The Tipping Point?

Why is mainstream media so obsessed with giving every issue and topic its own special catch phrase and graphic?

Apropos of nothing: Why is mainstream media so obsessed with giving every issue and topic its own special catch phrase and graphic?

Tina Brown’s newest project, the news blog The Daily Beast, today published the findings of a poll they conducted post-election looking at a broad array of issues pertaining to attitudes and opinions about women, politics, and the media. The poll, conducted with a group of 1000 men and women voters from across the political spectrum, reflects a lot of interesting disparities between the attitudes and beliefs of women and men as well as between younger and older women about whether and to what extent women face unequal treatment, particularly in the media. It also explored attitudes about women in power and their abilities to provide effective leadership, compared to men.

The official report of the findings, entitled  The Barrier That Didn’t Fall , does not break down the results along gender or other demographic lines, which is unfortunate because many of the most interesting findings have to do with the gaps that appear to exist between men’s and women’s perceptions of these issues. Fortunately, The Daily Beast included some of these results in their write-up of the poll results.

The study found that the women polled overwhelmingly felt that women receive unfair treatment by the media as well as in politics, in the workplace and in the armed forces. In fact, 61% of women agreed with the idea that there is a gender bias in the media, compared to only 19% who did not and fully 72% agreed that women were being treated unfairly in politics. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama were all considered role models by the women in the survey and a whopping 85% agreed that a female President would bring valuable qualities to the office that most male candidates lack, rejecting the notion of women as too weak to effectively govern. Finally, 70% of women contended that candidates’ physical appearances and attributes are not a legitimate topic of discussion.

Several interesting facts complicate these numbers. First of all, older women seemed to feel more strongly about gender disparities and media treatment of women, including women in politics, than did younger women. This is not a huge surprise to me, though I continue to find it frustrating and at least somewhat counterintuitive. While I was at NOW last year, I had many discussions with people about the generational divisions within the feminist movement, and even witnessed the phenomenon firsthand, to a limited extent. I think  a lot of second-wave feminists still tend to understand women’s activism through the lens of the movement as it was in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and feel in some sense that the younger generation of feminists, my generation, take for granted many of the things for which they worked so hard. Meanwhile, younger feminists sometimes look at these older guard of feminists as out of touch with the current realities and issues emerging and reshaping the movement and the new avenues through which activism in the 21st century often occurs. I think part of the issue has to do with this changing face of activism– what it means to be an activist, how one asserts their views and opinions in a constructive way and how a social movement enacts change most effectively. So, while I think there is some element of apathy in many young people today (as there is, I think, with every generation), which is reflected in this survey and should certainly be actively worked on and counteracted, it seems to me that it’s often greatly over-emphasized or misunderstood. I think there is some amount of mutual generational misunderstanding that manifests itself in feminist activism and ends up being a divisional and counterproductive force within the movement.

Speaking of feminist activism, perhaps the most shocking (to me) statistic the poll results presented, though it probably shouldn’t have been, was the fact that only 20% of women surveyed would describe themselves as feminists. Even more shocking, only 17% would want a daughter to consider herself a feminist. Wow. I don’t really understand what it is about that little word that scares people in this country so intensely, but it does. Pat Robertson said at the 1992 Republican Convention, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” and this archetype seems to be so deeply ingrained that even women whose lives exemplify the ideals of feminism often resist the label. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a woman say “I believe in women’s equality, but I’m not a feminist.”

Another disturbing set of findings of the poll were the disparities between men’s and women’s attitudes toward these issues. The men in the survey rejected the notion that a media bias against women existed, though they agreed that gender biases do exist in the realms of politics and the workplace. 40% of the men surveyed openly admitted to feeling sexist attitudes toward the idea of a woman President with about the same percentage contending that a male is “naturally more suited” to carrying out the duties of the highest office. There was also some disparity between women’s and men’s perceptions of equality in the home. While there was a more or less even split among women on whether they thought women in the US were treated equally in the home, the men surveyed contended by a 2/1 margin that no gender inequality existed in the home.

This poll presents so much raw data, it’s a little difficult to draw a single cohesive conclusion from it. But I agree with The Daily Beast’s analysis that the overwhelmingly negative and frustrated attitudes of the women in the survey towards the treatment of women in the media and politics as well as in the workplace, the military, and to some extent even in the home, suggests the potential for a revitalization of the women’s equality movement. I felt that kind of energy building tremendously during Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in a way I’ve never before felt so manifestly in my lifetime and while there were some that felt disillusioned by her loss of the nomination, I don’t think that energy I felt just vanished with Clinton’s capitulation. I don’t think it will by any means be a quick or straightforward process to give widespread, cohesive form to the broad frustrations expressed by the women in this survey, or to channel these feelings into constructive action, but I do believe that now is a crucial moment to try to do so. To put it in the most trite way possible, organizations and movements of reform and change need to strike while the iron is hot, while the treatment of Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin is still fresh in people’s minds and while these issues still have people fired up and ready for change.

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About Katie Heimer

I'm a graduate student of media studies at the New School. My main academic interests in the field center around issues of women in the media (both in terms of representations of and access to) and the overlapping issues of media reform and education. This website will serve as a chronicle of my progress and growth, both intellectually and personally, as I navigate my master's of media studies.
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