ICM836 Day 7 (6/20): Global Feminism and Fields of Feminist Media Studies

Research, Teaching

Preface: What Global Feminism Means to a Global Development Professional?

This week, our professional is Catherine Borgman-Arboleda.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 5.01.07 PMCatherine is a co-founder of Action Evaluation Collaborative, and has nearly 20 years of experience in NGO and non-profit evaluation, planning, and training.  Catherine has led evaluations for major foundations, international organizations and NGOs, as well as smaller grantmakers, organizations and collaboratives.

Catherine also has significant experience leading and managing small NGOs and non-profit organizations, most recently serving as the Co-Executive Director of the Center for International Media Action (CIMA).  Catherine has a Masters in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. She is fluent in Spanish and Italian and recently moved from Brooklyn, NY to Merida, México.Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 5.12.25 PM.png

Examples of recent work include the design and implementation of:

  • An Action Learning strategy for the women’s empowerment organization WomenStrong International, for partners in India, Kenya, Ghana, Haiti and Washington DC.
  • A participatory monitoring and evaluation system for CARE USA’s project on eliminating child marriage in Nepal and Bangladesh.
  • A learning and evaluation strategy for Palm Healthcare Foundation’s Collective Impact initiative, Healthier Together.

This is what Catherine told us:

Global feminism to me is about connecting and contributing however I can to this surge of knowledge, action and love which is fueling women to define feminism on their own terms and in their own images. At it’s core, it is about aligning a view of the world grounded in collaboration, empathy, nurturing, strength and creativity with action.

Personally, it is about struggling to understand what feminism means for myself, my daughters, and those close to me. It is about making space for introspection and reflection, and searching for my own truth, often uncomfortable and complicated, and realizing that this is ok and part of the process of embracing a new way of knowing.

Can you, as a [future] international professional, relate to Catherine’s views?


Introduction: One More Tension

Finally. We have reached the point of the course in which we finally focus on the media and communication technologies. Our title for today is:

Global Feminism and Fields of Feminist Media Studies

We have discussed those 3 (or more) waves of feminism, that could be summarized as:

  • Equality feminism (buzzword: “equality”)
  • Radical feminism (“difference”)
  • Post-modern…. post feminism (“diversity”)

We have discussed several tensions within feminism and feminist studies:

  • global-local
  • theory-praxis
  • general- specific/individual

Let me now introduce you to one of the most basic tensions (and foundations) of feminist studies; one that has all to with why we have “feminist media studies”.

  • sex – gender

… As we know already:  Sex = biology; gender = socially constructed. This tension is not new to you, I’m sure. The idea of nature vs. nurture influencing one’s identity and social development is an ongoing debate.

The early, first wave feminists advocated the abolishment of discrimination based on one’s sex (why can’t women vote?).

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The year 2017 marks a century of women’s voting rights in New York. http://www.desertsun.com/insider/extras/2017/06/07/meet-women-who-fought-vote/102582054/

The second wave of feminism (and feminist studies), in turn, got very interested in how gender is constructed in societies. The classic I’m sure you have heard about, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1952), was the seminal text to outline the ways in which gender is constructed (here is the introduction of the book for those interested). In other words, gender is the cultural form of identity, not a biological one: The aspects that a culture, a society, holds as feminine and masculine have a great influence on how one develops one’s identity.

One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. – de Beauvoir

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Later, in the late 1980s, Judith Butler introduced the idea of gender as “performative”. Take a look at this 3-minute explanation:


Butler has written about the definitions and understandings of sex-gender-sexuality and notes that sometimes sexuality may have little to do with gender (she gives the examples of “butch” and “femme”; of certain transsexual identities); sometimes gender norms are used strategically to gain power positions. Her view, very much a third-wave, post-modern one, is that while gender norms are culturally forced upon us we can also resist them, choose individually. Some talk about gender as a continuum and ever shifting, as an array of diverse positions.

Enter the media.

Whatever you may think of gender as performative, feminist media studies generally recognize that mediated content (from tweets to news stories to reality shows) both reflect the society and re-construct ideas and values, for instance about gender. That’s why we need to study the media.

Different notions of womanhood, femininity, and gender have been much discussed in the (Western) public debates lately, and also portrayed in the media. Here’s what director Jill Soloway said this week about her series Transparent, in the Lenny Letter online feminist magazine by Lena Dunham (of Girls – another example of popular culture where gender and sexual identities are a central part of the plot).

I think all girls feel weird. Actually, so many people of all gender identities feel odd and weird, don’t feel natural about sex. The script became an idea for me, like an entering-into-evidence in the court of public opinion, like testimonies.

They’re saying, “This is where my shame comes from.” That’s what I wanted to film, and I wanted to obliquely treat each image as if it were a photograph dropping onto another photograph in a courtroom, maybe a courtroom of the world. I hope it feels like a ride where every time you want to stop and see more, you can’t because we’re moving so fast.

