Ladies Are Taking to Twitter to Challenge Tired, Racist Media Stereotypes
The fiery Latina. The supersmart (yet subservient) Asian woman. The sassy, strong black woman. When it’s left up to the mainstream media, women of color are often viewed through a limited, stereotypical lens. But minority women across the globe are pushing back against these outdated and offensive tropes, and they’re using social media to do it. On Twitter, users of the hashtag #HowMediaWritesWOC are taking the media to task for its lazy portrayals of women of color while also defining their place in the world.
The hashtag has opened up a needed conversation on the differences between the ways the media tells stories involving women of color compared with their white counterparts. It’s a discussion that grew out of a 2011 report examining how the media treats victims of sexual violence based on race.
“There are huge discrepancies,” says Claudia Garcia-Rojas of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women. In 2011, Garcia-Rojas coauthored Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence: A Media Toolkit for Local and National Journalists to Better Media Coverage, which called out media bias and offered recommendations to ensure that coverage of sexual assault is fair and balanced regardless of race. The report made several suggestions, including staying away from victim blaming, steering clear of minimizing attacks as “domestic disputes,” and putting an end to describing women who showed no physical signs of harm after being attacked as “unharmed.”
According to Garcias-Rojas, the initial purpose of #HowMediaWritesWOC was to focus on the ways in which sexual assaults were covered, but the conversation quickly turned into much more.
The visual criminalization of black women who have been victims of crime by many media outlets quickly became a part of the dialogue.
“Media also portrays women in Africa and the Middle East as perpetual victims who need our rescuing,” tweeted Mustaf Hji Abdullah.
The stereotyping that happens in the television and film industry also emerged. “ABC producers hired a coach to teach Margaret Cho to be ‘more Asian’—in her own sitcom,” wrote Twitter user Shailja Patel. The racial transformation of Harry Potter character Lavender Brown provided a stunning visual of the problem.
“The hashtag allowed for a much broader conversation that looked at multifaceted media platforms and how it is that different media portrays women of color,” Garcia-Rojas says. “I was excited so many people were participating, and the conversations taking place were not narrow but really broad and complex.”
Part of the problem is that women of color are generally not in a position to report the news. According to the Women’s Media Center, women are vastly underrepresented in newsrooms across the country, and the percentage of women of color in broadcast and network media is even smaller. For example, at the nation’s most prestigious newspapers, the WMC found “male opinion page writers outnumbered women 4-to-1,” and on the Sunday morning talk shows, “white men continued to dominate…except on a single MSNBC show with a black female host.”
The lack of diversity in our nation’s media means that not only are some stories being overlooked, but they are far too often not being told within the proper context when reported.
“The world is a melting pot full of varying experiences and viewpoints that must be considered and explored when it comes to deciding what is news,” Lisa Cox, a veteran broadcast journalist, told the WMC. “A room full of men, of any race or age, would not possibly know how to deliver all of that news and will continue to fail in their delivery attempts—until they admit they can’t do it alone.”
To say that women’s voices are often marginalized in the mainstream media would be an understatement, but Garcias-Rojas cautions against believing minority women have no power.
“I don’t want to assume that women of color have little or no control over mainstream media. There are many women of color using social media platforms to initiate conversations,” she says, noting the powerful discussions created by the African American Policy Forum’s response to President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, #WhyWeCantWait, and Suey Park’s #NotYourAsianSidekick, which amplified the voices of Asian and Asian American women. “All of these dynamic conversations are allowing women of color to illuminate the mainstream media’s inherent whiteness while simultaneously allowing women of color to create their own media and their own virtual languages.”
Though it can feel daunting to have to constantly push back against the media’s inaccurate or nonexistent portrayals of women of color, Garcias-Rojas argues that women can’t let the current narrative stand.
“It’s important to talk about how mainstream media views women of color, because mainstream media does not get to define who we are or what we stand for,” she says.