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.
I started reading the blog 'The Enemies of Reason' when it was still written by Anton Vowl, in 2009. I think I found it the day the Jan Moir/Stephen Gately scandal broke, and the world of media blogs opened up to me, including Tabloid Watch, No Sleep til Brooklands, Five Chinese Crackers and Angry Mob. Enemies of Reason quickly became one of my favourite blogs - funny, perceptive, honest and articulating everything about the lies in the press that I had always suspected, but had hitherto been unable to concretely prove.
Via Twitter and the blogosphere, Anton (as he was then known) and I became online friends (I hope!) and when I had my first brush with the press telling lies about me, he was one of the people I turned to for advice on how to tackle it. Eventually Anton revealed his true identity as Steve Baxter in a column on Comment is Free, and was quickly snapped up to write for the New Statesman, commenting on media behaviour.
In 'Musings of a Monkey', Steve has brought together some of his favourite blogposts from Enemies of Reason, Farewell Prozac and Warm Cherryade. I had only read Enemies of Reason online, so not only was I happy to re-visit old favourite and un-remembered gems, but I was also pleased to have the chance to read Steve's writing on other subjects, particularly on mental illness, depression and anti-depressants.
The book opens with blogs taken from Enemies of Reason. From insightful comment on news stories of the day (B&B couple banning gay people, and Daily Mail reaction), to how the media works and what it reports (sports personalities' sexual proclivities) and political questions (why we shouldn't wish Thatcher dead); this section meanders into delightful ponderings on what biscuits are best (Viscounts) to the best animals beginning with 'o' (otters. obviously). The joy in revisiting these blogposts is in Steve's writing. His style is very honest, and witty, sometimes sarcastic but never nasty or aggressive, sincere and clear. Sometimes the posts are written in an analytical way, as he takes us through a breakdown of a news story or item. Sometimes he writes very amusing satires of articles. And other times they're just musings of his own, that thanks to his fantastic writing ability and clear voice, never fail to entertain.
Truly in my mind Steve is one of the best writers composing blogs on the internet at the moment, and has been for as long as I have been reading his words.
It is hard to pick a favourite post in the opening of the book, but I do love and always have loved his 'What about the men' piece. Whilst I wrote four sides of A4 trying to explain just how angry I was with Giles Coren and the like, his short and criticial piece on what-about-ery summed it all up neatly and with humour. He manages to pinpoint exactly what it is about the argument that makes it so ludicrious - whether it's what about the men or Daily Mail hate - and quickly and clearly shows off the ridiculousness of it all, without falling into traps of being rude, aggressive or snide. Other favourites include his Lefty baiting: an idiots guide and The A-Z of Internet Commenting. The post on why we shouldn't wish Thatcher dead is also a stand out moment to me. Again, this post expresses the anger at Thatcher's legacy in a way that is clear sighted and meaningful without descending into cliche.
Warm Cherryade is rather a move away from the politics and media commentary and lists of Enemies of Reason. This was a side to Steve's writing that I hadn't really encountered before; observations, memories, short and delicate pieces of prose that capture every day moments, such as giving a spider a lift to work. Odes to cultural icons like Teletext. And reflections on blogging, fear and hope. It's hard to capture the section because there is this diversity there, but it all felt quite personal and quiet - in good ways. I love the idea of giving the spider a lift to work. It is such a lovely observation of something that is otherwise quite inconsequential.
Moving on to Farewell Prozac. In some ways I found this the hardest, but also the most inspiring, section of the book. It is very honest. Like Steve's writing on other subjects, the honesty is what makes it so absorbing and refreshing to read. We learn about triggers and making peace with those moments, those places that threaten to kick off episodes. The physical feeling of depression as well as the emotional feelings. The difficulties of coming off anti-depressants, and the sometimes need to go back on them is conveyed simply and carefully. The importance of recognising that going back on to medication is not a 'fail', but just something that needs to continue for a while, is dealt with in a clear sighted and accepting way. It made me think a lot about my own period of depression and mental unwell-ness (as I call it). It made me wonder how I would feel about writing about it. I don't know if I can. I talk a little bit about it in my book, in my chapter of The Light Bulb Moment. But I don't know if I can write more about it yet. Still, reading the Farewell Prozac posts, especially the one (that actually appears on Enemies of Reason) about how it does get better, reading these makes me think that maybe one day I will try and write about my own fairly minor experiences. I'm just not sure if I'm quite ready to yet. It's kind of all in the fiction posts on this blog anyway. It is helpful and also deeply moving to read about depression written in such a matter of fact and open way. Mental illness is still so hidden often, and so lonely. To have a space online where these experiences are shared in an honest fashion is really important and I hope other readers find Steve's words as valuable as I did.
The book moves on to reflect on journalism as a career, the state of the UK's newspapers, and, in the 'hastily cobbled together chapter on phone hacking', on whether the public can or will trust newspapers again. He writes about reading When Fleet Street Calls by JC Cannell as a teen and being inspired to be a hack, the changing world of journalism since then, and its potential future. His writing on 'prolls' (professional trolls) and how the ways in which the mainstream media whips up outrage and hate isn't without consequence is insightful, intelligent and spot-on. When you read Steve's writing, it feels like everything becomes clear. He has a way of communicating that makes sense of the lies and information overload of the MSM, cutting through the nonsense to bring to his readers an honest perspective that is often very amusing to boot.
On the back of the book, Steve describes himself as having been a 'mediocre journalist'. There is nothing mediocre about his writing. One of the best writers online today, no arguments. I would definitely recommend his book and I look forward to the next one.
Independent publisher Crooked Rib has spent the past year collecting the stories of why we are feminists from women and men across the UK.
Inspired by the Seal Press published ‘Click’, edited by Courtney Martin and J Courtney Sullivan; this anthology brings together writers, academics, grass-roots activists and professional feminists, as they share that moment of inspiration that brought them to feminism.
Some of the names you may recognise. Laurie Penny writing about Germaine Greer. Finn Mackay telling the story of how she went to peace camp. Jo Swinson campaigning for girls to wear trousers in her school. And then there are the women and men whose names you might not recognise, but who are working every day in the fight for gender equality and a better world for all.
Many of these stories are funny. Some are moving. Some tell of pain and trauma. Some are about family members or friends. All of them are inspiring and exciting.
Editor of The Light Bulb Moment, Sian Norris says:
‘After reading ‘Click’ I felt very strongly that we needed this book for the UK. We have such a rich feminist scene here. I thought it would be fascinating to hear how the women and men involved in UK feminist activism ‘found’ feminism. And I was right! These stories are so diverse and unique – I hope that people will enjoy reading them as much as I have.’
By bringing together the stories from women and men from a range of communities and generations, The Light Bulb Moment hopes to offer a snapshot of feminist activism in the UK today, and share the stories of the women and men involved.
The eye-catching cover was designed by illustrator Susie Hogarth.
Crooked Rib Publishing is a self-publishing, print on demand imprint set up by writer and feminist activist Sian Norris. Its aim is to publish feminist fiction and non-fiction work.
At the risk of sounding like I have '3,000 follower syndrome' I wanted to apologise for lack of blog management lately and taking ages to publish comments. I have five blogposts I want to write but been so busy with work and BFN and book publishing and Christmas shopping that it has taken a bit of a back seat.
All comments now published and new posts coming soon!