The media’s power in perpetuating certain discourses must not be disregarded when analyzing media representations of dissent. Using framing techniques, journalists and reporters focus on particular aspects of an event in order to endorse an interpretation or moral evaluation of it (Boykoff, 2007, p. 217). In this way, the media sets boundaries for acceptable public discourse (Boykoff, 2007, p. 246). These fragments of information inform our understandings of certain issues, which then amalgamate into beliefs and ideologies that we hold to be true. The 2011 Toronto SlutWalk garnered international media attention primarily due to protestors’ brazenness and the counter-hegemonic ideologies they aimed to perpetuate. These (mostly female) protestors often dress in risqué attire, which has unfortunately become the central focus of their movement in the media. In this blog post, I will critically analyze six newspaper articles, editorials and television broadcasts of the SlutWalk to demonstrate how the protestors have been constructed as ignorant, confused and unjustified “freaks” (Boykoff, 2007, p. 229) in order to delegitimize their movement toward sexual equality. These constructions work to reproduce the dominant bourgeois order within which female sexuality constitutes a threat of contamination to white, middle-class values (Gordon, 2006).
Constable Michael Sanguinetti’s inappropriate comment is credited as having sparked the global movement, but would be more aptly thought of as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Women have long been bombarded with responsibilizing strategies that has limited their sexual agency. A woman’s attire has come to determine her morality, cleanliness and whether or not she fits the role of victim. In order to reclaim a derogatory word, stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence and assert their own sexual agency, women are participating in the SlutWalk wearing as much or as little as they wish. These images and actions have been constructed using the freak frame, ignorance frame and amalgam of grievances frame. The freak frame constitutes a group of people as standing in opposition to mainstream values and beliefs through the use of language and selective imagery (Boykoff, 2007, p. 229). The mainstream media has labeled participants of the SlutWalk as “trailer trash prostitutes” (Calgary Sun, 2012), “narcissists” (Wente, 2011) and “attention seekers” (Urback, 2013). Through the use of language, protestors are painted in a negative light in order to maintain an ideological distance between the mainstream public and the “freak” protestors. Ironically enough, some media outlets have recognized the importance of destabilizing patriarchal conceptions of ideal femininity and sexuality but then claim that women should not show off their bodies during these demonstrations because it is inappropriate (Urback, 2013; Traister, 2011). Employing the ignorance frame (Boykoff, 2007, p. 233), Traister (2011) hopes that protestors would be more nuanced and critical in their approaches rather than vaguely aware of the messages being conveyed through their actions (and more importantly, wardrobe). Protestors have also been accused of using male techniques of female sexual objectification, which proves that they are truly uninformed about the system of oppression against which they are rallying (Dines & Murphy, 2011).
A third and final frame used is the amalgam of grievances frame, which refers to the lack of a clear message in protests or rallies (Boykoff, 2007, p. 235). Urback (2011) argues that the SlutWalk movement has marked regression rather than progression as protestors are sending ambiguous messages through their lack of clothing and use of the word “slut”. Furthermore, strolling around half naked through the streets constitutes an inappropriate and unclear method of narrating a story of sexual victimization or standing in solidarity with those who are (Traister, 2011). A recurring recommendation in the media is that women should not be fighting for the right to be called a slut but instead for liberation from hegemonic ideals of sexuality that enable gendered violence (Dines & Murphy, 2011). This characterization misrepresents many of the key objectives of the SlutWalk movement. The newspaper articles do explain that women are trying to shift the blame of sexual victimization to the perpetrators and that doing so is “right and righteous … but while the mission of SlutWalk is crucial, the package is confusing” (Traister, 2011). The focus in each article on the women’s choice of clothing and behaviour points to the accusation that because of how they choose to present themselves, SlutWalk protestors are ultimately failing to address the issues of gendered violence and inequality. Even the choice of language patronizes the women involved in the movement by presenting them as confused and uninformed “others”. These women are described as “narcissistic self-indulgers” and “bored feminist studies graduates” (Wente, 2011) who ought to “clarify their message and lose the fishnets” (Urback, 2013). These characterizations occupy a significant portion of space within the contested domain of public discourse, exerting its power and shaping our understandings of various forms of dissent. The legitimacy is removed from the movement because the public is being convinced that the protestors do not know exactly what they are doing, what they are fighting for and against whom. The aforementioned discourses perpetuated by the media are the very same discourses SlutWalk protestors are attempting to resist by seeking to overthrow patriarchal relations and refusing to conform to conventional femininity.
