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November 3, 2011Girls ages 8 to 18 are exposed to about eight hours of media per day. What are these girls reading and watching? As Catalyst’s Senior Associate Librarian Cheryl Yanek explains, when it comes to news coverage of women, superficiality reigns supreme. This devalues women and our accomplishments. —Ilene H. Lang

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Women are more than their dresses—but you wouldn’t know this by the way women are covered in mainstream press.

The second paragraph of a recent New Yorker profile of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson dug straight into the superficial: “Abramson, who is fifty-seven, wore a white dress and a black cardigan with white flowers and red trim. Her usually pale complexion glowed from summer sun, but there were deep, dark lines under her eyes.”

You get the idea.

Time and time again, newspapers and magazines start with the details of a woman’s outfit, her hair, and her physical appearance. When women are valued only for their looks—not their contributions—it reinforces stereotypes. And when stereotypes are reinforced, it’s harder for women to move past barriers in the workplace and across society.

Examples of superficial coverage of women cut across industries, professions and even continents.

A recent article focusing on the lack of women in America’s corporate suites announced, “Bad Hair Day for Girls at the Top.” A stock photo used in an article about new mandatory quotas for women in leadership in Germany featured only women’s legs and black high heels. Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is a “definite fashionista” and “a rare combination of beauty and brains” according to the Hindustan Times. And don’t get me started on the skewed coverage of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign—or current coverage of Michele Bachmann’s French manicures!

An emphasis on style over substance is nothing new. In the 1920s, Kentucky Democrat Katherine Langley was accused of interfering with House business by a Capitol Hill reporter—due to her flashy attire. In the 1960s, Illinois Republican Charlotte Reid made headlines not for her speech in support of the ERA, but for her black wool bell-bottoms. Even Nellie Davis Taylor Ross, the first woman governor, observed, “Writers describe my appearance from the cast of my features to the shape of my foot.”

Stated simply, men are described by their actions and potential, while women by their appearance. Our media should reflect the reality of smart, powerful women and in the process, give girls positive, inspiring role models. Fortunately, we have a voice that can help shift the coverage.

If you see something sexist, don’t simply change the channel or flip the page—do something about it:

- Fight back with your pen. Write a letter to the editor or to the director of a news station, carefully explaining why you won’t support them with your readership or viewership. The Girls, Women + Media Project offers great tips on how to write an effective letter.

- Educate yourself through workshops and resources by the Women in Media and News.

- Familiarize yourself with research from Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. For instance, did you know that women are almost four times as likely as men to be shown in sexy attire in family entertainment?

Take a stand against news coverage that devalues women and their accomplishments. Women are a lot more than what we wear.

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Cheryl Yanek, Senior Associate Librarian, leads the Catalyst Global Issue Specialty Team and the Twitter Team. She has an MLS in Library and Information Science from Queens College and an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University. Cheryl is a sponsored athlete on Team Odwalla for her ultramarathon running.