“Now That I have seen the Pictures, I can see that this was Just a Downtown Freak Show”: Media Coverage of SlutWalk Toronto

SlutWalk Toronto is a powerful movement that challenges the dominant discourse of victim-blaming and slut-shaming in sexual violence. Whether it is the movement’s audacious title, or the sting of Constable Sanguinetti’s statement, this annual protest has been at the centre of much media attention since its inception in February 2011. The empowering attitude that this movement harbours, however, is often overshadowed by negative or deprecatory media coverage. While there are some exceptions, the majority of mainstream media sources manifestly or latently misconstrue the efforts and reasons for this protest. From its purpose to the demonstrators involved, the SlutWalk movement is widely over-simplified through particular media frames, which reinforces a hegemonic patriarchal discourse and reasserts a ‘moral order’ that polices sexuality (Gordon 2006). The representations of SlutWalk Toronto in articles published by The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, CBC News, and the Toronto Sun, have depoliticized and denigrated the movement’s message and its protesters. By framing activists as ignorant, naive, and ‘freaks’, the SlutWalk movement loses its edge as a counter-hegemonic form of resistance against patriarchy and sexual inequality.

In this media analysis, six different articles from the mainstream news sources outlined above were critically reviewed. In addition, photographs that were published by the Toronto Star and Now Magazine as well as a video broadcast by CBC News were also analyzed to further identify media representations of SlutWalk Toronto. From the media sources assessed, the majority of the pieces depicted the SlutWalk movement in a deprecatory manner, heavily reliant on the use of particular media frames to convey its message. Media frames are the “strips of everyday affairs” that become “simplified snapshots” of public events (Boykoff 2007: 217). Once the media outlets capture these simplified images, they are widely propagated throughout society. The media uses multiple negative framings to depict forms of protest and political resistance, most often portraying them as violent and disruptive to the social order (Boykoff 2007: 222). In the SlutWalk movement, two detrimental frames were recurrent: the ‘ignorance frame’ and the ‘freak frame’. Through the ‘ignorance frame’, the participants of SlutWalk Toronto were represented as naive, misinformed, and ignorant persons without strong demands to ensue real change surrounding issues of sexual violence (Boykoff 2007: 234-235). Through the ‘freak frame’, media sources focused on the “non-mainstream values, beliefs, opinions, age, and appearance of the dissidents” that constructed participants as outsiders (Boykoff 2007: 229). In some instances, a ‘whiteness frame’—a subcategory of the freak frame—was used to portray SlutWalk protesters as privileged and advantaged in society (Boykoff 2007: 232). These framings all have significant implications on how the movement and its activists are supported and respected by members of society (Boykoff 2007: 217).

In many articles and editorials, the participants of the movement were overtly demeaned, belittled, and falsely declared as ignorant and privileged. In an article published in The Globe and Mail, a writer suggested that, “SlutWalks are what you get when graduate students in feminist studies run out of things to do […] these highly educated young women […] are among the safest and most secure in the world […] they’re so privileged” (Wente 2011). While this comment is powerful, the author has failed to consider that many of those who partake in the SlutWalk movement are victims of sexual assault. Their education and position in society does not make them less vulnerable to sexual violence and inequality. These comments discount the movement and personal experiences of its protesters while simultaneously reinforcing a hegemonic order that privileges a patriarchal view.

In an article published by the Toronto Sun, SlutWalkers are further portrayed as ‘out-of-touch’ with reality, as an author remarks, “In the [real] world, any responsible adult knows exactly what the officer meant” (The Toronto Sun 2011). This author’s viewpoint coincides and supports Constable Saguinetti’s statement on avoiding victimization. The writer goes on to suggest that, “…anyone who argues that if a young woman […] dressing and acting inappropriately […] in no way increases her chances of being a rape victim, is stupid” (The Toronto Sun 2011). While rape has nothing to do with fashion, the victim blaming/shaming mentality is reproduced and constructs SlutWalk’s participants as naive, and even stupid, to think that a movement such as this can repair the plight of sexual assault. Complementary to this idea, The Globe and Mail published an article that argued the SlutWalk movement is contradictory in its aims. The writer contends that, “Yes, women should be able to dress exactly how they please without becoming sexual targets. But dressing with your breasts cantilevered and hanging out has conveyed a sexual message for all of eternity” (Timson 2011). This author’s account fails to consider that the SlutWalk movement is fighting against this patriarchal discourse that has for too long objectified and exploited women’s bodies.

