Put the remote down: A call to arms against sexist media
The theater inside Beyoğlu's Pera Museum brimmed Tuesday night with an impressive mix of journalists and activists, students and academics, foreigners and locals. Among the vast sea of women, even a few male faces were visible.
This assorted collection had packed the stadium-seating theater on a weekday evening for İstanbul's inaugural screening of “Miss Representation,” an award-winning film that exposes how mainstream media contributes to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.
But “Miss Representation” is more than a film.
It is a grassroots movement. “We are uniting individuals around a common, meaningful goal to spark millions of small actions that ultimately lead to a cross-generational movement to eradicate gender stereotypes and create lasting cultural and sociological change,” according to the Miss Representation website.
And it is a modern day call-to-arms. “Using social media, women and girls are speaking out, telling their stories and influencing change. Men and boys are standing up to sexism, countering hyper-masculinity and championing women as leaders. Communities are hosting screenings and discussions to shift the cultural mindset around gender and end sexism," Miss Representation explains.
Gillian Morris, a volunteer for the anti-street harassment NGO Hollaback! İstanbul and organizer of Tuesday's screening, told Sunday's Zaman the film may dissect American mass media but the misrepresentation of women in the media knows no boundaries.
Turkey is no exception.
“We wanted to bring this film to İstanbul because we see the negative portrayal of women in the media as a worldwide problem,” she said. The provocative film has swept the US and countries around the globe, with more than 700 screenings in 25 countries since last November. In March alone, the film will be shown more than 130 times worldwide.
“The situation in Turkey may be different by degrees, but we still see tabloid magazines that objectify women, women newscasters encouraged to wear revealing outfits and a lack of strong female characters in movies and TV shows,” Morris said.
Turkish women suffer the same pressure at continuously earlier ages to personify an image of beauty cropped, bleached and manicured in Photoshop, Turkish media experts and activists agreed during a panel discussion after the screening.
A 2010 study by Turkey's Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) found the overwhelming majority of women in Turkey are disgusted by what they see on TV. In the same study, more than 79 percent of female viewers said TV programming, including commercials, most often portray women as either sexual objects or maternal figures.
One young Turkish woman in the audience lamented after the film: “Does Turkey have any sort of mentoring program? Only 20 percent of Turkey's workforce is made up of women. The rest are watching TV. And what's on TV? Wedding shows and soap operas. We need good role models.”
Other figures, relating female political participation and gender-based violence, are just as bleak.
Turkey ranks 88th worldwide in terms of the representation of women in politics, according to UN Women's most recent report. Only one of Turkey's 26 ministers is female. Female mayors and other local officials do not even make up 1 percent.
On her Turkish talk show “Liderler ve Kararları" (Leaders and Their Decisions), Zeynep Dereli unsurprisingly has sat down with a number of current world leaders. What is shocking in this day and age, she pointed out after the film, is that only 20 percent of the influential figures she has interviewed are women.
Meanwhile, 42 percent of women in Turkey have suffered from domestic violence at some point in their lives. Perhaps most upsetting, however, is a recent A&G poll that found 40 percent of women in Turkey agree with the phrase, “I would prefer to have been born a man rather than a woman.”
Morris, referencing recently deceased political scientist James Q. Wilson's broken window theory, called the misrepresentation of women in the media a broken window that, left unrepaired, would lead to other windows breaking and the eventual ruin of the building or, in this case, society. According to the criminological theory, monitoring and maintaining urban environments can curb further vandalism and the domino effect into more serious crime.
In other words, the media's portrayal of women and gender-based violence, sexual harassment and the under-representation of women in positions of power do not exist in a vacuum. Hollaback's central mission is to stop a culture of street harassment that is common to almost every community in the world. But harassment is just one building block of the patriarchal infrastructure that must be toppled.
“How people treat each other -- and especially women -- in public has a direct relation to gender relations and rape culture in personal relationships. Many social issues in Turkey, such as honor killings, hate crimes and domestic violence can all be related to the way media perpetuates a deeply damaging image of women,” Morris said.
It is not just women who are hurt in the process, experts and activists of the Miss Representation movement have added, pointing to the equally detrimental portrayal of masculinity in mainstream media.
Dereli agrees and said men and women must work together to challenge the status quo portrayed by the media. “It is not about man versus woman or woman versus woman,” she said Tuesday night. “We should not be pitting one group against another. We need to get everyone on board.”
Putting the remote down
Dereli, echoing activists, academics and political figures in the film, stressed the importance of media savvy in realizing any sort of change. “We need to be more sensible and particular about what we choose to read, watch and listen to. Then the media will have to react,” she told Sunday's Zaman in an exclusive interview.
The film also encouraged women to challenge the objectifying, mediated environment by telling their own stories, helping to empower other women and boycotting media outlets that degrade women.
Dereli, who is also the managing director of APCO Worldwide and a director of the Atlantic Council's Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum, encourages women to embrace their identity as women when striving towards their ambitions. “We don't need to be like men to be successful,” she said. “Until we can prove to the rest of men that we are as capable as them, we pretend to be them. I did it, too. But we don't have to.”
Women should be proud of their feminine roots and use the many positive aspects to their advantage, Dereli urged. “We can succeed as women. But we first need to respect ourselves and other women around us.”
Leaders have also called for individuals to be choosier in their media consumption.
During Thursday's meeting of the Parliamentary Commission on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (KEFEK), Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy Zeynep Karahan Uslu said the problem is not the visibility of gender-based violence but how it is portrayed in TV shows.
“For example, we never see a man who has assaulted his wife or family removed from the home,” said Uslu, who met with TV filmmakers to discuss the role of the media in achieving gender equality. According to research conducted by KEFEK, there are nine unemployed female characters for each unemployed male on Turkish TV series.
Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek, calling the persistence of honor-based crimes a scandal for Turkey, also advocated last week that the media be responsible for helping to create public awareness of gender equality.
Morris, who called the audience's reception to the film “universally positive,” said multiple people approached her afterward about bringing additional screenings to İstanbul, especially to universities.