiences and frameworks for social justice.
By publicly sharing their stories, these women have helped to begin to normalize abortion by giving it visibility and removing some of the stigma that surrounds it. When people share their experiences with abortion, they provide a face and a story to something so heavily stigmatized that others are often too scared to admit that they’ve experienced, too — despite it being something that one in three women will experience in their lifetime.
So we find that the media has the power to do both tremendous good and tremendous bad.
These stories are powerful, and we need more of them. However, the sad truth is that the media often fails to tell them.
Although it is easy to just sit back and accept that our media is more often than not completely messed up and problematic (which has its place, too), part of our duty as feminists is to demand better.
We can’t just sit back and let the media do their own thing without critique. It is absolutely essential that we continually call for improvement — because if we don’t, who will?
It is important to engage critically in the media we consume, to begin to create new avenues for better, and to reform and smash media structures that do us wrong.
So how can we to do that?
Well, here are three things we must demand from media to start to address its failings:
1. Diversity and Representation
One of the most glaring failings we see from the media is in their failure to offer diversity and representation of experiences.
What we see more often than not are the stories of just a few. Television, video games, music, news, literature — you name it, and it will most likely revolve around the narratives of privileged white people (and mainly men).
Good media should decentralize the white heteronormative experience as the norm and represent the vast array of identities that actually exist. Real representation lies in giving voices to those of all races, genders, and sexualities, as well as the full spectrum of body types and abilities that we actually encounter out there in the real world.
We all deserve to see ourselves and people like us in the media we consume.
By giving voice, I don’t mean simply letting a string of rich white men co-opt the stories of others and create media with them. We must demand that people be allowed to share their own stories. We need to see indigenous people write their own children’s books, women penning the latest piece of hard-hitting news, trans people sharing their experiences through music. We need all of these things, and we need them now.
Great campaigns and organizations to address the need for representation in media have begun to take root. Organizations such as the Representation Project and their #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike campaigns as well as SPARK have popped up to call out the way women and girls in particular have been represented in the media — and to demand better.
Diversity in media extends beyond what we see on TV and film. If you thought representation in literature wasn’t as important as diversity on the big screen, think again. Studies have increasingly found a connection between empathy and books — so by showing more diversity in characters, we can expect people to begin to connect more with others in the real world.
This problem is so pervasive we don’t even have children’s books that address ranges of diversity. According to a study by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, of the 5,000 children books published in the United States in the year 2013, only 93 of them were by or about people of color, 34 about Native Americans, 69 about Asian children, and 57 about Latinxs — and these numbers have hardly shifted in the last ten years
That is why beyond television and film, we also see people demanding more from the books they read. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has recently made a splash by addressing the need for more racial, gender, and sexual diversity in literature.
However, you don’t need to join a campaign to do something about the lack of diversity in media. You can do your own part by sharing your stories and the stories of those in oppressed groups.
2. Complexity in Characters
Thanks to the great work of media activists and related organizations, we are increasingly seeing more diversity in narratives from our media.
However, it is also true that many of these stories aren’t doing justice to the experiences they are meant to represent.
The characters and stories of marginalized and oppressed people are very often lacking in substance. We often find that women and minorities are tokenized, stereotyped, or relegated to background objects by the media — and we should demand fleshed out, complex characters as complicated as each of us actually are.
It isn’t enough to simply show a woman of color on screen if that character only exists to fulfill a common stereotype or trope, and it isn’t enough to feature a cast of women if they only exist in the space to be sexually objectified.
Showing characters in this way has real consequences. People know what they see — so when they only see marginalized people in a negative connotation or as horrible stereotypes, they start to believe that this is how these people are in real life.
So it is absolutely essential that we demand more from these depictions. We all deserve to identify with our media, but we cannot fully engage in something that has no depth.
We need to see real stories and characters whose lives don’t fit into a narrow narrative. We need characters as multifaceted and flawed as each of us are.
To start combating the lack of fully formed characters, we first need to recognize when it is occurring. A great way to do this when it comes to women in the media is to apply the Bechdel Test: Are there two or more named woman characters, and do they talk to each other about something other than a man? If not, women are probably just there as tokens (or not present at all).
Once we’ve identified it is a problem, start demanding better by supporting media that features good depictions of a diverse set of characters. Accept nothing less than realist depictions of people who look just like you.
3. The Truth
Although as feminists, we often talk a lot about the previous two media demands for fleshed out characters and representation, we don’t talk as much about demanding the truth from our media.
It goes without saying that many of us take what we see in the media, and in news especially, at face value. We often just don’t think to question if that story we see on the news is based on facts or if our favorite magazine might be misleading us in a story to push the political ideology of their publisher.
But if my work in news media has taught me anything, it is that addressing factual inaccuracies and misinformation in the media is often just as important.
The dirty little secret of the news is that the perpetuation of myths around issues of race, gender, class, and basically everything else perpetuate many of the structural inequalities that lead to these other issues.
It isn’t always easy to make these connections, but take the media coverage around the recent Supreme Court Decision on Hobby Lobby and the contraception mandate for example.
With such a big story making its way around the news centered on contraception, many media outlets took the opportunity to push countless myths about birth control and the people who use it. We saw them tell us that the only people who need access to contraception are women who have a lot of sex while perpetuating the falsehood that contraceptives cause abortions.
Once these myths make it to the media, people start to repeat them and believe them. Then we see that leak into our popular culture — into our literature and music and basically everything else.
And that is unacceptable.
This may seem to be the easiest of three demands to enforce because on its face, addressing factual inaccuracies is simple. You just have to call it out.
However, this isn’t really as easy as it seems. Many of these myths and misinformation are so ingrained in our cultures that we don’t even recognize them as being false.
But we can all work to do this on our own by holding the media accountable when they mess up. That means calling them out, so write letters to the editor when they get it wrong, engage with media outlets on social media, write about it, and — maybe most importantly — talk about it with whoever will listen.
We cannot remain silent when the media fails us. This allows for the perpetuation of these failures and the negative impact these problems bring with them.
Quite frankly, we deserve better.
So let’s demand it.
Ally Boghun is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She is a feminist activist and media researcher living and working in Washington, DC. Ally completed both her B.A. in Communications and Art History as well as her M.S. in Professional Communications at Clark University, where she researched abortion debate rhetoric. She is also the founder and editor of Because I am a Woman, a blog devoted to intersectional feminism and reproductive justice. In her spare time, you can find her at an art museum, consuming massive amounts of coffee while writing, or trying to convince her cat to go for walk. You can follow Ally on Twitter @AllyBoguhn. Read her articles here.