media literacy

How to Do Feminist TV Analysis

FamilyWatchingTV1958cropby Jarrah Hodge

Believe it or not, watching TV with a feminist lens can be fun, and it doesn’t have to be hard. When it comes down to it, it’s just critical thinking, asking questions about the media you’re looking at.

If we aren’t looking at media critically it can exercise undue influence on our views about people from different backgrounds, on what products we choose to buy, and on what behaviour we consider appropriate or inappropriate. The messages and images it contains can reinforce or subvert stereotypes that underpin inequality.

For example media can encourage us to feel insecure about our looks because we can’t live up to the beauty ideals in ads. Or it can show us new possibilities for our society, like Star Trek does (see the more Star Trek-specific version of this article at Trekkie Feminist).

When someone critiques representations in media, it’s not about them hating on your favourite show. In order to critique something to the level that I’m doing with Star Trek, you really have to love it and care about it enough to think it’s worth your time to try and change it for the better.

I operate from bell hooks’ definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” I also believe that we can’t achieve equality for all women without addressing concurrent forms of inequality and discrimination, such as racism, homophobia, trans phobia, ableism and classism. That influences the types of questions I ask and how I interpret the messages I see on TV.

Here are the types of questions I ask when I’m doing feminist media analysis.


  • Who are the main characters? What are their demographics (gender, race, age, sexual orientation)?
  • Do any of them have unique abilities or disabilities?
  • What are their major character traits and what are their interests and hobbies? Do they reinforce or challenge stereotypes about their gender, race, etc.?
  • How much power do they have as individuals and within their intimate relationships, social group, workplace or organization? Read more
Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Pop Culture 1 Comment

Survivors Speak Out to Break Silence about Systemic Violence Against Women and Girls

Battered Women's Support Services ProtestThanks to Joanna Chiu for letting us cross-post this past week’s series of posts for Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services on media representations of violence against women in recognition of Prevention of Violence Against Women Week. Read the whole series at the BWSS Ending Violence blog and enjoy this final article.

But all over the media, footage of a woman being punched in the face can be used to promote a reality show, a video of a woman in a neck brace after “rough sex” can be used to promote a vegetarian diet, and artists rapping and singing in a mansion filled with corpses of women hung by chains can be passed as an “artistic” music video.

If you keep watching those shows, supporting the same artists and organizations, playing violent video games or subscribing to the same magazines without thinking about what you’re accepting, like it or not, you are actually supporting violence against women and girls.

The philosophy of Battered Women’s Support Services is that battering does not take place between two people in isolation—violence and abuse happens in a social context, and is deeply rooted in a system that supports the right of some people to oppress others based on privileges such as gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, age and physical ability.

The kinds of systems of oppression that perpetuate violence against women are reflected in and promoted through the media, so for Prevention of Violence Against Women Week, BWSS asked me to help bring together media makers and activists in dialogue about how to end systemic violence against women and girls.

Throughout the past week, my blog posts have discussed different messages in the media that take away the agency of survivors of violence and marginalized groups—misrepresenting them instead with highly damaging ideas: Women are sluts, women of colour are really big sluts, women are asking for it, women are crazy “psycho bitches.”

Those media messages, brought to you by the 3000 ads you see every day, and from a myriad of news and entertainment outlets, promote a culture of violence—and a culture of silence.

The debilitating fear, shame and self-blame that many women feel after surviving sexual assault, domestic violence or abuse keep most from reporting the crimes to police, and even from telling their closest friends and family. As a result of this culture of silence and victim blaming, 97% of rapists will not spend one day in jail (Source: RAINN). Read more

Posted on by Joanna Chiu in Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment

Your Message, Your Voice: Blogging to Fill the Need for Independent Critical Analysis

by Joanna Chiu, in her continuing series of posts for Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services on media representations of violence against women in recognition of Prevention of Violence Against Women Week. Read the whole series at the BWSS Ending Violence blog.

It is no coincidence that BWSS is using a blog campaign this week to generate dialogue about how media critique can help end violence against women and girls.

The purpose of a blog is to not just to be read but to be part of a conversation. For media activists, blogs carve out spaces to participate in critical analysis of mainstream media and culture when mainstream media outlets typically push out critical voices.