Media (mis)representations are constrained due to time and space, which prevent them from delving too deeply into important matters. Overviews of protests tend to be surface level and lack the critical engagement necessary that would enable a nuanced and more comprehensive understanding of the systems of power at play. When policing dissent, be it formally or informally, state institutions aim to preserve social cleanliness and purity (Gordon, 2006, p. 48). Certain groups of people are perceived as infectious to bourgeois civility, and must therefore be repressed. Ideas of contamination are directly associated with chastity, making it a necessity that female sexuality be targeted and policed (Gordon, 2006, p. 49). State institutions aim to reproduce a white, middle-class ideal, within which women must conform to traditional gender norms. Women who assert their sexual agency are constructed as contaminated “others” with lax morals. The state defines what is appropriate behaviour and subsequently exerts power over women who stray from this ideal. SlutWalk protesters are flagrant examples of counter-hegemonic behaviours and are given negative media attention in order to reinforce the bourgeois order. The media is a powerful institution of the dominant order that produces an idealized femininity by discrediting actions that stand in opposition to it.
As a consequence of various framing techniques and misrepresentations, the media has displaced attention away from broad structures of power. Doing so hinders the SlutWalk movement because it simplifies complex issues of patriarchal oppression to claims making by a group of individual protestors (Boykoff, 2011). By belittling their actions to girls who just want to walk around half naked (Traister, 2011), wear halloween costumes (Calgary Sun, 2012) and seek attention for their own bodies rather than their cause (Urback, 2013), many of the SlutWalk’s ambitions get lost in translation. Various media pieces even delegitimize the premises of the movement entirely, claiming that that there is no victim blaming and that Canadian women are the safest in the world (Wente, 2011). These attempts to discredit the movement may be true in maintaining that Canadian women are safer compared to women in other countries, but that is not to say that patriarchal power relations do not deeply affect the lives of Canadian women. Strobel (2012) insists that Sanguinetti’s comment was justified and proceeds to draw an analogy that one cannot dress like a deer in the woods and safely expect to be safe from hunters who shoot deer. This poor analogy draws on power hierarchies by equating women with deer and justifying men’s sexual behaviour. Strobel (2012) goes on to claim that “safety trumps feminism”, which exemplifies his lack of understanding of the SlutWalk movement and feminism more broadly. These discourses demonstrate how deeply engrained ideas about sexual victimization and femininity continue to be in modern day culture.
Despite many of its positive objectives, however, the SlutWalk has not given adequate attention to issues of race or class. For example, Urback (2013) emphasizes some central points raised in an open letter to the SlutWalk written by a coalition of black feminists. This organization of black women have critiqued the movement as a space of privilege and whiteness, in which non-white women cannot call themselves sluts without validating historical constructions of their cultures’ hypersexuality (Urback, 2013). The movement also lacks a critical engagement with the reality that lower class women are far more likely to become victims of sexual violence by men. While the SlutWalk attempts to destabilize one system of oppression (patriarchy), it may have inadvertently supported other systems of oppression that affect racialized and underclass women. Enabling women of a multitude of experiences a role in the movement would be a beneficial next step that would expand the space of inclusion.
Acts of dissent like the SlutWalk aim to challenge dominant understandings of female sexuality and what constitutes a “good woman”. By asserting their sexual agency, protestors are resisting hegemonic constructions of ideal femininity. The media plays a crucial role in informing the public’s understandings of protests through the use of selective imagery, language and framing. Mainstream media has attempted to delegitimize the SlutWalk movement by focusing on the individual protestors’ attire and behaviour rather than analyzing how it is directly related to their objectives. Women involved are constructed as ignorant and uninformed “others” who are not actually in danger but are protesting as a showing of their self-indulgence. More accurate framings of the SlutWalk movement would encourage the public to be more conscious of its overarching goals to end victim blaming, focus criminal justice attention on perpetrators of sexual violence and increase women’s sexual liberation without moral devaluation.
Boykoff, J. (2007). Mass media deprecation. In Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (pp. 216-47). Oakland: AKA Press.
Boykoff, J. (2007). Mass media underestimation, false balance and disregard. In Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (pp. 248-260). Oakland: AKA Press.
Calgary Sun. (2012, Sept. 5) Slutwalking double standard. Retrieved from http://www.calgarysun.com/videos/entertainment/comedy/671177285001/slutwalking-double-standard/1823493076001
Dines, G. & Murphy, W. J. (2011, May 8). Slutwalk is not sexual liberation. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/may/08/slutwalk-not-sexual-liberation
Gordon, T. (2006). Producing capitalist order: Police, class, race and gender. In Cops, Crime and Capitalism: The Law and Order Agenda in Canada (pp. 29-51). Halifax: Ferwood Publishing.
Strobel, M. (2012, May 29). Flaw in the slutwalk argument. The Toronto Sun. Retrieved from http://www.torontosun.com/2012/05/29/strobel-flaw-in-the-slutwalk-argument
Traister, R. (2011, July 20). Ladies, we have a problem. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/magazine/clumsy-young-feminists.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3&ref=magazine
Urback, R. (2013, Sept. 9). Time for slutwalk to lose the ‘slut’. National Post. Retrieved from http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/09/09/robyn-urback-time-for-slutwalk-to-lose-the-slut/
Wente, M. (2011, May 12). Embrace your inner slut? Um, maybe not. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/embrace-your-inner-slut-um-maybe-not/article624631/