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Alumna campaign against gender stereotyping

Trinity alumna and CEO of The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson, explains the rationale and aims of She Objects, a documentary and campaign against gender stereotyping. 

More than just a film, She Objects is a campaign to drive disruption and positive change in the media’s portrayal of women and the effects that can have on wider society’s attitudes.

Commissioned by The Women’s Foundation (TWF), in partnership with Women Helping Women, She Objects is the first documentary of its kind in Hong Kong to explore how traditional and new forms of media create and exacerbate gender stereotypes with often damaging consequences. I was an Associate Producer of the film, which was directed by Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Nicola Fan. We have been surprised – and delighted – by the international critical acclaim the film has received and the debate it has sparked, including at the Sundance Hong Kong Film Festival 2016. More than 15,000 people watched the trailer during the launch weekend in June 2016.

She Objects looks at the correlation between the media’s portrayal of women and three themes: first, body image and self-esteem issues for women and girls; second, violence against women; and third, the ambition gender gap. It also examines how the selfie culture and social media are amplifying these issues, particularly for young people. Drawing on the film, TWF will run media literacy workshops in schools and universities across Hong Kong.

On the first issue, body image, according to global research by Dove, six out of ten girls choose not to take part in activities – for example avoiding class or worse, not turning up to school at all – because they don’t want to draw attention to the way they look.

At TWF, we think we need to do more to address the current trend where on reaching adolescence, many girls become unduly self-conscious and self critical, leading to a loss of assertiveness and resilience. They may also become less curious and more risk averse.

Secondly, we know that boys as young as nine are accessing porn, and often violent porn, in unprecedented numbers, given the ubiquity of mobile devices. Research shows that the portrayal of women as sex objects encourages sexually permissive attitudes and behaviours on the part of men and boys.

Meanwhile, research by the Chinese University of Hong Kong has found that teen girls who have been exposed to sexually explicit online material are more likely to acquiesce to sexually coercive behaviour by their boyfriends. But even if kids aren’t watching porn, the narrative of too many mainstream movies and TV programmes continues to be that men and boys need to prove their masculinity by sleeping with (more) women.

Thirdly, whether it’s girls not opting for STEM subjects, professional women lowering their ambitions in the face of family responsibilities, or the over-representation of women in the low-paying 4Cs – cleaning, cashiering, catering and caring, this  ambition gender gap is exacerbated by media stereotypes. The two most common roles for women in films are still nurses and secretaries.

From the very beginning, we train children to have unconscious gender biases and the more TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media shows that even in films for children, there are fewer female characters and girls that do feature are often valued mostly for their looks and lack the goals and aspirations of male characters.

The Women’s Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong, conducts research, runs impactful community programmes, and engages in education and advocacy in the pursuit of three main goals: challenging gender stereotypes, increasing the number of women leaders, and empowering women in poverty to be self-reliant.

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