Media, Israeli: Portrayal of Women
Media texts are one of the prime societal sites through which it is possible to study the position of women in Israeli society. They constitute an arena for presenting society to itself, serving as a key agent of socialization which defines our identity for us, establishes the parameters of consensus, and relegates what is perceived as unconventional to the margins. The integrated examination of the content of the Israeli print and electronic media engaged either in documenting reality (e.g. newspapers, news programs, current-events programs, talk shows, social programs) or in entertainment (e.g. quiz shows, soap operas, children’s programs) demonstrates the perception of the marginality of women in Israeli society. While men are presented as the “normal,” women, who constitute the majority of society, are presented as the minority “other”—the exception, the incomplete, the impaired, the marginal.
An examination of the Israeli media reveals fundamental principles of patriarchal thinking, including relegating the feminine to the private sphere; restricting presentation of females to the physical functions of sex and reproduction; and placing women within the world of emotions, where rational thought is lacking and behavior uncultivated. Promoting the perception of the marginality of women in society finds expression in all the media, to the extent to which women are shown at all: they are limited primarily to traditional roles related to the private sphere or, if in the public sphere, in such traditional caring roles as volunteering in service activities, education, health, welfare and the like. Women’s personality traits are depicted as being fundamentally different in nature from those of men: They are less logical, ambitious, active, independent, heroic and dominating. By contrast, they are portrayed as more romantic, sensitive, dependent and vulnerable The following presentation examines these claims in detail, based on analyses of the content of the Israeli media conducted by several researchers.
The main body of research of women in the Israeli media has dealt with them as subjects of the news, current events, and politics, as depicted on television and in the print press. Various studies conducted by Mira Ariel, Anat First, Dafna Lemish and Chava Tidhar have dealt with complex issues: the degree of feminine presence in the genres, women’s placement in the framework of the various programs, the way they are presented, the traits attributed to them and the like. Overall, men appear six times more than women and are on the average significantly older. There are also notable differences in the roles of interviewees on news programs and talk shows: Women appear in dependent roles—such as “the wife of ...,” “the mother of ...”—more often than men, while men more often appear in professional positions. Representatives of the general public are almost exclusively men, while women represent the volunteer sector. While men are introduced with their professional credentials, women are introduced in terms of their gender and family identities. Written descriptions of men present them as independent people working outside the home, while women—who are most often addressed by their first names—are presented as immature, dependent on others and unemployed outside the home.
A common role for women in the Israeli news is that of victim (of violence, accidents and disasters). The preference of the media for dealing with women as victims (rather than as creative or active women, for example) is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the media create public awareness of violence against women, thus advancing the social debate and remedies. On the other hand, the tendency of the media to eroticize, trivialize and sensationalize (for example: excessive detailing of the acts of sex and violence, exaggerated use of color headlines and emotional rhetoric, invasive pictures and the like) depicts the phenomenon as a private battle of passive, unfortunate women, instead of as a structural social problem of power relationships and inequality. The media discussion makes extensive use of the “institutional” voice in covering these subjects—the responsible policeman, the prosecuting judge—reinforcing the impression that “everything is under control,” while ignoring the female voice of the victim and her environs. One way or another, the media continue to perpetuate the impression of females as weak, passive and in need of male protection.
A study by Dafna Lemish of the portrayals of female immigrants from the former Soviet Union sheds additional light on these issues. These women are presented primarily in the context of the sex industry in Israel: prostitutes, call girls and escort girls. As such, they are depicted as the “other” of Israeli society. They are to be located in the margins of Israeli society among those in poverty and criminal class. Their Jewish-ness is called into question and they certainly do not behave as is expected of Jewish women and mothers: they are often single mothers, they have abortions, they drink alcohol and so on. This manner of coverage demonstrates the process whereby women citizens who are part of the collective “us” are portrayed as “others” who are foreign to Israeli society and are undermining morals and good social order.
Of particular interest is an examination of the status of the wives of prime ministers in the Israeli press conducted by Dafna Lemish and Gili Drob. Analysis of the media coverage of Leah Rabin, Sonia Peres and Sarah Netanyahu reveals that, while each developed a different pattern of behavior vis-à-vis contact with the media, all three had placed the value of the family in first place, while compromising on or giving up their own careers (in typically female professions: nurse, teacher and psychologist, respectively). All three had played the role of “first lady” through some form of public volunteer work, an activity generally reserved for action by women of means and not financially rewarded. Press coverage of these women placed particular emphasis on their private spheres: Their personal appearance, descriptions of their home, furnishings, the domestic atmosphere, remodeling, and hosting dinner parties. Over the years, in fact, the wives of Israeli prime ministers have been portrayed as totally conforming to the traditional profile of women in Israeli society. None presented themselves through the media as a model for the advancement of the status of women.
