Autumn 2003

Women and the media: dignity and decency? Equality

The European Commission takes steps to ban sexist imagery in the media

In June thi s year Anna Diamantopoulou, the European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, forwarded draft proposals on a wide range of gender issues for consultation by other departments within the European Commission. Among other things, the proposals, while recognising that freedom of expression must be respected, called for measures against stereotyping and images affecting human dignity and decency in the media and advertisements.

The impetus behind Diamantopoulou’s moves came out of the United Nations Platform for Action adopted in Beijing in 1995, which identified ‘the rapidly expanding media and mass communication industry as a “critical area for concern”, and one which must be urgently tackled if we are to move forward in achieving gender equality.’

The UN Platform called on governments and international organisations to research this area to identify areas for action. A study commissioned by Diamantopoulou found that although increasing numbers of women within the EU are employed in media-related jobs, only a minority are in decision-making roles. In addition, fewer women appear on television than men and when they do they are less likely to be portrayed as in paid employment and are often represented as victims of violence ‘In other words,’ says Diamantopoulou, ‘they all too often appear as being powerless or weak. And where women are portrayed as successful at work, this is often at the expense of domestic failure . . . Advertising, in particular, continues to promote stereotypical, inaccurate, negative and often degrading images of women in order to sell products and services.’

The news of these moves received a mixed reception in the UK press, ranging from straight reporting to outrage over threatened encroachments against the racier aspects of British culture. Warnings that ‘Big Sister is Watching You’ prompted world-weary sighs – from a woman journalist – that here was yet another ‘neo-prude’ coming along to spoil our fun and ‘telling us to put them away.’ In The Observer, journalist Joan Smith remarked that the measures belonged to the last century when there was plenty for feminists to complain about as far as the media portrayal of women was concerned. These days, however, she believed women are more likely to be concerned about unequal opportunities and pay in the workplace, as well as issues such as inadequate childcare provisions, than worrying about being seen as sexual objects.

Within the EU some officials were said to be strongly opposed to the proposals, which also envisaged measures that would force insurance companies to stop using gender as the basis for calculating insurance premiums or pension annuity rates.

Shifting responses
This range of responses very much reflects the often contradictory views on this issue, as well as the complexity of the issues at stake. In some quarters the view is held that things have moved on since the 1970s and 1980s, that today’s twentysomething women – and for that matter older women – are much more confident about their sexuality and are happy to show off their bodies. Therefore what is considered unacceptable or offensive in advertising has shifted, and continues to shift.

A number of commentators, including for example Australian media academic Catharine Lumby, argue that to regulate against overtly sexual media depictions of women is to cast them as victims at a time when women, in the West at least, have infiltrated the seats of power and are able to influence the agenda. They argue that in Australia (and the US), to call for censorship is to play into the hands of extreme Right religious groups who, given half the chance, would remove a host of women’s rights, including abortion. This is less of a concern in Europe where there isn’t a particularly powerful conservative religious lobby.

Another argument, and one which has been used on a number of occasions by advertising monitoring groups to counter complaints from the public, is that some of the advertisements that are considered demeaning to women are actually created by women. Certainly, plenty of magazine editors are women who could, in theory, veto fashion shoots that showed models in sexually provocative or offensive ways.

Yet there is no doubt that featuring scantily clad women in provocative poses is thought to boost sales. A couple of years ago when I was working on a classical music magazine, instructions came in from high via a (female) publisher to the (male) editor that he should feature more young sexy (female) musicians for this very purpose. The question whether women and men may be allowing the expediencies of commerce and job security to take priority over questions of conscience is an important one. Anna Diamantopoulou believes the only way attitudes can change is if more women shatter the glass ceiling within the mass media industry. ‘Studies have shown . . . that real changes in media content only become clear when women reach the top ranks in the industry. And even then, we know they face a tough challenge in changing orthodox professional, institutional and commercial practices,’ she says.

What little research does exist points to unease on the part of the public about the way in which women are portrayed in the media. A study conducted by the The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), in 1998 found that 71 per cent of people were offended by the way that women were portrayed as sex objects in advertisements, and 65 per cent were offended by the extent to which women are portrayed as needing to look slim and stereotypically attractive.

