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Category: Great Women, Media Monitoring

Media Heroes Recognized

| December 4, 2011

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WMC founder Jane Fonda (left) with awards emcee Wanda Sykes; photo: Jenny Warburg

To help envision a more equitable landscape, last week the WMC 2011 Women's Media Awards celebrated today's powerful and visible women in media.

It's tempting to be passive in our consumption of media. But that's a huge mistake.

One of the most powerful cultural and economic forces at work today, popular media tends to determine our understanding of who we are and our place in the world. Yet it presents a picture that is rarely complete, and likely to remain that way when less than 12 percent of news globally reflects women and their stories, and when women only hold 3 percent of "clout" positions in the media.

Last week, at the 2011 Women’s Media Center Awards in New York City, Gloria Steinem put it this way: “The media is where we get our ideas of what is normal, what is OK, what is possible for us, what we can become.” She described the media marketplace as "the current campfire.  For all the time that human beings have been on Earth, we have been sitting around a campfire telling our stories.  And if one person could not tell their story they were not part of the group, people didn’t learn from them, and the circle was incomplete.” Steinem, who cofounded the WMC in 2004 along with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, said a laser-like focus on equality in the media should have happened earlier but that many feminists felt "turned off by the corporate media." It took a while, she said "for us to understand that we could and should transform the media."

To that end, the WMC awards honored CNN's Soledad O'Brien (Broadcast Journalism Award), CBS correspondent Lara Logan (Whole Truth Award), Frontier Communications Chair and CEO Maggie Wilderotter (Business Media Award), Howard University student Yanique Richards (Carol Jenkins Young Journalist Award), and Sady Doyle, founder of tigerbeatdown.com, who was chosen for the WMC Social Media Award out of 27 nominees by visitors to the WMC website. Jane Fonda described those honored as “women who have the guts to stand up and speak as women.  And that gives other women courage. We have to do more and more of that. Because if women will stand up, things will change.”

Women must speak out, said Fonda, because "we will not solve the problems of the world unless women’s voices are in the lead." Further, she added, “if the media shows women in a degrading, demeaning way, if violence is not taken seriously, if female candidates are covered in the context of how they look and what their hair is like and how they’re dressed as opposed to how the male candidates are referred to, this has an impact on women and girls, making us feel somehow we don’t count as much. It’s not a cognitive thing, it’s a visceral response, I think." Back in 2004, she said, WMC's founders recognized "that George Bush may not have won if women had realized that their issues were really at stake." The extreme right, she said, "does a really good job of putting out a media message that is maintained—everyone sticks to the message. And the message is very clear. Progressives don’t do that. Women need to begin to do that."

In order to help a diversity of women professionals develop clear message points and become more media savvy, the Women’s Media Center offers a variety of programs, including the Progressive Women’s Voices media and leadership training program (of which I am a proud and grateful alumnae). Fonda said that she personally “learned the hard way. I’m a movie actress, but when I became an activist, I hadn’t a clue how to go on television shows and radio and not alienate people. And so we train young people and all kinds of people to be able to speak their issue in the media in a way that resonates.” In addition, the WMC “Name It. Change It” program holds media outlets accountable for sexist commentary, including coverage of women candidates and political leaders (regardless of their politics). “If the media was less misogynistic, less sexist, I think more women would run,” said Fonda.

Comedian and television actress Wanda Sykes, who served as the emcee for the awards ceremony, said "we need a watchdog. We need someone out there to keep an eye on how we’re being portrayed and the message that’s being sent. Because a lot of it is pretty bad." Fonda is prepared for a backlash as women around the world continue to speak out. “Patriarchy is like a wounded beast. And wounded beasts are dangerous. I see a dragon tail lashing about and knocking people out of its way.” But while we need to prepare for "a long slog," she also noted that “there are many men on our side.”

WMC founder Robin Morgan said, "we're all constrained by two-dimensional information—at our peril. The greatest threat to democracy in the Information Age is the erasure, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation of women, who after all comprise 51 percent of the U.S. (and global) population.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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