Dropping the Pretense about Women’s Representation

As a society, we have failed to live up to the slogan “women are equal to men” that is so proudly shouted around, but usually not acted upon. Women have always been treated differently to men. We could embark on a never-ending list about the barriers specially installed for women by our patriarchal society; from being paid much less than their male colleagues at work to paying tax on the most basic sanitary equipment, women have always – and still are – on the worst end of the stick. Society runs in an easily discernible and rigid manner whereby the cultural responsibilities and behaviours are set into stone, thus creating the stereotypes. The media has been contributing its two cents in digging into this sexism even deeper. This can both be a reflection of our societal norms and an influence on people’s perceptions of stereotypes. 

Advertisements we daily watch are symptomatic of the societal position we have imposed on women. Some peremptory societal norm has decided that it is still a woman’s duty to please the man, handle chores and cater for the children. The man, on the other hand, is often made to represent success, stoicism and authority. In metaphorical terms, the King sits on the throne while the Queen stands on the side. This parenthetically contributes to toxic masculinity; men feel pressured to live up to societal expectations and to reflect certain images constructed by it. This entails other flaws in the society; domestic violence and substance abuse are often partly credited to toxic masculinity. A strong façade with a broken interior is what it really is. Emotionality is the essence of what makes us humans, and “men don’t cry” could just be the most irrational and preposterous statement to instill in our men. If men cannot cry, they will find another way to show their repressed emotion, and that usually tends to be physical. 

The representation of women is a battle we are still fighting, and which we will continue to fight for the foreseeable future. It has lasted for so long now that we have become immune to the marginal yet significant differences in the less favourable treatment of women. Some women themselves can no longer see the power being wielded onto them by patriarchal and misogynistic actors because it has been internalised and become a ‘normal’ part of their lives. Women have featured in advertisements depicting tasks that are thought to conventionally only belong to them, and in advertisements where their main purpose is to add glamour. The aim of this sexualisation and objectification of women is to make people feel like they are buying that idea of the woman alongside the product. Women’s sexuality is objectified and sold off. The default female sex appeal is inserted in any type of advertisement. It is quite flagrant as well that those concerning diapers, kitchen equipment or anything relating to household chores most often feature women. Promoting women from advertising diapers to later advertising luxurious and branded anti-ageing cream can, in no interpretation of ‘respect’, be called empowerment or a “promotion”. 

This different treatment of women by the media finds its roots in the inherent sexism that exists in society. As a whole, we have failed to walk past the idea that the man goes to hunt while the woman takes care of the house. It is so ingrained in our education, experiences and mindsets – through representations in our primary school books and on the television, and through married women being less likely to get a job because it is presumably more probable that they will start a family anytime soon – that we have been unable to make the necessary changes to cater for non-conventional roles. Even the admirably well-written Game of Thrones managed to turn the heroine into a villain in the end. This change would require a total deconstruction of our society. If the man were to stay at home to take care of the kids and chores – which equally belong to him – and if the woman were to step out and hunt, society would regard them both in a completely different light, often negative. One would hear that the lady has become the man of the house – a compliment – and the husband is now the wife, “wife” here being used with contempt. Even today, paternity leaves do not last as long as maternity leaves. It is expected of a woman to choose between a career and a baby, but not of a father. The mould that we have created for these two sexes are set into stone, and we cannot seem to melt the stone and construct otherwise. It is this sexism that expands from what we see and believe in, to how we act. 

