Woman's Day Lies

I might be a month out with August’s National Women’s Day coverage, but it offers space for reflection on what was achieved. In August, and specifically around August 9, the media was filled with stories that sought to assess and highlight women’s achievements, as well as map the formidable challenges that still remain on the road to the promised land of gender equality.

Despite the important events put on by this magazine and a number of corporate, NGO and government institutions, things do not look all that rosy.
Broad observations would appear to show that the media is actually not that serious about the emancipation of women. It seems that as far as the media owners are concerned, there is an overarching view that while women are perceived as “sexy”, the jobs they do are not.

Almost all mainstream media has its hefty share of female representation with strong connotations of the body as sexual object, and this is not limited to the ubiquitous and less-than-subtle page three (or back page) in newspapers. Think of the generous space given to sexual scandal, where women are either objects of sex or obsessed with sex. Since most representations of sex in the media are of a heterosexual nature, women again take centre stage either as conquests or as temptresses - leading men to make errors of judgment in moments of weakness.

Women’s magazines could not exist without the clever technique of playing into the dominant representation of woman as sexual object while at the same time suggesting that women are in control of their sexuality. It appears that television and cinema would not survive if women were not available as objects of desire that are eventually consumed one way or another.

During women’s month and on women’s day, such images were prevalent - and perhaps even more prevalent than usual, as they had to jostle with those images of women achievers who are closing the gender gap. But interestingly missing from our urban-biased and sex-obsessed media were the images of women doing all the unsexy things that men take for granted.

Last month our media hardly stopped to think about the fact that lack of service delivery - that is: adequate housing, adequate access to piped and clean water, affordable health care, education and skills training - impacts on the large majority of women who are not on the back pages or the magazine covers. The media hardly stopped to reflect on the drudgery of unsexy domestic chores that women have to do on a daily basis, as mothers, maids and partners. This stuff is simply not worthy of coverage. Again, if a woman can uncover herself and reveal vital statistics, the media are chomping at the bit. Sexy, but engaged in largely unsexy activities!

The reason our media takes this position - which irrefutably proves that the pro-equality approach in August of every year is a big con - is that in general it has a one-dimensional view of its role in the young democracy that is South Africa. This view is one that arises form the fact that the media do not understand that you cannot claim to be a democratic society when the majority (women comprise 52 percent of the population) do not enjoy equal access to high-level jobs - I’m talking here of positions that are critical to decision making and therefore lead to resource allocation at every level, from the family to the cabinet.

Gender is still up near the top of South Africa’s inequality scorecard. And South African media still fails to recognise that apart form its democratic watchdog role it has a developmental role, in which it should focus on issues of socio-economic rights until such rights are enjoyed by all. A focus on developmental issues is quite clearly unsexy for our media, precisely because questioning power structures in a fundamental way is unsexy. It is time to sex up the fight.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at Wits University.

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