Thursday, August 31, 2006

Idle Thoughts on News About Women and Girls

Not as much idle thoughts as sad ones, because I do feel sad about the way women and girls are covered in the news. I have only really understood how biased the coverage of us is since 2001 when I decided to keep a diary about what I heard, saw and read about women. This project wasn't a scientific one; I simply jotted down the topics of programs or articles I happened to come across on the general category of women, or on working women, or on mothers and so on, and the points of view of the major participants and the general tone and conclusions.

When I leafed through the diary a year later I was shocked by what I found, and especially shocked because I only really followed the fairly liberal or neutral sources of news. I expected the news coverage to be neutral, on average. Instead, everything, every single thing about women was negative. Women or working women or mothers or girls had problems, were a problem, and even good news were presented as "good news but..."

Women had health problems, mental problems, body image problems, problems getting married or finding boyfriends, problems after a divorce, problems in old age. Working mothers were a problem in themselves; their children always assumed to suffer, even if studies suggested that this was not the case. Poor women had problems all over the place and they were a burden for the society. Single mothers, oh boy, did they have problems! And single women had problems and cats. All women had problems racing the fertility clock.

Women had problems understanding science or mathematics. Women in the developing countries caused problems because they had too many children. Women in the rest of the world caused problems because they had too few children. Either women were too selfless and easily pushed around by their families or they were too uppity and independent and selfish to serve their families properly.

In comparison the only news items on men which were negative, fully or in part, were the question of how boys performed at school and one program about men's health, and the first also contained a way to turn something positive about girls: their improved performance at school and in college, into yet another negative, because girls' improvement is seen as having come at the expense of boys (by anti-feminists)and because college-educated women can't now find equally educated husbands, it is argued.

Not that there were very many news items about the group "men" or about any similar subgroup, either. My guess is that this is because men are mostly seen as just human beings and their problems are discussed as general human problems, not men's problems. For example, a program on urban violence never mentions that it's a program about mostly male violence.

Another reason for the scarcity of these types of news on men is that so many problems which really are human or societal problems have been neatly folded into specifically female problems or even feminist problems. Thus, the scarcity of women in the Congress is seldom discussed as a problem for the whole country, and questions having to do with childcare are quickly turned into a problem of working mothers. Nothing to do with working fathers, nothing to do with the wider society, though the wider society tends to have vociferous opinions on how well the working mothers are doing. It makes much less noise about the delinquent child maintenance payments of some divorced parents, many (if not most) of them men.

When I called the tone of these news on women and girls negative I didn't mean that the negative tone was easy to spot. It wasn't. The negativity was slight but consistent, like an irritating hum in the background, and I doubt that I would have noticed its overall effect without my little diary experiment. It's true that the file included a few monsters, programs which had made me already angry while watching them. But the vast majority of the articles and documentaries and debates I followed were not openly contemptuous or misogynistic.

No, the negativity was subtle and often expressed as confused puzzlement. Something that the so-called concern troll on political blogs practises: pointing out concerns while pretending to take your side in the argument. And the way this was achieved was masterfully obscure, so obscure, that it was probably subconscious.

For example, advances in women's opportunities were always pictured as benefiting only some women, often only those who had already taken advantage of them, while any negative aspects of the same advances were discussed long and hard as applying to wide groups in the society. Or even better, the advances were discussed as really not being what women ultimately wanted, even if there was no evidence for that. Or at the least, the potential risks to women were widely discussed and debated.

Note that these were not programs about rape risk, for example, but about topics such as women getting graduate degrees in too large numbers at a time when their fertility is at its peak. - Come to think of it, there wasn't a single program about the risk of rape in my file covering one year of news on women and girls.