Interview with Jennifer Pozner: Media Critic, Author, Anti-Racist Feminist
It is infuriating to see women portrayed in ways that are offensive, demeaning, or adding to an outdated cultural portrayal. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read an article, seen a movie, experienced a cringe-worthy advertisement, or listened to a pundit discussing “women’s issues” with no concept of authenticity.
Chances are good that if this has been your experience as well, it’s also been on the radar of Jennifer Pozner, the founder of Women In Media & News (WIMN). The stated mission of the organization is “to increase women’s presence in the public debate, emphasizing those who are least often heard, including women of color, low-income women, lesbians, youth and older women.”
Pozner has been on the frontlines of media activism and analysis for over two decades. She has appeared on television to discuss media equity, penned op-eds and articles, and is the author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Yet, perhaps her most important work is the media literacy lectures and workshops, and media trainings that she conducts at colleges and universities across the nation.
I caught up with Pozner after she had completed a speaking engagement at the California State University in San Marcos.
Allen Ginsberg said, “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.” Do you agree? If so, is this part of why you founded Women In Media & News?
That quote gets to the heart of why I am a media activist (working for structural changes in the media industry, fighting media mergers, advocating for net neutrality, and supporting independent media), in addition to my lifelong work as a media critic and media literacy educator. The last twenty years of corporate media consolidation have resulted in a system in which six powerful, multi-merged conglomerates own, operate, and control the majority of what we’re given to read, watch, and hear in print and broadcast journalism, scripted and reality TV, movies, music, children’s programming, and more. These media behemoths hold the reigns of public debate in America, with devastating results. Yes, whoever controls the media controls the culture — and, by proxy, our legislation, our economy, our lives.
When I founded WIMN in late 2001, we were the first media analysis, education, and advocacy group to ever specifically center women as a constituency for media justice. In addition to the media policy work, WIMN has acted to increase women’s presence and power in public debate, both in media content and behind the scenes in the industry. As Executive Director, I lead strategic communications media trainings for gender, racial, economic and other social justice groups, providing the tools and frameworks they need to become effective spokespeople for their causes. I run the POWER Sources Project to connect journalists and media producers with an ethnically, professionally, and geographically diverse set of women experts to serve as sources for their stories. In doing so, we explode the excuse/myth that, “We’d love to quote more women, but there aren’t any qualified women to speak to XYZ.”
The Ginsberg quote is so on-point because other than money in politics, media is the only thing that connects virtually every issue we care about: from rape to racism, hate crimes to war crimes, reproductive justice to climate change. We can never achieve substantive progress without our citizenry having access to accurate, diverse, challenging journalism, and creative, artistic entertainment media. Today’s corporate media prioritize profit over journalistic ethics when producing news (as we recently saw with MSNBC unceremoniously canning their most challenging and unique host, Melissa Harris-Perry). They also prioritize profit over quality storytelling in the entertainment realm, which is the sole reason reality TV is so prevalent.
You examine Ginsberg’s premise in your book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, addressing the common response, “Oh, it’s just entertainment.” You offer a very different point of view.
“Come on, lighten up, it’s just… (a TV show/a movie/a music video/a lying cable news blowhard)” is one of the most destructive attitudes of our time. Regardless of the topic, one of the first things I always say when I do media literacy speeches is that the corporate media has tremendous power, because it is the only institution that connects virtually all Americans. No matter where we live, the majority of us have access to the same television shows, movies, music, magazines, news outlets, and ads. Today, corporate media functions as our most common agent of socialization, helping to shape, inform, and reflect our collective ideas about people, politics and public policy — molding our self-perceptions and how we relate to, and treat, others.
Before I wrote Reality Bites Back, the general attitude toward reality TV in the entertainment press, among fans, and even among most of academia, was that reality television was dumb, harmless fluff with no significant impact ¾ a passing fad that would eventually flame out. But since reality TV is 50 to 75 percent cheaper to produce than scripted TV and often comes with a huge amount of product placement revenue, I knew it was here to stay. I wanted to start a national conversation about how this incredibly influential genre of media has been functioning as backlash against gender and racial justice since the year 2000.
Reality TV has revived regressive, dangerous tropes about what viewers are supposed to believe about women and people of color. If you knew nothing more about American culture than what you saw in reality TV, it would be easy to think the women’s movement and the civil rights movement never happened. But this very calculated set of manipulated images producers and networks have chosen to promote and profit off of is not who we are as women or as people of color. It’s not what America is actually about.
For those unfamiliar with the term “media literacy,” can you give an overview of what that means and why it is so important for women of all backgrounds?
Women, people of color, low income people, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups need to be able to engage with media in active, critical ways, rather than passive viewership. Core media literacy questions teach us how to separate text from subtext, and stated premise from hidden meaning. They help us understand, challenge, and resist deeply inaccurate and biased representations of our communities. Media literacy frameworks encourage us to follow the money, asking who created, produced, distributed, and profited from any given piece of media. What commercial investment may have influenced whose voices were included in the story, and whose were invisible or demonized? Whose values were lauded and whose maligned? And so on.
Your media literacy work on campuses around the country brings an intersectional lens to understanding the media. Can you elaborate?
Everything I do sits at that Venn diagram of media and gender, race, class and sexuality. I wrote Reality Bites Back after speaking with students for ten years about reality TV’s influence over their perceptions of sexism, racism, poverty and wealth, slut-shaming, hyper-consumption and more. My latest multimedia lecture, “Screen Shot: How Media Instigates Gun Violence and Rape Culture,” looks at how misogynistic mass shootings, sexual assault on and off campus, and street harassment are portrayed in journalism, scripted and reality TV, movies, music videos, and advertising. I cover how those depictions make all Americans less safe, and what we can do to change both this media coverage and the culture of violence it supports.
My main goal as a media literacy educator is to get people to banish the phrase “mindless entertainment” from our collective vocabulary. If you like reality TV, or music with questionable lyrics but an impossible-to-resist beat, or movies that don’t pass the Bechtel Test, I don’t care if you keep watching, listening, or enjoying them — as long as you consume with your critical filters turned on. All our faves are problematic, but as active, critical media consumers we can reject harmful stereotypes in journalism and entertainment media, rather than absorbing them unquestioningly.
Most importantly, sexism and racism in media is at the core of all my talks — from politics to war to pop culture.
If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, what do you think the media coverage will look like for her this time around? Will there be any advances over much of the misogyny we saw in 2008?
We don’t have to wait until the nomination results to know that answer. Unfortunately, media coverage of the 2016 election cycle has already been riddled with the same kind of blatantly sexist, irrelevant, non-newsworthy blather that mired treatment of Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008. The only difference in this cycle is that it used to just be gleefully bigoted radio hosts, pundits, and anchors who’d infuse coverage with bottom-feeder narratives like that. Today, we have the GOP’s frontrunner lowering the bar with jabs about women journalists’ menstrual cycles, Carly Fiorina’s wrinkles, all Mexicans as rapists, all Muslims as terrorists, and so on.
Again, and as I’ve been writing since the mid-1990s: It is always appropriate to subject female candidates to the same substantive journalistic scrutiny their male counterparts receive. It is never acceptable, though, to do what the corporate press far too often defaults to: reporting on women in the political sphere as if they are ladies first, and leaders a distant second — if ever.
This article originally appeared on the website Ravishly.