Swedish Cinemas Grading Films on Gender Representation? Good.

So, a few Swedish cinemas and the Nordic television film channel Viasat Film are using the Bechdel Movie Test to give films grades based on gender representation? When I say “a few” I mean around four cinemas. Not every cinema in Sweden. Four. Predictably, the decision by these theaters — as well as a statement of support by the national Swedish Film Institute — has generated considerable media attention.

What is the Bechdel Test, exactly? Well, to “pass” the test a film must have:

1. At least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

That’s it. It was an idea floated in jest by a cartoonist 20 years ago. It’s painfully simple, unscientific and broad. And passing the test tells us little to nothing about whether an individual film is or isn’t promoting pro-social gender balance. For example, two female protagonists can talk with each other about shopping or make-up and the film will pass. Or, a film made up entirely of men who discuss the dangers of patriarchy will fail. Thus, the reasoning goes, the test is worthless. But, to me, these arguments miss the point.

Particularly illuminating examples of this missing the point can be seen in the headlines given by various newspapers around the world to the same Associated Press story on the decision by these few cinemas to give the rankings. Headlines such as:

Swedish cinemas launch feminist movie rating” – USA Today

‘Star Wars’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ deemed sexist after failing ‘Bechdel Test’ for female characters” – The Australian

‘Harry Potter’ not feminist enough for these Swedish theaters” – Red Bluff Daily News (California)

It’s not so much that Harry Potter and Star Wars are sexist – which they are – that matters in the Bechdel issue: it’s the cumulative effect of the lack of female protagonists discussing issues divorced from men in popular culture that is key. In addition, it cannot be denied that the decision by these few cinemas in Sweden to use the test has triggered a broader debate on the representation of women in film and television. That’s good. And if you think it isn’t, you really need to wake up.

I would argue that the fact that a small number of mainstream films would actually pass the Bechdel Test causes far less debate and discussion than the test is being used in Sweden shows exactly why the test is needed. Those who cry “soft censorship” and over-zealous feminism in response to this initiative (about 98% of whom are men, by my non-scientific estimation) clearly have no idea what the words “censorship” or “zealous” mean.

Censorship isn’t just state regulation and prior restraint, it’s also the by-product of repressive social and economic structures which limit the ability of certain artistic voices to emerge. In this case, women in the film industry. Zealousness isn’t just seen in defense of a cause, it is more often found in the brutal protection of power. In this case, male power.

A recent study by Fandor showed that in 2011 women made up 5% of the directors in Hollywood. And, if you think that things are always improving, that’s actually a decrease from 7% on 2010 and 9% in 2009. In the 85 years of The Oscars, a woman has been nominated for Best Director four times, and won once (Kathryn Bigalow for The Hurt Locker). And, of the top 100 grossing films between 2002-2012, 4% were directed by women.

The Bechdel Test isn’t about feminism. It’s about patriarchy.

Brand Greenwald, Billionaires and Journalism

As one would expect, the announcement of a deal between the billionaire founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (and, it seems, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill) has been met with considerable buzz. As reporters say when they don’t have all of the facts, however, “the situation remains fluid”: meaning that details of how the future news organization will be structured, and the roles of the various key actors, are not yet known. For those interested in the media industry (and the broader socio-political impact of that industry) the joint venture raises a number of interesting, fundamental questions:

1. What does all of this mean for The Guardian? OK, this was an obvious one to start with…but there are many layers to Greenwald’s decision to leave the newspaper he joined just over a year ago. Greenwald’s hiring solidified the Guardian’s cred with left-leaners in the United States (an important demographic for the paper), as well as illustrating a willingness to take on board someone given the pejorative “activist/blogger” label(s) (please, please note my use of quotation marks there). The benefits were almost automatic…staggeringly so, as Greenwald brought in the monster PRISM/NSA stories and hoards of readers via Edward Snowden. Now, the most visible US face of the Guardian has jumped ship, and has taken with him the most visible story of the past decade. That might lose them a chunk of the US market who, driven crazy by the McJournalism provided by supposedly “liberal” news organizations like CNN, turned to the Guardian for solace. No matter how you spin it, Greenwald must feel that he will get more freedom, exposure, resources, power, fame and/or money with Omidyar. If it is primarily the first three Greenwald is worried about, then that’s not good PR for the Guardian. What is clear is that Greenwald is now very much his own brand.

