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Women and girls in the media

As part of our campaign “Hope Lives in Every Name”, in partnership with Hulu’s Original Series, The Handmaid’s Tale, Equality Now’s Europe Director, Jacqui Hunt discusses the portrayal of women and girls in the media. 

The fictional society of Gilead, the dystopian setting for The Handmaid’s Tale, revolves around the sexual control of women. It is a place where ritualised rape is not only accepted, but actively promoted – by both men and women. 

But sexual violence, and the attitudes that normalise and legitimise it, are far from being fictional problems. Feeding this culture of violence are the words, images and ideas about women that are presented to us by the media every day.

In the UK, some stark and worrying figures have emerged in recent years about people’s attitudes towards women and sexual violence.

  • More than a third of people (38% of men and 34% of women) believe that a woman should be held wholly or partly responsible for being sexually assaulted if she was out late at night, was wearing a short skirt and was drunk (Fawcett Society, 2016).
  • One in five people think it would be acceptable in certain circumstances for a man to hit or slap his female partner in response to her being dressed in sexy or revealing clothing in public (Home Office, 2009).
  • Almost half (43 per cent) of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards his partner (NSPCC, 2005).

Everyday victim blaming

To find out where these attitudes are coming from, we need look no further than the news that people consume every day – in print, on TV and online.

The media plays a crucial role in forming people’s attitudes, not only towards sexual violence, but about the fundamental worth of women and girls. In 2012, Equality Now contributed to a damning report on British newspaper coverage of violence against women and girls.

Over the course of two weeks, the authors of the report looked at everything printed in 11 British newspapers about women and sexual violence.

The results paint a stark and depressing picture, with numerous examples of misleading and harmful coverage of violence against women, including:

  • Marginalisation of victims – where the report focuses on the experience of the alleged perpetrator, implicitly questioning or neglecting the victim.
  • Victim blaming – where the report attributes some or all of the blame to the victim, whilst providing a rationale for the perpetrator and obscuring the gravity of his conduct.
  • Perpetrator empathy – where the report focuses on the ‘good character’ of the perpetrator of a crime, or uses the behaviour of the victim to imply empathy for the perpetrator.

“Will anyone believe me?”

This kind of biased reporting leads to the normalisation, eroticisation and even condoning of violence against women and girls. It sends a message to survivors of abuse that they will not be believed or that what happened to them will not be taken seriously. And it tells potential perpetrators that their actions will not be sanctioned.

Individually, misleading newspaper reports are minor incidents. But the drip, drip, drip effect – which readers don’t notice – creates a harmful and damaging flood.

In the six years since Equality Now and collaborators released their report on British newspaper coverage, there have been a number of high-profile cases that have prompted widespread discussion about the way in which violence against women and girls is reported.

  • In 2013, media coverage of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius was criticised for its objectification of the victim, with Britain’s The Sun newspaper running a large picture of Steenkamp in a revealing bikini alongside its story, as some commentators noted: ‘even as her corpse was lying in a Pretoria morgue awaiting a postmortem.’
  • In 2016, Brock Turner, a 20-year-old student from US-based Stanford University, was jailed for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus. Media reporting of the case was widely criticised for its continued description of Turner as an “All-American swimmer”, while his victim, as she recalled in her letter to the court, was consistently described as an “unconscious intoxicated woman, ten syllables, and nothing more than that.”
  • Also in 2016, the Twitter hashtag #HerNameWasClodagh went viral, in protest against media coverage of a murder-suicide in Co Cavan, Ireland, in which a man stabbed to death his wife and three sons. The majority of media reports focused on the man’s role as a “valuable member of the community”, and a “quiet and a real gentleman”, while the female victim, Clodagh Hawe, was referred to simply as the “murderer’s wife”, her photo was not included in the news reports, and nothing was said about her role in the community.

Call it out when you see it

These examples suggest an increasing awareness of the bias in the media’s reporting of violence against women and girls in recent years. However, in order to truly change the narrative around sexual violence, we need to start holding the media accountable for their words.

Since 2014, Australian journalist Jane Gilmore has been calling out problematic news coverage of violence against women, in a project called FixedIt, which presents re-written versions of headlines that blame victims or excuse perpetrators.

“Journalists and editors have a responsibility to the truth,” says Gilmore. “Headlines that blame victims for the violence enacted against them is not journalism, it’s deception.”

“No one who has been raped or murdered has ever said anything, worn anything, done anything to cause the crime someone chose to commit against them. There is only one thing that causes rape or murder and that is the decision to commit rape or murder. Nothing else.”

The FixedIt project highlights the sheer scale of the problem of biased reporting on sexual violence, with headlines that require ‘fixing’ continuing to appear every single day in media outlets around the world.

The most sinister aspect of the sexual violence that underpins the fictional society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is not inflicted by the enforcers of an authoritarian regime. Rather, it is sustained and promoted by ordinary people, acting on socially accepted attitudes that encourage and legitimize rape.

As the 2012 report concluded: “Violence against women and girls cannot be prevented unless the attitudes that excuse and normalise violence are changed.”

We must remain vigilant to the way in which sexual violence is reported by the media. We all have a responsibility to examine the way that our assumptions, reactions and behaviour are influenced by the words and images that we are exposed to. 

Watch our Hope Lives in Every Name video and find out how you can help create a fairer, safer world for everyone.