Using our #FierceVoices to Change the Media

group of women sitting around a table making stickers

During WAM-It-Yourself week, a group of Vancouver women and allies braved pouring rain to get together and talk about how to use our voices to make our media better for women and girls.

This event was the first in a series of events called #FierceVoices, the brainchild of Women Transforming Cities and the independent, online media outlet Rabble.ca.

WAM! Vancouver organizer Jarrah Hodge was the evening’s first speaker, focusing on the news media’s problems representing women in politics. Looking at how the media tends to undermine female politicians by focusing on their appearance and applying greater scrutiny to their sexuality and family lives than male politicians, Hodge said: “It’s like being a woman in politics, you can’t win. When the media focuses on appearance, women politicians lose.”

Hodge drew from WAM! Vancouver’s work last winter creating a toolkit for journalists to make their election coverage more gender-equitable, and participants were provided with a copy of the toolkit to help them hold media accountable in future.

“We need media consumers to be keeping an eye out for these things and tweeting, writing letters and otherwise letting media creators know when you see issues. Also, let them know when they’re doing things right,” Hodge concluded.

Jen Sookfong Lee

Jen Sookfong Lee

Next, novelist and CBC radio broadcaster Jen Sookfong Lee talked about the stereotyping and double standards she experienced as a woman of colour in the publishing industry. Right from the beginning, she encountered issues with publishers wanting to fit her work into a box. For example, worried the name Jen Lee wasn’t unique enough, her publisher was relieved to hear she had a Chinese nickname, even though the only person who ever referred to her as Sookfong was her grandfather. She was encouraged to drop “Jen” from her name entirely.

Although she was able to refuse that, she found she had less ability to challenge the titles and covers her publishers wanted for her novels. Her two first novels ended up with fans on the cover to signify their Asian-ness. Her publishers refused to let her call her second novel Strip, though it focused on the story of a burlesque performer and dealt with serious themes like the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. Eventually released as The Better Mother, it was marketed as light, summer, women’s fiction.

Lee is currently working on a third novel to be released in 2016, and she told the audience she was frustrated by publishers’ assertions that the book was “too gritty, too violent.”

“Does anyone tell Chuck Palahniuk that he’s too gritty and violent, or is it just me because I have a vagina?” said Lee.

After the speakers, the floor was opened up for questions and group analysis before people moved into small group activities.

One group worked on analyzing headlines in local newspapers, while another made stickers for calling out problematic representations in print media and advertising, saying things like:

  • “Where’s the intersectionality?”
  • “Couldn’t find any women?”
  • “This is a person, not an object.”
  • “Human bodies don’t look like this.”

And, quite simply:

  • “Bullshit.”

Participants also posted their answers to questions like “What headlines about women would you like to see in the news media?” (“Canada Celebrates First Feminist Prime Minister” got big cheers during the event wrap-up) and “What would your fierce voice say?”

WAM! Vancouver looks forward to supporting the next two #FierceVoices events, which will help to build concrete skills for feminists and allies to engage with media, and particularly highlight the voices of young women.

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WAMmer Jarrah Hodge with other participants thinking up our dream news headlines.

Photo Credit: Erika Sommerville