What is the reception of the term femicide in the Greek public sphere? How does the media “cover” the murders of women, murdered because of their gender?
What is the role of the media and social media in the reproduction of sexist discourse and the perpetuation of gender stereotypes? What are the reactions and counter-reactions to the dominant media discourse?
These and many other questions are addressed in the presentation “On femicide in public discourse and the public sphere” by a social anthropologist (program manager of Diotima Center) Anna Michalakeli.
The paper was presented at the event “Femicide: Findings, Questions and Questionmarks”, organized by the Centre for Gender Studies of the Department of Social Policy of Panteion University (14/3/2019, S. Karagiorga Amphitheatre).
In contemporary societies, mass media constitute an important mechanism for the construction and reproduction of sexist norms, both through their very structure[i] and through the content, language, and narratives they use, thus forming a distorted image of social reality and influencing the general public.
Therefore, the media do not simply reflect, but participate in the construction and definition of reality, selecting, presenting, and constructing ‘realities’.
International texts and treaties, such as CEDAW, the Beijing Platform, and the Istanbul Convention, recognize and refer to the central role played by the media, traditional and non-traditional, in the elimination of violence against women.
The European Commission is promoting actions to encourage Member States to adopt mechanisms to eliminate sexist stereotypes in media and advertising, to encourage the media to adopt internal production codes for their content, and to encourage public debate on this issue.
However, sexism and misogyny have increased dramatically in recent decades and the responsibility of the media in terms of gender-based violence continues to be at the center of international debates, particularly with the development of new technologies and digital media (social media).
Gender-based violence and media discourse
Early feminist studies around this issue focused on representations of sexual violence in order to demonstrate how media content contributed, through the commodification of women’s bodies, to the legitimization of sexual assault and other forms of violence, and how it reinforced gender inequalities.
In a subsequent phase, studies on the role of the media were linked to social interventions and actions.
Content analysis was used as a tool to generate quantitative statistics on gender representations and this data was used as the basis for ex-post campaigns against stereotypical representations in both media content and advertising, which highlighted the existence of diverse and different forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence.
Finally, current research efforts focus on the study of different forms of gender-based violence as presented in media discourse, of which femicide is a part.
Reproduction of sexist stereotypes
The findings of these studies have demonstrated how media content reproduces sexist stereotypes that associate masculine identity and masculinity with violence, dominance, independence, aggression, and power, while women are portrayed as emotional, vulnerable, dependent, and sensitive.
Gender violence and its various forms are not presented in the media as a structural problem resulting from inequality between men and women in the context of patriarchal societies, but as a mere individual experience that usually occurs and is confined to the private sphere[ii].
News reports on incidents of rape and femicide tend to represent women as victims and responsible for the violence they have suffered (so-called victim blaming), while the perpetrators are not part of the news and when they do appear, they are represented as the quiet people next door who no one realized what they might be hiding.
The way in which the news about femicide is covered, and the discourse that develops around the reports about it, has an impact on the way in which the whole of society ultimately perceives gender-based violence.
Four types of ‘coverage’ of femicide
In particular, four different types of media coverage of femicide and gender-based violence have been documented/identified[iii]:
First, “objective” reporting of the facts – police frame or “just the facts”. In this case, we have a tabloid-style projection of the murder where gruesome details of the attack are highlighted – such as the number of times the victim was stabbed. This type of presentation is common in Latin America, but it also exists in Europe, and apparently in Greece.
Second, these events happen to people different from us (e.g. immigrants, refugees, irreligious, and generally “Others”). Sexism goes hand in hand with racism, and the media use a double standard for perpetrators depending on their ethnocultural origin or social class. Thus, for example, in the case of E. Topaloudi, the “national” was initially presented as the one who was “led astray”, while the second was emphatically “the Albanian” – until it was revealed that he was from Northern Epirus, which did not suit the media.
