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Mis(s)representation in the Danish Media

Film screening at the Center for the Study of the Americas in cooperation with the Embassy of the United States.
The documentary, Miss Representation, exposes how American youth are being sold the concept that women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality. Copenhagen Business School and the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen had arranged an exclusive screening prior to the public release the 30th of November 2011. Anita Frank Goth, KVINFOs editor at our web magazines introduced the documentary with a gender perspective on the Danish media. ito challenge limiting

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the film “Missrepresentation” – a film which has already created much debate in the USA by bringing the media’s stereotypical portrayal of women into focus, as well as looking at the consequences this has for women’s lives and opportunities for expression in general.

When it comes to women’s opportunities and women’s rights, the important role of the media has long been recognised, and the issue was already designated a UN focus area back in 1995. Today, we see many EU countries focussing on women’s rights and equality, but it’s also something we’re seeing in the Middle East and other regions of the world.

To support this, a major international study called ‘Who Makes the News?’ was instigated in 1995. This study, which is carried out every five years, investigates how women are represented in the media. In the most recent study carried out in 2010, KVINFO, together with the communications agency Kontrabande, was responsible for the Danish part of the study. The results showed that of all sources used in Danish TV, radio and on-line media, Danish men constitute 69%, with women in the minority in every single subject area. The international figure for this stands at 78%, but I’ll come back to the report later.

The fact that gender and media play a large role in affecting the opportunities women have to express themselves is something we in Denmark can see at the National Museum in Brede:

Displayed on a mannequin here are a pair of knee-length white boots with buckles, a pair of sparkly red hot-pants, and a red polo-neck sweater with matching wide white belt around the waist. It was in this outfit that the political career of Danish Social Democrat Lene Bros came to an abrupt end in 1971, when she – on a day off – met with a tabloid journalist from Billedbladet and consented to be photographed in front of the speaker’s chair in the Danish parliament:

The photographs – and not least the clothes – have since become a symbol for a political shift. Before this event, politics was a place only for mature, older women, but here in the 1970s very young women began to enter the political arena – but it wasn’t repercussion-free. If it hadn’t already been obvious , it now became glaringly obvious to everyone that women politicians would be judged by their gender.

Much time has passed since the 1970s – nevertheless, 40 years on, at a time when women more than ever can be found holding top business and political positions, this is still something that the media continues to focus on. And even though a woman can today become prime minister, it doesn’t unfortunately mean that women are free from having to tread cautiously through a heavily mined political landscape, still very much owned by men. This political landscape is a place where the camouflage outfit – the suit – still remains the preserve of men, and where the bodies of women politicians will always stand out, in different ways, bearing witness to the fact that they are something different than men.

And also outside the political arena, the fact that women find that the standards set for them are different to those set for men in was hammered home when film director Susanne Bier won an Oscar for her film “In a Better World”:

“She’s got a really gorgeous figure, and it’s clear with that dress that that’s what it’s all about. It is elegant and simple and it accentuates her figure, but it could have been a bit more distinctive.” – that’s how Lotte Freddie covered the story in Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende on 28 February 2011.

When the directors Gabriel Axel and Bille August won an Oscar for their film, the media angle was very different. Here, the men in the suits could only talk about the film itself.

But there isn’t just focus on the body – there’s also focus on motherhood. This issue has even been used as a dramatic focal point in the hugely popular Danish TV series Borgen, with female Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg as the main character in this drama watched Sunday after Sunday by the Danish population. In the series, Birgitte Nyborg’s daughter becomes mentally ill and the question arises as to whether or not someone can be both a mother and a prime minister. The tabloid newspaper BT has also been quick off the mark to publish a front-page article with the headline “It’s the kids who pay the price” plastered above photos of exclusively young women politicians from all parties who also happen to be mothers.

But, we’ve yet to see a front-page story that questions the fatherhood – or double beds – of male politicians – nor have we seen the parenting abilities of male and female politicians side by side being questioned. Former minister of business and economy in Denmark, Bendt Bendtsen, whose son Christian was charged with drug offences in 2002, could settle with the following comment to Extra Bladet (2004): “Today, too, I cannot shy away from my responsibility as a father – but nor can I keep on focussing on it forever”. We’ve also heard about politician Anders Samuelsen’s son’s cocaine abuse and about the suicides of the children of former foreign minister Per Stig Møller and of former Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen – but they are by no means subjected to the same type of denunciation.

Yet when it comes to prime minister Helle Thorning Smith, no matter has proved to be too small for the tabloids to pick up on – they’ve talked about everything from the packed lunches her children take to school to announcing her husband’s homosexuality and the couple’s ‘imminent’ divorce.

