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Dated book comes to the point late
but the point remains valid today

Women, Media and Crisis: Femininity and Disorder,
Michele Mattelart
Comedia Publishing Group, London, 1986, $10.95.
(Available in Canada from DEC Book Distribution, 229 College St.,
Toronto, Ont. M5T 1R4; tel. 416-597-0328.

Reviewed by Noelle Boughton


This is a collection of essays by the French author. Some were written in Spanish when Mattelart lived and worked in Chile as an advisor to the Allende government before the 1973 military coup. Others were written after her expulsion from Santiago and the rest were done on her return to France. They cover the years 1971-1982. In her foreword, Mattelart notes that most of the essays will be new to English readers.

Knowing this background helps to put some focus on what Mattelart tries to do in this collection, and also why it often falls short of her aim. Sometimes the fact that the essays have been collected over a long period of time and most are dated is fine because they provide an historical record. Other times, it is annoying because the statistics and cases referred to are out-of-date and many of Mattelart's points have been made many times in the ensuing years.

There is also a very strong pro-Marxist and anti-capitalist tone to the book. That can provide a valuable insight for those unused to dissecting our system's basic faults. Unfortunately, in this book the pre-ponderance of Marxist lingo more often muddies Mattelart's writing and arguments than not. It would have been much more comprehensible if Mattelart had stripped much of this away and just argued her points.

It was difficult for me to find and then trace Mattelart's thesis. In fact, it was not until the last 20 of the book's 113 pages that what she was doing became clear to me. But let me explain how that happened.

The essays are divided into three sections. Part one, Everyday Life, includes three treatises: "From soap to serial: the media and women's reality," "Women as consumers" and "Information versus fiction." Part two, Modernity, comprises essays on "The feminine ideal" and "The myth of modernity." The last section, Crisis, discusses "The media and revolutionary crisis: the Chilean experience," "The feminine side of the coup" and "Giving birth to the gun."

While many of the titles would lead one to believe this book is about feminism and the media, it isn't until the second last essay – "The feminine side of the coup" – that what Mattelart has been writing up to then begins to relate to feminism.

In part one, Mattelart discusses women's consumption of mass media products. She notes the media aim their programs at women to interest them in consumption. What might have been an insightful point at the time now is part of feminist consciousness. Mattelart continues by saying home-bound women, who don't have information sources beyond the media, soon find their reality shaped by magazines, newspapers, radio and television. Soap operas and dramas are particularly denounced for keeping homebound women in a numbed state by fostering romanticism, consumerism and acceptance of society's status quo. Men who work outside the home, on the other hand, Mattelart argues, more often have access to alternative information sources to combat media-relayed capitalist philosophies.

In part two, Mattelart switches gears. She begins to discuss the influence of the export of programs around the world by American multi-media conglomerates. She argues American-influenced programs focus on pretending society is changing by showing the latest fashions or trends. This hides the fact our socio-economic system is, basically, staying the same. The media's propensity for showing "what's new" Mattelart calls "modernity." Modernity comes across as "a cheerful, colourful, healthy formula for life, which transcends routine and in which conflicts are resolved the way acne is cured." And so what benefits the ruling class – from the adoption of clothes or even lifestyle – become other classes' desires. Society becomes a homogeneous reflection of the power elite.

While the writing to here is often confusing and jargon-filled, part three finally pulls the loose ends together. But this doesn't happen until after the first essay, "The media and revolutionary crisis." This piece is an interesting historical essay on which Chilean media were controlled by the Right and Left at the time of the 1973 coup. The Right had more and the Left, she says, didn't properly use those which it did control to reach the masses.

That becomes the final building block in this book's thesis, finally outlined in the second-last essay, "The feminine side of the coup." Here Mattelart notes how Chilean women opposed the Left during the revolution. She argues they were indoctrinated by the Right-wing controlled media. Because they had no other outside information sources – supposedly unlike men – they swallowed the idea that their homes and consumer-based lives were being threatened by the Left. So they protested the Left's revolution. For Mattelart, the Left's problem was not so much philosophical failure as it was a failure to understand the media's role in the women's everyday lives. As for women, having been so indoctrinated, they were showing they still were not emancipated. And. as for that point. I'm sorry it is not outdated even after 15 years.

Published in Sources, Winter 1987/88

Noelle Boughton is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto. Her recent book, Margaret Laurence: A Gift of Grace, is available from the Women's Press imprint of Canadian Scholars' Press, Inc., at www.cspi.org, or by calling toll-free to 1-866-870-2774.

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