Issue 6 out now!

Unpacking the media’s fascination with ‘white girl representation’ and gender stereotypes in climate activism

Cyrus Jarvis.

After a few months of youth climate strikes in London, I found one question coming up more often than others. During discussions with those much older and experienced in political activism, I was regularly asked, “how come more girls seem to come out to strike than boys?”

It wasn’t something I had noticed until then. Our first strikes felt empowering and electric, partly because we were all so diverse. We had come together from different backgrounds, genders, faiths, and so on. It was almost like a uniting moment for our generation, which has now led to an active culture of pushing for change in our world; the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the U.K., largely led by youth who learned the ropes via climate activism, serves as just one example of this. But it was the 3rd strike that was different. Although we hadn’t lost our momentum, it looked as if the demographic of those who continued to strike each month was largely white girls.

This type of ‘white girl representation’ is something the mainstream media appears to have an obsession with. They go crazy over Greta Thunberg and seem oddly determined to put her face all over the climate justice movement. In my time as a climate activist, numerous girls I know have had their own personal stories and identities wiped, instead branded as the ‘Greta Thunberg’ of their country, while at the same time, others are intentionally overlooked. In January earlier this year, climate activists from all over the world met at the World Economic Forum. One of them was Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist, who was later disappointed to learn that the Associated Press cropped her out of a photo taken with her white peers. Various media outlets used this image, while those who did mention Vanessa often misidentified her as Zambian climate activist, Natasha Mwansa.

In addition, there’s another trend at play here – those who are given any recognition in climate activism are hardly ever male. Part of the reason for this is that the climate movement embraces feminist values and is led predominantly by women. But there’s another reason: the ‘green-feminine’ stereotype.

Studies have shown since the ‘90s and ‘00s that there is an eco-gender gap, with women more likely to be green than men. Said studies largely attributed this gap to personality differences, claiming that women have a greater tendency to be empathetic, to display a stronger ethic of care, and to assume a more future-focused perspective.

Today, we know the reasons are much more complex than mere stereotypes. The (still largely male-dominated) marketing industry overwhelmingly pushes green products toward women, from soaps and toothbrushes to cars, and even energy suppliers, as women are still often expected to run the household, according to a 2018 report by Mintel. For a long time, society has perpetuated the idea that sustainability is women’s work, leading to the development of a stereotype that affects both men and women, and making the adoption of responsible behaviors appear feminine. A research paper published in 2016 by professors from 5 U.S. universities showed that in a series of experiments involving 2,000 participants from the U.S. and China, both men and women judged eco-friendly products, behaviors, and consumers as more feminine than their non-green counterparts. In one experiment, participants described an individual who simply brought a reusable bag to the supermarket as more feminine than one who used a disposable plastic bag.

While this stereotyping is not as strong among young people, particularly Gen Z who have an ever-evolving attitude toward gender norms, its effects are still prevalent, largely due to the fact that it’s a stereotype that has been jumped on by the media, who continue to reiterate the idea that taking action on the future of our planet should be placed on women only. Many men don’t want to be ignorant of the effects of the climate crisis, yet the pushing of this stereotype discourages us from taking action.

Being a global and diverse movement is what makes the climate activist community strong. Taking action for change is everyone’s work. This problematic and divisive stereotyping can be combatted by reporters making a conscious effort not to perpetuate this type of representation, and advertising executives who ensure they don’t fall into the trap of pushing green products specifically towards women.