In the U.S. 6 corporations control the vast majority of media outlets, and in Canada, 7 companies control the vast majority of media outlets. ranked Canada No. 16 and the U.S. No. 17 for levels of press freedom, making North America far from being leading champions for democratic values in the press. Read more

Posted on by Joanna Chiu in Can-Con, Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment

Indigenous and Women of Colour Media Makers Resist!

Tailfeathers (center) with star of A Red Girl’s Reasoning Jessica Matten (left) and Rose Stiffarm (right)

4th post as part of  Joanna Chiu‘s series of posts for Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services on media representations of violence against women in recognition of Prevention of Violence Against Women Week. Read the whole series at the BWSS Ending Violence blog.

Today, as I was walking down the street to write at my favorite coffee shop, I received the usual afternoon greetings from my neighbours: “Hey baby!” “Konichee-wa!” “Ni hao! “Look at that ass!!”

As all Indigenous women and women of colour know, if sexism wasn’t bad enough, we encounter racism on a daily basis as well—on the street, in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the media. (See the theory of intersectionality on how oppressions like racism, ageism and classism intersect.)

In media, women of colour are often hyper-sexualized, and depicted in racial caricatures: Kung Fu ladies, geishas, sexy Latina sirens, Pocahontas types, etc. That is, if we see ourselves represented in the media at all. According to’s State of the Media report, race and gender issues only accounted for 1% of overall news coverage. And how many women of colour lead actresses can you name in Hollywood, or who have graced the covers of glossy magazines?

The absence of representations of people of colour in the media is as bad as racist representations in the media, because it implies that we simply don’t matter. Read more

Posted on by Joanna Chiu in Feminism, Pop Culture, Racism 2 Comments

How to Get your Messages Heard and Hold the Media Accountable, with Strategies from Jennifer Pozner

At SlutWalk NYC, note how cameras were trained on one protestor, ignoring the casually-dressed crowd

This is the 3rd post in  Joanna Chiu’s series of posts for Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services on media representations of violence against women. Read the whole series at the BWSS Ending Violence blog.

“Hey! We’re all trying to get the same thing here!”

This statement, hollered by one camera operator to another jostling to take video footage of a small group of “scantily clad” young women at SlutWalk NYC’s march last October, demonstrates what the SlutWalk NYC Media Team was up against.

While living in New York for a year, I perhaps foolishly volunteered to help with media outreach for SlutWalk NYC. I had mixed feelings about the movement, but I thought that joining survivors and allies to collectively protest victim blaming and sexual assault sounded like a good cause. I had written previously about SlutWalk Vancouver for the Georgia Straight and had analyzed the media coverage of SlutWalk Vancouver, so I wanted to help SlutWalk NYC articulate its messages to the media and learn something about the rough-and-tumble New York media scene in the process.

On the morning of the march, I rushed around Union Square Park frantically trying to figure out what to do with the hordes of journalists and camera crews that were literally falling over themselves in the presence of a few bras and fishnet stockings. Many media organizations had arrived at the scene looking to grab shots of the proportionally few women (mostly young, white and slim) who were wearing what some consider shocking dress, while rendering invisible the vast majority of participants (including men and people of colour) who showed up in the clothing they would normally wear to work or school.

The controversy that the SlutWalk movement had generated made it easy for SlutWalk marches to get attention from the media, but difficult for organizers to convey their messages when media organizations had preconceived ideas about the movement.

In retrospect, I thought that us organizers were pretty naïve to think that spending months in preparation, including sending out over 100 personalized press releases, could prevent the corporate media from sensationalizing a march called “SlutWalk,” or even to stop blaming victims of sexual assault in their news coverage. That night, after returning home to see that more than a dozen mice had moved into my studio apartment, I hid under the blankets on my bed and cried for a bit.

But while SlutWalk may have been particularly prone to attracting sensational media coverage, the struggle to get events covered accurately (or covered at all) in the media is an all too familiar problem that all activists face. It was something that I certainly encountered organizing events to help end poverty, promote gender equality, and remove landmines for well-established organizations like Oxfam Canada and Amnesty International. Read more

Posted on by Joanna Chiu in Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment

How Media Literacy Can Help End Violence Against Women

Jaclyn Friedman giving a talk at Memorial University. Photo credit: James Learie from Muse Magazine

As part of Prevention of Violence Against Women Week, the amazing Joanna Chiu is writing a series of posts for Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services. Here is the first post, cross-posted with permission. You’ll be able to read the whole series at the BWSS Ending Violence blog.