Criminal Women

An easier way for the media to attract readers is through the report of crimes committed by an unexpected type of person. The media banks on these so that when someone steps out of the conventional behaviour, there goes the flashy titles, and spasms of shock and disbelief. Going from the aforementioned slogan, surely criminal women should be treated in the same way criminal men are; equal treatment of criminal men and women is how best we can exert gender equality under the principle of universalism. The representation of criminal women in the media however is drastically contrasting to that of men. Whether it is with regards to the titles, or whether it is about the description of societal turmoil, It nearly seems as if it were universally accepted that men could commit crimes, and women could not. On the other hand, women should not have the scope to even think about it. Male crime has been normalised to such a degree that a movie like “365 Days”, which showcases a “love story” disguised by kidnap and coercion, seems unproblematic. Women who commit crimes break the stereotypes and rigid ideas of society and we take time in believing that possibility and reality. It is for that very reason that male domestic abuse and male rape by women are crimes brushed under the carpet. How can a man be beaten up by his wife? How can a man be raped by a woman? A woman is supposed to be the weaker sex. We have set up the cultural duty of a woman to care, and not commit crimes. Once she decides to not comply, we label her as “deviant”.

For instance, Myra Hindley is said to be one of the most hated women in history. The Moors Murders were committed by Ian Brady and herself. It is undeniable that Hindley did not deserve a relaxed treatment from the people. What concerns us here is, despite committing the same crimes, the woman gets a far worse treatment, label and humiliation than the man. Newspapers have resorted to various descriptions of Myra Hindley, such as “the she-devil” and “a special kind of evil,” implying that we never considered the possibility of a woman being evil and we usually qualify the devil to be a man. What if the devil were a woman? Would a female version of Dracula be a “she-vampire”? “I made you; I can do what I want with you” are words uttered by Rose West to one of her victims, her own daughter in fact. These are not words we would expect from a woman, even less a mother. These transgressions of societal and cultural norms and ideologies affect the way we digest the information. There is an exponentially growing enmity towards the woman, and eventually, women who share physical characteristics with her.  Once another woman or more has the same physical features as a criminal one, generalisation and phobia grow against them. Such criminal women are said to be deviant, ‘deviant’ being a word not frequently used for criminal men, and a word indeed used for women derailing from the tasks and behaviours assigned to them by society.

People could not digest how a woman could torture and kill children, the woman being the very carer of children, even if they are not hers. In cases like the aforementioned, the point of focus shifts from the man to the woman. A documentary about the Moors Murders introduced Ian Brady as an “attractive and mysterious” man, while Myra Hindley, as “stone-faced”, preparing the audience for an unconventional physical makeup of a woman. In the case of Rose West, the same reporting procedure was undertaken, whereby her background and upbringing made it seem it was more likely for Rose West to turn out the way she did, although there really was some grooming in this case. Representations of criminal women always look for standard cliched observations: their looks, upbringings and societal status. The upbringing and caste of Phoolan Devi, “the Bandit Queen of India,” have often been emphasised upon, thereby satisfying the “requirements” to transgress principles of humanity, and thereby also growing a certain wariness towards people of the same upbringing and caste. 

Narratives are created around women criminals, usually to bring in some sort of sympathy for them. Whether it is through showing two seconds of remorse or emotionality, or whether it is to pretend one’s reform through religion and victimisation, these instances are highlighted and framed to provoke more emotions – positive or negative – from readers. To increase the contempt of their readers towards the deviant women, the media have zeroed in on these instances, portraying them as pretences – attempts by criminal women to try to get back on the expected rails of femininity. 

Aggression and violence are qualities attributed to the venerated ideology of ‘masculinity’, and therefore, women cannot seem to possess these at all. In this world, we ultimately all are one species: homo sapiens, or humans. Amongst us are good and bad men, and, good and bad women, and that is just a fact. Today’s truth is that good men are treated better than good women, and bad women are treated worse than bad men. This piece of writing tries to prove one point: criminal or not, women are usually treated less favourably by the media. Ultimately, we, humans, have been failing at treating our better half as our equal.


References:

1. Ghazal Ayesha, ‘How Men and Women Treated Differently in Media’ (April 2018) International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research Volume 9, Issue 4 

2. Easteal Patricia, Holland Kate and Bartels Lorana, ‘How are women who kill portrayed in newspaper media? Connections with social values and the legal system’ Women’s Studies International Forum

3. The Guardian, ‘The myth of the she-devil: why we judge female criminals more harshly’ (October 2018)

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