by Leti Boniol
(this article first appeared in “Women in Action? No.1, 1998)
It is a never-ending story, like a refrain that is played again and again. Through the decades, in so many survey reports, conference proceedings, books and newspaper articles, both in developed and developing countries, feminists have documented and decried commercial media’s treatment of women and stories that have perpetrated violence against them. It seems that their battles have not yet been won.
Two Canadian women said, “very calculated decisions are made at every stage of construction of media violence.” Shari Graydon and Elizabeth Verrall, president of Media Watch in Canada and Canadian English teacher, respectively, in a curriculum kit released by the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario, wrote, “violence is made to seem appealing, often linking it with power and pleasure. In the electronic media, violence is a quick way to resolve conflict within a given time-slot.? They said that violence through the media can be verbal, physical, psychological, and/or sexual. Aid violence against women, subtle or overt, is often portrayed in the media. Take a look at how Asian media practitioners and experts see the violence against women perpetrated in the media. Reports collated from papers presented at the Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy held in the Philippines in July 1997 give the following sampling.
- Sports newspapers in Japan sell the most number of copies because of pictures of nude women and sex stories. Rape is covered in sports papers only when murder is involved and the victim is usually named. The stories do not use the word “rape” but the Japanese term for “mischief.” Publications that target boys and adolescents carry messages of aggression and violence. These same messages are also on television and in print cartoons, computer games, school supplies, pillows, chopsticks, and stationery. The television programs and publications are also very popular outside Japan. Television programs sold as family-oriented shows feature women in bikinis trying to climb up a slope. The camera focuses on their hips, legs and buttocks.
- The increase in rape cases, including rape of children, and harassment in the streets of India is linked to the way women are projected in media. Films, the major source of entertainment in India (the world’s largest source of films), and television programs always revolve around sex plots and divorce and bigamy themes to excite and entertain audiences including young viewers who are highly impressionable.
- Pornography is illegal in Thailand but porn magazines are always available to those who seek them. In fact, they shamelessly proliferate. Even newspapers and magazines that tackle political and social issues have started to carry articles on nude models to increase readership. Publishers of pornographic materials have succeeded in evading the law because of the flawed definition of obscenity in the 1928 Bill on the Suppression of the Promotion and Trading of Obscene Materials. The Thai press still regards pornography as a non-issue. While a press council is already being formed to a code of conduct for newspapers, sexism is not among the issues being covered. Moreover, the law only protects child suspects and victims of rape, child abuse and child murder. In some cases, newspaper and television reporters compete to take pictures of the girl victims.
- In Indonesia, the number of reported cases of rape between 1980 and 1993 has increased by 15.67 percent each year, making it the number two crime in this country. In reality, rape is the number one crime because there is a far bigger number of unreported cases. One of the major reasons why a lot of rape cases remain undocumented is the stigma associated with rape especially when it is covered in the media.
- Photographs and cartoons of women are almost exclusively negative and normally offensive in Cambodia. Photographs of naked women and girls are regular features of some newspapers and magazines. Naked photos of Western women appear to be included for their freak value and often feature women with abnormal bodies. Cartoons featuring women tend to concentrate on their sexuality as the content of jokes. The second most popular daily newspaper publishes pornographic stories on page two every day. The text explicitly describes sexual acts and female genitalia in offensive terms and is always accompanied by explicit drawings of women and men engaged in sex, including rape scenes. It is common for the men to be dressed in military uniform and armed and the women naked.
- In Mongolia, domestic violence, sexual abuse and harassment are not often portrayed substantively. Yellow newspapers constantly write about rape and domestic violence to ensure sales. Many pornographic newspapers that copy Western formats have emerged. Prime time television shows depict a lot of uncensored violence and pornography.
Similar litanies can be gleaned from reports from the Philippines and other Asia-Pacific countries.
Changes in the Coverage
But while the litanies may be long, there have also been positive developments.
- Over the last two years, awareness of women as victims has increased in Cambodia, the Women’s Media Center of Cambodia (WMC) reports. The number of positive stories has increased while negative stories have decreased. The center attributed this to lobbying, journalists’ workshops, and the positive image of women on television and radio.
- Since 1992, media practitioners say that the time given to women’s programmes in Malaysia has increased. Current affairs television programmes have dealt with issues such as Muslim women’s rights and women trafficking. But stereotype has remained.
In print, although women are no longer confined to cooking and beauty and fashion and now tackle women’s rights, health and politics, they still do not make the news. Efforts by women media practitioners have changed particularly the English language dailies. Women activists network with media practitioners to raise awareness on key issues of concern to Malaysian women. Starting in 1985, a coalition of women’s groups campaigned for nine years addressing several issues: domestic violence, sexual violence, pornography and sexual harassment. Media support, particularly its focus on rape and domestic violence, maintained public awareness.
- In South Korea, women are now increasingly projected as active, self-confident, and professional due to the efforts of feminists and changing life-style. But the distorted and despised image of women has not improved over the years despite all the promises, says a paper presented by Kyung-Ja Lee, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism and Communication, Kyung Hee University in South Korea. The portrayal of women as sex objects is also an emerging issue.
