'One step forward, two steps back': The long road to changing gender portrayals in media

Too often in media brands fall into the trap of “paying lip-service to authenticity” instead of contributing to the gender solution, at a time when it’s fashionable to be a feminist without any notion of what the word means, or stands for.

At play in the industry is a constant battle between brands that work to “break down stereotypes”, and those that “proliferate stereotypes are really damaging to society”, according to Katie White, the managing director of i-D, a magazine that celebrates identity regardless of gender.

For all the rhetoric around diversity of late, question marks remain as to whether some publishers and advertisers are merely jumping on the bandwagon to get clicks or curry favour with a particular audience respectively. It’s an issue that was discussed at The Drum’s media panel at Advertising Week Europe, where executives from some of the UK’s most influential gender-focused publishers discussed whether their brands were part of the problem.

The media

It’s a careful line to tread between adding to the noise and being authentic, one that makes having a gender-orientated magazine “a challenge” at times, according to Will Hayward, the chief executive of male-focused online brand Joe Media.

“Part of the wider context of me sitting here is recognising men are still over-represented in every area of society - the boardroom, politics, work. The pay gap is still hovering at around 14%, depending on how you cut the data. We do take on some of the grittier subjects and I think more needs to be done to unpack some society problems in order to make it better for everyone,” he said.

“But working out how you cover those issues editorially is challenging and sometimes feels like standing on a rickety stool,” Hayward added.

Having a refined audience makes sense commercially, which explains why the magazine market is bloated with glossies and ‘lad mags’ looking for a slice of the advertising pie. In fact, the online men’s and women’s media market has become so competitive as digital-first players like the Lad Bible and Joe Media have risen through the ranks, that several print titles have been forced to shut up shop and move online, including Company, InStyle, FHM, and Coach.

Hayward, who was formerly vice president of Europe at Buzzfeed, explained that having a wide audience like ‘millennials’ makes it harder to sell advertising where a lot of agencies are looking for a more defined approach.

But at the same time as covering important gender topics, too often these players “try to exploit a topic for clicks as much as possible”, said Hayward, using the Lad Bible as an example, which smears the market for gender-orientated media.

“There is a really lazy habit from male-focused titles to - in a very superficial way - appropriate female outrage. We see it from the new guys, we see it from the old guys, they are pretending to be on side but really trying to exploit that situation for clicks as much as possible. For us when it comes to current affairs or any difficult or sensitive subject, we try to cover it in an honest and genuine way, in a way that adds value,” he said.

White said there is a “certain type of shit-slinging going on at the titles that have a worryingly high reach” (referencing the Daily Mail), that undermines the work of progressive media titles attempting to “break down stereotypes”.

She referenced two articles that appeared in one of the ‘pink magazines’ (women’s glossies), one that covered issues important to the gender debate, and another that used terms such as “fugly” to proliferate stereotypes of women.

“Why is this existing side by side?” she questioned. “It’s great that the feminism agenda is becoming more mainstream and people are aware of the issues, but at the same time there is still a lot that needs to be done where influential people are proliferating these stereotypes that are inherently damaging.”

Advertisers

It’s not just media that is teetering on the brink of hypocrisy when it comes to gender topics. This year’s International Women’s Day was used as a key example of where brands go wrong when tackling landmark gender events.

Sam Baker, co-founder of The Pool, an online platform for women, said the brand saturation “came close to killing that day”, and that too often advertisers “jump on the feminism bandwagon” for commercial gain, undermining the purpose of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

“I think brands realise that paying lip-service to authenticity is not really enough anymore,” said Baker. “The flipside of that is everyone is jumping on the feminism bandwagon. We saw on International Women’s Day brand saturation which I think came close to killing that day.”

“I thought it was the worst, there was some amazing stuff and I am really glad it is being talked about at scale but a lot of bandwagoning”, added White.

While i-D is encouraged by its parent brand Vice to “take risks” and its advertisers often follow suit, the brand refuses to carry advertising which goes “too far in our eyes to objectify women”, White said.

The solution

The media is both the problem and the solution. It has a “really important role” in better educating the public and the industry on breaking down stereotypes, said White, rather than using gender topics for commercial gain.

“There is more need for alternative voices to be represented in the echo chamber that is the internet,” she said. This is especially important given the recent appointment of a world leader who has been labelled sexist and anti-LGBT by some commentators - throwing the gender divide in Western society firmly into the spotlight.

“We didn’t have a gender agenda, but what has happened in the last two years, particularly with Trump, is that you can’t not have that front-and-centre. We are now in a world where The Handmaid’s Tale is starting to look like reality in the States not like science fiction. So we have gotten more outspoken, more political. We’ve moved in that direction because that is where the world has moved. You’d be tone deaf if you didn’t,” said Baker.

In the same way The Pool was born out of need to better serve women with content they care about, Hayward believes if we want to make things better “there is a job to be done” with having a male brand that works to have a conversation with men about responsibility, language and the “grittier issues” facing young men and women, where most young men in the UK “have been spoken down to for some time”.

“It is a really complex issue and very inter-related to lots of other issues in society that need to be considered with similar weight. I would love the media to embrace the full weight of their role in bringing issues to the fore and behaving better in the way they talk about things and stereotypes,” added White.

Whether gender-orientated media will become obsolete in the pursuit of an ideological world where gender is a construct and media is for everyone is another matter, and one that is almost impossible to perceive when the experience of being a female and being a male is distinct in society today. For his part, Hayward has ambitions for Joe to mature from its male shackles and become a “much bigger company” that talks about certain things than men cluster around whilst also serving the around 20% of women that read the brand, “perhaps more like i-D”, he said.

What the three brands can agree on is there is still a lot of work to be done if the end destination is complete equality. Their advice? Take risks where risks should be taken, contribute to the solution rather than proliferate stereotypes, and take ‘feminist’ out of your Twitter bio unless you really understand the gravity of the movement.

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