Backlash in Newsprint

Sarah Seltzer

"Respectable" mainstream media outlets have unleashed a torrent of misogyny. There's a middle-school mentality afoot here--a class of journalists forced by circumstance to acknowledge that there is such a thing as gender discrimination flinging back insults at their critics.

When the portrayal of women onscreen and in pop culture verges towards simplistic and degrading, the dismissal often proffered is that "it's just entertainment. It doesn't mean anything."

But what happens when "highbrow" media outlets jump on the misogynist bandwagon? What's their excuse? In the past few weeks, several of our country's most respected daily newspapers have unleashed a litany of troubling articles, pieces which have sent waves of shock and anger through the feminist community and beyond. These stories have been more than just nasty and sexist; they have repeatedly reinforced classic stereotypes that are used to deny women legal and social equality.

One can only imagine that months of covering a major female presidential candidate, reporting on the crucial role of women voters in deciding our country's fate, and yes, being forced to examine gender bias within their own hallowed media community has been too much for some editors and writers to take. So, consciously or not, they've called up a hit squad of woman-hating writers, some of whom (gasp!) are women themselves, to move things backwards a bit.

The story that has gotten the most attention is an op-ed in the Washington Post published on March 1 by known anti-feminist Charlotte Allen, tackling no other topic that the alleged stupidity of all women. She calls us the "stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailing and distraction by the superficial." (The article was paired, catfight-like, with a "counterpoint" about the supposed fickleness of woman voters. Its author, Linda Hirshman, card-carrying feminist, does make a number of pro-woman arguments but the notion of female caprice is still central to her thesis. Is that an improvement?)

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But the Allen piece was just the most blatantly ridiculous in its class.

Just a week previously, on February 24: Heather MacDonald penned an op-ed in the LA Times using tired arguments to dismiss the proven phenomenon of acquaintance rape on American campus classifying the crime as "post-coital second thoughts," and blaming young women for their own victimization.

A disturbing feature in the New York Times' Sunday styles section on Sunday, March 2, treated a serious strain of eating disorder as though it were the latest trend: hello, "drunkorexia," or, anorexia coupled with alcohol abuse. This new buzzword proudly takes the offensiveness of terms coined by the Styles' section's crack team–the folks behind the "man-date" and "metrosexual"–to a whole new level. While the issue might be worth a look in the health section, putting it in the Styles section contributes to the glamorization of eating disorders and the idea that for women, being out of control is a desirable norm.

This piece came a week after another Styles feature that was subtly contemptuous of sexy bridal wear, "temptress styles that may be better suited to a gala or boudoir than to a church or ballroom."

Finally Joel Stein, LA Times columnist extraordinaire, complained some more about the ladies: "Will a female vice president really satisfy women? Of course not. But what does?" Hilarious. Stein also called some of our leading female politicians "chicks." Ironically, of course. Right?

There's lots of great analysis of what's wrong with each of these articles available on the blogosphere-none of them have been allowed to go unchallenged, and their arguments have been effectively debunked.

But taken as a whole, these stories so close upon each others' heels seem to represent a tidal wave of backlash against women. Essentially, they promote the idea, over and over again, that women are helpless, naïve, influenced by an emotional groupthink and incapable of making rational decisions for themselves–playing directly into an anti-choice, anti-woman agenda. (Women remain helpless, incidentally, until they're raped. Then they are manipulative instigators, according to the right wing.)

The media, mainstream, "serious," new or old, has never lacked for patterns of "isms" and insensitivity. But this recent wave is tellingly unsubtle. There's a middle-school mentality afoot here–a class of journalists forced by circumstance to acknowledge that there is such a thing as gender discrimination flinging back insults at their critics.

And this childishness has serious consequences. Plenty of people take these newspapers at face value. They don't have time to go digging through online commentary to read detailed rebuttals. For better or for worse, voices heard in serious papers are cultural arbiters. Featuring article after article either blatantly or more insidiously promoting stereotypes about women is bound to have an effect.

One need only look at Maureen Dowd's commentary to understand the damage done by printing sexist ideas in a "serious" outlet. Because she works for the New York Times, Dowd has a wide platform. Her childish and retrograde ideas about gender get treated as though they are serious–and get echoed.

A vigorous chorus of protest on the internet and in letter-writers' voices has been heartening. But nothing will change until the media examines its own approach to covering women and other historically disadvantaged groups. Hiring more women helps, but it is only a first step. Editors and writers need to eradicate forms of bias that are more subtle than liberal vs. conservative. Until then, the articles about hysterical, swooning, and manipulative women will still be considered acceptable–and even serious.

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