The Feministing Five: Julie Burton

Courtesy of WMC

Courtesy of WMC

Even for non-cinemaphiles like myself, it’s hard not to tune into the Oscars. In our house, my momma and I would celebrate with warm socks, comfy sweatpants, and eyerolls for the inevitable sexist mishegas. Despite our hopes as we welcomed the Oscars into our lives, it seems that Hollywood still clings to its ye-ole-white-boy-narratives. Shiny dresses and big hair can’t cover up how the US media industry has stagnated its progress in inclusivity.

As we covered earlier last week, the Women’s Media Center released its third annual report on the status of gender and racial diversity in the media. If you haven’t looked it over, you’re missing out because it’s full of great details like data breaking down the over-sexualization by ethnicity and age, the percentage of women’s speaking roles in 2012′s top 100 films, and how increasing diversity in television increases viewership.

Still thinking about this report days later, we checked in with Women’s Media Center president, Julie Burton, who gave us the scoop on how the report was made, why it continues to matter, and how we can incorporate it into our push for improved media representation. We offer up this FF as an alternative to throwing popcorn when white dudes and their nonsense just gets a little too much.

Long live Lupita, and without further ado, the Feministing Five with Julie Burton!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Congrats on the fantastic report and on its warm reception. To start off, could you describe how the report is made and what’s new in this year’s edition?

Julie Burton: This is our third year, so it’s our 2014 Status of Women in US Media. It’s a complication of the research that a number of academic institutions, advocacy groups, and media groups have put together. The platforms that we look at are across the board–online only news sites, television, social media, video games, film and television, sportsnews, and corporate technology. There’s a much bigger focus this year on technology and online digital news. A real theme that we are spotlighting this year is women of color in the media.

We review all of these platforms and while these studies on their own have been released throughout the last year, the power of this report is that it’s the one place where everything is pulled together. The story that it tells is a picture of women’s status in media. Media defines our society — it tells us who we are, what we can be, what we can do. The picture that we are getting is not a very good one. We are far from gender blind parity.

SB: While putting this report together, what the data that surprised you the most? 

JB: Sports journalism. 90% of the editors are white and male. That number blew me away. I had just read a few weeks ago that Scarborough USA (it does research for marketers and advertising) did numbers on who is the audience of North American sports. Women are more than a third of some of the biggest sports markets. NASCAR, baseball, NBA, the NFL, for all of these areas women are a third of the demographic. Yet the people telling the stories, deciding what the story is, and who to quote — those are 90% men and they are white. That is not whole story nor does it reflect who we are.

SB: Something that I noticed while reading the report was that, although things have not completely regressed, they also haven’t significantly improved. What do you think is the reason for this stagnation? 

JB: Change is something that you have do consciously. In our 24/7 world, there is so much media coming at you, you have to take time to look at the big picture. That is what this report helps us to do. When you look at the big picture, think about who is talking to you on your TV screen. How many guests are on that panel?  If they are women, are they women of color? Are they men of color? What’s the breakdown and does that result in a powerful and true story that can be told?

After our data and numbers from this third year, I believe that change starts at the top. In our media industry, there are many people who have been in charge of decision-making and hiring. It’s always more comfortable for people to hire those who are just like them. When you look at the film and news industries in particular, you see a tradition of men in those roles. Many more men have been hired, moved up, and have had those opportunities. But we’ve had a number of women graduating with journalism degrees, communication degrees, prepared and ready to be there, but the opportunities have not been offered to them.

By releasing reports and spotlighting challenges, it’s an opportunity for those with the power to make change to say, “You know what? I’m going to hire with intent. I’m going to look at our personnel and see how it all breaks out.” It’s an opportunity for change to happen.

SB: Looking at another angle of power, I was curious to learn how you think these grassroots productions (like those from Issa Rae and Azie Mira Dungey) will impact the larger landscape? 

JB: Those shows are incredibly important. The fact that there are so many really brilliant talent out there who are creating those storylines, doing the stories themselves, and building something where 600,000 people what — that’s revolutionary. That’s the power of the digital world that we are in right now. Additionally, in social media, we see women leading men in use and in voice in a much bigger way. When it comes to digital news and who gets to write, we see the old structures from the old print world come to play.

We can try to shake things up through social media skills and platforms of those who are leading with online voice and opinions. That’s the place where we hope progress can be made. There is no question that the independent series on YouTube and other digital platforms, that’s the revolution. It might have to be where women and women of color go if we cannot break the gender and color ceiling. If we can’t do it in Hollywood, we’ll go create our own media. Those series that you mentioned really show that there is a way. People have made money, they have a voice, and have changed the story. That is power and it’s beautiful.

SB: Towards the end, the report gives suggestions for how media consumers can improve the current status. As someone finishes reading the report, what would be their ideal next steps? 

JB: It depends on their point of view. If they are an employer and someone at the top, it would bring me so much pride and happiness that would have taken lessons from this report that they would have hired with intent and conduct personnel audit. I was on the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women a number of years ago when we implemented CEDAW (Convention to End Discrimination Against All Women). We were the first city in the United States to do that and we went into six departments in the San Francisco City Model. Each department had to do an audit. And I’ll tell you, audits make the difference. They make people see who is on their payrolls, who is doing what kinds of jobs, and who is getting opportunities that lead to bigger opportunities. It really makes everything clear.

In the ’70s, FCC had a rule that if you wanted a broadcast license you had to keep track of the number of women and minorities on your staff. That is what opened the door for the Pat Mitchells of the world. (Pat Mitchell runs the Paley Center for Media and was one of the founding members of our board.) That’s what opened the door for Carol Jenkins who our founding president. That FCC rule went away later in the 70′s and the jobs went away with it. That rule kept track of hiring and really moved people up the ladder so much more quickly. I would love see the new chairman of the FCC bring that rule back.

SB: And finally, our signature final question. You’re stranded on a desert island, you get to choose one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick? 

JB: Okay, Gloria Steinem. Everyone knows she is very smart, but do you have any idea how funny she is? Gin and tonic, and excellent Indian food.

Suzanna Bobadilla is happy that her momma raised her feminist and will be live-texting Sunday’s events with said rad-momma. Suzy 1

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