Saturday, 10 December 2011

Book review: feminism in the news

It must have been at some point between 2009 and June 2010 when Kaitlynn Mendes, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at De Montfort uni called me for my views on feminism and the media. I talked a lot about how it can be tricky to get press attention for non London events, the way the press either ignored, mocked or silenced feminism (with some notable exceptions) and the struggle of getting noticed when the press was always telling you you didn't exist (unless they were telling you you were sour-faced harridans). We had a great chat and then I promptly forgot all about it until a month or so ago, when Cath Redfern sent me a twitpic of my name in the index of the book 'Feminism in the News'. I was in a book! Wahey!

Kaitlynn then very kindly arranged for me to be sent a free copy to review and I devoured it in a matter of a weekend.

This is an academic textbook that can be read by the non-academic (me!) and understood and loved by those who aren't using it as a source text for essay writing. The book is easy to read, thorough and fascinating, taking the reader on a journey through feminist history between 1968-1982 as seen by the news. The language is readable and not filled with academic jargon, whilst never compromising on meticulous research, sharp analysis and interesting conclusions.

The book is split into three sections - although there are two additional introductory chapters. The first deals with how The Times, The Daily Mirror, The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times reported The Women's Movement. The second analyses how these papers reported equal rights and the final section looks at how feminism was reported in 2008, across those four papers and The Washington Post, the Washington Times, The Guardian and the Daily Mail.

Mendes found that reporting of the women's movement and equal rights could be split into supportive, critical, and seeing feminism as contradictory. Some of her findings surprised me. For example, The Daily Mirror had a very anti-feminist tone throughout the period that loosley defined the second wave - something perhaps based in its appeal to white working class men audience. Rather than embracing feminism as a movement for positive social change, the Mirror saw it as harmful and dangerous, and gleefully reported backlash style stories to show how feminism had 'failed'. Contrary to my belief, the backlash against feminism as we understand it began a lot earlier than it's 1980s hey-day, with a 1970 Mirror article introducing 12 year old Linda Greally who believes it's 'wrong to be equal', and the 1976 article 'Why Adrienne doesn't want to be man'. This latter piece blames feminism for family breakdown and demonises women's libbers as mums who 'dump' their kids. Familiar tropes that seek to blame feminism for all social ills therefore appeared as early as the 1970s, with feminism blamed for shoplifting, bullying, crime etc. - something we still see today in Daily Mail headlines.

Negative reporting tended to focus on presenting feminists as 'deviant' - the usual man-hating, bra-burning steretypes, or else they focused on how feminism was irrelevant or out of touch from women's lives. Little has changed! Other criticisms offered a paternal view that the goals of feminism were legitimate (of course women *should* have equal rights) whilst the movement itself is illegitimate (we just don't think they're doing feminism right). Other critcism (again, plus ca change!) denied that there was a problem with inequality all together, suggesting that the problem wasn't with society, but with the feminists themselves. After all, says Mrs DMM from Kettering in 1970, don't these women enjoy being feminine?

The Times was more supportive of feminism and the fight for equality and women's rights - again quite surprising in some ways, known as it is for its conservative slant. Articles recognised the need for change and, along with the NYT, sought to legitimise feminism. This can be problematic in itself - the journalism that sought to make feminism palatable and 'nice' risked de-politicizing a movement, again an issue we still see today. For example, when the Daily Mail reviewed Natasha Walter's book 'Living Dolls', they wrote how lovely it was that she wasn't angry. She told a packed audience at FIL 2010 how much this annoyed her - she is and was, after all, very angry. Journalism that sought to legitimise, as well as support, feminism found itself reporting that the movement was full of 'normal' (i.e. white, middle class and straight) women. Again, whilst there was perhaps a well meaning positivity in this reporting, it not only resulted in selling feminism as just a movement for white, middle class straight women; it also toned down the angry, political and radical demands the women's liberation movement was fighting for. It was complex, as feminists were also willing to comply with this 'normalising' portrayal in an effort to not be seen as elitist or out of touch or 'fringe'.

