She Cannot Become What She Cannot See
Over the past week, I have been schooled, re-educated and forced to deal with the harsh reality that once again, my generation of women have failed our younger sisters. Our mothers and the women who went before them worked so hard to ensure we got to where we are today – educated, earning and making a positive impact in society.
However sadly when we got where we were going (or at least thought we were there) we forgot to look back and pick up our younger sisters. Alberta who sits on The Big Breakfast from time to time made me look at the news through the eyes of a 23-year-old for the first time ever. I don’t like what she’s seeing.
To hear Alberta articulate what it takes for a woman to be in the news was enough to make me cringe. What an indictment! Women in the news are silly, whinny, pathetic to behold, fodder for comic relief and crazy. Men in the news are smart, achieving, progressive and bold. Now, I’m not one to take the words of a 23-year-old as gospel truth, especially one who tells me she’s never heard of all the great women I know, admire and work with.
Deborah Mallowah? No – yet they drink beer. Patricia Ithau? No–yet they use Dark and Lovely hair products. Isis Nyongo? No- yet in their day, they have watched MTV, used Google daily and get their content on their cellphones. Any connection there to smart, great, fun, good looking women? No!
My heart sank when Alberta admitted she didn’t know Captain Koki Mutungi. Worse still, Alberta added “however, if she crashed a plane, maybe then she would make news”. Harsh – but true. Unless a woman is a phenomenal train-wreck, she doesn’t get media coverage. Those of us who already have jobs in media don’t count – so Julie Gichuru, Carol Radull, Carole Mandi just happen to be in the news because we are part of media.
But like I said, I’m not one to take the words of some 23-year-old seriously – I had to do some digging, some reading and some soul searching as well. A recent Unesco report describes the litany of common images of women in the media: “the glamorous sex kitten, the devious witch, the pitiful romantic, the hard-done in naïve fool who didn’t have a plan”.
Popular magazines aimed at male and female audiences are a prominent culprit, tending to feature women with bodies that are unattainable for the average woman, and focus on stories related to either catching or pleasing a man as a route to success and happiness. The Canadian Health Network found that the average female model is not only much taller than the average woman, but weighs nearly 25 per cent less.
The Media Awareness Network, a research and advocacy organisation, found that women’s magazines are ten times more likely to contain articles and advertisements related to dieting than are men’s magazines, and that three-fourths of women’s magazine covers feature articles about overhauling one’s physical appearance.
When the Australian magazine New Woman departed from usual procedure and ran pictures of overweight or even normal weight women, they received letters overwhelmingly in support of this realism from readers. However, advertisers reacted negatively, and the program was discontinued.
Television is also a culprit, despite gains in recent years. Most heroes and protagonists, particularly in prime time programming, tend to be male. Studies indicate that nearly three-quarters of all female characters in sitcoms are underweight, and those that are overweight are often the subject of comments or jokes about their bodies made by male characters. One study found that 80 per cent of these comments were followed by canned laughter.
The problem is not just the images that are portrayed, but also those that are not. For example, women’s sports receive far less air time than men’s sports on network and cable programming. I remember Radull getting stick for not profiling our women’s basket ball team – didn’t know we had one. Yap – guilty as charged.
The film industry is seen as not only pandering to stereotypes, but also discriminating against women in leading roles. The number of roles for leading women is far below that of men. Women continue to be underrepresented both in the ranks of professional journalists and as the subjects of “hard” news stories. Hard news refers to political and economic stories; soft news refers to lifestyle, home, and family stories.
The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) found that in the period 2000-2005, 57 per cent of news presenters were female – hello Citizen TV – that number is probably 95 per cent. But only 29 per cent of all news stories were written by women. The GMMP also found that only 32 per cent of hard news stories were either written or covered by female journalists. The Unesco report, released in 2009, states that, at the current rate of progress on stereotyping women, it will take another 75 years to achieve gender equality in the media. Not on my watch.
Now before we all start yapping as usual about “the problem” with media and male editors, I want to send a challenge out to my fellow professional women, women editors, bloggers, journalists and television hosts. To the professional women – please stop hiding, you do no-one any favours by allowing the negative stereotypes to prevail – in fact have you ever thought that those images also represent you? Yeah I said it! Every daft woman who gets more airtime than you, represents you too. Don’t be like the silly women who listen to rappers talking about “hoes” in songs and say “they’re not talking about me”…yes they are!
To women editors, when the ladies that matter show up, please do proper stories about them – the colour theme in my living room is great, but really? Really? To journalists and television hosts – my beauty regime can be Googled, my finest recipe can be found in my kitchen or a cook-book done by Susan Kamau, the number of shoes I own is irrelevant.
However my take on financial matters, the growth of the sector I work in, the need for change in policy on matters that affect all of us, my arguments on the health and education sector and my top ten books to read are very relevant. We must do our part, if we don’t want to ever see the girls who are 15 now, also resort to the daftness that is Campus Divas of the single-cell-brain. Those girls are an indictment on all of us. You cannot become what you cannot see.
Those girls right now are our biggest representation – accept it – deal with it. However, If you believe we have been misrepresented then start acting and for heavens sake support the various Susans, who seem determined to change the trend. What’s that? Which Susans, you ask – oh you know - Susan Mudhune, Sue Muraya, Sue Omanga, Susan Githuku, Susan Maingi, Susan Kamau and Lady Justice Njoki Susan Ndungu (yap, she’s a Susan), just to name a few. These women are trying to get us to change our lot and impact and influence a generation of women who will represent the image of women in Kenya as we truly are – phenomenal and fun - and we need to stand by them.
Incidentally – I don’t know why they are all called Susan – I just noticed the other day. In fact Miss world Kenya 2011 was Susan Anyango. In my lifetime, I hope to see a lot more girls who want to be “a Susan” rather than “ a Kim Kardashian”. As Alberta said, “the odds of a young girl making it as a professional are a lot higher than those of being Nicki Minaj”. Enough said.