Friday, June 18, 2010

More on the plan for reducing global levels of machismo panel

We talked only indirectly about gender issues during the reducing global levels of machismo panel at WisCon 34 (noting, for instance,that "women are the economic heart, especially of the developing world. In South Asia, women provide up to 90% of the labor for rice cultivation; in rural Africa, women transport two-thirds of all goods that are their arms, on their backs, on their heads. In the developing world writ large, women produce 60-80% of the food." But that for the most part, females are allowed to receive education or run their own (micro)businesses only on male sufferance). We would have had an entirely different panel if we'd tried to discuss what gender has to do with global levels of machismo (and frankly, that wasn't the discussion I wanted or was prepared to have).

But Ruth Rosen's article Gender Apartheid Online (link via Echidne of the Snakes), though focused on a certain effect of gender politics, is indeed relevant to our discussion about bearing witness and trying to open public discourse to people like ourselves. She begins:
Forty years ago, feminists demanded that special "women's pages," which featured fashion, society and cooking, be banished from newspapers. Instead, they insisted, newspapers should mainstream serious stories about the lives of women throughout their regular news.

Forty years later, the new media have re-segregated women's sections. The good news is that they are no longer about society, cooking and fashion. Most are tough, smart, incisive, analytic,and focus on events, trends or stories that the mainstream online news still ignores. The bad news is that they are not on the "front page" where men might learn about women's lives.
Particularly relevant for our discussion is this:
Consider the Inter Press Service, which describes its mission as "giving a voice to the voiceless" - acting as a communication channel that privileges the voices and the concerns of the poorest and creates a climate of understanding, accountability and participation around development, promoting a new international information order between the South and the North."

Women, however, do not appear on the regular Inter Press Service. Instead IPS Gender Wire, a separate magazine, provides outstanding news about women's lives around the world. In each issue, IPS Gender Wire repeats the fact that "Women do not get half the media's attention, or an equal voice in expression - only 22 percent of the voices you hear and read in the news today are women's. In its stories IPS redresses this huge imbalance - covering emerging and frontline issues while asking an often forgotten question: What does this mean for women and girls?

The news stories that appear on IPS Gender Wire have focused on political opportunities for women in Senegal, investigated whether Namibian women are being sterilized, discussed women's debates in Lebanon about whether to don the hijab or bikini, and exposed sexual assaults against detained female immigrants by guards in Texas. And it never stops reminding readers that women are "Half the world's population, but not with half the share of wealth, well being and opportunity."

Think about it. Many of these sections are terrific and cover wonderful stories. They are not about fashion, cosmetics and wrinkle cream. But do men read them when they are clearly "marked" for women? I don't know, but the party line from writers and publisher is "of course." True, some of my male journalist friends know about some of these sites. But I can't find many ordinary men who regularly read these online magazines who even know that IPS Gender Wire exists, or who regularly click on Broadsheet. And most of my female friends have never even heard of the New York Times' Female Factor.

The quality of the writing and analysis in these "separate sections" is quite high. So what's my problem? My concern is that gender equality will only emerge when men are educated about women's lives and when women stop being quarantined as "the other." Why aren't stories that explore women's responses to the Taliban or Islamism, reproductive health issues, new forms of contraception, the growing majority of women in American higher education, or the estrogenic impact of cosmetics on women's health mainstreamed on the "front page" as part of the news about foreign policy, national security, ecology, pollution, or health care?
Well to tell the truth, I myself didn't know that IPS Gender Wire exists (though I read stories from IPS all the time). I find myself wondering why stories about women are considered gendered at all. I suppose it's one of those (gendered!) applications of metonymy that are so pervasive in most cultures. Rosen's point, of course, is about women's status: "Success," she says, "will come when women's news is mainstreamed." (This is exactly what I've been saying (for at least 15 years now) about the sf that women write: that we won't need a feminist press when work by women is a routine part of the conversation.) But what interests me particularly is this:
News about women is linked to the health of the planet, the education of half the world's population, the reproductive opportunities for or constraints on half the world's people, the hidden injuries of sex, the violence against girls and women, and the poverty of women and children.

By now, most international organizations have embraced the fact that elevating women's status though education and reproductive choice results in a higher living standard for an entire population. Sadly, that widespread and obvious consensus has not yet penetrated the news media. We will know we've succeeded when every magazine asks of every news story, as IPS Gender Wire does, What does this mean for women and girls?
Thank you, Ruth Rosen.


Josh said...

Yup, and only women have gender, only queers have "sexuality," only PoC have race. Unmarked identities aren't even recognized as identities in some quarters. I first noticed this sort of thing--the naturalization of the dominant group, I guess you'd call it--in the 1984 US presidential elections, when Mondale was accused of being supported by "special interest groups" like workers, blacks, and women while Reagan, I guess, only dealt with "general" interest groups like Standard Oil.

But I wonder about this account of the abolition of Women's Pages: it'd be news to anyone who reads the blogs or the Daily Mail.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Josh, newspapers "banned" women's sections by renaming them things like "Life" and "Style" and including columns by men. But they still had gossip columns and Dear Abby and so forth.

I read Salon these days only for the Broadsheet and frequently find myself wondering why some item in there isn't important enough for a larger article. And I never understood why Slate needed to do the XX mag -- which failed, anyway. Why wasn't that news for everyone?

But I think the news coverage problem is more than gender-related. As Josh hints in his opening sentence, there are other gaps in reporting. I could give you a long list of other shortcomings, of which the most obvious is treating disinformation as if all it needs is a balancing statement from someone who holds another view, instead of calling a lie a lie.

The core of the problem is how the media define news. And part of the definition of news is "what everybody else is covering."

In an Atlantic piece on Google's ideas for new journalism (not saving the old journalism), James Fallows quotes a Google employee named Krishna Bharat: "'Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,' he told me. 'Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.' He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things."

It would be nice if the collapse of the old journalism business led to a new, more revitalized one that covered more real news.

Josh said...

Nancy, Absolutely. But again, the Daily Mail has a section devoted to keeping women in their place (which I discovered when they ran a misleading "Rebecca Walker hates feminists" piece) that's explicitly called "Femail." In other words, it'd be progress if the claim that "All of the old reactionary elements are still there under euphemisms" were true--as we've seen with racism in the US over the past two years, plenty of people and institutions don't bother with the euphemisms.