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Misrepresenting women

By: Bina Shah

RECENTLY I hosted a screening of the documentary Miss Representation at The Second Floor in Karachi. The documentary, written and produced by American filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, shows how the misrepresentation of women in the American media — television, film, music videos, news channels — leads to their being underrepresented in positions of power.

It’s a hard-hitting, eye-opening examination of how women are shown as sexual objects in media which is consumed 24 hours a day by children, teenagers, and young adults — and how this teaches them that women are valuable not for their achievements and intelligence, but for their looks, youth and beauty.

I believe that it was important to screen this movie in Pakistan even though it concentrated on the American media. American media is a globalised phenomenon; it influences and affects populations in Japan, in Africa, in South America, and here in South Asia. In each of these places, young people know what McDonald’s is, and who Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are. America’s largest export is not its products, but its culture. So the film has huge relevance for our audience in Pakistan.

Second, representations of women in the Pakistani media are as poor as they are in American media. “You can’t be what you can’t see” is one of the key phrases in Miss Representation, and when Pakistani women in advertisements are relegated to caring for children, washing clothes and preparing food, our girls and young women learn fast that this is all that’s expected of them in our society.

Our television dramas have direct influence on how women in power are perceived in our country — career women with independent earning power are seen as ambitious, immoral, bitter women, while homemakers dependent on their husbands’ salaries are portrayed as good, desirable, honourable.

Miss Representation showed how body dissatisfaction in women leads to eating disorders, depression and anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Pakistani women are as insecure about their looks as American women, and while in America this obsession takes the shape of wearing revealing clothing and getting nose jobs, Pakistani women worry about whether they’re wearing enough clothing, if they have too much facial hair and how white their skin is; advertisers take full advantage of this insecurity to sell them hair-removal and skin-whitening creams.

The mental health of Pakistani girls and women is not as important as corporations making money, and the media is fully complicit in shortchanging them in every sense of the word.

Disempowering women through media leads to their being underrepresented in the corridors of power: the film contains hard-hitting statistics and testimony from powerful women in politics, media, and academia about this phenomenon: Geena Davis, Condoleeza Rice, Rachel Maddow, and Jane Fonda all appear in the documentary to talk about the need to see positive media portrayals of women in power.

But then conservative news anchors and mainstream news programmes are shown leading a powerful backlash against the advancement of women in politics in a gut-wrenching montage of clips where powerful women politicians like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Dianne Feinstein and Madeline Albright were abused, diminished to their hairstyles and body parts, and castigated for being nagging, emasculating harpies and shrews.

In Pakistan, a similar portrayal of women in power takes place in our media. Female politicians are evaluated not for their accomplishments and achievements, but for their youth and looks. Take the example of Hina Rabbani Khar, who is celebrated for being Pakistan’s ‘youngest’ female foreign minister, and her sunglasses and handbags are discussed more incisively than her activities as Pakistan’s highest-ranked foreign diplomat.

Turn on any talk show at night and you will see two female politicians set against each other in a catfight, perpetuating the idea that women in power seek to compete against each other for the titillation of male viewers. And there’s no debate about whether or not Pakistani women can hold down a job and be a good mother at the same time; the media, with dramas like Humsafar, has already condemned career women as incapable of being good women, let alone good mothers or good family members.

There’s no doubt that how the Pakistani media portrays women hurts and demeans us, or that Pakistani girls and young women are being severely affected by what they see on television, in movies, and even in video games. What may not be so apparent, however, is how much these negative portrayals are affecting boys, teenagers and young men.

Without even being aware of it, young men are accepting the idea that women exist only as sexual objects, that it is acceptable to be hostile towards women both in thought and in action, and that if you do not go along with this, you are not a proper man.

Two teenage boys in the audience at the screening spoke out eloquently about how, if they try to speak out against the misrepresentation of women in the media, they are effectively silenced by their peers with the two words no boy wants to hear: “You’re gay.”

But things can change if we want them to. There is a dire need for policymakers to set standards for how women and girls are portrayed in the media and in advertising. Stereotypes, not gender parity, sells products, so we have to become aware of the media’s strong ties to advertising dollars (rupees) — and then put our money into products, services and entertainment that portray women as equals, not second-class citizens.

As responsible consumers of media, we must urge advertisers and media makers to stop perpetuating stereotypes, cementing women into boxes that grow narrower and narrower with each passing year.