Yet again, there is one agenda for male politicians and another agenda for female politicians. And yet again, the media demonstrates that when it comes to the male gender – and therefore male politicians – gender and power go hand in hand without problems. Here, masculinity is stage-managed and rarely the subject of discursive debate.

The gender conditions within the Danish political arena are of course by no means unique. Margret Thatcher had a diary in which she meticulously kept track of her clothing. And when the American TV series “Commander in Chief”, starring Geena Davies, was being produced, a great deal of effort went into finding exactly the type of clothing that a women president could wear, still maintaining both an air of authority and an air of femininity.

We also all know who Europe’s current ‘Iron Lady’ is. German chancellor Angela Merkel has been derided for her lacking mothering skills. Hillary Clinton was labelled as ‘indecent’ in the Senate when she wore a black V-neck blouse that hinted at a cleavage. And in the book “The Confidante: Condoleeza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy” it is documented that the American foreign minister Condoleeza Rice was given a huge image make-over when she became foreign minister. The problem with her image was that people perceived her as being too severe and academic which, because she is a woman, undermined her position. Her image needed to be more compassionate. So, with the spin doctors’ clearly defined image in mind, the media were only permitted to photograph Condoleeza Rice on her numerous foreign trips when she was together with other people. And preferably in calm, relaxed settings in front of a fireplace to illustrate the soft, compassionate and caring side of the foreign minister of the world’s leading superpower.

And these things don’t just apply in politics and in the cultural world – they also apply when women business leaders appear in the media. On this subject, the responsible editor in chief at Berlingske Tidende, Lisbeth Knudsen, wrote in her blog of 14 September 2009:

“When women appear as top leaders in the media, they often do so on quite different terms than men. The men are asked professional questions, questions relating to strategy and development, and questions about the financial bottom line. We, however, are asked how we manage to combine our working and our personal lives, about the challenges of having so much responsibility and about having to undertake unpleasant duties, and about the softer side of management.”

This is a challenge that top managers such as former director of SAS, Susanne K. Larsen have often raged about. She believes that it portrays her in the media as being less competent than her male colleagues.

Turning back to the “Who Makes the News?” study from 2010 that I mentioned at the beginning, there are a number of concrete statistics:

• In 2010, a total of 108 countries took part in the “Who Makes the News?” study – 32 of these in Europe.

• Denmark participated for the first time since the five-yearly study began in 1995 following the UN’s designation of the issue as a focus area.

• “Who Makes the News?” charts the representation of men and women in news media around the world based upon a random sample study of media on a set date – Tuesday 10 November 2009.

• The report describes only the results of the journalistic practice. It does not investigate the editors’ and journalists’ reasons for prioritising topics and content, just as we lack specific Danish research examining this field.

• The average percentage for the proportion of women sources in the 108 countries stands at 22%. This partly covers countries where the overall number of sources included in the study is very low – and therefore not representative – for example, Ireland, which had 75% representation of women sources out of a total of just 10 sources studied. Jordan is the country at the bottom of the table with just 6% women sources out of a total of 766 sources studied.

• In Denmark, politics in the media is more dominated by men that the true representation of men in this area.

• 28% of all of the political sources in the media were women, despite the fact that 42% of government ministers and 37% of members of parliament were women at the time of the study.

• The role of expert is usually fulfilled by men.

• 72 % of all expert and commentator sources were men.

• With a 28% share, women are particularly underrepresented as experts.

Unfortunately, the conclusion here must be:

• The fewer professional requirements, the greater the chance a woman has of appearing in the news.

With these results here, I’ve demonstrated some clear patterns within the media landscape – patterns which not only affect individual women, but which affect us all. Just as documented in the film “Missrepresentation”. Because when we as media consumers are presented with antiquated perceptions of gender served up as incarnate reality, it means that women have more to fight against, whereas men can carry on going about things without having to think of themselves as a gender.

Or, as the businesswoman and international head-hunter Inge Bernecke points out in the book “Kvinde kend din karriere”, which is a personal guide to women’s professional planning and career choices, top women in business don’t just represent the minority, they’re also themselves extremely affected by being in the minority role. Here, she calls for a new and effective policy of equality, both within the business organisations and within society in general. And most of all, she calls for new media images – not only within newspapers and magazines, but also in different fictional media forms such as films and television series – where women are portrayed having both a career and a family life that function well. Inge Bernicke wants to see women not always being portrayed as people whose private lives become a mess when they make a career for themselves, as we see in “Borgen”, “Ally McBeal” or in “Sex and the City”.

Thank you all very much for your attention and I hope you enjoy the film – “Missrepresentations”.

Fact box about Missrepresentation

Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Missrepresentatin exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. The film challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.

While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.

Stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, entertainers, activists and academics, like Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem build momentum as Miss Representation accumulates startling facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.

Part of the official selection for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. 

See the trailer and read more here

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