Hot Take: The Media Only Pretends to Support Women

Hot Take: The Media Only Pretends to Support Women

Editorial by Emmanuelle Williamson


Media bias has existed long before it became a political buzzword in the form of ‘Fake News’. News sources fear being accused of it, international watchdog groups report on it, and governments do their best to regulate it.* However, the word is used almost exclusively to refer to political or ideological bias, which means that the representation of different races, sexualities, and genders is often overlooked. The marginalization of different subgroups in the media is a pertinent issue that needs addressing. Today, I’ll be talking about selection bias against women and the tropes with which they are depicted in the media. 

Women are often unnecessarily sexualized in the media, no matter their job nor story. In 2017, Daily Mail’s front page “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it” was widely critiqued for sexualizing First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and Prime Minister Theresa May. 

In fact, Daily Mail has a history of sexist headlines, including some of the following:

  • Madonna’s daughter Lourdes, 20, slips into a skimpy black bikini as she flaunts her unshaven armpits while relaxing in the sun with her rumoured beau
  • How Theresa May has gone from ‘puffy and lacklustre’ to ‘radiant and revitalised’ following her Easter break.  
  • Meghan 'planning her return from maternity leave' with an appearance at a London charity summit just SIX MONTHS after her due date
  • Pretty as a picnic… table! Hillary Clinton dons bizarre pink gingham outfit for a meeting at Home of Chicken and Waffles in Oakland

Women don’t have the option of not having their appearance focused on. Just as easily as they can be sexualized, they can be masculinized. The masculinized, workaholic career focused woman is one of the most common tropes in media. Examples include Radiohost Alex Jones saying Michelle Obama is transgender and claiming he has proof that Michelle is a man, Trump saying “I just don’t think she has the presidential look” when referring to Hillary Clinton, or this past month’s parking lot troll claiming “Kamala Harris is a man” in a recent viral video on twitter. 

The tropes of women in media are far ingrained into our society. When women aren’t appearing in these tropes, they’re often not being talked about at all. As subjects of stories, women only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news. In a 2015 report, women made up a mere 19% of experts featured in news stories. A study from the Atlantic showed that “both in news rooms and news articles, men make more money, get more bylines, spend more time on-camera, and are quoted far more often than women - by a ratio of about 3:1. Since the news is not reflective of the population it purports to represent, this is an example of selection bias. 

When women are reported on in stories, tropes plague the way they are portrayed. They are consistently more represented in photos than in text. This can be referred to as the ‘Silent Eye Candy’ trope, which enforces the idea that women are sources of visual pleasure rather than sources of content. 

The tropes of women in media are far ingrained into our society, and the representation stats appear bleak. However, there are simple things that anyone can do to combat the issue.  Viewers of news can consciously pick media that is less biased, while corporates can internally assess their biases or hire consulting firms to help them. A good example of this is BBC’s “How we’re tackling gender imbalance” note, published in May of 2018. Listed below are a few other suggestions. Also, if you find important women centered news, share it! Try starting with @DailyDoseNews, a 100% women-run global news source on TikTok and Instagram.

*Such laws in the U.S. begin as early as 1798, when the U.S. passed the alien and sedition acts, stating that newspapers were prohibited from publishing "false, scandalous, or malicious writing" against the government. The act was repealed in 1801. 

Suggested Readings: 

  • What BBC news is doing about gender inequality
  • Shattering the Glass Screen: Gender Inequality in Media
  • The effect of media sexism on women’s political ambition: evidence from a worldwide study

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