A more realistic body shape
There is also concern from the medical profession. In May 2000 the British Medical Association published a report linking the use of ‘abnormally thin’ women in the media to the rise in the number of people (in particular girls and women) suffering from eating disorders. ‘The gap between the ideal body shape and the reality is wider than ever. There is a need for a more realistic body shape to be shown on television and in fashion magazines.’ (Statistics on the number of young women suffering from anorexia and bulimia vary greatly: up to 20 per cent could suffer from bulimia and between 0.5 per cent and 7 per cent from anorexia, with the condition most prevalent among dancers, models and students of physical education.) The report found too that girls are dieting at an increasingly early age and those who dieted were more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. Other studies show that eating disorders are also on the rise in the US, Japan and other parts of Europe including the Soviet Union.

Diamantopoulou is in no doubt about the damage being caused by media: ‘We cannot underestimate the power of modern, mass media to shape the mentality, attitudes and behaviour of the whole of our society,’ she has commented. Nevertheless feedback to her proposals called into question whether there would be a basis in EU law for extending anti-discriminatory measures to cover the media portrayal of women. ‘ . . . it is not clear whether the EU has the power to act against this [i.e., the portrayal of women in the media] under the treaty of Rome’s anti-discrimination clauses . . . Perhaps it is time to consider a voluntary, EU-wide code for advertising and the media, in consultation with member states and business.’

The response from some quarters to this suggestion was that we already have a perfectly good regulatory system in place here in the UK. One sceptic is Andrew Puddephatt of Article 19 (The Global Campaign for Free Expression): ‘The way in which the media is regulated as far as taste and decency are concerned is adequate at the moment. I’m not sure if additional controls could be justified,’ he argues.

However, within the UK there is no body that oversees the complaints about issues such as the portrayal of women in print media, aside from advertisements. The Press Complaints Commission is concerned with helping individuals who may have been unfairly treated by the press. The ASA, the UK advertising industry’s self-regulatory body, adjudicates on complaints made by the public about adverts in print media. Last year out of a total of 14,000 complaints it received a relatively small amount of 1000 (about seven per cent) related to the depiction of women. The highest number of complaints (almost 80 per cent of all complaints) related to misleading statements.

The ASA states that its twelve-member council ‘makes their decisions about subjective issues like the portrayal of women and men using all the evidence available – while using common sense and making a judgement that they believe is in tune with the public’s mood.’ Yet two well known examples highlight just how subjective and slippery it is to decide whether an ad causes offence or not.

After receiving 972 complaints against posters for the YSLOpium advertisement which showed a reclining woman, her right breast exposed and her lips parted (see Eye no. 48 vol.12), in 2001 the ASA took the view that ‘the advertisement was sexually suggestive and likely to cause serious or widespread offence. It told the advertisers to withdraw it immediately.’

In July of this year, however, the same body ruled that an advertisement on posters and in the press for the airline EasyJet, which showed a woman’s cleavage with the caption ‘Discover weapons of mass distraction’ (which attracted 186 complaints, some on the grounds that it was offensive and demeaning to women) ‘was light-hearted and humorous’ and concluded that it was ‘unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.’ It is not clear why the Opium advertisements are considered offensive whereas the EasyJet ones aren’t. The latter decision has provoked anger, and accusations that the authority is inconsistent and its reasoning is biased and lacking in transparency.

Freedom of speech
The way forward is not clear. Perhaps, in line with Diamantopoulou’s suggestions, now is a good time to examine existing voluntary mechanisms and consider extending them to cover other areas of print media. Setting down rigid criteria up front regarding what is and is not acceptable, however, is neither enforceable nor desirable.

‘You can’t restrict everything through banning it,’ believes Andrew Puddephat. ‘This is where campaigning comes in. Campaigning can change public perception not banning. If you give the power to ban, someone has to administer it. This will be a lawyer or government department. They’re not always the best people to ban things.’

While it is vital for the public to have access to fair and effective complaints mechanisms, we as editors, photographers, designers and advertising people need to be more sensitive to the messages coming from the doctors and complainants. And as readers and consumers we must not forget that an essential part of our right to freedom of speech is that we are at liberty to protest if we find items objectionable and offensive.

First published in Eye no. 49 vol. 13 2003

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