How Media Literacy Can Help End Violence Against Women

by Joanna Chiu

Like many students who were sexually assaulted in college, I didn’t identify what had happened to me as sexual assault until after I graduated. That moment of realization happened when I was sitting at a lecture hall back at my alma mater, the University of British Columbia. I had just returned to Vancouver from New York City, where I had completed a magazine internship and observed the curiosities and arrogance in the world’s media capital firsthand.

I was excited to be back in my hometown to catch a talk at UBC from feminist activist and writer, Jaclyn Friedman. Friedman is the director of WAM! (Women, Action & the Media): a global network that promotes gender justice in the media. She also co-edited the groundbreaking book, Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape with Jessica Valenti.

In her lighthearted but powerful presentation, Friedman talked about how messages in the media blame and shame survivors of sexual assault, and condone or trivialize sexual assault. In Canada, 1 in 2 women have survived at least one incident of sexual or physical violence, and in Vancouver, rates of sexual assault have only increased in recent years.


Jaclyn Friedman giving a talk at Memorial University

Photo credit: James Learie from Muse Magazine

An idea that is common in the media, which helps sustain this epidemic of violence, is the notion that a person could be “asking for it.” For example, The New York Times wrote an article last year that was heavily victim blaming against an 11-year-old girl after she was brutally gang raped in Texas. The article included a quote saying that the girl “dressed older than her age,” and speculated about what the girl could have done for her rapists to “have been drawn into such an act.”

When Friedman stressed to UBC students that wearing a skirt, flirting, or getting drunk does not mean that a person deserves to be raped—that no one deserves to be raped period—I realized that I was wrong to blame myself.

But instead of feeling ashamed, understanding that I never “asked for it” gave me a renewed sense of purpose. As a journalist, I decided that I could help dismantle rape culture in the media.

Later, I interviewed Friedman for an article about how rape culture impacts the mental health of people of all genders, and she told me that she thinks of rape culture as “a system of institutions and behaviors that allow rape to continue unchecked.” She also explained:

“Part of rape culture is about keeping women ashamed of and alienated from their sexuality. This can lead women to feel depressed even if they have not been sexually assaulted. Rape culture also tells men that they always need to aggressively pursue heterosexual sex, while masking their emotions, which can again lead to depression.”

To help facilitate more connections and conversations between Canadian media makers and activists, including discussions on how to resist rape culture, I started the first Canadian chapter of WAM! in Vancouver. Our chapter launched with a conference last year that brought together over 100 participants, including members of, Antigone magazine, and the Vancouver Media Co-op, and we just held another conference this year.


Me welcoming participants at WAM! Vancouver’s 2011 conference

Photo credit: Beth Hong

Before getting involved with WAM!, I thought I was already quite media savvy, but I soon learned that identifying as a “progressive” or being privileged enough to get a degree in journalism did not make me immune to wanting to skip lunch after flipping through a fashion magazine. Developing media literacy is not an easy thing to do.

The daily bombardment of degrading and oppressive messages in the media makes it very hard to not internalize s
ome of those messages. A recent
study by the Parents Television Council found that since 2004, there has been a 120% increase in depictions of violence against women on television, and even more disturbingly, there was a 400% increase in the depictions of teen girls as the victims of violence.


Using images of violence against women to sell suits

Battered Women’s Support Services wants to spread awareness and share strategies about how to resist media representations during Prevention of Violence Against Women Week. This is because the media plays a key role in perpetuating inequalities in society that support systemic violence.

BWSS researcher Silvia Almanza Alonso writes:

“BWSS’ goal is the elimination of all violence against women. Therefore women’s representation in media becomes a crucial element of this mandate…Women are represented by media in an unequal scenario: a scenario where the powerful, privileged media presents a monolithic and oppressive view of womanhood… Sadly, we get this message every day, many times a day.”

Being female is not the only identity that makes a person more likely to experience violence and oppression. In the coming week of daily blog posts, I will discuss how factors such as being a person of colour, having a low income, being transgender, or having a disability can intersect to make an individual more likely to experience violence—and how that is all reflected in the media.

Fortunately, the media also provides a variety of opportunities to resist against harmful representations of women and girls. All over the world, survivors of violence and their allies are creating films, essays, zines and blogs, and taking advantage of social media and tools like online petitions, to change a media landscape that traditionally marginalizes their voices.

I will profile media makers and media activists such as filmmaker Elle-Maiia Tailfeathers, media literacy educator Jennifer Pozner, the women behind the zine Margins, and the editors of Adios Barbie. Their stories offer lessons, strategies and inspiration on ways you can improve your media literacy, and harness the power of the media to help end violence against women and girls.

Any feedback on this blog campaign is welcome! Please use the comment space below to discuss, debate and share resources, and please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at or on Twitter @joannachiu.

Suggested Reading:

On Rape Culture:

On Media Literacy:

On Privilege and Intersectionality:

Day One

Prevention of Violence Against Women Week April 15 – 21, 2012

Battered Women’s Support Services presents:

How Does She Resist?  Resisting Media Representations to End Violence Against Girls and Women