Prepping the World for Critical Media Literacy in the Age of #MeToo
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
The writing of Censored 2019 was largely wrapped up by March 2018. Consequently, Project Censored writers and researchers weren’t able to include Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the most consequential Supreme Court judicial nomination in the post-Vietnam War era, let alone the Republican Senate majority’s attempts to tweak, bend, and twist every procedural rule in the book to get him on the bench before the midterm congressional elections. Despite this shortcoming, Chapter 6 of Censored 2019, #TimesUp: Breaking the Barriers of Sexual Harassment in Corporate Media for You and #MeToo is one of the most important reads in the book.
In this chapter, professor and chairwoman of the Communication Department at Worcester State University, Juliet Freschette, concludes that in order to sustain the ideals of the “fourth wave” of the feminist movement, embodied by the hashtivism of #MeToo and #TimesUp, critical media literacy education is needed to help enable social justice activism aimed at dismantling structural power.
Noting that the once lukewarm war against women had turned hot, Freschette chronicles many of the milestones in resistance following the election of President Donald Trump, beginning with the first Women’s March on the day after the inauguration.
“The shout heard round the world was a resounding ‘Not My President’,” Freschette recounted.
Women donned knitted pink “pussy hats” — cut and sewn into the shape of cat ears … and a double meaning — in Washington, D.C. and at 600 marches held all across the globe.
While grassroots and corporate media provided coverage of the Women’s March, hegemonic elites were blindsided and unprepared for the solidarity and strength of women mobilizing en masse to usher in a new movement to defy Trump’s political agenda. Defined by some as “fourth-wave feminism,” women coalesced in unprecedented numbers to speak truth to power.
Freschette takes a look at some of the actions taken by the most anti-woman president ever, starting with the first act taken in office: the signing of an executive order barring U.S. foreign aid to any non-governmental organization that either provides abortion services or even just discusses abortion with its patients as a family planning option.
She also points to Trump’s cutting of federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other women’s health groups, a blatant effort to overturn an Obama-era law prohibiting state and local governments from withholding federal funding for family planning services related to contraception, sexually transmitted infections, fertility pregnancy care, and breast and cervical cancer screening from qualified health providers — regardless of whether or not they also performed abortions.
Freschette further highlighted a comprehensive list published by the Center for American Progress documenting 100 different ways that the Trump administration had harmed women and families in just 100 days, including stacking the courts with anti-choice judges, weakening protections against gender-based violence, and further attacking employer insurance coverage of birth control.
Freschette made it a point to document the many ways women-supporting movements fought back in the streets, at the voting booths, and in news stories and social media platforms like Twitter.
A well-known media scholar, Freshchette traces the coalescing of the #MeToo movement to the summer of 2016, when long-rumored sexual harassment allegations against Fox News’s former CEO, Roger Ailes, were validated by a New York Times investigative exposé. This reporting and the public pressure it engendered forced Ailes out, while investigations into other claims of sexual harassment took down Fox News goliath Bill O’Reilly. Freschette goes on to note that when the New York Times investigated the $13 million that the right-wing corporate news channel had paid to defend O’Reilly in five sexual-harassment lawsuits, feminist groups like UltraViolet launched an effective public campaign to fire the predator.
“Not only did these efforts work, they set off a chain reaction,” Freschette said.
The crown jewel of accomplishments of the #MeToo movement thus far is the New York Times investigative story that exposed three decades of undisclosed allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact with film industry workers by Miramax and Weinstein Company honcho Harvey Weinstein.
“With at least eight settlements by women on record dating back to the 1990s, Ashley Judd’s October 2017 revelation that she, too, was harassed by Weinstein launched what would become a swift and powerful crusade against him,” Freschette said.
Judd’s revelation opened the floodgates to other A-list actresses that Weinstein harassed over the years, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. The Weinstein Co. was forced to terminate Weinstein’s position as a result.
Freschette also asked and answered the question, “How can we measure the impact of the #MeToo movement?”
Structurally, the sexual wrongdoings of the hegemonic elites in corporate media have exposed the degree to which powerful media industries have worked for decades as closed-door systems that protect and reward those running and owning them. #MeToo has demanded that industry leaders and their boards investigate and dismiss told regimes of harassers, assaulters, and misogynists.