Coverage of women in competitive sports is another unique area that has been examined by Alina Berenstein. Since sport is an area related to the physical world, it offers grounds for examining how the physicality of the male body is presented as a paradigm of superiority over female physicality. For example, “sports” is an inclusive concept, though it is used only to refer to coverage of masculine activities. Hence, coverage of sports activities in which women engage is depicted as “other”—“women’s sports.” Coverage of sports activities in which Israeli women engage is negligible. Pictures of women in the sports sections usually portray them in dependent roles: “The wife of ...” “the girlfriend of ...” Coverage of women athletes addresses, among other details, their external appearance, diminishing their athletic achievements and reducing them to their sexual functions.
The inequality in how women and men are respectively portrayed by the media is so deep that it is even perpetuated in election campaigns by parties officially committed to social equality. Studies by Dafna Lemish and Chava Tidhar suggest that women appearing in campaigns are younger than the men; they tend, more than men, to be presented without being identified or without definition of professional credentials; they appear as lay persons; and are depicted with more emotional messages then men. They receive less camera exposure during their appearances and tend to be shown more in mixed groups with men. Most of the political parties did not allow women to present the parties’ position on such central issues as peace, security and the economy. The little exposure given to women politicians focused on familiar women’s areas—education, health and welfare. Relatively anonymous women were chosen to speak about the Israel-Arab conflict. Each was presented in her dependent role; that is, their claims and the justifications for them derived from their roles as “friend of ...” “mother of ...” “grandmother of ...” In these roles, the women represented the civilian home front and wondered aloud about the ramifications of the possible death (or about a death which had already occurred) of the men in their lives.
A ‘motherhood’ strategy was particularly evident. Women-as-mothers was the dominant message of most of the parties in the 1996 election campaign. Mothers appeared with babies on their laps and children at their sides. As mothers, they spoke of their children, while the camera continually panned to the children. In this role, they spoke of peace, the future, education, equality, personal security, poverty, religion, retirement, minorities, army service and the like. Bereaved mothers spoke in the name of their children. It seemed that only women’s roles as mothers could legitimize their appearance on the screen and the message they were conveying.
In her study of women in local politics in Israel, Hannah Herzog demonstrated the different ways in which the media fixate on these women’s roles in the private sphere rather than on their public agenda, portraying them as interlopers trying to achieve the impossible. These themes are highlighted through the relegation of the discussion of women in politics to women’s magazines and the women’s sections in the national and local newspapers rather than in the political-news sections; attention to extraordinary women is the exception to the rule. Excessive emphasis is placed on the fact that the candidate was “first of all—a woman.” Her involvement in politics is depicted as threatening femininity and as being in conflict with self-fulfillment in the home and family frameworks.
Chava Tidhar and Dafna Lemish found that unique conflict situations, such as the uprising in the occupied Palestinian territories, sharpen the problematics of the images of women in television news. In an analysis of the content of news over the course of several years, it was found that the Intifada of the 1980s was framed as a masculine issue on all levels. The decisive majority of those interviewed were men, while the minority of women interviewed appeared in dependent positions rather than in any professional capacity.
It should be emphasized that the unique contribution of both Jewish and Palestinian women—each group independently on its respective side, as well as through joint actions—has not earned media coverage. Editors of television news chose to ignore women’s political movements that deviated from the national consensus and sought to offer alternative ways to resolve political crisis. For example, there was a startling absence of coverage of Women in Black, a protest movement against the ongoing occupation; a movement which challenged the Israeli social and gendered order, raised questions about it, and proposed alternative action. In contrast, Dafna Lemish and Inbal Barzel found that another political-protest movement—Four Mothers—which objected to the presence of the Israeli army in Lebanon emphasized the fears of mothers for the fate of their children and openly exposed speaking with the “force of the womb.” This movement enjoyed relatively broad media coverage and its success in changing the national agenda can be attributed to the positive role attributed to motherhood by Israeli society. Perceived as the ultimate female sacrifice for the national collective, this role accords legitimacy to the female voice in the public sphere, whereas expression of women’s political opinion as equal members of society does not earn comparable recognition.
Chief among the criticisms leveled against advertising in Israel, including that by researchers such as Anat First, Dafna Lemish and Gabriel Weimann, is that it frequently depicts women as sexual objects. This is achieved in many ways: exposed parts of the female anatomy are displayed, provocative body movements, enticing facial expressions, tantalizing glances, finger movements, self-caressing, emphasis on the lips and the like. Female sexuality is often woven into advertising through the use of devices hinting at violence. Thus, for example, the following motifs also associated with pornography were found by Dafna Lemish in Israeli advertising: fragmentation of the female body (presenting parts of the body disconnected from the whole); bondage (portraying women in restraints or with some form of physical limitation on their freedom of movement); forced physical contact (advertisements depicting men using physical force on women); symbolic violence (advertisements portraying women in association with violence, even if expression is not actually given to the violence); and potential violence (advertisements which present women in situations known to the viewer as being potentially violent). In most of these advertisements the women appear to be ignoring the violence, are indifferent to it, or even enjoying it. Furthermore, women are even depicted as encouraging sexual violence: they are dressed and posed provocatively, undressed, or exposing parts of their bodies in manners intended to be provocative to the viewer. They exude a willingness to initiate sexual relations under any circumstance and at any price. The objectification of women in advertisements is also expressed in how extensively they are used as objects rather than subjects having their own existence: as fruits—colorful, juicy, and tempting to eat; as packages (e.g. perfume bottles); as animals—identified with the untamed, the natural, the impulsive, the uncivilized.
