November 28, 2009
Filed under News
Walking by a newsstand is an interesting experiment in observing how the media reinforces gender stereotypes. Most women’s magazines are about beauty, cooking and entertainment. They’re packed with ads for products that are supposed to improve your appearance: makeup, hair products, clothing and endless weight loss gimmicks.
Men’s magazines are more likely to address subjects such as money, business, luxury items and politics. Ads geared toward men push for the improvement of status over image-high-tech gadgets, credit cards, fast cars and investments.
Gender stereotyping is so common in the media, we most often take it for granted. When it comes to magazines, we all know the formula, regardless of whether we realize it.
We don’t expect to find political stories in US Weekly. And we’d be surprised to find makeup or Dexatrim ads in The Economist.
The recent Newsweek article on Sarah Palin titled “Palin’s Base Appeal” has ignited a firestorm about gender bias. The front cover depicts Palin in a tight-fitting red sports top and black running shorts. Her left knee is slightly bent, with her right hand on her hip. The headline reads “HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE SARAH?”-an assumed reference to the Sound of Music song “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” which is about a young lady who is being chastised for acting like a child.
On the contents page, there’s another unfortunate, full-page image-a close-up of Palin’s legs on the right side (her calves and heels, giving the impression the photographer is looking up her skirt) with two awestruck adolescent men on the left side wearing pink McCain/Palin T-shirts.
While this was clearly an opinion piece, the use of overtly sexual images of Palin throughout the issue are inexplicable and inexcusable. There are plenty of legitimate concerns and criticisms of Palin’s political record. But Newsweek instead objectified its subject, and in the process overshadowed any legitimate points it may have had to make.
On the last page of the Palin article, there’s another out-of-context, inappropriate image-surrounded by paragraphs discussing Palin’s core constituency and her faith-of a Barbie-type Palin doll. This doll is dressed as a schoolgirl, complete with a plaid mini skirt and a red bra, which peeks out the top of a white shirt. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham responded to criticism of the cover image with the explanation, “We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do. … We apply the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female: Does the image convey what we are saying? That is a gender-neutral standard.”
The decision to run these images was irresponsible at best and a shameless attempt to boost sales at worst. The misguided focus on Palin’s sex appeal is an example of one of the red herrings that the mainstream media uses regarding women in politics.
About the Newsweek cover, Jennifer Pozner, media critic, lecturer and founder and executive director of Women In Media & News, said, “The ugly, nonpartisan truth is that corporate media have always seen women in power as threatening. That’s why they trivialize women who dare seek office by obsessing over their bodies, hair, shoes, makeup and motherhood–as if these have anything to do with their abilities and track records. … We’ll never know how many talented people were dissuaded from politics because they knew it would be significantly harder for them to run, win and govern.”
Pozner brings up an excellent point regarding the consequences of these gender stereotypes surrounding politics in the media. We can’t possibly know how many women have been or will be dissuaded from pursuing a career in politics because they’re afraid they’ll be subjected to unfair treatment. It’s worth noting that only 17 percent of congressional representatives are women, despite the fact that they make up 51 percent of the nation’s population.
In journalism, our goal is to strive for objectivity and fairness. Newsweek’s decision to run sexualized images of Palin overshadowed any of the legitimate points made in the article. By attempting to discredit Palin with these images, it has backfired by compromising Newsweek’s own integrity as a news organization.
The gender stereotypes entrenched in media and politics are nothing new. And sexist, objectifying images are rampant in advertising. The cycle of reinforcement for these stereotypes must be stopped (or significantly altered) if we hope to encourage women to take part in politics.
Journalists should strive to be fair and ethical above all else. An opinion piece should not be an excuse to degrade or dehumanize someone because of their gender, just as it would be unacceptable to do so because of their race. The weight of our work is not to be understated. The pieces we write, and the images that accompany them, are shaping future generations’ perceptions of possibilities. Choosing words and images that best reflect a fair opportunity for all is a responsibility, not a right.