Where are all the women? (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 3 of 4)

by Karen Martin-Stone

Filmmakers acknowledge that they hold a power over their subjects, and run the risk of exploiting them (Nichols 2001:9). Editorial decisions are not usually collaborative and, as such, a participant can be disempowered.

There are lots of participants who have a stake in TV archaeology, including archaeologists, landowners, cultural stakeholders (Indigenous and descendant communities), the public / audience, and other interest groups, such as professional industry bodies. Each stakeholder would quite reasonably expect that his or her concerns would be treated sensitively and accurately.

In my conference paper, and in this post, I’m going to talk about the representation of women in TV archaeology. Before looking at the current situation it’s important to understand how it came about, so I will look at the history of women in the media and women in archaeology.

Like many professions, women have held a marginalised position in television media from its outset. Early studies of gender in the media found that women were being subjected to “symbolic annihilation” through the condemnation, trivialisation and absence of them in mass media (Tuchman 1978:8). The portrayal of “women in/as entertainment” has improved considerably over the last three decades (Byerly & Ross 2006:35), but the current situation still reflects inequality and discrimination.

In February of this year, the BBC lost a landmark tribunal case on age- and sex-discrimination brought by former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, 54. The case led Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, to admit that there are “manifestly too few” older women being broadcast on the BBC, and that “the public have every right to expect it to deliver to a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences.” (Thompson 2012).

Women in archaeology were also in the minority from the outset. Fortunately, the proportional representation of women in the discipline is increasing. From British statistics available in 2010, women comprised 55% of archaeology students and 41% of archaeologists (Pitts 2010).

However, archaeologists were slow to embrace the feminist movement. Discussions of women and gender in archaeology arose in the early 1990s, approximately 20 years after feminism began to make advances into other areas of academia. Feminism in archaeology is not just about the proportional representation of women in the discipline – it is also about having a gendered understanding of past human culture (Balme and Beck 1995, Gero & Conkey 1991).

Archaeologists have also been slow to denounce the portrayal of women in television representations of the discipline. As with broader television representation of women, TV archaeology tends to favour older, male presenters and experts. When women are present, they tend to be young and attractive. There has been very little discussion of this in archaeological literature. Piccini mentioned as an aside that there was an issue around gender, but did not investigate it (Piccini 2007:230), and Holtorf featured an illustration (Fig. 1), but did not discuss its meaning (Holtorf, 2007:96).

Fig. 1 (Holtorf 2007:96) 

These tacit acknowledgements of women as decoration in the serious, male business of television archaeology underscore the current situation. Women have gained ground in the archaeological profession in recent decades, but this is not being reflected in television archaeology.

Reference list:

Balme, J. and W. Beck  (eds), 1995 Gendered Archaeology: The Second Australian Women in Archaeology Conference. Canberra: ANH Publications, Australian National University.

Byerly, C.M. and K. Ross 2006 Women and Media: A Critical Introduction. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Cohen, G.M. and M.S. Joukowsky 2004 Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Gero, J. and M. Conkey (eds) 1991 Engendering Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Holtorf, C. 2007 Archaeology is a Brand! The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

Nichols, B. 2001 Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Piccini, A. 2007 Faking it: Why the truth is so important for TV archaeology. In Clack, T. and M. Brittain, Archaeology and the Media. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.  pp. 221-236.

Pitts, M. 2010 Where Are All The Women? Viewed 16 April 2012.  http://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/where-are-all-the-women/

Thompson, M. 2012 The BBC must change – older women should no longer feel they are invisible. Mail Online, 8 February 2012, viewed 16 April 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2098498/I-got-wrong-older-women-BBC-boss-admits-ARE-TV.html

Tuchman, G. 1978 Introduction: The symbolic annihilation of women by the mass media. In Tuckman, G., A.K. Daniels and J. Benet (eds), Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Mass Media. New York: Oxford University Press.

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