In addition to being reduced to their sexual functions, women are identified with lower-value and lower-status consumer products, particularly those associated with housekeeping, or those for improving one’s external appearance. Such commercials project a differentiated status of men and women. Gabriel Weimann found that men in commercials are more often depicted in the work world, while women are still presented in the domestic domain, without context. The rewards promised by advertisements center on external appearance for women, while those for men deal with practical benefits. Commercials directed at men or using men most often portray them as a “professional” source of information guided by rational thought, while those directed at or using women usually present them on the “personal” level, characterized by emotional considerations. In addition, most women in commercials are significantly younger than the men.
The Israeli media often perpetuate both sides of the dichotomy reserved for women in patriarchal culture: the “Madonna” on one side and the “Whore” on the other. As “Madonna,” the Israeli woman is cast in the role of the mother—the one who gives birth, nurtures, raises, sacrifices herself and—finally—the one who mourns her dead son. As “whore,” she is pressed into the mold of the sexual object, the essence of whose existence is tantalizing/threatening the masculine and whose ultimate fate is to be punished as a victim of violence and exploitation. Here, media content legitimizes the dehumanization of women and the view of them as objects lacking consciousness and individuality, devoid of the essence of humanity.
Clear examples of social perceptions of women’s role in Israeli society can be found in a number of visual projects related to commemoration of the country’s fiftieth anniversary of independence, celebrated in 1998. Examination of women’s images presented in albums celebrating Israel’s jubilee clearly reveals women’s place in Israeli society: The attention devoted to women altogether is negligible; when they are included it is their social function as the sacrificing mother or wife that is portrayed. Similar evidence can be found in the highly praised television series Tekumah (“Resurrection,” referring to the revival of a Jewish state). This production used leading mainstream historians and television professionals in an effort to present as multi-faceted a picture as possible of the country’s history. Yet for the most part it ignored women. Various segments of the series were devoted to all of the possible societal divisions—Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, secular and Orthodox, veterans and new immigrants, settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories and members of Peace Now, Jews and Arabs. Only half of the country’s population—the women—hardly appeared on the television screen. Ignoring, perhaps refusing to include, documentation of the role of women in the establishment and development of the State, as shapers of collective memory and national self-identity, is greater testimony than anything else presented to date of the symbolic annihilation of women. “If you’re not there, you don’t exist,” says a popular commercial. Simply, the women are not “there” in the mediated world.
Yet, as in other developed countries, studies are finding evidence of “creeping” change in the images of women in Israel. Since the 1990s, women have appeared more than previously as professionals, in addition to being the keepers of the private sphere. This gradual transition to a more liberal model can be attributed to real changes in society and to the cumulative influence of the feminist revolution. Simultaneously, however, it can be further understood from at least two complementary directions. First, a major portion of the changes involve showing women more in the manner perceived as masculine (independent and powerful, for example, as typified by a number of women politicians and female journalists holding senior positions) or presenting men in ways that are usually perceived as feminine (as sexual objects in advertisements, for example). Neither of these strategies allows for expression of the unique female experience, feminine world-view and values or feminine ways of thinking and political action. Secondly, if we address the contents of media such as advertisements, not as an unequivocal reflection of reality, but as expressions of a consumer society, the image of the “new” woman can be interpreted as utilizing the feminist discourse for the sake of advancing consumerism. Recognizing and mobilizing the growing economic power of women in western society is, according to some theorists, a new form of enslavement: to an unattainable ideal of beauty, to exalting the preservation of eternal youth, and to nurturing an inferior self-image which is in constant need of improvement.
The claim that the growing feminization of the media industry in Israel will bring about significant change in the hegemonic world-view presented in the media texts is a hotly debated proposition in Israel, as it is elsewhere. A number of women stand out in expressing woman’s voice in the media. However, each was perceived more than once as having paid a price for daring to do so; for example, in absence of family life or in adopting a “masculine” professional character. A number of women assumed prominent roles as anchorwomen as well as field reporters and press-commentators in typically male areas, including politics, defense, and economics. A weekly feminist TV program on the commercial channel, which sought to contribute to the cultivation of a new definition of “women’s issues” in the public mind, achieved a respectable audience share.
In spite of these hints at possible change within the Israeli media, a realistic assessment of the picture of the world presented by the media at the beginning of the twenty-first century still leaves women in the margins of the social, economic, cultural and political processes, as has been documented in many studies worldwide. The media did not invent women’s inequality and victimization and they cannot be held solely responsible for the existence of discrimination. Yet the images they present can reinforce and legitimize a patriarchal worldview by glorifying the situation and/or by presenting it as the normal or expected state of affairs. Exposing the ideological ties between social-economic-political reality and media images representing it is but one step toward cracking the walls of hegemony.
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An extended version of this article has been published in the Journal of Israeli History. vol 21, 1–2 (2002): 110–125.