In a way, all of us are on trial for being weird. Directing the episode felt like the making of a document, with a sort of weaponizing feel, something zealous meant to raise hackles. I always wanted to be a lawyer but as a little girl felt too dumb. The bar exam seemed impossible.

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The following is a quick systematic run-through of how we can dissect feminist media studies, and consequently choose and use theories and methodologies that speak to our interests and concerns. These waves have historical starting points but still co-exist today. The below are crude generalizations but illustrate the points. I have also included examples of seminal research as well as current issues that are debated today.

Three Ways/Waves of Looking at Feminist Media Studies

One way to look at feminist media studies is to understand different research approaches related to the three waves.

1. Equality feminism and media studies

Typical concern: women’s presence/absence vs. men’s presence/absence in the media, as professionals; in terms of representations.

Typical method: quantitative content analysis: how many women, how many men? How many women reporting on “hard news” (politics, crime, international news, sports)  as men’s domain; vs. human interest, “soft” news as women’s domain.

An example: The Global Media Monitoring Project.

GMMP is the world’s largest and longest-running research and advocacy initiative for gender equality in and through the news media. Since its inception in 1995, every five years the GMMP has documented changes in relation to gender in news media content. It includes some 100 countries and analyses women and men as news subjects and newsmakers. Here’s a summary  fact sheet of the project and below a summary table of the core findings since 1995. The table shows that women comprise some one fourth of news subjects, and that their visibility in the news, globally, has not increased dramatically since 1995. It also indicates that online media are no different from legacy news media:

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An interesting example from the realm of pop culture is the study on Disney princesses and how much they get to speak in the films, vs. male characters. This is arguably a global issue given Disney’s global reach.

A more concretely alarming auto-ethnographic study, published a few days ago by the Harvard Shorenstein Center, documents the inequalities and dangers women journalists face in some Muslim countries. It begins like this:

From 2009 until 2014, I was a journalist working for media outlets with foreign audiences, first for the Islamic Republic’s state-run English media service, Press TV, and from 2011 for Bloomberg News and The National, a major regional newspaper based in Abu Dhabi. I was a member of a tiny group covering news from Iran in English.

During my time reporting there were moments when I realized that because of my job, my identity as a member of society—and indeed my life—could be threatened because of my gender.

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2. Radical/Second Wave feminist media studies

Typical concern: Interpreting media (texts) through a feminist lens. Appreciation of popular culture as “women’s culture” (e.g., soap operas, daytime talk). The idea that there is something such as the male gaze through which many films are constructed (voyerism of sorts, women are portrayed as being watched by men…)

Typical method: qualitative close reading; other qualitative analyses

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 11.17.24 AMAn example: This example is not necessarily “typical” in that it represents a multi-method analysis of media industries as well as feminist agendas (while plenty of feminist analysis has focused on content); conducted via interviews and textual analyses. But it became a classic study of the second wave, about gender construction and “negotiation”: Defining Women by Julie D’Acci.

Defining Women explores the social and cultural construction of gender and the meanings of woman, women, and femininity as they were negotiated in the pioneering television series Cagney and Lacey. Julie D’Acci illuminates the tensions between the television industry, the series production team, the mainstream and feminist press, various interest groups, and television viewers over competing notions of what women could or could not be–not only on television but in society at large. Cagney and Lacey, which aired from 1981 to 1988, was widely recognized as an innovative treatment of working women and developed a large and loyal following.

It is interesting that the “women-specific” approach is still (or again) being debated and experimented with. From the news a few days ago:

This week, The Washington Post launched The Lily, a publication that is directed at millennial women. It is named after the first American newspaper for women launched by Amelia Bloomer in 1849. The site, which is hosted on Medium, mainly consists of Post stories that editors think will appeal to young women. It also includes original content, such as a personal essay by Post columnist Margaret Sullivan on advice from her mother that helped Sullivan to break multiple glass ceilings.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 10.28.56 AM.png

The columnist reporting of the development notes:

[P]erhaps this is the problem: The whole concept of women’s media seems to narrow, rather than expand, what is considered a millennial woman’s issue. It fails to acknowledge the fact that issues like welfare, minimum wage, foreign policy, and health care are all inextricably intertwined with gender issues.

3. Third Wave (post-modern) feminist media studies

Typical concern: gender as performative, created, resisted, a site of power struggles, fluid, with diverse meanings… Layers of power that intersect: gender, sexual orientation, class, race, age, geography… Active audiences actively constructing meanings (not just passively being manipulated by media representations).The question of the body in representations.

Typical method: Multi-method, multi-disciplinary…

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 11.41.58 AMA random example:  “Take That, Bitches!” Refiguring Lara Croft in Feminist Game Narratives.

