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Breaking the ice: A deeper look into how the media misrepresents women

By Maya Ravishankar

The media is a lot of things to a lot of people. A source of daily news, new opinion pieces that change our worldview, and explanations of that weird tik-tok that we don't quite seem to get. But to many, the media has posed as both a means to amplify their voice, and the very platform that forced them to use that voice to defend themselves. This women’s history month, we want to talk about how the media has portrayed women throughout history, why it did so, before we can talk about where we are and where we’re going.

Without a doubt, media’s ability to change our own perspectives is incredibly effective. Unfortunately, many people have used the media to perpetuate stereotypes against women for generations.

According to the UN Women Organization, “The media can play a significant role in either perpetuating or challenging social norms and behaviors that condone violence against women. New media can be a platform for the objectification of women and girls, from everyday hyper-sexualised, one-dimensional images of women and girls to overt violence”.

The media has the ability to effectively shift blame onto women using stereotypes, successfully making others condone the violence or misrepresentation of women across the globe.


We can see many examples of these especially through the 80’s and 90’s. Tonya Harding is one such example. Tonya was a figure skater in the 90’s, known for her strong athleticism and unique skill. The media during this time was quick to compare her to Nancy Kerrigan, a fellow figure skater. So when Tonya Harding’s husband hired a man who attempted to assault Nancy on January 6, 1994 in an attempt to stop her from competing in the upcoming olympics, the media was quick to pick sides. Tonya Harding, the girl from “the wrong side of the tracks” was quickly portrayed as vindictive; in comparison, Nancy Kerrigan was portrayed as a “princess”. This story, however popular, was not true. Nancy also comes from modest means, but rather than reveal that information, the media opted for publishing this story, one that NPR describes as “Tonya [being] The People's Skater; Nancy [being] The Establishment”. Pitting these two women against one another on the basis of their background made for a story that would sell; people could take sides, thus buying more newspapers. Both women still face scrutiny to this day. The media that sold lies about them does not face nearly as much.

But Tonya and Nancy are not singular examples. Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, and so many others had stereotypes used against them to sell stories. But the question is: Why so many women specifically? And why then? According to an article in the New York Times, “Carolyn Chernoff, a sociologist who researches women and popular culture, said this media scrutiny seemed to worsen in the 1980s, perhaps as a reaction to feminist gains. “More and more women are in the workplace, are getting more power, are working visibly in powerful jobs,” she said. This led to what she called a “correction,” with the media coming after any woman perceived as too famous, too powerful, too exposed.”. Thus, Media was used against women as a way to curb social progress.


But this phenomenon did not just stay in the 90s. Popular figures of the day, such as Taylor Swift and Rachel Zegler, face a similar issue. Their words and actions are used against them to create particular images that people can buy into. Rachel Zegler’s explanation of the changes to Disney's new Snow white movie led to extreme backlash, one that follows her to this day. The media infamously turned against Anne Hathaway after she won her oscar. We may think that we have simply progressed enough to where media bias against women is not as prevalent, but upon a closer viewing, we can see that it is just as relevant as it was 30 years ago.

Today, women such as Pamela Anderson and Tonya Harding are trying to reclaim their identity through the media. The movie I, Tonya explores her life as an individual, not in comparison to anyone else. Similarly, many other women are using the media as a means of reclaiming their identity, showing the ruth behind manufactured stories and cruel titles. But as we move forward, we have to keep looking at the way we choose to speak about the women around us. If stories can be created out of falsehoods then, they can also be created now. But as more and more women become involved in the media, the narrative is more likely to change, evolve, and welcome the individuality of women everywhere.


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