A Woman's Place

28th February 2014

As we approach International Women’s Day Jennifer Lipman addresses the presentation of women in broadsheets, tabloids, and online –?and asks, in the so-called post-feminist era, does the media need to turn its attention away from diets, celebrity culture, and blondes on the front page?

Sex sells. That’s been the media’s view since time immemorial, and in 2014 it still holds. Women may be at the top in politics and business, but browse through the national newspapers, and where will you find the largest image of a woman? On Page Three, of course.

“It’s the most consistent image of a woman in our national media,” explains journalist Pavan Amara, contrasting this with photographs showing men running the country. “It tells us the only reason we are newsworthy is our bodies – we are only worth a full news page if we are deemed ‘attractive’ to an editor.”

Amara, who is part of the No More Page 3 campaign, argues that ‘boobs as news’ sends out the message “that it is perfectly acceptable to objectify women”. The campaign doesn’t only criticise The Sun, but targets “a whole culture of media sexism”.

The issue goes beyond gawking at breasts under the pretext of keeping up with current events. It’s about the amount and focus of the column inches written by (and devoted to) each genders, about the exacting standards for women in the public eye, and about the interminable obsession with fitness, fatness and fad dieting. It’s what Evening Standard columnist Rosamund Urwin describes as “the stench of misogyny” in the showbiz press’s enthusiasm for up-skirt shots, but also the way serious papers present sex crimes “in a titillating fashion”. As we mark the United Nations’ Women Make The News day, which comes under the International Women’s Day umbrella, is there anything positive about how our media approaches the fairer sex?

It’s fair to say that much has changed since Fleet Street’s heyday, when misogyny was routine, and young female reporters were advised to be wary of lascivious male editors. In a column recently, The Economist’s Anne McElvoy recalled a boss who had ‘a habit of meandering around the desk to place a hand on the bottom or hip of any young female’. She only began questioning this, she wrote, when her trainee job was confirmed.

Veteran journalist Angela Neustatter, a former fashion editor of The Guardian, recalls how after completing her diploma as a 19-year-old, her male coursemates found jobs easily, while she encountered only closed doors. Interviewed by one small paper, she was told ‘you were wonderful; however this is a job for a man’.

“Now not only could you not do that now because of the law, people wouldn’t think in those terms,” she explains. “Women are seen as capable in many spheres, although there is probably still a bias in terms of hard news, and investigative reporting.”

More to the point, content, certainly for the broadsheets, has changed. Though many persist with the notion that a busty blonde on the front boosts sales, papers campaign on women’s issues, including serious matters like domestic violence, employ scores of female writers, and challenge – rather than perpetuate – blatant sexism. Similarly, we may be some way from equal panels on Question Time, but the days when only featuring men was considered acceptable are largely gone. In fact, even certain editions of the male-dominated Radio 4 flagship Today have been recently fronted by two women presenters (with a female sports reporter and female newsreader on the same programme).

“There are plenty of examples where one says ‘that’s horrendous’ but it’s a question of comparison,” says Neustatter. “I’ve seen such a significant change in the way that women are written about. Feminism has made quite a mark.”

Yet she admits the revolution has been “slowish”. For every piece defending a woman’s right to choose to have children, or act like a man without facing censure, hundreds take the opposite tone. Moreover, says Urwin, across much of the media – even the high-minded publications – women have to be “attractive, glamorous and usually young to appear.” Think back to Nigella Lawson’s court appearance: almost as many broadsheet pages were devoted to what she wore as to what she said.

Worse, perhaps, are outlets that claim to be serving women: the Grazias and the Glamours, the glossies, the ‘female’ pages of the middle market papers, the panopoly of gossipy websites. Chief among these is the world’s most popular news site: the Mail Online, which serves women a daily dose of paparazzi shots, disapproving headlines and titillating gossip via its overwhelmingly popular ‘sidebar of shame’.

Never mind Page Three, when coverage targeted at women includes discussions of Suri Cruise’s outfits (she’s not eight yet…), endless musings on weight-gain, and denunciation of female celebrities for having the temerity to enjoy a party, what does that say? ‘Kate Moss looks fresh-faced... as 100-hour birthday 40th party finally comes to an end,’ announced one recent Mail headline, betraying an obsession with youth and looks, coupled with abject horror of a woman willing to defy convention at 40 and still have fun.

