“#systemrelevance in one word? women” – The Need for Analyzing Gender(ed) Media Discourse
By Margreth Lünenborg, Wolfgang Reißmann, Miriam Siemon and Moe Kinoshita
The above quote is taken from a German tweet by Jeannette Gusko from March 18, 2020. Gusko works for the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, is co-founder of the Network 3rd Generation East Germany, and an experienced campaigner. Under the hashtag #systemrelevant, German-speaking Twitter communities negotiate the question of which professions are indispensable in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, how they are socially valued and by whom they are executed. Often, diagnosis comes along with the plea for more societal recognition. In her tweet, Gusko added a bar chart created by the Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit). The chart shows the proportions of women and men working in the domains of food retailing, social security, hospitals, as well as kindergartens and preschools summing up: “Women keep society going in the crisis.”
Gusko’s tweet received more than 1,400 likes and was retweeted more than 550 times. It is a typical example of the many attempts on social media platforms such as Twitter to make gender imbalances and inequalities visible. The problems we are facing in the current pandemic are obvious: Contact restrictions tighten up women’s risk in experiencing domestic violence. The shutdown of kindergartens, schools and public care infrastructure primarily affects mothers who generally spend more time on childcare than fathers (Müller et al., 2020). The Covid-19 pandemic thus promotes the risk of a conservative backlash by reproducing and exacerbating old-fashioned gender stereotypes. On the other hand, jobs in the fields of caregiving and retail sale, which have faced particular pressure during the pandemic, are predominantly done by women.
However, it is not easy to make gender-specific issues heard in this crisis where, at first sight, the health risks seem to affect everyone in a similar way. Individual actors, NGOs and legacy media have mutually developed the public discourse on Covid-19. Compared to ‘single-issue’ hashtag publics like #MeToo (even though split up into various sub-discourses), multiple discourse threads overlap in the corona crisis: from the balance between basic rights and health protection, the relation of federal, state and supra-national competences (e. g., WHO), to fake news, conspiracy myths and the instrumentalization of the crisis by right-wing populists – to name just a few.
Due to this wealth of questions and problems, making gender inequalities visible is a challenging task. This can also be seen in the statements of big scientific associations like The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. This interdisciplinary council of experts, who advises the German government, met together with almost no female scientists and only made recommendations that paid attention to social inequalities and societal consequences in its third statement of April 13, 2020 (Leopoldina, 2020).
For (gender) media studies, reconstructing gender issues and the gendered structures of corona discourses becomes highly relevant. Needed are thorough analyses of the involved actors and their (unequal) communicative power, their key arguments and the ways that gender-relevant topics evolve over time. We thus chose such gender-specific discourses emerging in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic as a case study for our research project ‘Journalism Challenged: Understanding Performative Publics through Media Practice’. The core interest of the project lies in investigating challenges to journalistic legitimacy and authority originating in and being structured by networked and digital communication between different actor groups, especially professional journalists, civil society actors and individuals. While our project primarily focuses on German discourses on Twitter, national comparisons and transnational academic cooperation are necessary for identifying global and local blind spots about the gendered structures of public discourse on the Corona crisis.
The following is an elaboration of the project’s agenda:
First, we aim to better understand who is able to assert oneself in social media’s daily struggle for attention and how it is done. First explorations in German discourse on Twitter can reveal that, on the one hand, individual and civil society actors using hashtags like #coronaeltern (corona parents), early on, sensitized the problems of home schooling, missing child care and working conditions during the so-called lockdown. On the other hand, anti-feminist and right-wing actors quite successfully (mis)use the crisis to stoke up fear against what they call “Gendergaga”. This term onomatopoetically degrades gender-specific sensitivity in everyday life, such as in language use, as a pointless and hysteric feminist exaggeration. One example is a tweet by Beatrix von Storch from March 23:
In her statement, the member of the German parliament and the right-wing party ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) turns the discourse about who is ‘systemically relevant’ into an ideological struggle: As “we” – according to von Storch – need more (female) nurses, there is no need for diversity advisers. Because we need more (male) scientists, not needed are “gendergaga experts”, and so on. Not least because of unfounded assertions like these, and as crisis communication is based in these highly affective dynamics, gender media studies are urged to thoroughly analyze the arguments, frames and narratives of both pro- and anti-feminist statements.
