Claudia Rankine (with mic) and author Tisa Bryant at Out of the Binders. All photos by Rebecca Aranda.
Often at journalism conferences, I’m lucky to find one measly panel on “women writers.” That sad reality was reversed this weekend at Out of the Binders, a symposium for female and gender non-conforming media-makers that descended on the UCLA campus. Instead of being the odd one out, I was excited to be surrounded by roughly 400 women journalists, writers, producers, and filmmakers.
LA’s Out of the Binders was the first West Coast conference for BinderCon, a group of feminist-minded writers whose name harkens back to Mitt Romney’s unfortunate comment about having “binders full of women” during the 2008 presidential race. Fueled by the underrepresentation of women in media, BinderCon is a burgeoning community bent on supporting women who work in all facets of journalism, film, and TV. The two-day conference pulled in some big supporters, including the Harnisch Foundation, TinyLetter, and the Knight Foundation. Keynote speakers included poet Claudia Rankine (be still, my heart) and OpEd Project founder Katie Orenstein, whose talk on the gender disparity of editorial pages hit home a main theme of the conference: What goes down in our cultural memory as significant depends on who is writing our history.
Katie Orenstein of the OpEd Project.
So many social and economic issues play into the lack of women and people of color in our media that the problem can sometimes feel too big to take on. But each of the talks and panels at Out of the Binders offered proactive ways to move forward, without painting too rosy a picture of our current reality. Orenstein, for example, noted that in 2008, only 15 percent of people being published on opinion pages nationwide were women. That was due in part to the fact that 90 percent of op-ed submissions were coming from men. “What is the cost to society when so many voices are missing from media?” asked Orenstein. Under her direction, the OpEd Project trains and encourages women and people of color to write and pitch editorials. By 2014, the number of women on op-ed pages had grown to 21 percent. That’s still not great—but it’s a step. “You cannot win a game if you’re not playing it, and this game is called history,” said Orenstein.
The key issue of the need for diverse representation in media wound through every discussion at Out of the Binders. On a panel about how improve media’s handling of sexual assault, Yale law student and co-director of Know Your IX Alexandra Brodsky noted that reporters often reduce survivors of sexual assault to that singular identity. “I found that many journalists treated being a survivor as a totalizing identity,” said Brodsky, referencing a time when a radio program invited her to do an interview about new policies affecting sexual assault, but only if she would also talk about her personal history with assault. Filmmaker Amy Ziering added that she keeps that multi-faceted identity at the center of her work as the producer of films The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. “Sexual assault is something bad that happened to you, like a car accident. It’s not necessarily the defining part of your identity… Each person is much more than just a ‘rape survivor,’” said Ziering.
From left: Alexandra Brodsky, Amy Ziering, and reporter Katie J.M. Baker on a panel about how media can report better on sexual assault.
At a panel on diversity in fiction, author Erika Wurth noted that her gender and Native American identity clearly colored the publishing industry’s reception of her book about a teen girl who’s in a gang. “If you’re a white guy, your book is called ‘coming of age.’ If you’re a woman of color, it’s called ‘YA,’” said Wurth. On that panel, mystery author Desiree Zamorano said she was inspired to write books with Latina main characters after looking around at the Latinas in her life and realizing, “They all have a superpower: invisibility.” She told a powerful anecdote that illustrated her point: At a book event in New York, she told a publishing industry professional that her recent book focused on “women who happen to be Mexican-American like me.” The person responded, “But you don’t look Mexican.” The audience at Out of the Binders audibly groaned at that remark. “The idea that Mexican-American ‘looks’ a certain way is why diverse representation is so important,” said Zamorano.
Meeting up with hundreds of other women authors, filmmakers, and activists at Out of the Binders was a refreshing reminder that, while our media culture is frustrating, we’re not alone in this work. LA Times Books and Culture Editor Joy Press commented on this dynamic on a panel about criticism in the internet age. When Press started her career, she said, “The internet didn’t exist, you felt isolated.” These days, she gets so much feedback from both readers and other writers that she feels much more a part of the mainstream discourse. Freelance writer Maria Bustillos agreed, “Right now is a fantastic moment in TV and film to talk about feminist issues.” Even though women are still a minority of voices in media, what’s clear from Out of the Binders is that many people are working to build the media landscape we want, instead of consigning themselves to the media we have. As author Erika Wurth summed up very succinctly about the need for more diverse voices in fiction, “Why diversity? Because it’s fucking 2015 and we’re in America.”
Related Reading: For Every Woman Working in the Film Industry, There Are Five Men.
Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media’s online editor. She spent six hours riding the bus to-and-from BinderCon during the weekend.