I am sure you have heard the sound bytes by now – Representative Todd Akin’s ridiculous and strange comments regarding what he terms as “legitimate rape” from news a couple weeks ago. I had decided not to blog about it, as enough has essentially already been said. The tempers have flared, the verbal sparring matches have waxed political and have already begun to wane, as folks have found their way to the latest provocative headlines.

However, I happened to read what would seem to be an only nominally-related article (“For Indian Women, Teasing is No Laughing Matter”) on sexual harrassment and assault in India published by NPR recently, and I noticed a disturbing problem that links the two stories, one that is important enough to bring to the table here.

The article essentially details what has become a serious problem in at least one town in India: sexual harassment and sexual assault inflicted upon women as they come home from work at night.

The Indian idiom for cat calling (a form of sexual harassment): “eve teasing” and their term for the cat callers and sometimes rapists: “Roadside Romeos.”

(The exact sentence reads: “The government has set up anti-Roadside Romeo squads and anti-eve teasing programs in its police stations.”)

What the stories have in common is a linguistic problem. Akin’s use of the word “legitimate” implies that some rapes are not legitimate. What makes one rape legitimate and the other not legitimate? No rape is consensual; all are the result of violence. What kind of distinction is he attempting to draw – and how dehumanizing is that distinction for the victims of what would be considered an illegitimate rape?

Furthermore, “eve teasing” and “Roadside Romeo” are terms that make light of and even add a flirtatious or playful tone to very serious offenses against women. The frequent use and propagation of such terminology, I think, both reflects and will create attitudes that view violence against women as trifling.

The use of language that downplays violence against women is only one of whole host of ways in which the media misrepresents the viewpoints and experiences of women. The choice and timing of specific imagery (of or related to women) as well as the “silencing” of the female viewpoint in the media (simply not addressing it) are additional problems.

Women’s Media Center offers interesting statistics such as “according to the Global Media Monitoring Project 2010, 24% of the people interviewed, heard, seen, or read about in mainstream broadcast and print news were female.  Only 13% of stories focused specifically on women and 6% on issues of gender equality or inequality. What’s more, news stories by female reporters are almost twice as likely to challenge gender stereotypes than stories by male reporters and the stories feature female subjects and topics that matter to women.” The Center has also published an extensive report entitled, “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media” if you are interested in exploring the topic further.

In a similar vein, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documetary film Miss Representation focuses primarily on the use of imagery in the media and the effect it has on societal views. I had the opportunity to view the film awhile back. It’s a great primer for understanding the complicated issue of media representation.

The film has won numerous awards. It’s worth checking out.

I believe this topic is worth exploring as the influence of media in our country is foundational to the fostering of beliefs and attitudes.

What do you think about media portrayals of women: are women’s viewpoints adequately represented, are images fair and affirming? Has media representation of women gotten better in recent years or worse?

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