Are you series? New narratives for women’s political participation

Web and TV series have been progressively used to shape national and international social narratives in the last few years. Gender stereotypes and prejudices can pass through these media and reinforce existing patterns. However, the opposite could be true as well: progressive series could challenge gender labels or consolidated social rules. This is indeed what Madam President, an episodic television drama that aims at influencing attitudes and perceptions towards women in leadership positions across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has been trying to do.  And how successful has this show been? The final evaluation, completed by the Agency for Peacebuilding at the end of last year, highlights some successes, a lot of potential, but also the need for caution.

Madam President was conceived in response to the challenges of promoting women’s participation following the Arab Spring: while women have played a prominent role in the revolutions, they continue to face gender-based inequality and marginalization. The series thus wanted to tackle precisely this problem, by creating a model that could influence people’s attitudes and behaviors across the whole region. And the model was the series, which took place in a fictional country with problems similar to those affecting the several MENA countries today, featured two main female characters and focused on five key themes: gender equality, leadership, citizen participation, freedom of expression and security. The show, which was produced by the international NGO Search for Common Ground (SFCG), featured 15 episodes that were broadcast through four regional satellite TV channels and made available for online streaming. Additionally, SFCG conducted outreach campaigns in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and the West Bank.

AP completed the final evaluation of Madame President focusing on the strengths and challenges of the project, but also, more generally, on how TV series and social media can change the perception of women’s political participation in the MENA region. Evaluation activities were conducted in Lebanon and Tunisia using a mixed qualitative-quantitative approach. Overall, we would like to highlight a few core issues emerged during the evaluation.

First, the evaluation showed that the series was generally well received by those who saw it and that the themes in it were viewed very positively. For instance, some viewers liked that a woman was a leader. Positively, women’s ability to take rational decisions was a recurring topic in outreach events. Participants to outreach activities also appreciated the opportunity to discuss the topics in the open, especially the question of gender equality. Overall, the project, and outreach events in particular, created opportunities to challenge gender stereotypes.

Second, the two channels for dissemination – the outreach campaigns and broadcast – worked differently. On the one hand, the outreach campaigns, which included the showing of one or two Madam President episodes, were successful at reaching a lot of people in a short period of time. However, most outreach participants watched only a few episodes—not the whole series—and not always at home.  On the other hand, in terms of broadcast, SFCG was successful at reaching a mass audience in Tunisia, but not Lebanon. Interestingly, SFCG is trying to broadcast the series in Lebanon now, due to a growing interest related to the forthcoming general election. Overall, it appears quite clear that this kind of project is oriented toward a large public and that side activities, such as outreach campaigns through projections in small groups, cannot substitute successful broadcasting.

Tied to this consideration, SFCG’s online dissemination strategy warrants a separate note. The fact that Madam President was made fully available online (through YouTube first, then Facebook) was indeed a novel feature of the project, which increased the series’ overall reach. Relying on social media also generated instant analytics that could have been extremely useful to monitor the success of the project, even in real time. The full potential of online broadcasting was however never really reached, as SFCG did not pay comprehensive attention to online dissemination, an aspect that could indeed be improved in future endeavors.

Concerning the characters of the show, while a lot of effort was put in shaping female characters, greater attention could have been paid to male characters. This devotion to female characters makes sense given the series’ overall objectives, and it resonated with viewers. Instead, none of the male characters managed to achieve anywhere close to the same level of enthusiasm and inspiration. This appears as a limitation worth exploring, because innovative research on gender and peacebuilding suggests that a focus on male figures and masculine identities is critical in order to impact attitudes and cultural norms around gender equality and women empowerment.

Finally, SFCG wanted the series to have a regional appeal in the Maghreb and Middle East, and for this reason decided to produce it internationally and not as part of the activities of any of its country offices. This approach wanted to maximize audience. However, it also created several cultural and linguistic gaps, as viewers often did not see the series as realistic or applicable to their own context. In order to avoid these gaps and a top-down perception, the series should be more connected to the local context and reflect the real in-country dynamics. For instance, the multi-nation, episodic drama The Team (also conceived by SFCG) remains a good model. It has a common format, but it is produced locally and it addresses the very real divisive issues facing societies in a dozen African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

Media initiatives like Madam President have therefore a lot of potential, but they need more local understanding, more in-depth analysis of gender dynamics and a clear wide-ranging dissemination strategy. Hoping to have more Madam Presidents ruling the world in the future!