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The Shriver Report – A Woman’s Nation: Why media representation matters


An earlier version of this article was previously posted at AAUW’s blog, Dialog.

The Shriver Report – A Woman’s Nation (A Study by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress) includes a chapter entitled “Where Have You Gone, Roseanne Barr?”, which discusses more than the offensive depictions of women or the lack of women’s representation in the media. While the chapter’s author, Susan J. Douglas, does talk about those issues, she goes right to the root of the problem:

Why should policy makers pay attention to media images of women? Because the media—and especially (although not exclusively) the news media—may not succeed in telling us what to think, but they certainly do succeed in telling us what to think about. This is called agenda-setting, and thus it matters if the real lives of most women are nowhere on the agenda, or if the agenda promotes the fantasy that full equality is now a reality for all women. And policymaking matters because the news media typically follow the lead of political elites in Washington. (p. 1)

This Ralph Lauren Photo recently caused a big stir
This Ralph Lauren photo recently caused a big stir

This issue of agenda-setting and constantly seeing “idealized” images of women is particularly a problem when you only see super-thin, over-emaciated models (such as the Ralph Lauren model photo re-touching outrage), glorified depictions of violence against women, or, as Douglas points out, the overrepresentation of women in high-level, high-power positions.

There is a stark contrast between women working in the real world and what is represented on TV. As AAUW (American Association of University Women) said in an announcement back in June:

In 2009, women made up more than half the U.S. labor force; yet, the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies stands at 13. In Fortune 1000 companies, only 25 women hold that position. At the current rate, it could take 40 years for the number of female CEOs to equal the number of male CEOs.

Additionally, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, women’s representation in employment as well as ownership of media is pretty dismal. True, while improved representation in employment does not necessarily mean there will be an improvement in how women are depicted and talked about in both the news and popular media, it still would be a progression for women in our society.

Female experts are not being consulted, and women’s voices are not being heard. According to The Op-Ed Project—an initiative that works to see more women represented as op-ed contributors, columnists, and general experts accessible to the media—men dominate 85 percent of the “national conversation.”

What all this boils down to is the issue of accurate representation. As Douglas states in her chapter, “these distorted reflections contain and perpetuate significant class biases by either ignoring or silently ridiculing most women who make less than $100,000 a year and aren’t media-perfect in appearance” (p. 3).

We need those accurate depictions to show what life is really like for women, not just those who have successful careers and are wealthy, but those who aren’t especially wealthy. We need to see more of those women who may or may not be in relationship, those who may or may not have a family, those who may or may not be caregivers, and the list goes on.

Issues facing women in the media are incredibly important because while these issues may seem harmless, they can have long-lasting effects on how women and girls perceive themselves as well as how society in general perceives them. It’s about giving a voice—and representation—to a multitude of experiences rather than seeing and hearing from a select few.


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