“It is lazy journalists who frequently rely upon stereotypical representations of men and women, and who consequently do injustice to social movements.” (Mendes, p67)
Anyone with even a cautious interest in feminism is aware that we don’t get a good deal from the media. We never have. However, it’s not as cut and dried as all that and there are corners of the media, pockets of publishing, where women’s rights and feminism issues are allowed an airing… although there are always compromises and sacrifices involved.
In this extremely thorough analysis, Kaitlynn Mendes (a journalism lecturer at De Montfort University) goes back to 1968 and examines how feminism has been represented by eight national newspapers (four each in the UK and US).
Feminism In The News: Representations of The Women’s Movement Since The 1960s (Palgrave Macmillan, £49.99) is such a detailed and carefully woven study, presented in an academic yet readable style, that there’s little to find fault with. Apart from with Mendes’ findings that women’s issues have been so consistently and persistently relegated for so long, despite advances in reality!
Depressingly, Mendes’ studies confirm there has been little to no improvement in the perception of feminists as “crazy, ill-tempered, ugly, man-hating, family-wrecking, hairy-legged, bra-burning radical lesbians” (p35) from the ‘60s, and that – as we know – the lie that bras were burned at the 1968 Miss Universe pageant just will not go away. It proves that if the media peddles a story loudly enough, it simply doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because people will want to believe it if it makes a marginalised group look foolish. However, Mendes also reports an attempt, in 1978, to counter the bra burning myth with an equally preposterous myth of men burning their y-fronts: “Downtrodden men are after something you have already got – equality. Moves are afoot to make 1979 the Year of Men’s Liberation. Bonfires of y-fronts could soon be burning in the streets” (p80). What a shame this equally ridiculous tale never worked its way into folklore in the same way.
What also won’t go away is the attempt by much of the media to ‘humanise’ feminists by needing to state the woman’s marital status and whether or not she is a mother in any introductory text. Mendes cites a 1970 report about Betty Friedan at the Women’s Strike for Equality rally which, she says, spends more time focussing on Friedan’s visit to the hairdresser than it does on the reason for the rally.
There is a lot of weight in Feminism In The News given to the public perception of feminism, because unfortunately this is something that is going to dog us until patriarchy no longer has the upper hand. Feminists on both sides of the pond have always been presented as unfeminine and threatening, an alien and ‘other’ type. While anyone who experiences or lives feminism knows this to be nonsense, sadly it is the willing disbelievers who we have a harder job to convince. Mendes calls this “the normalisation process” that the media needs to go through in order to try and reconcile these unruly deviants as “normal” (p60, p77).
Unable to escape the need to focus on the appearance of women, Mendes also notes a trend in her sample papers – especially in the 1970s – to link feminism women to all manner of apparently unsightly physical conditions from alcoholism to baldness, as well as the antisocial characteristics of bullying and violence (p118). Who knew that feminism could make your hair fall out?
Mendes observes trends in the writing of feminism, with newspapers honing in on one woman’s experience of a topic – thereby skewing or biasing their coverage, and neglecting to represent “the diverse nature of feminist political theory, goals and tactics” (p51).
In more recent years, she observes a trend for newspaper articles about feminism to try and hook the feminist thread up to pop culture, in a bid to make it fashionable. So there were scores of articles pondering whether Sex And The City was a feminist show, whether Bond girls are feminists, and declaring just how much of a feminist icon Cheryl Cole and the like is (p136), which is a trend that’s just not going away.
In almost all areas of her book, I agree with Mendes wholeheartedly and her findings are hard to doubt anyway. But one point ruffled my feathers – Liz Jones from The Daily Mail, whatever Mendes may say, is not a feminist. While rightly stating that The Daily Mail is particularly opposed to feminism, Mendes goes on to add that “certain writers such as Liz Jones are responsible for what little supportive coverage existed” (p148), and later: “Authors such as … Liz Jones stand out for their commitment to feminist values” (p165). Make your own mind up on that one, but I can’t think of one feminist who would stand next to Jones in a line-up.
Clearly, by only focussing on eight newspapers, Mendes’ findings are relatively limited, however to have focussed on more would surely be impossible, and the fact her results from eight titles have been condensed so precisely into this trim volume is a credit to her.
Feminism In The News is an important and useful text, not least because in one book we now have clear academic proof that – regardless of what male editors may like to tell us – feminists have been consistently and repeatedly pushed to the margins and treated like a joke. It would be interesting to see follow up articles and volumes focussing on specific countries, or types of publication, to gain a bigger picture of this problem, as well as to try and suggest solutions for allowing women’s feminist voices to be heard on pages outside of The Guardian.