Thirdly, victim blaming and/or justification of the perpetrator. The media often cite jealousy or drug or alcohol use to uncritically justify the actions of the perpetrator of the crime, or use expressions such as: “from love to murder” or “crime of passion”, thus portraying homicides as “love stories” or “family tragedies”.
The ‘blame the victim’ mentality, and the general perception that these are issues that concern the house and not the public sphere is not only found in the media, of course. It is also pervasive, as already mentioned, in institutions such as the police, leading to inadequate protection, underestimation of the risk to victims, and failures in the application of laws that ultimately create favorable conditions for the commission of femicide.
Fourth, publications show a society shocked and numbed, since the perpetrator is portrayed as a “normal” person who had never been given rights.
Is it a neologism after all?
In the case of Greece, the publication of a series of gruesome murders of women and their visibility in the public sphere was followed by a debate around the use of the term femicide, both by the journalistic world and by bloggers, social media commentators, ordinary users; a debate that is maintained and reproduced in order to confuse and conceal once again the real causes of these crimes.
The term femicide appears in the Greek media as a neologism. Neologisms are words invented to fill a gap in language usage and are generally adopted gradually until they are fully integrated into the mainstream linguistic corpus.
The term femicide, however, is not just another neologism. It is, as we shall see, an area of conflict of ideas, social attitudes, and political positions, and the discomfort surrounding its use is not simply a matter of a difference in linguistic perceptions[iv].
At the present time, however, the rivalry around the term is well underway and is accompanied by an attempt by some media to associate it with specific ideological-political spaces or even with specific political parties.
The debate around the term
So if one does a simple google search by typing the word femicide, one will notice at a quick glance that the search results reflect precisely this controversy, ambivalence, embarrassment, or even outright opposition to the use of the term, as its unquestioning acceptance would mean the automatic recognition of the gendered dimension of the acts in question.
A section of the media is adopting the term and contributing to its dissemination. These include:
- Media that operate in the broader, we would say, left-center-left ideological spectrum, e.g. Epochi, Avgi, Vice, efsyn etc. As there is a great overlap between this ideological space and the feminist movement in its various manifestations, it is to be expected that this category of media will accept and use the term
- International media, which adopt what we would call the culture of political correctness of the Western World and have Greek publications, e.g. cnn.gr
- Mainstream media such as e.g. newscentergr, which without actively promote a feminist content, seem to adopt the term in their journalistic lingo
On the other hand, the use of the term is opposed:
- Blogs or social media accounts, Twitter with many followers. Surprisingly, the far-right media do not seem to adopt the polemic against the term
- Individual editors of the so-called bourgeois press, but who are considered opinion leaders or spokespersons of a media’s main line, e.g. Elias Kanellis in Nea, Manos Voularinos in Athens Voice
- Well-known media personalities who express an often reactionary discourse, e.g. Thanos Tzimeros, Konstantinos Bogdanos, etc.
The embarrassment of quotation marks
There is still an awkwardness in the use of the term or an acceptance with reservation, which is manifested by the use of the term in quotation marks, where its existence and its dissemination are acknowledged, but at the same time, the quotation marks come to express the writer’s not full acceptance of the term or his or her perception of the reception of the term by the audience of his or her medium.
Nikos Sarantakos in his blog quotes a typical passage about the use of the term by an editor of the Sky television station, in an article about the declaration of national mourning yesterday in Portugal, who used the term “femicide”, as he could not avoid it since it was present in statements by a Portuguese activist, in quotation marks, as if he was catching it with gloves so as not to be contaminated! saying: “‘femicide’ is a national scourge to which the maximum number of people must be made aware.”
Similarly, in an article in Kathimerini, the journalist Paschos Mandravelis expresses a strong ambivalence and embarrassment not only about femicide but even about the term gender-based violence, which he also quotes in quotation marks; and although he considers the specification of offenses and the introduction of new concepts to be correct, he concludes: “[…] as long as we do not forget that it is the violence, not the gender of the perpetrator and the victim, that is the cause of revulsion […]”.