Since Lara first “bust” onto our screens in 1996 in Tomb Raider (Edios Interactive), she has been a focal point for critical debate surrounding the representation of the female protagonist and the gendered body in games. Nearly twenty years after her first appearance, the 2013 version of Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics) remakes Lara with a new body, a new author, and has sent her out towards a new generation of fans. In line with attempts by the games industry to provide a more appealing female protagonist, Lara has been significantly altered physically and in terms of her attitude, but what is perhaps most striking is the way that her narrative has also been redefined by a female writer, and then taken even further by a more gender-savvy fanbase willing to give Lara a second chance.

I chose this example as it highlights how feminist media studies is a strand of game studies (inter-disciplinary), with the focus on a game character and the body, and with regard to audiences and their changing gender savviness.

The issue of gender and gaming has been in the news quite a bit in the past days, due to the massive E3 Entertainment Expo that just took place last week. (Remember: Gaming is an immense, global, and ever growing segment of media industries.)

It seems that since GamerGate in 2014 — a set of events that revealed horrendous online harassment targeting a female game developer and a feminist game a critic — the issue of gender and gaming has been debated and discussed in many fora. Perhaps also because women constitute a lucrative market for games. And that, in turn, has evoked research like this, proving that women are equally skilled as gamers as men:

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 9.40.57 AM.png

What Are We Missing?

You guessed it. The truly global angle. Apart from the Global Media Monitoring Project, relatively few research efforts have tried to understand women and the media, gender and the media, gender and communication technologies in a comparative global context. (There are reports about media, gender, and development, and internet use and gender, but those are often statistics rather than scholarly analyses.) Admittedly, comparative research is difficult to organize and costly to execute. And, there have been some studies on the impact of globalization of the media on the Global South, as well as feminist analyses of diasporic communities, gender, and the media. Still, the idea of global feminism is to a great deal absent in the Western-dominated feminist media studies.

In addition, there are relatively few studies on the political economy of the media and comm tech, from a feminist perspective. As Micky Lee (Chapter 11, Current Perspectives…) notes:

The ultimate goal of feminist political economy is to understand why women are poor and how a distribution of wealth is essential to women’s status. (…)

Many scholars, politicians, and non-profit organizations have hailed new ICTs as solutions to women’s poverty… There is less focus on who benefits form the consumption of technology… Why are Microsoft, Google, and Facebook mostly headed by white men?…

A case in point, right now in the news, Uber:


And, Leslie Reagan Shade continues (Chapter 17, Current Perspectives), the above is especially relevant when we think of regulation and other policies related to the media and communication technologies. Are they supporting access and perhaps promoting more fair gender portrayal in the media? She writes this as a scholar who studies media policies but also social movements (sometimes called media reform and/or media justice movements) that see the media (access to, representation in) as a social justice issue and seek to influence policies and practice from that angle. (I regularly teach a course on Media Reform so if interested, feel free to check out the blog here).

Both media policies, and political economy at large, can be considered a major issue for global feminism and the media.  They very much align with the very complex and complicated field of development  communication, or, as the newer term goes, communication for social change. Very often these fields walk on the tight rope between a tension we already know about, that of theory and praxis — they seek to gather information, and develop frameworks, that can help in changing things for better.

Here’s a great 3-minute video that I can’t stop sharing, on the media’s impact in international development. When watching it, just think of the 4 ways in which the media influences development and try to imagine an example of media, gender, and development; whether in terms of political participation; education and other information sharing; mobilizing and organizing; and understanding other cultures and experiences:


So the entire idea of Global Feminism and the Media is an idea in the works. While important, it struggles with these tensions (global-local; general-individual; theoretical-practical; sex-gender), perhaps more than any other strand of feminist research. While the West may theorize about performative gender, sexual discrimination can be a case of life and death in some cultures.


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As you have learned early on, your assignment this week is to review the very successful mediatized attempt to draw attention to gender inequality and women’s issues world-wide. There’s method to the madness: We are now bringing together everything we have learned so far.

You will review the book Half the Sky — but feel free to explore the related PBS documentary series, the game, and so on, and reference them if you wish The link to the “movement”  (Turning Oppression into Opportunity) is here — and feel free to search for more info online. As I also noted early on, the book became a New York Times bestseller but also evoked heavy criticism about issues of:

  • global-local
  • theory-praxis
  • general- specific/individual
  • even sex-gender; as well as
  • situated knowledge & who can speak for whom.

Here’s the NYT review of the book, just fyi. Make up your own mind, though. Feel free to focus on the content and/or the use of different media and publicity/PR strategies.

The review is due Thur 6/22 at midnight, on your research diary-blog, equivalent to 1-2 pages, single spaced 12 pt. Your entry can include images, videos, and links to other texts. 

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