It is plain to see that the entertainment industry is dominated by white men, one of many reasons why Jo Brand’s controlled and articulate response to Ian Hislop’s recent suggestion that the sexual harassment MPs have been accused of are merely “low level crimes” should be praised. In drawing our attention to her position as the only female comedian on the panel, Brand reminded us of how underrepresented women are on our screens, particularly women of colour. The nature of the conversation, and her assertion that “if you’re being constantly harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down”, stresses how important women’s representation in the media is, especially when standing up for women facing harassment on a regular basis.
In the current whirlwind of sexual assault allegations, implicating the politicians, film stars and directors who control much of what we see and do, the fog surrounding what is and isn’t classed as abuse seems to have to masked the seriousness of the acts themselves. Regardless of the level of abuse which takes place, or whether the crime is punishable by law, any act that jeopardises another person’s mental or physical well-being should be universally condemned by all. It is certainly not something to be reduced to a snippet of laddish humour in British TV Comedy, as it’s exactly this sort of thoughtless behaviour that normalises the asymmetry in our society; the imbalance determining that women are secondary to men.
Far beyond the set of ‘Have I Got News For You’, and in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s systematic sexual abuse of actresses, it is difficult to ignore the wider impact of the under-representation of women in the media and the limited roles they are offered when they do get exposure.
When women are excluded from our screens, their voices go unheard while male voices dominate. When they are given exposure, their roles are too often either as subsidiaries to men or function as subjects of the male gaze, which is arguably even more problematic in contributing to the culture of misogyny that permeates our everyday lives.
Though storylines in Hollywood that employ strong female leads are increasingly prevalent, it remains hard to find a mainstream, big-budget film that does not in some way objectify these female leads. Take the release of Wonder Woman earlier this year; the film was hyped to be a display of progress in the film industry, and yet our heroine still fails to escape the predictable ending in which she falls in love with a man whilst wearing a notably skimpy costume.
This is not to say that these small steps are unimportant, but the way women continue to be presented in the entertainment industry does not align with the way that they should be respected.
The culture of harassment is invasive; it operates relentlessly on almost every level of our society. Women are not always traumatised by the ‘little’ sexist remarks, but the threat that is felt constantly when we walk down the street is something that we shouldn’t have to live with. If the men on our screens treated the current abuse cases with the seriousness that they deserve, this could give women the confidence to talk more openly about their experiences of sexual harassment. The women who have come forward with their stories, and the likes of Jo Brand who ensure that this abuse is not laughed off, should be applauded for making a courageous start in changing how we approach these cases now and in the future.