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Gender Justice, Social Transformation, and Media Reform

Women’s experience of inequality has changed worldwide since the 1970s. However, it remains unequivocal and substantial. Media and communication systems have been transformed over the same period. Yet here too, much remains depressingly familiar. More women than ever before are working in the media but few have reached the most senior positions. In any case, the relationship between media practitioners and media output has proven to be infinitely more complex than was assumed in feminism’s early campaigns to get more women working in the media as a way of ensuring “better” media content. One of the most striking aspects of today’s mainstream media culture is its privileging of personal, identity politics—in talk shows, reality television, even news and current affairs—at the expense of political or structural critique. This offers scant hope to social justice movements such as feminism, whose agenda of radical social change depends to some extent on striking a chord with citizens who access their information through the media.

Other strategies are necessary, and women have not been content merely to criticize biases and inequities in the established media. In their study of women’s media activism in 20 countries, Carolyn Byerly and Karen Ross identify a number of “pathways” through which women’s agency has opened up spaces for both media and social reform. This, they argue, is part of a broader political process in which women media activists envisage a world in which “women’s influence shapes everything from culture to social policy, advancing women in the process.”37 For instance, “women’s movement media” have certainly played a crucial role in women’s struggle around the world. Part of a global networking, consciousness-raising, and knowledge creation project, they have enabled women to communicate through their own words and images. Women’s radio has been immensely important in this project; with the possibilities opened up by Internet radio, radio can make new connections between local and global feminist struggles.38 Women’s news services on the web, as well as blogs, e-zines, and social networking sites have introduced content and opinions different from those found in traditional media. There has been a steady growth of women’s media networks and activist groups too. Many of these—for example, Cotidi- ano Mujer in Uruguay, Women’s Media Watch in Jamaica, Women’s Media Centre in Cambodia, Gender Links in South Africa, to name just a few—use research and media monitoring data to develop dialogue with media professionals so as to stimulate thinking about gender as a factor in the choices that are made in producing media content.

Drawing on the concept of democratic accountability inherent in social justice arguments, this effort has built on the influential Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), established in 1995. The GMMP provides a snapshot of gender patterns in the world’s news on a single day, every five years. In 1995 women were only 17 percent of news subjects (newsmakers or interviewees). By 2010 this figure had increased, but only to 24 percent across the 108 countries monitored. The GMMP depends on the labor of volunteers, many of whom have no prior experience of research or monitoring. Indeed, an important aim of the project is to build monitoring and advocacy expertise among grassroots groups.39 It is thus much more than a data collection exercise. By putting simple but reliable monitoring tools in the hands of activists and developing media literacy and advocacy skills through the monitoring process, the GMMP aims to be genuinely transformational.

The lesson of several decades of feminist activism and scholarship is that gender justice in the media will not be achieved by increasing the number of women journalists or by getting rid of the worst excesses of sexism in advertising. What is actually required is a wide-scale social transformation in which women’s rights—and women’s right to communicate—are respected and implemented. Social transformation is fundamental to twenty-first-century media reform. The struggle of social movements and campaigning groups around the future direction of the media—including the Internet—has reopened what had become somewhat defunct debates about the ownership and control of media and communication systems. Concepts such as the media as “public goods,” the right to communicate, and the airwaves and cyberspace as part of a “global commons,” have reentered international discussion. Creating alliances with such groups can be an important strategy for feminists, for at least two reasons. First, alliance building with other public interest groups may provide more leverage in achieving gender justice in media systems. The second reason is even more pragmatic. Despite the good intentions of those who work for media democracy, many of them operate within an implicitly masculinist paradigm.40 To the extent that such groups are successful in making their voices heard, those voices may—yet again—exclude women.

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