2. Has Greenwald used as-yet-unreleased NSA/Snowden data/story as leverage to get a much better deal? Who knows, but it is hard to imagine this deal without the Snowden material. That raises some further thorny questions, particularly about whether or not the speed of the release of the Snowden data has been managed in order to maximize value, and the ethics of such a practice. A suggestion, by the way, which drives Greenwald crazy.

3. Devil’s Advocate, Part 1: Should we be worried about billionaires funding journalists in this way? Well, when the medicine paid for by the Gates Foundation gets administered to sick children, is it less effective because it came off the backs of Microsoft workers? (Calm down. I said I’m playing Devil’s Advocate.) Critical media thinkers of the political economic persuasion are posed with a conundrum when it comes to the Omidyar deal: a realization that while it takes resources to go up against massive media conglomerates, the only people with that kind of money are, you know, other Capitalists (or states…but let’s put that aside). Now we have a Capitalist who appears to be willing to fund the kind of critical, investigative journalism so sorely lacking in the United States. The guy made a fortune, it wasn’t through arms dealing, and now he wants to take a big chunk of that change and do something proactive. How many people like this with billions to play with are there? Let’s pretend for a second that the deal was discredited to the extent that it actually fell through. Then what? Donald Trump would step in?

4. Devil’s Advocate, Part 2: Should we be worried about billionaires funding journalists in this way? No, don’t worry, it’s fine. So long as you don’t mind a miniscule handful of the rich and powerful cherry-picking the kind of investigative reporting they like, funding it to the hilt with maximum exposure, while many other worthy stories will never be afforded the same patronage because they can’t be “monetized” or don’t have cred. Omidyar has made it clear that he is not fan of surveillance of the type exposed by Snowden. OK, who is? (Except maybe this guy and the Daily Mail.) Is he as keen, however, to promote investigative journalism into questionable corporate activities, such as the now illegal practice of “spinning” in which he was accused of engaging while at eBay? In other words, with single benefactors who give massive amounts of money, it is reasonable to ask if reporters are free to investigate anything, including stories that might the financial interests of a big bankroller.

5. Who spent their $250 million pocket-change more wisely? Jeff Bezos or Pierre Omidyar? Ask Jay Rosen. (AS OF NOVEMBER 17, 2013, THIS SUGGESTION IS ALL THE MORE APT.)

Christian Christensen, Stockholm University

What happens after journalists leave the violence?

What happens after journalists leave the violence?

The news media have a responsibility to their readers to cover important events even after they drop off the front page.

Last Modified: 04 Oct 2013 14:01
Christian Christensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

Iraq is an example of the media’s short attention span [Getty Images]
March 19, 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Only four months later, in July, Iraq would experience the deadliest 30-day period since 2008, with more than 1,000 civilians killed and 2,100 injured.In fact, more Iraqi civilians were killed during the first half of 2013 than had been killed during any entire year between 2009 and 2012. While there was a degree of soul-searching on the part of (some) journalists, considering the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster that is contemporary Iraq, the day passed with relatively little fanfare or introspection. And, while the routine bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere are reported, the level of coverage given to Iraq is paltry.The lack of coverage of Iraq – particularly by the US media – over the past seven or eight years is by no means unusual, but is part of a clear pattern where news organisations cover a number of international events in bursts, but then drop them when the topic loses “heat”. This, I would argue, is what we have seen, and are seeing, in the cases of Iran in 2009, the anti-government protests in Brazil, and the Gezi movement in Turkey (and elsewhere).

This is not to say that the coverage of these events has disappeared, but rather that the flood has been replaced with an inconsistent drip. Nor is this to say that there has not been (and still is) good reporting from these areas. But the drop-off in coverage has been palpable.

Selective coverage

Of course, war sells, violence sells and scandal sells. The argument that news organisations focus on the sensational, the unusual and/or the bloody in order to attract readers and advertisers is well-worn and not really in need of re-hashing. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also acknowledge the role of “hot and sexy” topics in academic research. For example, within my own discipline (Media and Communications) there is an absolute avalanche of research (my own included) on media coverage of the US-led attacks on Iraq in both 1991 and 2003. But, were I to ask a room full of my fellow scholars to name books or articles within our field addressing coverage of the US-led sanctions against Iraq between 1990-2003, you could probably hear crickets chirping in the background.

By choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes … might be.

Why? Because war and conflict make for rationalised research, just as it makes for stimulating journalism: there is lots of material, events are magnified, there is drama and national ideology tends to bubble to the surface. Sanctions, however, are far less dramatic on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis, however, and depending on which source you look at, the Iraq sanctions were estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqis. On this issue, I must offer my own mea culpa.

So how do we link this to Iran, Turkey and Brazil? It is simplistic to argue that people simply believe that the only events that are “important” are those covered in the media. People undoubtedly are aware that news organisations cannot cover everything and, thus, editorial decisions must be made. In other words, people know that there are things happening in the world that are important that they simply do not hear about.

In the case of the Iranian elections of 2009, the Arab Spring uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, the anti-government protests in Brazil and the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, the international media did give these events coverage. There were powerful images: the streets of Istanbul shrouded in an eerie fog of tear-gas; pepper-sprayed protesters in Rio; the lifeless body of  Neda Agha Soltan in Tehran; the fallen statue of Saddam; and Bush “Top Gun” on an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him.

While these images remain in our heads, they were supplemented in news reports by rather broad presentations of their contexts, and not a great deal of follow-up. As a result, the protests and violence covered over short periods of time remain in a form of frozen animation, with no real understanding of what the longer-term implications might be. While stories of youthful protests on Twitter with good visuals are sexy, post-protest negotiations and long-term consolidation are not.

The Iraqi example

Iraq is perhaps the best example of this: While the world’s media zoomed in on the country following the invasion, the drop-off in coverage once the occupation had become “old news” made it extremely difficult for the average news consumer (in other words, not academics or think-tank members) to follow and understand the incredibly complex political environment in Iraq. I consider the lack of coverage of Iraq by the US media over the past seven to eight years to be particularly egregious, as the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was met with little critical analysis by the US media. In fact, it is fair to say that many media outlets actively cheered on the war, ignorant or uncaring of the implications of this support for millions of Iraqis and thousands of US troops.

An exception to the pattern I am discussing would be Egypt, which has remained in the headlines for an extended period. I would wager, however, that Egypt’s place in the global news consciousness is likely a function of the repeated large-scale public protests and violent crackdowns that have taken place since Mubarak’s fall, rather than a general interest in Egyptian domestic politics. The reduction of coverage of the protests in Iran, Turkey and Brazil after a period of engagement, on the other hand, might be considered more understandable, given limited resources and world events.

Yet I would argue that – like Iraq – coverage of Tehran, Gezi and Rio is part of a much larger pattern of quick-hit journalism with relatively little follow-up, which in turn re-enforces stereotypical images of certain nations – almost always non-Western – as existing in a perpetual state of crisis. Importantly, it is precisely the juxtaposition between supposed Western “calm” and non-Western “crisis” that has been used – at least partially – as an underpinning for various military and/or economic actions. Or, to put it another way, public support for military or other forms of punitive action is undoubtedly boosted by both the perception that certain parts of the world are inherently violent, and a lack of knowledge of the complexities of domestic politics in those regions.

News organisations face certain political economic realities, and it is impossible to cover everything. Yet, by choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes of that violence, tension and blood-letting might be. Sometimes, the protests continue. Sometimes, the protests result in political change. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither. Without these longer-term details, however, we relegate important geo-political occurrences to the level of ephemeral events lost in a sea of ever-flowing stories. That is a disservice with potentially serious consequences.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

You can follow him on Twitter @ChrChristensen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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My Letter in Support of Pvt. Bradley E. Manning

(THE FOLLOWING IS A LETTER OF SUPPORT FOR PVT. BRADLEY E. MANNING WRITTEN TO THE COMMANDING GENERAL OF THE MILITARY DISTRICT  OF WASHINGTON, MAJ. GENERAL JEFFREY S. BUCHANAN. ALSO, AS REQUESTED, THE USE OF “BRADLEY” AND “HE” IS DELIBERATE AS THE CASE USES MANNING’S LEGAL NAME. THOSE INTERESTED IN WRITING THEIR OWN OWN LETTER SHOULD DO SO VIA “COURAGE TO RESIST”.)