Second, we seek to better understand the interplay of social media (activism) and professional journalism in gendered structures of discourse. In Germany, the news coverage by established media networks traditionally focus on expert communication in times of crisis. The first studies concerning the current health crisis reaffirm the domination of male experts (Prommer & Stüwe, 2020). At the same time, we find evidence of quite successful scientific communication by women addressing gender issues. In particular, Jutta Allmendinger became widely recognized in April 2020. The president of the Social Science Research Centre of Berlin (WZB) pointed to the tense situation for families as well as for women concerning unequally distributed burdens/care work. However, we still know far too little about the temporal emergence and constitution of gender-related corona issues. A central question is the extent to which feminist activism stimulates legacy media’s coverage and vice versa.
Third, we aim to better understand if and how discourses on gender issues in legacy and social media affect politics and leads to substantial support. In Germany, several public initiatives towards these issues have been developed. One is the poster campaign “Not safe at home?” on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Women, Senior Citizens and Youth.
This campaign is part of the initiative ‘Stronger than violence’. The homepage provides information on forms of sexualized violence, points of contact and drop-in centers. Another example is the initiative #sicherheim (#safehome), established predominantly by celebrities. So far, the most visible governmental action with regard to structural gender inequalities in Germany was the so-called “corona bonus”. Caregivers could be granted with a one-time bonus of up to € 1,500. Yet, it is unclear which groups actually received the bonus. Gender media studies are asked to reconstruct the interdependencies between political and societal action and the constantly changing public opinion.
Fourth, it is extremely important to compare how gender issues related to corona are articulated in legacy and social media in and across different countries. Due to the pandemic nature of the crisis, national frameworks may no longer be sufficient to analyze public discourse. We need (more) #transnationalfeminisms to better understand the situation of both women and feminist activists, and to grasp the differing media landscapes surrounding them – especially, in times of crisis.
This article is part of the #DossierCorona thread #TransnationalFeminisms, which emerges from the online series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues in Times of Corona Crisis” organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the MA Program Gender, Intersectionality and Politics at FU Berlin, Academy in Exile and Academics for Peace Germany.
Leopoldina – Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften (2020). 3rd Ad-hoc Statement: Coronavirus Pandemic – Sustainable Ways to Overcome the Crisis. https://www.leopoldina.org/uploads/tx_leopublication/2020_04_13_Leopoldina_Coronavirus_statement_3_en.pdf
Müller, K.U., Samtleben, C., Schmieder, J., & Wrohlich, K. (2020). Corona-Krise erschwert Vereinbarkeit von Beruf und Familie vor allem für Mütter – Erwerbstätige Eltern sollten entlastet werden. DIW Wochenbericht. https://doi.org/10.18723/DIW_WB:2020-19-1
Prommer, E., & Stüwe, J. (2020). Geschlechterverteilung in der Corona-Berichterstattung im deutschen Fernsehen. Studie im Auftrag der MaLisa Stiftung. Berlin: MaLisa Stiftung. https://malisastiftung.org/wp-content/uploads/Studie_MaLisa_Geschlechterverteilung_in_der_Corona_Berichterstattung.pdf
Margreth Lünenborg is a Professor for Journalism and Gender Media Studies at the Institute for Media and Communication Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin, and principal investigator of the research project ‘Performative Publics’.
Wolfgang Reißmann is a postdoctoral researcher in the project ‘Performative Publics’.
Miriam Siemon is a PhD student in the project ‘Performative Publics’.
Moe Kinoshita is a student assistant in the project ‘Performative Publics’.
Further articles in the thread #transnationalfeminisms of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:
Sabina García Peter, Nina Lawrenz and Tanja Wälty, Introducing #DossierCorona #TransnationalFeminisms, 1 July 2020.
Eliska Bujokova, Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona, 9 July 2020.
Vidisha Mishra, COVID-19, Technology, and the Future of Care Work, 15 July 2020.
Éva Fodor, Anikó Gregor, Júlia Koltai and Eszter Kováts, Household Divisions of Labor and Care Work in Times of COVID-19: Empirical Lessons from Hungary, 29 July 2020.
Ailynn Torres Santana, COVID-19 and Security Risks for Women: Indoors and Outdoors, 6 August 2020.
Chia Longman, Covid-19 and Radical Self-Care, 20 August 2020.
Citation: Margreth Lünenborg, Wolfgang Reißmann, Miriam Siemon and Moe Kinoshita, “#systemrelevance in one word? women” – The Need for Analyzing Gender(ed) Media Discourse, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.08.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24843.