Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Three Posts On Women in the Media

1.  The VIDA counts for 2013 are out. Soraya Chemaly notes the good news and the not-so-good news:

Today, as they have every year since 2009, VIDA: Women in The Literary Arts, an organization dedicated to gender parity in the literary arts, released its annual count documenting the gaping divide between the number of men and women being published in literary magazines, journals and book reviews.
First, the good news: The Boston Review, Poetry Magazine, and Tin House continued to maintain their consistently balanced byline ratios. However, gross disparities continue to dominate the field (I encourage you to take a quick skim of the pie charts on VIDA's website that show The Count at different journals). 

VIDA announced a "Drumroll for the 75%ers" (where women made up a quarter or less of writers): The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books (which managed, for the fourth year in a row to have less than 20% of it's bylines by women writers) and New Yorker.

However, The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review are worth noting for the substantive changes that occurred in their gender representation during the past year. They are both examples of how awareness and concerted effort can quickly effect change.

As Chemaly points out, the reasons for the disparities can be complicated, but the percentages of men and women among those who submitted stuff into the slush piles probably isn't a crucial factor, simply because the slush pile is not the usual source for things to be published.

2.  In other news about women and media, the Women's Media Center's annual report is out.  It covers women in all media types, all the way from social media to obituaries, and in that sense works as the frame for the VIDA counts, too.*

3.  Mary Beard has written an interesting essay about the authoritative voice and whether women's voices can be regarded as authoritative in the public sphere or just as cacophony.

She weaves together examples from ancient Greece and Rome, from literature, from British and American history and today's Internet misogyny to support her argument:

These attitudes, assumptions and prejudices are hard-wired into us: not into our brains (there is no neurological reason for us to hear low-pitched voices as more authoritative than high-pitched ones); but into our culture, our language and millennia of our history. And when we are thinking about the under-representation of women in national politics, their relative muteness in the public sphere, we have to think beyond what the prime minister and his chums got up to in the Bullingdon Club, beyond the bad behaviour and blokeish culture of Westminster, beyond even family-friendly hours and childcare provision (important as those are). We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women or – going back to the cartoon for a moment – on what I’d like to call the ‘Miss Triggs question’. Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her.

The Miss Triggs question, by the way, is this:

It’s a well-known deafness that’s nicely parodied in the old Punch cartoon: ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it'

And yes, I have been Miss Triggs, in that I have experienced and witnessed that odd sudden social deafness.  If I had to venture a guess about what motivates it I'd go for the "no real consequences" explanation.  We might all be more likely to hear our boss than our subordinate, because not hearing the boss makes worse things happen to us, and being female still codes for lower positions in the various hierarchies.

I think this is changing, because younger people have grown up in a different society, with more women in positions of power.  But I may be naively optimistic here.

Beard wrote her essay as a tentative history of what today has become the often-hostile social media treatment of women who speak publicly, and perhaps because she herself was the target of some vicious attacks.  

I'm not quite convinced that the anger aimed at women (as women)  in the public sphere is just a continuation of the way women's public speech may have historically been treated in most societies.

Perhaps it is, but it could also be the case that the odd quasi-public/quasi-private nature of social media supports the angry attacks because they are being shared, because relatively small numbers of angry individuals can get together and validate their anger by becoming a supportive group.  The anger grows by being validated, and the usual restraint of social disapproval and exclusion doesn't work the same way it does in real life.

I'm basing this on the observation that a large number of political Internet comments express anger and hatred of various types, not just misogyny or contempt towards women, and that doesn't quite reflect what I see happening in "meatspace" social contexts.  Part of the explanation is that we have found out what happens when people can communicate masked, sure.  But part of the explanation could also be found in how the Internet offers people a chance to share and support not only good things and information but also their hatred and anger.


*Time magazine gives a short summary of the report with one mistake:
6.    Women had fewer speaking roles in movies in 2012 than in any year since 2007–only 28.4% of speaking roles in the top 100 films went to women. But on TV, 43% of speaking parts are played by women. Of the women who who did get speaking roles in movies,  34.6% were black, 33.9% were Hispanic, and 28.8% were white. And of all the speaking characters, Latina women were most likely to be depicted semi-nude.

The mistake is in the second sentence which I have bolded.  It's extremely unlikely that the majority of women with speaking roles in movies in 2012 would have been minorities. 

It took me some time to find the source for this (I couldn't find it in the report itself), but this looks like the source:

The percentages of female speaking characters who are Hispanic (33.9%), Black (34.6%), and Asian (34.8%) are greater than the percentages of White females (28.8%) and females from other ethnicities (16.1%).  Although we see more women from certain racial / ethnic categories, compared to their male counterparts, females in every group are still under-represented.

Granted, the original isn't terribly clear, either.  But what it means is not that Hispanic women, say,  got 33.9% of all speaking roles for women, but that 66.1% of all Hispanic actors (or Hispanic characters) with speaking roles were men and 33.9% women.  And so on.  The percentages don't add up to 100%, and they should if we are taking percentages out of the group "women."