On November 28 2014, Tugce, a young, courageous female student, confronted a group of men whom she had witnessed sexually harassing two teenage girls in a McDonalds in Germany. About an hour later, the 23-year old student was attacked and severely injured by one of the young men. She never recovered from her injuries and died a few days later.
Tugce’s death is a terrible tragedy. She was killed because she had the courage to intervene and to speak up when so many others might have looked the other way. Germany mourned Tugce’s death for days and celebrated her as a national hero who showed exceptional courage for standing up against harassment. What makes her story even more tragic is the fact that what happened to Tugce and the teenage girls is not an isolated incident. Instead, they are yet another statistic in what has become an overwhelming number of cases regarding gender-based violence against girls and women.
A recent study by the European Union revealed that 1 in 3 women in the EU have experienced sexual and/or physical violence since the age of 15. In fact, a study by the German government shows that almost 60% of women in Germany have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lives. The two teenage girls, Tugce tried to protect, now joined their ranks.
Tugce herself experienced the backlash against women who speak up against injustices and paid with her life. It is in fact a common phenomenon that whenever women do speak up against injustice, and especially so if they question gender-based injustices, they regularly face threats of violence, harassment, rape and even death.
If violence against women is such a common phenomenon in our society, we have to ask ourselves why? According to the words of Allen Ginsberg – “whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture” – media is a big part of the problem. This is because the media has a significant influence on how people structure their ideals, norms and mindsets. The media creates and reflects peoples’ normality at the same time. Unfortunately, the majority of the mainstream media outlets in Germany failed to connect gender-based violence with Tugce’s death. It is of little surprise that much of the mainstream media doesn’t tackle the root causes of gender-based violence – they themselves are one of the main perpetrators because of their ability to influence culture.
Germany’s Bild (comparable to “The Sun” in the UK) is particularly powerful in influencing the country’s culture. It is Germany’s most successful tabloid and sells 2.3 Million newspapers a day yet five times as many people manage to read the publication on a daily basis. The newspaper has successfully brought down ministers and forced presidents to resign. Furthermore, its online outlet bild.de has the highest number of visitors amongst all German online news outlets, Bild therefore has great agenda-setting power in Germany. At times, Bild acknowledges that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Having said that, Bild has recently launched a campaign against anti-Semitism in Germany at a time when anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise. This very laudable initiative shows that Bild is willing and capable of using its power for the greater good.
Despite its efforts for a more tolerant society, another form of discrimination goes unnoticed and is in fact even perpetuated by Bild. On a daily basis the print and online (Bild.de) editions are overtly misogynistic and sexist in their framing of women. The famous “BILD-Girl” (the equivalent of The Sun’s Page-3-Girl) is the most prominent example of one-dimensional, sexist portrayals of women in the newspaper. Women in the newspaper are usually represented as sexual objects rather than human beings. For example, on September 17, the cleavages of six female celebrities were printed on BILD’s front page — readers were encouraged to give their opinions and rate the pictures. The six women in question are successful personalities in German media and an integral part of the country’s cultural fabric. Yet instead of portraying them as the accomplished women they are, they were objectified. This is a reoccurring theme in Bild: men are represented as successful sportsmen, businessmen, and entertainers whilst women are objectified, sexualised and reduced to their physical appearance. This is in spite of Bild recognising that its portrayal of women is disrespectful and degrading.
During the 2012 International Women’s Day, Bild and bild.de made an effort to promote greater respect for women. In reaction to what “many women – such as in the reader’s advisory council – have always asked for”, they removed the “BILD-Girl” from the front page. However, disappointingly, the BILD-Girl did not completely disappear: it can still be found inside the Bild-newspaper and on bild.de.
As Bild is a daily newspaper which claims to propagate objective, fact-based reporting, it contributes to the normalisation of sexism and the objectification of women in our society. This is important to note because research by Puvia and Vaes suggests that, “when sexually objectified, women are reduced to their bodies or sexual body parts and become likely targets of dehumanization”. Furthermore, Rudman and Mescher provide the link between dehumanisation and gender-based violence. More specifically, their study found that men who are likely to automatically and implicitly dehumanise women by objectifying them also have a higher rape proclivity. Consequently, Bild with its objectification of women, is indirectly condoning the disrespectful treatment of, and even sexual violence towards, women.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the relation between the portrayal of women and gender-based violence, Bild and other media outlets stick to their sexist news coverage.
We - a group of young people from Germany -, have decided that something needs to be done. We demand respectful, unbiased and diverse news coverage of all human beings, which excludes the objectification of people. Our first goal is the abolishment of the BILD-Girl which exemplifies the sexist representation of women in Germany’s biggest tabloid. We urge Kai Diekmann, editor-in-chief of Bild, to report about women in the same way as they report about men – focus on women’s work in sports, media, politics, the economy, and science. If Germany’s most influential media outlet only values women for their sexual attractiveness and their physical appearance, how can we expect to have more female leaders, more female CEOs, more female MPs, and fewer victims of gender-based violence? Bild has a responsibility to ask itself what messages it wants to send to our children and what role models it wants to depict for young girls and boys who are growing up in our country.
Our campaign has already received an incredible amount of support. Within two and a half months our petition has garnered more than 32,300 signatures and many influential political and cultural organisations collaborate with us. We are determined to fight for a more respectful society in Germany, one in which sexism is recognised as a form of discrimination. Sexism appears to be the only form of discrimination that is trivialised and even widely accepted. This needs to stop.
In the aftermath of Tugce’s tragedy, Bild covered her story extensively in print and online. While Tugce deserves all the attention and respect that was shown to her, it is a tragic irony that Bild glorified Tugce as a hero for speaking up against injustice. Tugce and the two teenage girls she tried to protect were victims of gender-based violence – violence that is perpetuated by the kind of sexist imagery that Bild is sending to its readers on a daily basis.
Sophia Becker, Social Media Manager for the Stop Bild Sexism campaign and works as a political scientist for the German Parliament ( @_SophiaBecker_ )
Kristina Lunz is the founder of the Stop Bild Sexism campaign and postgrad student at Oxford University where she conducts research concerning sexual violence in conflict. ( @Kristina_Lunz )