A recent report from the OpEd Project concludes that female journalists continue to be relegated to what’s been described as a “pink ghetto”—the world of op-ed writing is dominated by men, but the women who do write op-eds tend to focus on “pink” topics, which are apparently not “general” interest.
The researchers classified “pink” topics as:
- Anything that falls into what was once known as “the four F’s”: food, family (relationships, children, sex), furniture (home), and fashion;
- Women-focused subject matter, such as women-specific health or culture;
- Gender/women’s issues; or
- A profile of a woman or her work in which her gender is a significant issue of the piece.
It’s a troubling classification system, because as much as the OpEd Project is trying to fight sexism, seeing stories as more “women’s” stories than general interest ends up subtly reinforcing this notion. “Pink” stories are just as diverse as general interest stories, but are only rendered “pink” by virtue of being primarily about women. For instance, a story about a new heart medication is classified as a health-care story, but if the same story is about contraception, it becomes “pink.” If you write about a murder, that’s a crime story; but if I write about rape, that’s a “pink” story. If you write about a politician making a speech about taxes, that’s a news story; but if I write about the same politician making a speech about pay equity, that’s a “pink” story.
Let’s be clear: I think the OpEd Project has the best of intentions here. In the report, the authors argue, “we don’t consider ‘pink’ topics any less important than general topics,” and I believe them. However, by framing the world of “pink” topics as a genre in that women “have historically been confined within,” it puts the onus on women to get out of this arena and write about other things. That can’t help but imply that women are being held back and that non-pink stories are somehow more prestigious.
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But what if it’s not that at all? What if it’s that more that women end up writing all these stories because no one else will do it?
If you have any doubt that female journalists feel guilty and conflicted about this issue, read a couple of pieces about the struggle of sticking with “pink” topics instead of breaking out to do other things. In a wonderful and soul-searching piece, Jessica Grose at Slate‘s XX Factor wrote, “I was so happy to even be employed in a tough journalism market, but I also wanted to show the world that I could do more than cover abortion and Sarah Palin.” (She ended up trying to write about bears. Not that bears aren’t a great topic—nature journalism is hard and interesting—but it’s sad that bears, being a non-gendered topic, somehow feels like doing “more” than writing about major issues like abortion rights.) Last year, in a panel on “navigating the pink ghetto,” panelists including Katie Orenstein of the OpEd Project and Emily Bazelon of Slate framed the issue, yet again, as one of women being relegated to certain topics; they talked in terms of women breaking out and getting into other forms of writing.
Certainly, as a writer who writes a lot about “pink” topics, I’ve routinely found myself unable to convince editors that I can write about other things, even though in writing about women’s issues, I’ve become an expert on things like health-care policy. So I definitely get the frustration, and I agree that editors seem to think that if you do feminism or “women’s” issues, you can’t do anything else.
But, at the end of the day, the main reason I keep circling back to women’s issues is that these are, in fact, important issues, and my interest in them makes me want to write about them. I don’t want to “break out,” because, as far as I’m concerned, these are some of the most interesting and pressing stories of our time, and I don’t think I should be considered relegated to one segment of journalism because I write about them.
That’s the problem that goes unaddressed in the OpEd Project report. Reproductive health, sexual and domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual discrimination: These are really important issues, and if women don’t write about them, who will? Certainly not men. As the report points out, only 3 percent of the articles written by men covered “pink” topics. For the same reason women feel like they have to break out of “pink” topics, men are generally disinterested in breaking in. A lot of what’s going on is the same thing you see in many professions, where men are eagerly chasing after the most prestigious, high-profile work, and women feel they have to pick up the slack.
This issue is far more complicated than just simply saying that women are relegated to a “pink ghetto,” and the fix is going to be a lot more complicated than breaking them out. I’d start by rejecting the “pink” framework altogether. Instead, we should rethink entirely why it is that once a story involves women as its primary subjects, it somehow stops being general interest. Why is contraception a “women’s” issue but diabetes is not? Why is rape a “women’s” issue but a story about gun violence is a crime story? This could help free up women who cut their chops writing about reproductive health care, for instance, to write about health care generally. And it could help men see “women’s” issues as general interest issues that would be good for them to get involved in.