The ‘bottom-up’ attitude
In the age of social media, there is public discourse and bottom-up discourse, e.g. personal blogs. However, the most direct, simple, and frequent expression of opinions is through commenting. Although commentators do not have the same impact and influence as columnists, they often co-shape public sentiment.
Commentaries should not be seen as a clear and representative reflection of public sentiment, since they express the writers but cannot capture what those who do not write think, i.e. those who do not want to put their views forward in these media. However, they are an indication of how a proportion of public opinion thinks.
In any case, citizens’ speech as recorded in digital media is an important, vibrant, and dynamic part of public discourse, which is equally worth studying and can give us a fuller picture of the way in which digital media reproduce sexist and stereotypical views, ideologies, and attitudes.
Sexism on social media
Disagreements about the use of the term femicide are also raised by ordinary social media users/commentators. This reaction is not surprising. We’ve seen it appear before on every gender issue, against the feminist movement, and in the larger debate of political correctness.
It is unknown to what extent the dissent expressed by ordinary commentators is shaped by the discourse of named opponents of the term femicide from whom they are influenced or is a product of their own thinking and intellectual processing, or a combination of both factors. In any case, the reaction to what is perceived as a politically correct use of public discourse has a specific political stigma.
The use of the term depends on the political spectrum, and the further to the left we go, the more effortlessly it is adopted.
The further to the right we move, the greater the opposition. Typical of this dichotomy is that the medium iefimerida, published an article entitled: “Does the word ‘femicide’ exist after all? – The neologism that divides right-wingers and left-wingers”.
Dialogue and awareness-raising activities
It is clear from what has been said before that establishing and using the term “femicide” more widely will not put an end to violence against women, nor will it overturn the patriarchal structure of society. But a first step will have been taken in terms of awareness – and this first step is not insignificant.
Already, international movements such as #MeToo or Greek initiatives to raise awareness about gender-based violence (e.g. the Diotima Center’s campaign “Don’t skip – Don’t skip gender violence” or others that highlight the importance of consent such as Amnesty International’s campaign “Without consent is rape”), are making use of social media, are gaining a strong following, expressing a resounding counter to dominant public narratives and becoming important tools and instruments for rallying women and gradually changing dominant attitudes and behaviors.
In closing, a typical example of this counter-argument is given, which encapsulates in just one paragraph, everything we would like to say about the femicides that have occurred, are occurring, and will occur in the future if we do not work not only in the direction of awareness-raising but also at the level of empowerment of survivors and education on gender and gender-based violence at all levels of education.
“The first woman that died of femicide that I met was Anthi. I was 8. Anthi lived in a nearby village in Volos and was a neighbor of my grandmother’s sister, who was also abused for years by her husband. Anthi would come for coffee with bruises.
My grandmother’s sister, her daughter – who also came with bruises from the husband – with my cousins – who had scars from the father’s belt, my grandmother who had dementia and had now forgotten her own abuse, my mother, would talk with Anthi about recipes, cleaning jobs, commenting on other women. I remember the last afternoon I saw Anthi, they were commenting on a woman from the village who left her family and ran away because she couldn’t take the beating.
When Anthi left, the other woman commented that she was not accomplished and was irritating her husband. The next afternoon the husband beat her to a bedside table and Anthi dropped dead. This was witnessed both by my grandmother’s sister and other villagers passing by.
They said she had a heart attack. That he found her dead on the floor. At the funeral, they offered their condolences. I was instructed not to upset the men. They had covered p the bruises on the body.
The women of the village offered to wash and cook for him. Anthi didn’t go to the cops. She had not only been sentenced to death by the man she married, but by an entire village. Anthi was murdered alone at 30 by the patriarchy in 1996.”
[i] In terms of the context of news production, there is a low percentage of women working in editorial offices and in high-level editorial positions, while media management is male-dominated. Hegemonic news values continue to correspond to a male-dominated culture, which permeates the journalistic routine in newsrooms.