For the last three years the MMP has observed that a few weeks before National Women’s Day on the 9th of August there is a dramatic increase in coverage of women and issues perceived as pertinent to women. The majority of items are usually more analytical and deal with a range of issues and subjects from violence against women to the role of women in society and business. In spite of the worrying aspect that women tend only to get such substantial coverage a few weeks before and after National Women’s day the trend is at least positive in that it displays a level of commitment from the various media to deal with and represent women in more interesting, diverse and equitable ways.
More worrying, however has been some of the recent coverage in the news media of women, specifically in three Sunday newspapers. The coverage in two of the papers supports a stereotyped heterosexual representation of women as objects.
On Sunday the 29th of July a new newspaper, the Sunday Sun was launched. Considering recent closures a new paper is almost always a good thing for the media industry and diversity. The paper’s tag line is “a lot of fun.” Next to the headlines is an image of the upper half of a woman that stops just short of revealing the woman’s naked breasts. The woman’s head and hair cover part of a special price visual that says, “Only R2”. The close proximity of the price visual to the image of the woman leaves the reader unsure as to whether it is the paper that is only R2 or if it is the woman. Directly below the photograph is the line ”want to see more?” Turning to page three reveals the same photograph only enlarged and it reveals the woman’s breasts.
It is a bitter irony that in the same newspaper there is an article “Stripping away their dignity.” The article on page 12 is about another image of naked women. In this case it is a black and white image of women in Bredell who stripped naked to protest being removed. The argument in the article is that the women have, by virtue of their age, robbed themselves of their dignity by undressing in front of men and the media. “Revulsion at looking at women as old as my mother, grandmother and aunt stripping naked (tsola style) in front of media cameras and men as young as their sons – which in my culture is disgusting.” The article ends, “But the nudity only raises eyebrows and temperatures. Women should not resort to cheap shock tactics.” Leaving the merits of such an argument aside one can only wonder as to its implications for a newspaper that sought out and photographed a young woman (of her own free will) naked.
In a similar move the Sunday World appears also to be taking the stereotyped representation of women to its extreme. Until the 29th of July, the Sunday World had been carrying photographs of women in bikinis (like numerous other Sunday newspapers) but this week they chose an image of a woman showing her naked breasts. As with the Sunday Sun the woman serves no apparent purpose in the paper other than showing her breasts.
It is not only images of women in the media that are concerning, indeed those mentioned are certainly not the only ones that are worrying, women in bikini’s have apparently just become the “norm” in several newspapers. These examples are however some of the most extreme. Sometimes headlines are sufficient to stereotype and objectify women. The headline, “Chick does fine blow jobs on the trumpet” (City Press 29/07/01 PG:18) is one such example. The story is about a woman trumpeter. The headline objectifies and sexualises the woman’s profession and ability and as such robs her of her dignity. Sadly the headline also negatively impacted on what was a potentially positive story about a successful woman musician. The headline is made all the more ironic by the fact that it appears on the women’s page where another headline asserts, “Lets honour women meaningfully.”
It is a great pity that in a country with a growing number of progressive women journalists, a strong bill of Human Rights and with a day devoted to celebrating and commemorating the role of women in South Africa that such limited and stereotyped images are not only becoming more extreme but that the “market forces” will ensure that they sell.