August is that time of the year in Britain when hundreds of thousands of 16- and 18-year-old students nervously receive their long-awaited GCSE and A-Level exam results.
It is a day full of joy and delight for many successful students and their parents, as well as sadness and disappointment for those not getting their desired grades. For television news, online and newspaper editors, it’s also a great day for a regular and predictable news story, providing easy fodder to fill broadcast minutes or column inches.
But take a close look at the pattern in these reports. You’ll notice a bias towards photos or video clips of mainly female students celebrating their results – looking, of course, young, attractive and photogenic. Count the number of female versus male students in the photos illustrating the news stories or in the opening seconds of TV news reports, and the contrast will be clear. A cursory look at the first page of Google Images search results is also revealing. According to the Guardian’s picture desk, there were 40 times more pictures of female than male students receiving their A-Level results on the morning of Thursday 13 August 2015. You’d be mistaken for thinking this is confined to just the tabloids, but the bias is present across the board.
Some may question why this is a problem. After all, editors can choose to broadcast or publish what they please, and naturally they will tend to select photos that are more photogenic than others.
The motives are obvious: it’s no secret in the media industry that images of attractive women with bare-skin revealing will hold onto more viewers or readers, for the same reasons that adverts with increased sexual content attract more attention to the product that is being advertised than those without. But the consequences of the editorial choices are dangerous.
It is a sad truth that today – despite all the movements for gender equality in recent decades – women are still being judged on their appearance over character traits. Female news show presenters are regularly slated in the press for wearing clothes that are too revealing, or else too boring and “Victorian schoolmarm-like”. In the recent 2015 UK General Election campaigns, we were bombarded with articles commenting on what female candidates (or the wives of male candidates) were wearing, rather than what they were saying. Male presenters and politicians are rarely subjected to the same attire-based scrutiny.
In the workplace, too, there are often great indirect pressures on women to conform to a sexist male-centric view that women must always be looking physically attractive, leading to an environment where they are judged based on how much make-up they wear in the morning, rather than intellect and aptitude in the job.
In 2014, #nomakeupselfie was a viral social media campaign which encouraged tens of thousands of women to share photos of themselves on social media without make-up on, to raise money for Cancer Research. What few people stopped to ask themselves was, why should being without make-up be seen as so “subversive” or “different” that it was worthy of a campaign. It can only be so if society’s default expectation is that women should wear make-up all the time.
Such examples point to a wider trend of the increasing sexualisation of society.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sexualisation as when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, when a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy, when a person is sexually objectified, or when sexuality is imposed on a person.
There are numerous damaging consequences of this trend to both individuals and society. The APA’s research finds evidence that sexualisation – as per their definition – has a causal link to three common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Emotional contentment can be severely reduced as girls’ confidence in their self-image is affected by constant streams of images of perfect bodies in the media. The social consequences are even further ingrained and may include increased sexism and increased prevalence of sexual violence or exploitation.
It is too simplistic to suggest that the selective bias in the use of imagery within mainstream channels is the root causes of social problems like sexual exploitation. These are complex social issues with many factors behind them. But it is fair to say that it is a contributing factor for the increasing sexualisation of society – a trend that is unconsciously being accepted by many sections of society, with little knowledge for the very real and harmful consequences it has for us.
You could argue that the bias towards photos of women on exam results days, is simply the media celebrating female educational achievements, and is in fact a positive feature. After all, more women are now entering university than men, with 53 per cent of the 409,000 students accepted to UK universities in 2015 being female. However, this view ignores the intense pressures on media outlets to increase viewership or readership numbers, the nature of the photos selected, and the sheer quantity of the bias – factors that all point to the objectification and sexualisation of female students. The recent controversy over the Alpha Phi recruitment video for the University of Alabama is a case in point.
The more we are bombarded with this content – whether it’s from TV news reports, newspapers, marketing adverts, or the music and film industry – the more we are subliminally conditioned to a social norm. A norm where it is acceptable for men to objectify the opposite sex and expect all women to continually look young, attractive and photogenic; and for women to feel the most important quality they need is “sexiness”, and not intellect, diligence or ambition. These are deep-rooted male attitudes to women, and attitudes which women are being encouraged to believe about themselves – and this is what must be challenged.
So the next time you watch a news report or read a newspaper article about GCSE or A-Level exam results, will you look on – whether as a man or woman – unconsciously consuming image after image of young women, and accepting the media narratives that come with it? Or will you pause for a moment, reflect and question why the editor has chosen to present the news story in that way?