Source: WikiMedia Commons
Source: WikiMedia Commons

In developed countries, we tend to speak of the status of women in less developed countries as oppressive and beyond comprehension. For many of us, it is self-evident that women are equal to men in terms of our capabilities, status and dignity. Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that in our own countries, there exists a persistent and clear gender bias which, though acknowledged, is proving difficult to fully eradicate.

Within the mainstream media, more and more voices are emerging which point out the numerous institutions and standards that exist in the developed world that operate on an implicit gender bias. In no case is this more obvious or unapologetic as in Hollywood. The women in Hollywood are subjected to a reduction of themselves as a sum of their physical features. A woman is far more prized in Hollywood for her attractiveness than her acting chops, with the majority of magazine covers dedicated to women featuring their faces, their bodies and their love lives rather than their insights or accomplishments. This could be attributed to a simple superficial interest in celebrities, but male actors, while also subject to a fair amount of objectification, are under far less scrutiny. Their physical attractiveness plays a significantly smaller role in their success if they are particularly talented in comedy, writing, directing or acting.

This seems superficial, but the modern world is saturated by media and women are strongly affected by depictions of themselves in popular culture. Everyday, we are bombarded with messages repeating that our bodies aren’t thin enough, our faces aren’t pretty enough, and by extension, we ourselves are not good enough. This is a harmful and damaging message, and one that is having real effects: the representation of women in media has been blamed for a spike in the number of eating disorders and increasing demand for cosmetic surgery. Apart from their focus on superficial appearance, Hollywood is apparently suffering a general scarcity in the number of strong female leads they offer as roles. Joss Whedon, director of the hugely successful blockbuster The Avengers, has spoken of his desire to make a superhero film with a female lead, stating his frustration with the state of the industry as the father of a young girl himself. NPR writer Linda Holmes did an analysis on the number of movies screening in theaters on a given weekend; 90% of them were about men, and only one of 617 was directed by a woman. As she states:

Dudes in capes, dudes in cars, dudes in space, dudes drinking, dudes smoking, dudes doing magic tricks, dudes being funny, dudes being dramatic, dudes flying through the air, dudes blowing up, dudes getting killed, dudes saving and kissing women and children, and dudes glowering at each other…what we have right now is a Hollywood entertainment business that has pretty much entirely devoted itself to telling men’s stories — and to the degree that’s for business reasons, it’s because they’ve gotten the impression we’ve devoted ourselves to listening to men’s stories

Holmes makes an important point. A large part of the success of Hollywood’s body-shaming and lack of prioritizing is our culture’s acceptance of such behavior. Hollywood is not an independent entity with its own agenda; it responds almost exclusively to public demand. The industry’s lack of preoccupation with authentic women is an ugly reflection of our own lack of preoccupation with authentic women. Hollywood responds to what we, as consumers, demand.

It seems contradictory, but women can be their own worst enemies. We ourselves need to take responsibility of rejecting the way women and girls are portrayed in media, TV and movies if we’re to take control of it. The unrealistic standards of beauty and lack of representation are clearly skewed, but the media and Hollywood have little incentive to change if we, as consumers, continue to fill their pockets in exchange for their products. Too often, we have assumed we need to change men’s minds to change the status quo, but with women having achieved the status we have, we are entirely free to choose to reject what offends us, and we have the freedom to put ourselves, as real women, in the beauty magazines and in the movies.

It is possible that in today’s world, by continuing to allow ourselves to feel inferior and continuing to allow ourselves to be controlled by an industry which responds directly to our actions, we are oppressing ourselves.
While it is important to recognize gender discrimination everywhere in the world, sometimes we also need to remember to look to our own countries and cultures and recognize the harmful norms and values that hit closer to home.

Cover image: WikiMedia Commons

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One Response

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Farah, and for highlighting this important issue!
    Although I agree with you that media’s representation of women is a danger to the way we as women see ourselves and how men relate to women, I would not fully say that it is only due to the market and a reflection of what consumers want.
    The media industry is not a free market, and does not represent perfect supply and demand. The power of the media is in great part in the hands of large entertainment companies, that, to a great extent, are managed by men. In a world where power relations in society have been historically divided up by gender, it makes it difficult to redefine these roles – and an unwillingness to redefine them by those in power.
    That said, it is incredibly important for us to be aware that we do have power as consumers to make a difference. Go see films by female filmmakers, films where women are portrayed in a different light – not as sex objects, but as strong characters, heros or villians.
    We have an important job to ensure that women and girls are portrayed correctly and redefine the media industry in the process!

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