Like many western countries, Australia went through its own sexual revolution in the late 1960s. Women spoke up and found their place in society, outside of family life. The taboo regarding sex and sexuality was shattered throughout the academy, arts and media with figures such as Germaine Greer and Wendy Bacon leading the way.
Greer published The Female Eunuch which problematised male perceptions of women and indeed female self-image in a patriarchal society; Bacon distributed the publication The Little Red Schoolbook which contained explicit information about sex and radicalised UNSW’s Tharunka.
In 1972, Cleo magazine was introduced. Since then, it has contained nude male photography every issue in a way which unsettles assumptions about which gender is objectified and why. As some forty years have lapsed since this era, the time has now come for an analysis of the relationship between the media and feminism: has the media helped forged a place for women or has it on the contrary frozen women out of social movements and discourse?
British theorist Angela McRobbie draws an interesting parallel with today’s new generation and the main character of Bridget Jones’s Diary. “These new young women are confident enough to declare their anxieties about possible failures,” she wrote, although those failures are often constructed as the same as a century ago: fear of not finding a husband, not having children, how women can best express their femininity. But despite these issues being hackneyed, McRobbie believes the media is conveying a ‘new gender;’ a new type of womanhood.
Such a position is not reflected in the commentary of Catherine Lumby, Professor of Journalism at UNSW. In Girls and the New Media, Lumby, quotes Susan Faludi, who “goes on a selective trawl through the mass media and finds ‘a bulletin of despair’ posted everywhere for women: ‘You may be free and equal now, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable.’” According to Lumby, the pressure exerted on women by the media is still overwhelming. Indeed, when looking at any magazine addressed to women, headlines are similar and revolve around one topic: being the best in all fields of life; vindicating one’s right to ‘equality.’ A casual perusal of the standard women’s magazines provides more than enough reminders of such a notion: headlines on the best diets (so as to achieve the ‘best’ body) and ‘how to’ folders covering issues such as how to be the best mum, the best wife, the best lover, the best businesswoman and on it goes.
Similarly in her article Young Australian Women, Anita Harris confirms that “[t]here is considerable emphasis on achievement and success for young women, and certain stresses go with this. While it is a cause for great celebration that young women have choices and opportunities to express their voices in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago, there are still challenges to be overcome.” Can these expectations themselves indeed be a form of oppression, a way of limiting the sense of agency women interpret as having in their lives?
If women are determined to change our situation, we need to focus less on fictive narrative, such as in soap operas or TV shows, and more on concrete action. As it stands, we exist in a never-ending circle as we construct ourselves through the images of women provided by the media and the self-perpetuating narratives. Constant deconstruction, reconstruction and resistance are necessary to shape more critical, diverse and positive representations of women in the media.
But we are up to the challenge, in the eyes of Lumby. With optimism she trusts the new feminine generation, who “have grown up in a mass-mediated culture and have developed highly sophisticated ways of interacting with the images and ideas.” Media keeps evolving, women have adapted so far, but we still need to develop new ways of reading the highly sexualized images we are bombarded with every day. Lumby suggests that feminists should not be afraid to learn to adapt, “Why teach women to read images in a way that makes them feel bad about themselves? Why not encourage them to make creative readings of images and to appropriate and reinvent female stereotypes to their own advantage?” she asks.
Personally, I also think we are up to it, let’s not forget the histories of change and empowerment we have forged for ourselves and the relatively recent emergence of the those media forms we are learning to mediate and engage with constructively, such as blogging, tweets, the internet, and even television. We have changed from having a limited role in public life to fully-fledged political citizens; we have received the media in liberating ways and constructed significance in its discourses based on our experiences. So let’s continue the work of perceiving media in a critical light as a fundamental means of empowering our actions in everyday life.