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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. [Volume 39, Issue 8. April 1976]

Sexism is in the Press

Sexism is in the Press

Salient is running a number of articles this year on some of the not so obvious values and biases coming through our local newspapers. This one investigates the unseen sexism contained in the press.

Notable features of newspaper reporting are;

a)the priority accorded to male activities, and
b)the priority accorded to male activities, and the predominance of male perspectives - i.e. the lack of reporting featuring women at all, and the relative significance ascribed to women's activities when they do appear.

Examples that follow are drawn mainly from the daily newspapers - all the observations made apply a fortiori to the Sunday papers.

The contention that women seldom appear in "significant" (male-defined) news items is supported by the very existence of a "Women's Page". Most of the newspaper is concerned with vital public affairs, and directed towards men, but a small portion is devoted "the women", whose world, it seems revolves around cooking, childcare and personal grooming. (Check the content of tonight's "Women's Page" if you doubt this).

One obvious case of completely "writing women out of the news" appeared in the Sunday News of 21/3/76, where the headline announced: "Gays Immune", and the body of the article declared: "There is no such thing as male protitution", and no such thing as female homosexuality either, it would seem.

The inability to think beyond stereotypes permeates reporting, e.g. in the Evening Post of (6/4/76 there were no less than three items (accompanied by hotographs, of course) about women - one of them a "leggy dancer", who had "scopped the pool" in finding her "No. 1 man". I doubt that the press is catering for lesbian women in running features on attractive young women.

Consider an article that might run:

"Good-looking 20 year old John Bloggs, a postman, stole the show in a figure-fitting pantsuit at his marriage today to Diana Marvell, assistant manager of the Ritz Restaurant. John, a tall, hazel-eyed brunette, holds a diploma in public speaking, but claims he's a shy boy at heart". Enough said.

Further examples of the use of women as entertainment in the press are the inevitable photos of unusual articles for auction, (hardly coincidentally) "being admired by" young female assistants.

One example, from the "Evening Post" of 8/3/76, is captioned "To Be Displayed During Festival", which presumably refers to the woman depicted as well as the artefacts she's holding. Something like a model sprawled across the bonnet of a car at a motor-show, perhaps?

Oh to be a Politician's Wife

The press acknowledges limited possibilities for women - an article about the wife of Britain's new prime minister titled: "Mrs C. Happy to live in No. 10" (Evening Post 6/4/76) stressed Mrs Callaghan's pleasure at the "challenge of a new home". Apparently "she has made striking changes to the decor of her husband's present official residence."

Rather further into the article it is admitted that "she takes a keen interest in children's welfare and until 1970 was an alderman of the Greater London Council". The "Post", however, was less interested in expatiating these facts than the nature of her renovations to No. 10's decor.

To continue the theme, on the same page is a picture of "Miss Marjorie and Mrs Mary Wilson stepping out for a walk in Downing Street, from where they will soon take their leave." The caption goes on to describe Marjorie Wilson's bonds to the house while "Mrs Wilson has always made it clear that she prefers the cosy domesticity of her own home."

As well as presenting a limited perspective, this treatment of "the women attached to the men in politics" typifies the Press's perception of women as appendages to men. In an item a about a New Zealand woman jockey invited to ride in international races in Brazil (Evening Post 6/4/76), the press does not fail to observe that Mrs Jones's husband, A.L. Jones, trains at Cambridge.

This contrasts with the treatment of the politicians' wives - the women associated with a "successful" man are selfom mentioned except in theri ascribed capacity of domestic help, their greater or lesser ability as homebodies. (Or in the case of young women - Margaret Trudeau, Nancy Kissinger - their sex appeal or lack thereof).

Headlines such as "Mother Dies, Husband, Children Hurt" (Evening Post 8/3/76), "Gail needs help, missing wife's parents say" (Dominion 23/3/76) are clear evidence that the press seldom perceives women apart from their relation to others - they are never acknowledged as people in theri own right, with their own independent activities.