Mendes found that out of her four publications between 1968-82, the Chicago Tribune was the one most likely to report on black women's issues and feminisms. These articles acknowledged the intersectionality between the oppressions of race and gender. Articles focused both on the tensions and the benefits of collective activism.

The second section of analysis explores the equal rights movement, particularly on reporting of the fight to pass the ERA in the states, and other legal rights to equality in the UK. Similar patterns were found - with some articles legitimising the movement, others focusing on the backlash, with papers using women who were against feminism (e.g. Phyllis Schafly) to 'prove' how unpopular the movement was.

Mendes focuses on the key issue of who was writing about feminism and where these articles appeared in the papers. Just like today, all too often women's issues weren't treated as 'news' but instead found themselves sidelined into features or comment. Even in 2011, if you're reading about VAWG in the DRC, or the pornification of culture, or lack of women's political representation on the Guardian website, you'll find you're in 'Life and Style'. News about women is still seen as special interest, for ladies only. Just as it was 40 years ago.

The final section was about reporting feminism in 2008 and included four additional papers, The Washington Post, the Washington Times, The Guardian and the Daily Mail. In some ways this was the section that was most relevant to me (and I'm in it!) although that does not mean that the journey to 2008 wasn't equally as fascinating and extraordinary in how some things were better than I imagined, and some things were exactly as I expected.

Mendes' research found that in 2008, popular culture was the most common 'news peg' to talk about feminism - i.e. it was used as the stepping stone to open up a feminist conversation. This results in articles such as 'Is SATC feminist?'. This can be seen as a way of trying to legitmise feminism - making it relevant to the 'normal' woman's life, but, as before, it can also de-politicize and trivialise feminism, as well as making it all feel very conceptual and not very 'real life' in itself. I mean, although as a feminist I care about how popular culture creates and shapes our attitudes towards women, winsome musings about how Bond Girls are feminist icons are not really getting to grips with what feminism means as a social movement for change. Politics was the second most popular news peg - from the Mail attacking the 'ultra feminist lobby' of Harriet Harman, to papers exploring Palin's self-declared grizzly mama style of feminism and her role in US politics - gender or otherwise. The final news peg was activism, with actual feminist events getting news coverage. My bit!

The book analyses how the papers explored 'issues associated with feminism' such as sexual objectification, equal pay and the glass ceiling. Mendes found that a higher-than-expected number of articles sought to legitimise feminism as a movement for good. However, were these articles always political? Some focusesd on how women can wear lipstick and still be a feminist - this way of making feminism pretty and non-scary could again be seen as legitimising feminism whilst ignoring its political anger and need for change. Few articles looked at radical discourse - identifying patriarchy as an oppressive force.

Just as in the first two sections of analysis, the anti-feminist articles followed a predictable pattern. Feminists are deviant - and crucially 'unattractive to men'. So, whilst some articles were gleefully informing women they can still wear pink and fight patriarchy, others continued to warn that if you're a feminist, then no-one will fancy you. Feminism is still portrayed as anti-family - bringing back to life the idea that feminism is not only bad for children, but bad for women as well. These articles promote the belief that 'having it all' is making women depressed and their children delinquent - whilst of course never questioning the fact that 'having it all' never meant 'doing it all'.

The good news is though that thanks to a lot of explicitly and unapologetic feminist journalists, women's stories and feminist issues are being reported positively. The movement is being legitmised by these writers who manage to do so without compromising the politics and radical demands. In my own personal observations this has continued to get better and better, as more and more women and men get involved in feminist activism. I would love for Kaitlynn to analyse 2011. Slutwalks? Playboy protest? Muff march? Anti cuts activism? The Arab Spring? These haven't been fringe stories confined to the blogosphere and one newspaper. Feminism is making headlines again - and it won't be long before we're out of the life and style pages forever.

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