As part of our ongoing series examining the media’s “blind spot” towards gender, race and class, we ask Sunny Singh about the media’s attitudes towards women, and the role social media could play in ensuring that more diverse voices are heard.
How would you define or characterise the media’s blind spot?
There is an overall blind spot in the mainstream media because most people who work in it are from a fairly narrow background. It exists not only for gender, race and ethnicity, but also for class, and there is really very little understanding that the intersections of these matter.
So the experience of a non-white woman from an extremely well-to-do family living in Mayfair with a private school education and Oxbridge background is going to be extremely different from somebody who has a northern working class background, with the same markers of gender and ethnicity. The media just doesn’t seem to make room for that, at all.
There is also a resistance to hearing things or carrying things that are uncomfortable. There is almost a consensus, right across the political and ideological spectrum, that certain voices are OK. The newspapers pick what I call the ‘approved cultural informers’ – the person who is of a particular background and ticks the boxes on paper, but they don’t say or write things that make people feel uncomfortable, they don’t raise the difficult questions. Instead, they reinforce the dominant narrative, so in some ways it’s almost counter-productive.
What do you think of media coverage of women’s issues generally, and how does the blind spot operate in that respect?
Within the UK, women’s issues are covered by the mainstream media through a mostly white lens. The only time you really get the viewpoint of women of colour is very much within the ‘white saviour’ trope. The Guardian carried the entire series on FGM, which is very important, crucial. But they don’t have journalists who are seen to be part of the community or somehow linked doing the stories. – if they did, different stories would happen.
For a lot of us who live here, we aren’t allowed to tell our stories, there is no room for us. Yet the images that are peddled of us are so one-sided, ignorant, stereotypical and damaging. It can be very cute if you’re a journalist to write stories about oppressed, submissive women in India or elsewhere, but when I have to walk down the street and deal with people, I have to get past all those stereotypes on a daily basis.
How have your experiences of the media been affected by this?
When I moved to the UK, I set up my own blog as I’d realised that no matter what I had to offer, really there wasn’t going to be room in the media for it. I’d worked as a journalist, but when I moved here there was a real sense of ‘these are the gates, and you’re not getting through’.
I’ve been an activist and writer for 25 years, I’ve been to protests and have written recently for example about Article 377, India’s anti “unnatural sex” law that is primarily used for harassment of LGBTQ, but there is no way I can speak about it in any mainstream press in this country. They prefer someone who is for all intents and purposes white and middle class, or someone who is British Asian and can ‘interpret’ India for the UK.
It was the same with the gang rape that took place in Delhi in 2013. Most media took the line that India is a land of rape, ignoring the fact that millions of people came out on the streets to protest in winter – taking teargas and water cannons – and didn’t stop until the law went through and the court case went through.
What are the challenges facing people working in the media?
First, to listen. I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but it is the most important thing. There seems to be a complete lack of interest in knowing or learning. After the 7/7 bombings of 2005, there were all these kids in Luton and the Midlands who the media would speak to and about 70 per cent of them would purposefully come up with names of Bollywood stars – it would be the equivalent of going up to someone in America and them saying ‘My name’s Tom Cruise’. The British press ran with it. If they had someone in the newsroom, they would have known, but nobody bothered to check.
There also seems to be a resistance about including voices of those who are not in the ‘bubble’. When you look at blogs, or social media, in seconds you can come up with at least a dozen people who are extremely articulate and well-informed and have expertise in various topics. All it takes is a bit of will to say I do want to hear from an expert rather than the same old voices.
What role does digital media play in challenging the blind spot?
Social media is evolving: It’s a beast that is changing and moving in different ways. I’ve been on Twitter since about 2008-9 and have been blogging for 15 years. It has become powerful precisely because there is a resistance from the mainstream media for including voices that are uncomfortable. What’s interesting is the parallel networks that are being constructed. I don’t think you’ll get rid of mainstream media, but social media is creating parallel spaces, like Media Diversified and are not only about diversity, but also addressing the question of dumbing down. There are initiatives that are providing alternatives, creating linkages between journalists, academics and activists. There’s a real sense that we can actually have discussions that are too complex and messy for mainstream media
Photo credit: Walter White
About the author
Sunny Singh was born in Varanasi, India and graduated from Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, in 1990 with a degree in English and American Literature. She has a Masters degree in Spanish Language, Literature and Culture from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a PhD from the Universitat de Barcelona. Now based in London, she is head lecturer in creative writing at the London Metropolitan University. An expert on Bollywood, BFI have just commissioned her to write a book on Amitabh Bachchan for her film star series. Her new novel, Hotel Arcadia, will be published by Arcadia Books in spring 2015.
You can read Singh’s “rants and raves” at www.sunnysinghonline.blogspot.co.uk.