Last Saturday night i was invited to join a friend to a house party of sorts. My expectation was a small dinner party with a few people, and so i was surprised to walk into an all out shindig with familiar faces of the town. Upon entering i was caught off guard by two young girls no more than 19 years of age sporting tight-fitting and flesh baring outfits with wing like paraphernalia on their backs, begging the question if this was a Halloween party. Yet the resemblance was something more towards play mates at Hugh Hefner’s Play Boy mansion. Flash, money and alcohol was the scent in the air and as the night gradually wore away and the alcohol took its toll, women in their early twenties, scantily clad and sexually gyrating and lip-syncing to US hip-hop music, began to decay with the night. I don’t necessarily consider myself a conservative of sorts; leaning more towards liberalism, the power of choice and letting people be who they want to be, yet I spent an uncomfortable evening witnessing a common story of sex, money and power unfold right before my eyes and i could not help but wonder if these women and men were not mere prisoners of a dis-empowering lifestyle sold by media outlets.
What is media telling us?
Much has been said globally about the role of media in its representation of women and men thereby influencing thoughts and actions of those who consume its products. Ethiopia is no exception. Watch a local music video or film, flip through a magazine, observe the numerous billboards scattered across town and watch the local tv ads. The positioning is the same – women are either depicted as home makers and narcissists obsessed with physical preservation, or they are portrayed as accessories to men, most often sexualized and objectified.
The men on the other hand are depicted in positions of authority, the decision makers, the materially, economically empowered and the female magnets. These images and messages send a signal to women and girls in the country that time spent in enhancing physical attributes is a time well spent beyond cultivating their true potential. Similarly, men are pressured to forge a certain lifestyle in garnering social acceptance. Boys grow into men with the message that women and girls are accessories and their sexual objectification and control is tantamount to a true model of masculinity.
Media does indeed create consciousness and if we are exposing a generation of boys and girls to productions that are grounded only in profits and not in the responsibility of their messages, we are endorsing the decay of our society in how the two sexes continue to relate to one another. Look at the following music videos by local artists for example on how women and men are portrayed in them.
Objectification of Women’s bodies
Hawariat Petros in an interesting study titled “The Portrayal of Women in Billboard Advertisements: The Case of Addis Ababa” interviews a local graphic designer who is pressured by a client’s demand in facilitating the misrepresentation. The designer comments as follows:
"Once I was asked to design an ad for a bar. I asked my customer (bar owner) what kind of information and images/pictures he wanted to be included in the ad. Obviously the name of the bar and the address will be there. Also some pictures of alcoholic drinks will be there. We agreed on these points but soon I was arguing with the customer. He wanted a picture of a woman who is naked above the waist in the ad. I tried to explain to him that it was wrong to use women like that. But in the end, since my job is to design whatever our customers asked, I included a picture of a woman wearing only a bra. With our culture it’s unthinkable to have a picture of a naked Ethiopian woman on ads so, whenever we are faced with this kind of situation, we scan from magazines pictures of suggestively clad non-Ethiopian women to put in the ads […]]The customer was mad when he saw the ad. He asked why the woman was wearing a bra. He told me he specifically asked for a naked woman. After I explained to him I was not able to get the kind of picture, he told me to enlarge the current picture. In the end the picture of the bra-wearing woman dominated the ad so much she almost covered the name of the bar and the products (alcohol drinks) being advertised"
The sexual objectification of women and girls bodies is another form of Violence Against Women and a tool that facilitates various forms of violence to be directed towards women and girls.
What can we do?
We are at a time where even in the West gender-ed messages that the media is sending out is being questioned and the concept of responsible communication taking root. So if media outlets here are already mimicking styles of communication prevalent in the rest of the world, they might as well start becoming versed with the backlash that is occurring with gender representations in mainstream media. Watch here a powerful trailer of an upcoming documentary on media representation of women in the US, which questions the messages that are being transmitted to a young generation.
How can we expect to create a generation with the intellectual capacity to move our society above the trappings of violence and poverty if those in the privileged position of influencing people through their media prowess are feeding us images that are degrading to women and girls and pressuring men and boys?
I find it incredibly worrisome that my three-year old niece is obsessed with lip gloss, lip stick and nail polish and that her choice of music at this age is Rihanna’s “What’s my name.”
Have you heard the lyrics?
Love & Light