It is, declares Neustatter, a degrading branch of journalism obsessed with appearance, sexuality, and addictions, one that focuses entirely “on women as vulnerable, foolish, to be pitied”.

Alice Revel agrees. “It can seem like it’s a vicious cycle of skinny celebrities, Photoshopped images and diet bibles,” she sighs. Revel, whose website runninginheels.co.uk is described as ‘the intelligent magazine for women’, is perturbed by the content of women’s magazines, where it is “style over substance every time”, contrasting this with France and Spain, where similar publications include articles on culture, society and politics.

Indeed, insofar as there is a ‘men’s media’ in the UK, publications like GQ attempt to position themselves as serious cultural commentators. Yet even when women’s magazines do focus on more serious subjects, it’s never the selling point.

And there’s the rub: this supposed tripe is often created by women and – undeniably – popular with plenty of them. “It’s not entirely women wanting something else and not getting it,” says Neustatter. But, as she points out, that doesn’t mean the media must feed the beast. “Is it like sugar; they want it because they’ve been given it, and it’s addictive?”

Like most addictions, it’s not necessarily good for us, not just because of the endless condemnation of women and their choices, but because if we’re constantly told we’re falling short – for being working mothers, for our domestic disasters, or for simply being too fat or frizzy – what hope for our self esteem? Revel argues that readers are pushed into an unhealthy cycle of self-doubt. “We’re told to love our bodies while fashion shoots feature adolescent girls with impossible proportions,” she says. “We end up feeling we could be thinner, richer, more successful, that we should be ‘having it all’. It’s confusing and exhausting.”

So, time for the media to leave behind its addiction to diets and disapproval, boobs and blondes? Arguably, it already is: Urwin points to the female editors at both the Standard and The Independent on Sunday, and cites brilliant and intelligent writing that can increasingly be found in Elle and Marie Claire.

“I see enough of a shift to feel optimistic,” says Neustatter, citing the column inches given to writers like Tanya Gold, Eleanor Mills and Jackie Ashley. “There is more good, thoughtful writing by women about women than in the past, and plenty of male writers are supportive of how women need to be written about.”

Then there’s the rising profile of female commentators like Caitlin Moran, whose musings on modern feminism are lapped up by her fans, or The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, whose book Be Awesome argues that women deserve better from the media. And online, on sites like The Vagenda and Jezebel, there are scores of wannabe Caitlins challenging the notion that women should keep quiet and concentrate on babies.

The web is definitely helping redress the balance, says Revel, pointing out that without traditional advertising concerns, online media tends to have greater editorial independence. Still, it’s no utopia; in the rush to keep the clicks coming, sites resort to traditional tactics. “It’s easier to get lots of hits quickly by using women’s bodies,” explains Amara. “It’s easier to fill space with a photo of a celebrity than dedicate that page to something that takes thought.” And, inevitably, that photo will be of a woman, captioned to celebrate her style or castigate her for looking less than perfect.

And trolling – crude responses in the comment section or on Twitter – is one issue that the women of Fleet Street past did not have to deal with. Death threats; rape threats; derogatory comments about your appearance or lifestyle: social media can be an unhealthy and unforgiving environment.

But, stresses Neustatter, these days it’s not the media endorsing such sexism. “It’s what a democratic society permits. It’s not Lord Rothermere or Rupert Murdoch saying this is a voice we will allow.” Added to which, social media allows women a right of reply like never before, with feminist networks like Everyday Sexism proving very effective.

Urwin would like there to be more mentoring from senior women in the industry, to nurture future female journalists, while other campaigners argue that the media must live up to its responsibilities. “People need to be vocal about wanting the way women are represented to change. Once that happens, it will affect what news outlets publish,” says Amara, although at the time of writing Page Three lives on.

But, as she admits, “more copies of Heat are sold than The Economist”. There is an appetite for softer news, about celebrity break-ups or reality TV tantrums. The key is that this goes for men too – and it really is about time the media woke up to the fact that women can be interested in what men have always been targeted with, and vice versa.

After all, says Neustatter, never mind the boobs: “the joke is that these days male eye candy is considered quite a big deal”.

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