9/25/2013

Dear Maj. General Buchanan,

I write this letter to you, as a citizen of the United States, in order to respectfully request that Pvt. Bradley E. Manning’s sentence be reduced to time served, and that he not be condemned to a life in prison. The United States is a country that prides itself on being built by women and men of conscience and bravery. To act upon one’s conscience is no small matter. Women and men who were, and are, willing to stand up for what they believe to be right — even if the price for that action is the loss of their own personal safety or liberty — are rare and worthy of respect.

In Pvt. Manning’s case it is clear that he did not act with malicious intent or a desire to harm the United States, and his acquittal on the “Aiding the Enemy” charge is a clear indication of that fact. Pvt. Manning has served a significant amount of prison time, much of it in what must honestly be described as harsh conditions. There is no conceivable way in which Pvt. Manning would have benefited (financially or otherwise) from his actions. On the contrary, it was likely obvious to him that he would be looking at time in prison because of what he did.

If we are to maintain trust in the law and a prison system, then there needs to be a clear sense of proportionality. The purpose of the law and prison should not be to “make an example” of anyone.  In theory, prison exists as punishment, and to protect the general population from individuals who have broken the law and might pose a danger to society. Even if we accept that Pvt. Manning has broken the law, he has served time. Hard time. And, I think it is clear that he serves no danger to the general population. The question then arises: what purpose would an extended prison sentence serve? If it is not to pick out Pvt. Manning and make an example of him, then I cannot conceive of another reason. This would be a mistake.

Considering all of these factors, it is my hope that the punishment Pvt. Manning has already endured will be seen as proportional to the act committed: an act committed in what he honestly considered to be the best interests of his country.

Yours Respectfully,

Prof. Christian Christensen

Westgate and Images of Death: Reminders of the 2004 Tsunami

A discussion has brewed surrounding the publication in the NYT of images of corpses from the Nairobi Westgate shooting (images which were eventually removed). The professional and ethical issues raised in these discussions reminded me of similar ones that came up following from the 2004 tsunami disaster. Essentially, the if there are journalistic double-standards when it comes to publishing photos of dead bodies: media will do it when it is violence in so-called “developing nations,” but will not if the images are from countries such as the United States, France or Britain.

This, one could argue is, in part, the “othering” of death, whereby images of suffering are somehow more acceptable if those suffering (or dead) come from certain parts of the world. One is reminded, for example, of the refusal on the part of most news media in the US to show horrific images of people jumping out of the windows of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. There is, of course, the legacy of 1980s famine coverage from Africa, where audiences were inundated (rightly, some would say, for the purposes of awareness) with images of death and starvation. It is reasonable to ask if the residuals of those images remain with us (and the media), making the image of the dead in Westgate more acceptable…horrific, but acceptable.

The following is an article I published back in 2004 on the subject. The issues remain the same…

Published on Wednesday, December 29, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Tsunamis and Death-Toll Pornography
by Christian Christensen
As the number of casualties following the tsunamis that struck south-east Asia and parts of east Africa reaches the 60,000 mark, I find myself falling prey to one of the most unpleasant side-effects of 24-hour television and web news coverage: an addiction to death-toll pornography. Like a junkie who finds himself locked inside of a drug store, with uninterrupted access to CNN, the BBC and the web I have an inexhaustible supply of material to feed my self-destructive habit.When the news of the catastrophe broke on Sunday, early estimates put the number of dead at around 5,000. By the end of Tuesday, that number had jumped to over 50,000. News anchors and reporters regularly updated the audience on the “latest” figures, and “news tickers” at the bottom of the screen flashed casualty numbers like so much stock market information or so many football scores.As the numbers continue to grow, however, my humanity and compassion seem to diminish. Initial horror upon hearing the news has morphed into an urge to hear more updates and to see more video footage of massive waves washing away cars, hotels, boats, and, in case we forget, people.As the numbers rocket upward, I play a macabre guessing game. How high will the death count go? 100,000? 200,000? Could it be a quarter of a million? The numbers are so huge, and my experience with death on this scale (or any scale, for that matter) so minuscule, that I simply cannot comprehend what is going on, Statistics are the only thing I can lean on.I can only speak for myself, of course, but my guess is that I am not alone in my occasional addiction to death-toll pornography.

