"A feminist media industry is more than gender quotas and equal pay."Illustration by Kate Towsey for Varsity

American actor, Natalie Portman, made headlines earlier this month for calling out gender discrimination at the Oscars. Her dress, embroidered with the names of female directors who were passed over for prizes, denounced the academy for its failure to reward female talent.

However, it wasn’t so much what her dress did that caught attention, but rather what it didn’t do. Activist and actress, Rose McGowan branded Portman’s outfit hypocritical. McGowan has since apologised for her remarks; nevertheless, her accusation that Portman paid “lip service” to anti-sexism advocacy raises a fundamental question for the media industry in 2020. In a sector plagued by sexual harassment scandals, where women account for a fraction of professionals, if Portman is a “fraud”, what does feminism actually look like?

For many, increasing female representation is the first step. Award season is always an interesting time to reflect on gender ratios. Portman’s motion is not the first, the Oscars have repeatedly been utilised as a forum for calling out lack of female faces. Last February, Director Ridley Scott and actress, Frances McDormand both decried the absence of female voices behind the camera, while Brie Larson condemned the over-representation of white males on review panels.

“A feminist media industry not only calls out this misogyny but carves new discourses.”

Hollywood’s red carpets are indicative of the gender imbalance pervading the global media industry. When it comes to gender parity in front of – and behind – the camera, the statistics speak for themselves. Women account for only one quarter of television and radio professionals, and under 10% of directors, with BAME women making up merely 1.5% of all key personnel. Meanwhile, in news and journalism, females are the focus of only 10% of news stories and comprise just 20% of experts or spokespeople interviewed. In 2020, these figures are disgraceful.

Many major news and media outlets have launched initiatives to rectify this disparity. The BBC’s 50:50 Project has challenged teams across the organisation to ensure 50% of contributors in news, current affairs and topical programmes are female. The scheme has seen much success, with 74% of programmes hitting this target. Simultaneously, growth of non-profits – such as Women in Film and Television, and indeed Cambridge’s own Women in Media (WiM) – have proved driving forces behind gender equality, providing research, advocacy, education and support for female-identifying screen industry practitioners.

However, parity is not equality. Women entering the industry face a fight for equal pay and career progression. In the UK alone, female media professionals earn 17.4% less than their male colleagues. This is a trend brought to bear by the exposure of the BBC’s gender pay gap in 2017, which revealed all top seven earners were male, with the highest-paid female receiving less than a quarter than her male counterpart, Chris Evans.

The ensuing ugly skirmish over equal pay – which saw the resignation of China Editor Carrie Gracie, followed by Radio 4′s You and Yours presenter Winifred Robinson prohibited from hosting a programme about gender pay after publicly supporting Gracie – exposed the deep inequity at the broadcasting corporation. The BBC flaunts its female contributors; but it seems less eager to pay them. Feminist? Not quite.

“As we approach International Women’s Day, we reflect on the face of contemporary feminism.”

A feminist media industry is more than gender quotas and equal pay. Work produced, directed or presented by women are not automatically feminist. Instead, a feminist media challenges and subverts the devastating stereotypes of women peddled by our film and broadcasting industry. The media has systematically sexualised, domesticated and degraded women, disregarding their professional identities and achievements. From television shows like Married at First Sight (where female participants have publicly been called “sluts” and “C***s”), to Fox News host, Tucker Carlson’s on air description of women as “primitive” and “like dogs”, discrimination is endemic.

This has been a critical issue for women of colour. Black women’s representation on screen has ignored the depth and complexity of their real-world experiences. As Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis articulated eloquently, black female characters have been systematically marginalised and essentialised in film. The same is true in television. Reality dating programs including Love Island and The Bachelor have perpetuated racialised politics of female desirability, with the latter facing a law suit for racial discrimination.

A feminist media industry not only calls out this misogyny but carves new discourses. It challenges cultures of toxic masculinity and institutes constructive dialogues around issues including paternity leave and women’s sport, as well as more taboo subjects like menstruation and the menopause.

Podcasts have become an interesting platform for this. The Guilty Feminist, hosted by Deborah Frances-White, provides a supportive forum for discussing the realities of feminism- exploring the big topics, whilst confessing the hypocrisies and fears that undermine our lofty principles. In a similar vein, Take it From Her, a podcast run by Cambridge students, aims to open up debates around contemporary gender equality concerns, garnering opinions from leading female professionals.


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“Women need to be heard,” said Sally Patterson, co-founder of Take it From Her. “This is particularly pertinent for women of colour, those from the LGBTQ+ community and disabled women, who are so often left out of the mainstream narrative.”

As we approach International Women’s Day, we reflect on the face of contemporary feminism. Who can be a feminist and what constitutes feminist action is avidly contested. Natalie Portman’s protest was a reminder that the media industry is still failing women. However, in 2020, gender quotas won’t cut it. A feminist media is one which speaks of women, for women, in their own voices.

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