Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot: Media Representation, Gender and UK Heatwaves

Joanne Garde-Hansen, Reader in Culture, Media and Communication, University of Warwick

We know that ‘heat waves are a silent killer, mostly affecting the elderly, the very young, or the chronically ill’ (Bhattacharya, 2003). These groups are unlikely to be represented in popular and commercial media, unlikely to be using social media and will be reliant on intermediaries for their care. With that silence we should add invisibility because images of drought and hot weather as iconic events are nowhere near as newsworthy as floods, which are dramatic and devastating, offering media organisations a ‘spectacle’ in a time constrained package. Drought is less spectacular, slow (i.e. ‘creeping’) while ‘heat waves’ in the UK carry memories of 1970s nostalgia. Dig a little deeper though and we find some unhelpful media frameworks for thinking about resilience to drought and heatwaves.


Drought and disability

It is interesting that when ‘drought’ is represented the vulnerability is expressed in terms of disability. Take these two examples below. The first is academic, Professor Carolyn Roberts, vice president of the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) at the University of Oxford and the second from the now defunct newspaper The Independent in 2012. What is striking about the examples below is that a quick Google news search finds that the terms ‘creeping paralysis’ or ‘crippling’ are frequently used to define a drought. Language is important here as any media theorist would tell you.

JGH Blog image May 2016

To describe droughts in this way identifies a bodily, invisible and quiet deterioration that resists representation. Part of the problem with public lack of awareness of drought is, I would say, in how the problem of drought is represented when it is a ‘real problem’. During the dry weather of 2012 Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said: ‘The vast majority of people are unaware that we are in the middle of a crippling drought – river levels are lower in many areas than they were in 1976.’ No one wants to be paralysed or crippled or creeped upon, so there must be some new language invented to define and describe water scarcity and drought. Part of the DRY project is to explore a) what these new languages are and b) how to engage a mix of media in new representations of drought.


Spectacles of Hot Weather

Not all hot weather is invisible. Its impacts certainly are spectacles. In the excellent collection Extreme Weather and Global Media (2015), edited by Leyda and Negra, we find a very interesting chapter by Paula Gilligan on the values articulated during a heatwave in the UK. She makes the point that heatwaves produce media-specific templates with print media opting for ‘bikini-clad’ models.

JGH Blog image 2 May 2016

And it is worth drawing together one of the key ways in which people learn about heatwaves: when they Google them. In the UK context, the 1976 Heatwave is the most prominent collective memory of hot weather. It is used as the benchmark by journalists as well as environmental agencies to measure more recent heatwaves. Last year The Daily Mail ran a story ‘Think we’re having a heatwave? Last week was Arctic compared to the sizzler of 1976: And those who lived through it will never forget it’ (6 July 2015). It generated 796 comments as of writing, many of which were memories (nostalgic, reminiscences, anecdotes, family stories, work stories, and recollections of popular music and culture).


‘Everyone does hot quite hot’

Getty Images provide many of the now iconic photographs of ‘warning signs’, sunbathers and empty reservoirs of 1976, and Pathé News provide the 10 minute 40 second silent footage of women in London. With the following ‘Description’ added by the archivist:

‘Various shots of people walking around in T-shirts and shorts during the hot summer weather of the 1976 heat wave. The cameraman seems to focus on women. Lots of short shorts and tight tops. Everyone does hot quite hot.’

JGH Blog image 3 May 2016

How people use media to remember 1976 is important to be aware of, and the access people have to media representations of one of the most severe droughts in UK history is equally important to study. It’s critical because as we seek to engage the public in drought through narrative methods, we need to accept that they are always already audiences of other media narratives as well as personal and family memories. The aspect gender plays in this is also key to recognise not only in how heatwaves are ‘sexed-up’ as ‘sizzling’ but also how water scarcity impact disproportionately on older women. In 2003, the heatwave across Europe had France dealing with a rapid increase in deaths, with women worst hit (see the BBC news item 25th Sept 2003 ‘French heat toll almost 15000’).


We have the opportunity with the DRY project to build in to our findings a recognition of the media narratives of drought and heatwaves that will compete for attention with our research. Real stories of water scarcity in the United Kingdom have been silent and invisible. If we continue within the current template of popular narratives of heatwaves, where drought is for scientists and heatwaves are for the tabloids, we will indeed be taken by surprise. Water scarcity may well creep up and paralyse communities, and many groups who are rather silenced or invisible, may continue to be disproportionately impacted.




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