I consider myself to be a relatively critical person when it comes to the media, and yet, for some reason, I continue to kid myself that by watching hour after hour of news coverage from India, Thailand and Sri Lanka I am a “well-informed” person. In all honesty, I crossed that “well-informed” line a long time ago, and so I have come to the conclusion that I am watching the aftermath of this natural disaster for reasons other than pure information. It isn’t entertainment, but it is a form of fascination that taps into a primal fear of death.

What jolted me out of my self-deception – and brought me to write this article -was something that I saw this morning on the BBC news. In the middle of some stock crisis footage from Thailand, there was a brief shot of the naked corpse of a young man hanging from the branch of a tree. The fact that I was sitting in my comfortable living room, drinking coffee, looking at a naked corpse in a tree convinced me that what I was watching was not news, but a perverted form of reality television. I wondered how I would feel if that naked boy had been a member of my family: his undignified death a passing spectacle for all the world to see over their mugs of morning coffee.

The bigger the number of victims, and the further away they live from us, of course, the easier it becomes to distance ourselves from what we are watching. We can accept video of hundreds of anonymous bodies washing up onto the shores of southern India, but would we accept video of the corpse of a young girl floating in a neighborhood swimming pool being shown on our local news? Through the news, we have become accustomed to seeing people in the developing world as victims: victims of war, victims of famine, victims of disease, and victims of natural disasters. In their eternal state of victim-hood, these people have had their right to individuality and dignity stripped, and thus their corpses are fair game for the evening news.

None of this is to say that this is not a story worthy of round-the-clock coverage, because it is. What I am suggesting, however, is that we should be thinking about the mode of the coverage: the obsession with death tolls (most of which are inaccurate anyway), the repetition of horrific footage, and close-up pictures of obviously grieving family members.

Coverage of the crisis is needed to alert the world to what is a massive humanitarian disaster, and showing death is a part of that. What is not needed, however, is coverage that panders to the dark, voyeuristic sides of our psyches.

US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

What  they say…

What they hope you think…

What it really means…

”Reports are coming in of a shooting/bombing…”

”This news organization is connected to all major news sources…”

”An intern happened to be on Twitter…”
”As yet, there are no indications that this is a terrorist act…” ”These guys are really being careful not to draw any conclusions…”

”As yet. But we can hope…”

”There are reports that this could, we repeat could, be an act of terror…” ”This is a complex story with potentially deep geo-political implications…” ”The suspect isn’t white…”
”The assailant is reported to have links to a possible terrorist cell…” ”These terrorists are far more organized in the US than we imagined…” ”The suspect has friends with weird names on Facebook…”
”We now turn to our Senior Domestic Security Analyst…” ”Wow! This channel has some knowledgeable people…” ”Only person in newsroom with degree in Political Science…”
”It seems possible that this is not, repeat not, an act or terror…” ”Thank God…” ”Despite what we suggested, it would appear that not all non-whites are Muslim…”
“Sources now confirm that they are now not treating this as an act of terror…” “Good. Now that is confirmed…” “We can confirm that the suspect is white…”
”This would appear to be a domestic incident…” ”So, this is just the work of a deranged nut…” ”Shit. Now we have to talk about gun control again…”
“Of course, we can never entirely rule out the possibility of home-grown terror…” “We must be vigilant when it comes to far-right extremists…” “Didn’t CNN say something once about a Norwegian Al Qaeda…?”
”The situation is fluid…” ”These guys are covering a fast-moving story…” ”We really don’t have a clue what’s going on…”

Toy Stores: “Hi Girls! Just be Dumb, Sexy and Subservient”

Earlier I posted some pictures from a visit to a local toy store in Stockholm with some truly awful, sexist toys (see later in this post). So…another trip to a Stockholm toy store with my daughter (aged 3), and let’ s see what lessons she learned this time. Basically: be dumb, sexy and subservient. “Dream Wedding”??? “Create your Shopping Tour”??? Plus, note the gender of the child on the box for the more interesting marble toy. How the people who make these things sleep at night is beyond me.

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And those earlier, equally sexist, pedophillic pictures…? (Note the pictures with the boys: what they do, what they “are”.)

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