Portrayal of Women in IT in the Popular Media
It is very hard to imagine life without the presence of media; it plays such an important part of our lives. Be it newspapers, magazines, television or films, we all have been influenced by them at one point or another. The media plays a very important role as a source of information, education and entertainment.
We've all heard of films like The Godfather, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings; television series like Friends, Scrubs, Ugly Betty; and of magazines like The Time Magazine and National Geographic. In fact, they have followers all across the world. Media forms what we can call "a universal language" in an ever expanding global world. They are not only seen as a way for people to relax and entertain themselves, but as a means of imparting important knowledge and information.
The media depicts men and women in many roles and contexts. The media is thought to have an influence on the youth as many argue that the characters portrayed and their interactions affect the knowledge and behaviors of younger viewers during their impressionable years (e.g. Pingree, 1978; Ruble, Balaban, & Cooper, 1981; Tan, 1986). Some young viewers may learn behaviors from television or films (Bandura, 1977; Cobb, Stevens-Long, & Goldstein, 1982). For some, the characters on television serve as a guide for their behavior and interaction with other members of society. Youngsters associate themselves with these characters and then try to mimic them. For example, a young teenage girl may aspire to be like her favorite actress or a character played by her - with regards to career aspirations, hairstyles, clothing and much more.
Images of women in the mass media have had some sort of detrimental impact upon both individual consciousness and collective social life.
Ads continue to portray women in their homes and men outside it. Some thought it 'cute' - a photograph in a leading daily showing the future mayor of Mumbai, India's biggest city, cooking in her kitchen. But why, one wonders, should a person who wishes to hold an important public post, be placed in the kitchen? Several advertisements, in leading newspapers and on television, show pictures of attractive women standing in 'sexy' poses to sell products to men or promote weight loss supplements to women. Society expects women to pose attractively for men and advertisements reinforce this by taking pictures of women who are slim and good looking to sell products. So in a way women are used as objects to help businesses' finance.
The media loves to see a woman as a home-maker. And it loves to see her as an avid consumer. The woman is the one who keeps buying stuff and her hair, her dress, her shoes; each bear the stamp of the latest, the most expensive products. Practically no woman in any of the serials repeats a dress (for example, Desperate Housewives, Cashmere Mafia). She makes sure that her house is decorated with the latest gadgets and that her family spends their holidays in places straight of out travel company brochures. 'Though the media purports to project the modern, liberated woman, it is actually endorsing women as consumers,' says Malini Bhattacharya, erstwhile Member of Parliament, India and professor. 'This is derogatory to the image of women and is only remotely linked with their real concerns.' Women are all too often described in terms of what they look like, rather than what they think or what they do. A woman's accomplishments are often based upon her physical appearance as opposed to her personality or possible mental capability.
A study conducted by the Delhi based Media Advocacy group highlighted instances of stereotyping and of discrimination in newspapers. Interviews of men in newspapers, says the study, hardly ever mentions their marital status or their dress sense. The focus is on their work. By contrast, women achievers are subject to irrelevant, even distasteful queries. Take for example the interview of Tarjani Vakil, a banker, which was carried in a leading Indian daily. The interview treated the reader to colorful details about her appearance and personal life, such as her penchant for beautiful clothes, her decision to stay single, and her living in an extended joint family. Her feminine qualities like her soft voice were emphasized and she (so said the article) was 'no power lady.' An analysis of the Metro newspaper published in Mumbai, India also revealed that the newspaper carried only 11% of articles about women and only 5% of articles on sports about women!
The amount of coverage women get overall is also much less that men do. The study reveals that men are provided with a larger number of opportunities to present their viewpoints and shown in diverse roles in all areas like administration, law, business, science and technology. Representation of women varies from negligible to total exclusion and women in certain accepted professions are interviewed and talked about, for example women educationists or women doctors. If they are interviewed for achieving success in a 'male' profession, then the article often goes to great pains to point out her 'feminity'.
When expert opinion is sought on an issue, 90 per cent of the people interviewed by the media are men. 'We have been living with this stereotypical representation of women for years,' says Father Rosario, the executive Director of the Chitrabani film Institute in India. 'The media does try to establish a woman's feminity, especially if she is a successful woman.'
The very under-representation of women, their stereotypical portrayal may symbolically capture the position of women in society - their real lack of power. It bespeaks their symbolic annihilation by the media. According to Gerbner, just as representation in the media signifies social existence, similarly under-representation, trivialization and condemnation indicate symbolic annihilation.
IT savvy women and women programmers are rare characters in films. Out of the millions of movies that have been produced, about a handful of movies (that are recognized in the box office) have featured women in IT savvy roles. It is even harder to find these characters in a lead role, as most of the time; the woman is portrayed as the love interest of the male lead character (for example, Trinity in the Matrix). Quite often, even if a woman is the main action hero of the film, she has a man backing her on the technical side. An example would be Angelina Jolie's character in Tomb Raider. Although she is a very intelligent character, she requires a male sidekick to handle the technical intricacies involved in her escapades. One may wonder if this is because of the common misconception that women are not capable of possessing the same level of technological skills as men.
