Strained stereotypes
Daniela Conte 23 September 2009

This paper was presented by the author at the Conference “The East and the West: Women in the eyes of the media”, organised by Resetdoc and held in Doha on April 19th 2009.

In the era of information, the mass media hold significant cultural/ideological power, influencing society’s dominant imaginary. In other words they define the norms, models and social standards broadly shared by public opinion. On this subject, the manner in which women are portrayed by TV is of particular interest. In fact, when debating the portrayed of gender, what one means precisely is the social and cultural perception commonly perceived regarding women, which means that there is inevitably a more or less large gap between the real status of women in a given society and the image presented by the media.
It is important to bear in mind that the media are per se only a means, instruments that can be used in different ways, meaning they can contribute to strengthen prejudices and stereotypes, thereby increasing the gap between reality and representation, instead of encouraging a critical analysis addressed at more fully perceiving the complexity of reality, so as to perhaps improve the social status of society’s weaker sectors, such as women.

Although according to recent statistics, in the past decades all over the western world, women have improved their status in society, television has still not been capable of fully accepting this evolution. It is as if women were the victims of a media vicious circle, portrayed and perceived as if having a weaker social status. Their opinions are therefore less important than those of men, and consequently they continue to be less represented. Generally speaking women are usually invisible on TV. In 2000, the Global Media Monitoring Project, sponsored by the United Nations to study the portrayal of women in the media at a global level, proved that only 18% of players present in the news sector were women, and furthermore that when women are present in the world of TV they continue to be the victims of a so-called “tyranny of beauty”, according to which their bodies rather than their opinions are represented. This is confirmed by the fact that politically committed women are given far less time than their male colleagues in the news sector, while in the entertainment sector one observes a normalisation of both pornography and violence against women.

According to statistics analysing the current situation in Europe, there is not a single genre of television, a part from religious programmes and those for children, in which women are provided with more space than men. Furthermore, in political talk-shows women are not only given less time, but are addressed more informally and directly by journalists, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between their professional and private roles. In other words, women are first wives and mothers and then politicians, experts or professionals. One can therefore state, with a few exceptions, that television still provides a male chauvinist portrayal of society and finds it hard to propose an alternative perspective for the more traditional stereotypes. It is however interesting to analyse what happens when TV addresses the issues of foreign women, and hence when the representation of genders merges with that of the “Other”, those who are “different” compared to ourselves. If, for example, one observes how Italian television portrays Islamic women, one becomes aware that these is a sort of multiplying effect of stereotypes. In fact due to Italian TV’s internal organisation, the absence of theme channels and its “ethnocentric” characteristics, only 20% of Italian news is devoted to foreign affairs. There are still problems in guaranteeing an adequate portrayal of foreign realities especially when these are culturally or religiously distant from Italian traditions.

An analysis of three programmes produced by RAI, “Porta a Porta”, the documentary entitled “Mediterraneo” and the programme on immigration “Un Mondo a Colori”, proves that when debating the Arab/Islamic world women are at the top of the agenda. The four most discussed subjects linked to the Arab specificity of Islam are: women’s issues, the problem of coexistence between different cultures with particular emphasis on the different way women are treated, clandestine terrorism/immigration and religion, often opposed to Christianity due to a different acknowledgment of women. A qualitative analysis of a number of episodes of these programmes broadcast between 2006 and 2008 shows that even in debates devoted to Muslim women the words most used by journalists, politicians or even ordinary people were, segregated, beaten, insults, veil, freedom, religion, hatred, human rights and extremism. This idea of violence and a lack of human rights for women is at times emphasised by the use of shocking images such as the stoning of an adulterous women in Iraq shown at the very popular “Porta a Porta” in a show about the veil.

The results of analysis indicate that there are three main images of Muslim women promoted by these programmes. A women, usually one who has immigrated to Italy, is a victim of abuse in need of help so as to change her life and addresses the violence inflicted by men; women who share a male chauvinist perspective of society and are therefore incapable of emancipation, or women who consider marriage and therefore the presence of men by her sides as their life destiny. Examples of successful Muslim women who live in a emancipated condition -and the experiences of those who involved in civil battles addressed at the acknowledgment of their rights – are instead almost non-existent. Women today find it hard to obtain enough space in the media to fully portray their own social identity nor do they seem capable of using television as an empowering instrument, because they are mainly the victims of forced stereotyping. When the women are Muslims, the situation becomes even more complicated, because there are two stereotypes that need to be overcome: the stereotype of “gender” and that of the “Other.”

Daniela Conte has a fellowship at Luiss Guido Carli university in the field of mass media in the arab world

Translated by Francesca Simmons