The public face of women

29 Apr

Yesterday in the New Statesman, media scholars Heather Savigny and Deirdre O’Neill outlined the findings of their study of newspaper coverage of women MPs over the last couple of decades. It makes for sobering reading – not only is coverage often appearance-oriented and casually sexist, but it is also more often negative than coverage of male MPs. And over time these traits appear to have become more, rather than less, pronounced.

So as women’s representation in Parliament has increased (to the dizzying 22% of today), the propensity for their voices to be heard has decreased. Savigny and O’Neill find that ‘As well as a relative decrease in women appearing as the main actors in stories, in relative terms they were being quoted less in 2012 [than 1992 or 2002]’. Press coverage appears to reinforce the ‘maleness’ of the political sphere, with women MPs less likely to be included in newspapers, and often to be reported on with reference to their dress sense or their body parts, rather than their views on political issues.

These findings have come out in the week following the Times’ exhortation for more women to become involved in political blogging, covered by Charlotte Henry here. Henry suggests that a lack of female role models and fears of negative public reactions may deter women from taking part in the political conversation opening up online; Savigny and O’Neill refer to work by the Fawcett Society citing the sexism they encounter as a reason why some female MPs stand down. It seems to come back to entrenched views around what is considered an authoritative public voice, a credible representative – these remain on a default male setting.

I came across another piece in the Huffington Post where Meryl Streep (most lauded female screen actor of her generation) said that she had wondered perhaps if she was ‘too ugly’ to be an actress, and urged younger performers to be less concerned about their weight. This was accompanied by a slide show of ‘unconventional beauties’ which included Sophia Loren and Julianne Moore – these women, and others on the list, are, I would have thought, quite simply ‘beautiful’. Are our standards of ‘conventional beauty’ narrowing so that beautiful women are seen to conform to ever more limited traits? And what of the rest of us? Just as women’s visibility may finally have potential to increase across public domains, the rush to judgement on appearance – often before judgement on merit or skill – may hold back many from coming forward in a visual media age.




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