Even Language Sex Biased

This logic pervades reporting down to the linguistic level; notice items in which females and males could feature equally (e.g. road accident reports - assuming no fatality - then the deceased's name takes precedence): the male name appears first, followed by e.g. "his wife -" (relational status).

It's also interesting to notice the logical priority of men's events in the sports pages - almost invariably women's sport appears at the end of the section, reflecting the overall pattern of reporting on women.

The continuous use of the male gender e.g man, mankind, his, chairman etc (when referring generally) subtly reflects the male orientation of society in general. If you substitute "her/his" or "chairperson" it immediately strikes you that there is something different/unusual (it doesn't sound right!) in that sentence. You stop and read it again. The consciousness-raising effect is enormous - to women and men.

A comparison: if you were a black and everything was referred to as being white.... hasty changes would be made so as not to appear racist.

The point is that any step, however 'small' that heads us in the right direction of breaking down patriarchal concepts and thought, is a step worth making.

To return to stereotypes, the "Kapi-Mana" of 11/2/76 makes an unfortunate slip in describing YWCA classes:

"Each year the YWCA offers classes and courses to entice people, from housewives, stay-at-homes, and the handicapped, to those who enjoy meeting people and learning new skills." (Italics mine).

Often more pernicious than such blatant stereotyping of women is subtle manipulation of headlines to distort or add further comment to a report. For example, a report about the rape of a woman by 2 men for whom she sought help after being raped by 3 others, carried the headline: "It just was not her day". Little wonder that rape is regarded as almost being acceptable in our society! (More about "humour" later!).

And an item about women protesting against sexist advertising used by the Capital Club carried a photograph of Muldoon telling one of the women: "Don't be a Naughty Girl" (Evening Post 12/9/75) - by running Muldoon's admonition as a headline, the Post effectively endorsed it.

The headline "Looker Jane's On Top So Far", actually told the tale of "Pretty young Australia" Jane Lock, who took the honours in the second round of the Benson and Hedges Ladies' Golf Classic! Did her attractiveness affect her performance? I've never heard mention of the shape of Arnie Palmer's legs.

page 7

Subtle Attacks on Feminism

Feminists, predictably, get very poor treatment from the press.

Not only are they presented as women with whom others would not want to identify (irrational, strident, humourless), but also as women who disdain the concerns of housewives, mothers, and other women involved in "traditionally feminine" activities.

"Women's Liberation" (or "Women's Lib, Libbers etc etc) is mentioned with reference to bra-burning, but never to baby-bashing.

A consequence of these tactics is that other women are alienated from their feminist sisters.

A variation on the old "divide and conquer" theme. The press serves the patriarchy.

Ridiculing Women Through Cartoons

Cartoons, and sexist hurnour in general, warrant a complete investigation of their own.

It's a truism that humour reflects the attitudes of a society. The general anti-woman bias of the press is blatantly embodied in the comic sti strips that (male) editors choose to run, since of course this form of humour operates on the use of stereotypes.

'The Wizard of Id" and "Redeye" are limited to the extremes "old and ugly" and "young and nubile" in their presentation of women. "Footrof Flats" is always based on a rigid division of sex roles, with the concomitant value judgements - (e.g. always a male main character, women seen as vain, timid etc).

The cartoon below is an indictment of the press's attidude to women - similarly, that a series like 'Andy Cap', the humour of which turns on situations of truly brutal oppression, is run at all.

The despair and outrage of many women at their representation in the press is articulated well by Tom Scott, writing on the 1973 Women's Convention in the "Listener":

"The Auckland Star arrived containing a convention photo of mother and child captioned to suggest that baby Oliver would rather have been at the test with the boys.

I thought it a stupid, pathetic, harmless enough gesture and was stunned by the anger that greeted its announcement. I began to perceive the enormity of the despiar and range. It was yet another petty humiliation heaped upon a mountain of such insults, a road toll statistic, part of a whole too huge for comprehension."

Marie Buckley