Commentary Media

‘Pink’ Stories Are Some of the Most Important of Our Time

Amanda Marcotte

The OpEd Project has released a dismaying report showing that female op-ed writers still mostly write about "pink" topics such as women-specific health care. But those stories are critically important, and if women "break out" and write about other things, who's left to cover them?

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:

  1. Anything that falls into what was once known as “the four F’s”: food, family (relationships, children, sex), furniture (home), and fashion;
  2. Women-focused subject matter, such as women-specific health or culture;
  3. Gender/women’s issues; or
  4. 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.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.