Like many students who were sexually assaulted in college, I didn’t identify what had happened to me as sexual assault until after I graduated. That moment of realization happened when I was sitting at a lecture hall back at my alma mater, the University of British Columbia. I had just returned to Vancouver from New York City, where I had completed a magazine internship and observed the curiosities and arrogance in the world’s media capital firsthand.

I was excited to be back in my hometown to catch a talk at UBC from feminist activist and writer, Jaclyn Friedman. Friedman is the director of WAM! (Women, Action & the Media): a global network that promotes gender justice in the media. She also co-edited the groundbreaking book, Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape with Jessica Valenti.

In her lighthearted but powerful presentation, Friedman talked about how messages in the media blame and shame survivors of sexual assault, and condone or trivialize sexual assault. In Canada, 1 in 2 women have survived at least one incident of sexual or physical violence, and in Vancouver, rates of sexual assault have only increased in recent years.

An idea that is common in the media, which helps sustain this epidemic of violence, is the notion that a person could be “asking for it.” For example, The New York Times wrote an article last year that was heavily victim blaming against an 11-year-old girl after she was brutally gang raped in Texas. The article included a quote saying that the girl “dressed older than her age,” and speculated about what the girl could have done for her rapists to “have been drawn into such an act.” Read more

Posted on by Joanna Chiu in Feminism, Pop Culture 7 Comments

On Media Literacy

In my last post I talked about the argument sometimes made that analyzing pop culture, advertising, and media is “unimportant”. I contended that arguments of “unimportance” shut down productive discussion and imply there is an objective way to evaluate what’s important and what’s not.

In this post I want to make a case for why I feel analyzing pop culture and media is important, and why I believe it is complementary to dealing with more material measures of inequality like poverty, violence, and active discrimination.

The pop culture analysis we have on this blog is a way for us to do media literacy. According to the Canadian Media Awareness Network:

Media literacy is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and sell to us every day. It’s the ability to bring critical thinking skills to bear on all media— from music videos and Web environments to product placement in films and virtual displays on NHL hockey boards. It’s about asking pertinent questions about what’s there, and noticing what’s not there. And it’s the instinct to question what lies behind media productions— the motives, the money, the values and the ownership— and to be aware of how these factors influence content.

Why not just mindlessly enjoy what media we’re consuming? Because media both reflects our society and influences it. While it has the potential to make transformative change and influence public opinion, all too often media reinforces existing inequalities. The organization About-Face argues that the “toxic media environment”, including strong messages about idealized women’s bodies, is “contributing to a host of girls’ and women’s ills, including low self-esteem, depression, persistent anxiety over weight and appearance, extremely unhealthy diets and exercise regimens, and eating disorders.”

While negative body image issues are one of the most obvious examples of why we should care what’s on TV, there are numerous others. Name It. Change It., a project by the Women’s Media Centre points out that many women are discouraged from running for office partly because of the negative way women politicians and candidates are presented in the media.

If we aren’t looking at media critically it can exercise undue influence on our views about people from different backgrounds, on what products we choose to buy, and on what behaviour we consider appropriate or inappropriate. As Leah Wilson, editor of Smart Pop Books said on the Geek Girl Con panel on media literacy: “The only dangerous media is unexamined media.”

Women, Action & the Media argues that “Power and privilege is about who gets to speak and who is listened to.  Most of the time, it is not women.” WAM! sees analyzing media/gender issues as a critical component to their advocacy movement for gender justice in the media.

Another way media analysis ties into material concerns is that looking at media with an uncritical eye can lead to unquestioning acceptance or rationalization of inequality. As Jennifer Pozner points out in her book Reality Bites Back, reality shows focused on people becoming wealthy or famous, like American Idol and similar talent competitions, can be easy to read as a story of how if anyone tries hard enough, they can succeed and become wealthy in our society. Hence, it becomes okay for some people to be worse off than us because they aren’t trying hard enough. Media literacy helps us learn things like that Idol and other talent TV show contestants are subject to insanely exploitative contracts, which means many end up struggling like many other artists. Developing critical analysis of media messages can help us see media reflections of our society’s inequality, which we can then fight more effectively. Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Pop Culture 1 Comment