In both its original and expanded form, #MeToo’s organizational goals and outcomes are multifold: to share the personal stories of victims as a means to acknowledge the social injustice of these experiences; to expose the pervasive and systemic reality and impact of sexual harassment and sexual assault shared by women as a class; and to show that women who work in solidarity together and with others can usher in a more equitable generation of organizational practices and ethics across all sectors.
If there is one good thing about the junk-food news that corporate media peddles it is the massive attention it has been able to draw to the #MeToo movement due to its infatuation with celebrity and scandal.
Both the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements “have forced systemic change at the structural level, as journalists and whistleblowers have used grassroots organizing to take down offenders and perpetrators at the highest echelons of cultural and economic power,” Freschette noted.
Building off an analysis by actress and writer Brit Marling featured in the Atlantic, Freschette deconstructed the economics of consent in Hollywood. She noted that producers and directors have been getting away with power abuses for too long due to a blind reverence for their “genius” and “avant-garde” creativity.
“Why are sexual harassment and sexual assault so prevalent in corporate media?” Freschette asked.
Freschette defines these aggressions as a form of structural power, observing that patriarchy serves as the political and economic source of inequality and oppression in the highly competitive media and entertainment sectors. An endless supply of young, eager talent has led to a systematic pattern in which those in power — mostly men — take advantage of these young aspirants in vulnerable moments, with sexual harassment and sexual assault serving as manifestations of patriarchal power.
“Young women in particular face an invisible kind of oppression as they are pressured to ‘go along to get along,’ and the repression of their experiences represents a mass psychological burden,” Freschette said. “A necessary antidote to this structural inequity is to provide equal opportunities and employment to women as owners, gatekeepers, producers and executives across all cultural industries. Until there are more female producers holding power positions throughout the media, the system is not going to change in the long term.”
Freschette observes that as it now stands, the media owners and producers are largely white, heterosexual males who serve as the dominant story tellers and gatekeepers. In this role, they not only determine who will be featured in productions, but also whose cultural narratives are worth telling. By being in control of the means of production and distribution, they ensure that it is the stories and perspectives of white, heterosexual males that are promoted.
To illustrate her point, Freschette lists the following statistics:
Women accounted for only 28 percent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast network, cable, and streaming programs 97 percent of programs had no women directors of photography, 85 percent had no women directors, 75 percent had no women editors, 74 percent had no women creators, 67 percent had no women writers, 23 percent had no women producers, and 20 percent had no women executive producers 66 percent of female characters were white, 19 percent were Black, 5 percent were Latina, 6 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were of another race or ethnicity.
On programs with at least one woman creator, females accounted for 51 percent of major characters.
On programs with exclusively male creators, females comprised only 38 percent of major characters.
Freschette posits that across all cultural platforms men are telling stories about women through their gendered lens and perspective, while asserting their power as cultural producers, distributors and creators. Under such circumstances, men hold and wield the power to tell the stories that (re)constitute women and girls as “the second sex.” No wonder that stories of male power achieved through sexual conquest get told over and again and rape is such a common trope in film and television.
“Across all media, female victims of harassment and violence are subject to ridicule and re-victimization when their experiences are questioned or invalidated, or worse, when they are the ones punished (through “victim blaming”) instead of the male perpetrators,” Freschette added.
Freschette makes it a point to remind us that sexual harassment isn’t about sex, but about power and that women working in the lowest paying and least prestigious jobs suffer more harassment and do so in relative silence. Citing statistics from the restaurant industry, more than one in 10 workers report that they or a coworker had experienced sexual harassment. A similar study of female farmworkers found that 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment at work.
In the end, the Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace author argues for a robust critical media literacy education that encourages people to analyze, deconstruct and overthrow the hegemonic power structures that control corporate media production and dissemination
Freschette argued that if we are going to change the ways that power is institutionalized and operationalized in society, we need to focus on more than just the “bad apples” in the system, and instead focus on the broader matrices of power leading to abuses and social injustices from the top down.