Media sources have also been effective in degrading the SlutWalk movement to seem non-sensical and counter-productive. In an article titled, “A Year of Drama and Nonsense”, published in the Toronto Star, a writer recounts the events of 2011 and suggests that, “It’s a year that gave us ‘shiddle-diddle’, SlutWalk and lingerie football […] a year full of drama, pathos, and nonsense” (The Star 2011). Similarly, in the photographs published by the Toronto Star and Now Magazine, many of the pictures over-emphasized protesters in outrageous costumes that portrayed them as “kids with a cause” (Boykoff 2007: 232). Furthermore, in the CBC broadcast, the ‘freak frame’ is subtly alluded to when the news anchor seemingly braces herself before saying the title of the movement. This is an interesting moment, as it reinforces that there is something off about this event, that it is outside of the norm and almost comical. While the images and articles of the SlutWalk movement are loaded with meaning, strikingly absent are those women who gave speeches against sexual violence and denigrated the victim blaming/shaming mentality, which discounts the seriousness of this movement.

The media coverage of SlutWalk Toronto overwhelmingly depicted the movement and its participants through a negative lens. These representations have interesting implications when understanding the policing of gender (Gordon 2006: 46). Gordon contends that racialized, impoverished, and gendered groups are considered “unassimiliable”, in which they are crucial to the building of the Canadian nation, yet must remain vulnerable and exploitable to prevent them from full assimilation (Gordon 2006: 46-47). They are deemed ambiguous bodies that do not neatly fit within the confines of the capitalist social order and are thus subjected to police surveillance and practices (Gordon 2006: 47, 49). The policing of these particular bodies holds a symbolic function, in which the police cleanse the streets “morally” (Gordon 2006: 49). While Gordon’s research focuses on colonized women in Canada, the idea that he discusses regarding women and their overwhelming sexual insatiabilities are transferable to women who participate in the SlutWalk movement (Gordon 2006: 49). The effort to “feminize and domesticate women” comes into contestation when women take to the street to fight the patriarchal structure that objectifies and exploits them (Gordon 2006: 49). In this sense, the police force begins to regulate women’s sexuality to ensure they remain within the moral bounds of the social order (Gordon 2006: 49). This idea is candid through Constable Sanguinetti’s statement, speaking as a representative of the police force and its ideologies. The hegemonic structure of patriarchy, that bounds women’s sexuality, makes the consequences and implications much more severe if they deviate. The media frames that negatively portray women as ignorant and as freaks reproduces this patriarchal thinking that suggests that women cannot be sexual. This is highly problematic and a main point of contention in media representations and the dominant discourse. Heather Mallick’s article, in the Toronto Star, was one of few that offered a counter-hegemonic framework. She writes, “I don’t know what slut clothes are. For a woman, looking sexy and feeling sexy are different things [but] Sanguinetti doesn’t see it this way, and he thinks other cops don’t either. We are at a terrible impasse, and it will cost women their mental and physical health” (Mallick 2011). With more positive and accurate media representations, the SlutWalk movement is a way to condemn and escape the dominant discourse that has policed, regulated, and targeted sexual women for far too long.

References

Boykoff, Jules. 2007. “Mass Media Deprecation.” Pp. 216-47 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Boykoff, Jules. 2007: “Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard.” Pp. 248-60 in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States. Oakland: AK Press.

Cuervo, Ivy. 2011. “Toronto ‘Slut Walk’ Takes to City Streets.” CBC News, April 3. Retrieved November 30, 2012 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2011/04/03/slut-walk-toronto.html).

Gordon, Todd. 2006. “Producing Capitalist Order: Police, Class, Race and Gender.” Pp. 29-51 in Cops, Crime, and Capitalism. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

Mallick, Heather. 2011. “Why SlutWalk? Because Women Don’t ‘Ask for It’.” Toronto Star, March 3, A16. (Retrieved from ProQuest on November 30, 2012.)

Now Magazine. 2011. “Scenes from SlutWalk: A Photo Gallery of Sluts, Signs, and Supporters.” Now Magazine, April 4. Retrieved on November 30, 2012 (http://www.nowtoronto.com/daily/story.cfm?content=179984).

SlutWalk Toronto. 2011.“SlutWalk Toronto: Because We’ve Had Enough.” SlutWalk Toronto. Retrieved October 10, 2012 (http://www.slutwalktoronto.com).

Toronto Star2011. “A Year of Drama and Nonsense.” Toronto Star, December 26, pp. 1, A18. (Retrieved from ProQuest on November 30, 2012.)

Toronto Sun. 2011. “SlutWalk Misses a Key Point: Editorial.” Toronto Sun, April 6. Retrieved November 30, 2012 (http://www.torontosun.com/comment/editorial/2011/04/06/17901206.html).

Timson, Judith. “Why SlutWalk Raises Hackles – and Hopes.” 2011. The Globe and Mail, May 13, pp. L3. (Retrieved from ProQuest on November 30, 2012.)

Wente, Margaret. 2011. “Embrace your Inner Slut? Um, Maybe Not.” The Globe and Mail, May 12, pp. 1.

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