A few films that have illustrated women's skills in technology are discussed.
In Brainstorm, Dr Lillian Reynolds (actor Louise Fletcher) and Dr Michael Bruce (actor Christopher Walken) are two computer researchers who develop a technology that by tapping into higher brain functions makes the recording of human memories and experiences possible. Initially designed to help the advancement of human communication levels, emotional intimacy and entertainment applications, the technology is soon targeted by the military for application in hostile situations (for weapons guidance systems and mind torture). Realizing the negative impacts of the use of the technology for military purposes, Dr Reynolds refuses to give up control of the project. However, during an experiment, she passes away, and Dr Michael Bruce and his ex-wife (portrayed by actor Natalie Wood), who was also a member of the original research team, fight to destroy the project.
This can be said to be one of the first films to have positively depicted women as intelligent and emotional scientists. It was Dr Reynolds who administered the research facility, developed the technology and fought against the immoral use of the technology. It was possibly a first step in portraying a woman to be as scientifically adept as a man.
This is actually the only movie where the lead character is played by a woman who knows her way around computers. Sandra Bullock plays Angela Bassett, a software engineer who accidentally stumbles across a hacking in progress and is then targeted by the "bad guys" who erase her identity in an attempt to silence her. While initially confused and upset by the loss of control in her life, she takes charge by fighting back against her enemies using her expert computer skills and techniques.
While the focus of the film is on the character Dade, a super hacker, an equally interesting character is his love interest Kate (actor Angeline Jolie), who is a feisty, independent and strong hacker. Kate was a sexy, smart woman who stood in good stead in the boy's hacking club. As she worked with Dade to uncover a plot to unleash a deadly computer virus, Kate was revealed as a technically adept computer programmer with a good control over technology. Then again, the woman forms an additional character instead of being the main one.
Tank Girl (portrayed by Lori Pretty) is a movie based on the cartoon series of the same name. Set in the future, the main character is a rebellious, free-spirited rebel living in the wastelands of the US. Along with her allies - Jet Girl and a gang of mutant kangaroos called The Rippers; Tank Girl focuses on getting revenge on the corporation that was responsible for the death of her friends. Although this film is not related to computing, it is impressive to see a woman build planes and tanks from scratch. Tank Girl shows women who are adept in technology and enjoy the use and construction of machinery.
A few films of the last decade that have depicted women in technology-centric roles have been discussed.
In this film, Emmy Coer, a computer genius, devises a method of communicating with the past using "information waves". She uses this technology to enter the world of Ada Lovelace, the "mother" of the concept of a computer program and the proponent of the various possible uses of the "difference engine". With her ideas being stifled due to her being a woman in the nineteenth century, Emmy Coer tries to devise a plan to bring Ada Lovelace into her present, so that her ideas can be shared with the rest of the world. The film addresses how a computer woman of the 20th century interacts with a woman of the 1800's, where each is an outsider in the other's realm of knowledge.
Most of you will be familiar with the movie - The Matrix. Keanu Reeves plays Neo, the main character of the film, who is an established programmer and hacker. His love interest is played by Carrie-Anne Moss - Trinity, who is also a world renowned hacker. She is portrayed as a strong independent woman with an intimate knowledge of computers as is seen in the first scene of the movie with her fingers furiously dancing over the keyboard as she seeks escape from the agents.
In this movie, the masculinization of technology is also revealed. This is when Neo first meets Trinity and learns her name and realizes that she is a legendary computer hacker, of advanced knowledge and skill. He explains to her that he had always assumed that Trinity was a man and Trinity replied that men always seemed to think that. Of course, with the exception of the film's opening, the audience never actually gets to see women using computers except in the sequel -the Matrix Reloaded where Trinity uses her programming skills to cut the power supply and save Neo.
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, a top notch computer programmer who creates a virtual-reality game called eXistenZ that taps into its players' minds. It is refreshing to come across a film where a woman is a software designer and game programmer, a field where women are typically under-represented in the real world. Geller has the ultimate control available - control over reality - and creates a world that is fantastic and unbelievable. But by the end, the distinction between reality and the virtual world becomes a blur.
IT savvy women are also very hard to find in TV series. 24 and Smallville are one of the very few series to feature a woman as a computer specialist with a significant role. Jennifer Garner's role in Alias also shows advanced technological skills (though it is not a subject of focus). Other than a few shows, women are mostly portrayed as lawyers, doctors, nurses or secretaries.
We can only hope that with growing awareness and increase in the number of women in technology, another hurdle will be crossed and the stereotypical image of women as portrayed in the media will change. There should be a direct, discernible connection between the depiction of women in the media and contemporary life. Entertainment should be a veridical reproduction of social life - an accurate representation. This will reflect the increased participation of women in the labor force. Sensitivity to how women are presented will free the media of sexism.