The Women of Ellensburg:Issues of Women in Washington State
Image of Women in the Media
The Importance of Television
Television plays the dominant role in the mass communication of ideas in the United States today. In 1975, there were 112 million television sets in use in 97% of all American homes. These millions of television sets were turned on an average of six hours and 49 minutes a day. At this rate, an average person would watch nine full years of television between the ages of two and 65,
Americans not only watch a lot of TV, but they also place a higher value on television as a source of information and entertainment than any other medium. Thus, those individuals or groups who are portrayed on television are given status in the eyes of the viewers, and the ways in which they are portrayed affect perceptions about what is right and natural. Therefore, the extent to which women are portrayed is of major importance, as are the types of women's roles in dramatic series, on network news, and in advertisements.
TV Dramas: Woman as Sex Object, Victim, or "Dumb Broad"
In a study conducted by the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania from 1969 to 1974, it was found that nearly three-fourths of all characters in television dramas were male. These men were portrayed as being middle-class or wealthy, single, divorced, or widowed, and employed in prestigious occupations. In contrast, women were most often portrayed as sex objects, as victims of violence in action-adventure series, or as "dumb broads" in situation comedies.
More recently, there has been an attempt to include women characters with professional lives and real problems; a few have even been portrayed without husbands. In particular, television producer Norman Lear has attempted to deal realistically with controversial issues pertinent to woman, although much remains to be done.
News Coverage: Woman as Victim or Opinionless Being
News coverage is not much better. A 1974 survey conducted by the American Asssociation of University Women showed that, of 4,353 striaght news stories sampled, only 523 were about women. In these stories, women were portrayed as "helpless victims of kidnaps, rapes, murders, and natural disasters ... or as opinionless, supportive wives and mothers." These findings were confirmed by a survey conducted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights between March, 1974 and February, 1975.
TV Ads: The Obsessive, Dumb Woman
Women in TV advertisements are often portrayed as being obsessive about shiny floors, clean ovens, good-tasting coffee, and sparkling laundry. Frequently, they seem too dumb to cope with everyday household chores without the help of children, men, or supernatural male symbols.
The Need for Professional TV Woman
It seems unlikely that women will see homemakers portrayed with dignity or that strong, independent women will be depicted in any profession until women are significantly involved in all aspects of television production, advertising, and newscasting. This is not the case today. In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission found that only about one-fourth of the positions in TV and radio were held by women and, of these, barely 13% were in the top four categories (managers, professionals, sales people, and technicians). In their 1974-75 survey, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found 11.7% of newscasters to be women. While the FCC has adopted formal regulations designed to rectify this situation, it has failed to adopt the guidelines necessary for the enforcement. Thus, women who feel that they are locked into low-paying jobs with little responsibility in radio or television have few recourses.
Women's Actions to Change TV
Feminists are concerned that adults as well as children will be influenced by the stereotyped portrayal of women in degrading roles, either as victims, sex objects, or "dumb broads". They have conducted surveys, publicized the problem, and challenged the license renewal of several TV stations, both in regard to programming content and on the basis of discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.
While conservative women are not particularly concerned about whether or not professional women or women in nontraditional occupations are portrayed on TV, they do support equal employment opportunities for women in the broadcast media and are concerned about sex object advertising. They also concur in the concern thpt women be presented with dignity, although they prefer that social problems be de-emphasized in favor of "success models" (people who are making positive adjustments to contemporary society). Finally, they feel that the media should be supportive of "stable family life."
The Historical Situation: Woman as Stereotype
In the past, like other mass media, newspapers did not reflect the contributions of women to American society or the diverse roles women have played. "Women's news"was frequently presented in only one section of newspapers, rather than being reported side-by-side with genuine (read: men's) news. Women reporters were often limited to writing only about women in a stepchild department that frequently did not receive a full allocation of financial or staff resources. Very few women worked in management positions. Advertisements often featured cheesecake illustrations of women, and gratuitous terms (such as "dimpled blonde," "mother of six," and "attractive divorcee") were used to describe women when similar descriptions would never have been considered for men. Job want ads were rigidly segregated by sex. All in all, newspapers reflected that women in American society were defined by their sex, whereas men were defined by their interests.
The Changes: A Broader, More Realistic Look At Issues
Because newspapers, like other media, influence the way we perceive the world rather than simply report what is happening in it, feminists have pressured newspapers to change practices that stereotype and limit women. Many papers have dropped sex-segregated want ads and have begun listing jobs alphabetically. Sexist advertising is more clostly scrutinized. Descriptions of women by the physical or family associations have largely been dispensed with, and, in addition, many newspapers have stopped using courtesy titles for women (e.g., Mrs. Jones) on second reference.
Reporting of women's issues has improved substantially. Social issues like rape, battered women, or child abuse are sometimes treated as human rather than women's issues. In some Washington newspapers, "women's pages" have been discontinued or restructured into the paper's feature section. In one case where such a section was discontinued, news of, about, and for women is now used throughout the newspaper on a random basis. (This situation does require vigilance to assure that the issues and accomplishments of women are not neglected.)
The Future: Women as Policymakers
A much more difficult matter in the newspaper business is opening job opportunities at policymaking levels to women. Few role models of women as decision-makers and managers exist. Women are rarely part of the "old boy" network through which information about jobs or interesting projects are passed, and few newspaperwomen have a mentor to guide them. The problem is not that women are discouraged from moving into management positions. Rather, women are not encouraged in the same way and in the same numbers as men.