- Sudip Mazumdar, Newsweek correspondent, reports in a 24 November 1997 article that “the Indian film industry, the second largest producer of cheap popular dramas, is having second thoughts about gore.” Western film imports, he says, are now driving many of the improvements in Indian theater. Feel-good movies are in, violence out.
Sylvia Spring, a feminist connected with Media Watch-Canada, said during the Asian Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy that gender and media-related issues have not changed. What is changing is how the issues are being played out. There is more subtlety. While there may be no more naked women in the media, the stereotypical portrayal of women remains “insulting”?
In the Philippines, a feminist journalist says that Philippines media’s coverage of women has improved in the 1990s with more journalists conscious of their handling of sexual harassment and rape cases. However, at least eight tabloids churn out hundreds of thousands of copies daily with semi-naked women splashed on their front and inside pages and lewd stories. And more are joining the pack.
“The media does not just reflect reality, it operates at a far more fundamental level to legitimize existing social relations, indeed, to create a reality,” Allison Gillwald, lecturer at a South African university, in a 1994 article, “Women, Democracy and Media in South Africa” (Media Development, 2/94).
Gaps between Policy and Practice
There may be media policies but these are unclear, inconsistent, or lacking in gender-specific provisions. They are also largely ignored.
- In Cambodia, a national press law was passed in 1996. Two journalist’s associations have their own codes of ethics and committees that monitor their implementation. But no policy specifically refers to the coverage of women. Obscenity, vitriol, and the portrayal of women as sex objects violate Articles 7 and 14 of the press law. Article 7 prohibits the publication of obscene texts or pictures or graphically violent material and Article 14 says that the press “should not publish anything which affects the good customs of society, primarily words directly describing explicit sexual acts, drawings or photographs depicting human genitalia or naked pictures, unless published for educational purposes.” Those who violate the policies are not punished.
- In Australia, there is no clear-cut government guideline for the portrayal of women in the media, partly because subjective areas like “taste” and “decency” have proven difficult in the past. The government took steps between 1986 and 1993 to address sex roles stereotypes and promote positive images through consultation, research and the establishment of National Working Party to handle the portrayal of women in the media and in advertising. Guidelines on sexist language, reportage of violence against women, recognition of changing gender roles, material that incites violence against women and a commitment towards discussing domestic violence were adopted and developed by media and advertising organisations. Accredited requirements and film classification systems supplemented the guidelines. But government efforts ceased in 1993. The introduction of competition legislation in 1995 caused the collapse of the system regulating advertising standards.
- In Indonesia, the mass media operates under self-regulation in matters of decency. But the same may not be said of the national attitude to issues of violence against women. Marital rape is not a crime. While it can be reported as “assault” social norms do not often support this. US State Department investigations reveal that marital rape and domestic violence are poorly documented in the legal system as well as in the media. There is no sexual harassment law and the issue is under-reported in the media.
- In Japan, there are no laws on pornography and rape coverage or guidelines on gender issues in news organisations. Organisations practice self-regulation.
- In Malaysia, there is no law which spells out clearly how rape and violence against women can or cannot be portrayed. The law bans pornography and the Advertising Code prohibits “indecent exposure”. But these can be ignored or circumvented. Media organisations practice self-regulation sporadically and often only when there is public complaint. “Concepts and specific words are not clearly defined”, according to Zohara Gany Bathusha, controller of Radio Television Malaysia. Interpretation is thus usually up to the discretion of enforcement officers.
- In Thailand, there is no law on the coverage of crime against women, none on the news coverage of rape and violence against women, and there are no provisions or guidelines for non-sexist language in the media. There is a law on pornography and rape coverage is supervised by the police department, which also works as a film censorship board. But soft porn is still pervasive, especially in Karaoke footages.
“The women-media relationship can only be analyzed, and successful strategies for changing it can only be developed, if we can take into account the entire cultural, political and ideological spectrum and study the economic context in which this particular relation (media-women) is created and takes shape”. Gillwald said.
Meena Shivadas of the Asia-Pacific Development Center says that “While it is important to strategize and pressure for changes to the women and media situation with our reading and understanding of portrayal and representation, it is equally important to understand the implications of global processes of deregulation and developments in new technology. This is in order for us to locate the strategies within the framework of globalisation and new technology which have given new dimensions to freedom of expression.”
With all the media experts and practitioners doing their share, will change be far behind?
- Bathusha, Zohara Gany. “Women and Media: Malaysia Country Report.” Paper presented at the Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy, Manila, 30 July - 2 August 1997.
- Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario (FWTAO). Curriculum Insert. Curriculum (Vol. 13, No.1, 1994)
- Lee, Kyung-Ja. “Women and Media in Korea: Some Issues and Policies.” Paper presented at the Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy, Manila, 30 July - 2 August 1997.
- “Antipolo Declaration on Women and Media.” Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy.
- Shivadas, Meena. “From Here to There to Everywhere? The Effects of Globalisation on Women’s Traditional Roles and Media Images.” Paper presented at the Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy.
- Undarya, Tumursuh. “Country Report: Mongolia.” Paper presented at the Regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy.
- World Association of Christian Communications Background Report on the regional Conference on Gender and Communication Policy.