The twinned story of journalism and feminism

Article by Kathy Kenny
January 23, 2016 /
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Betty Friedan. Gloria Steinem. Germaine Greer. Anne Summers. Naomi Wolf. Susan Faludi. What do these women all have in common – apart from writing some of the key texts of 20th century feminism, that is? They were all, of course, at one time or another journalists.

There’s a bitter-sweet irony to the drama that has ensnared Samantha Maiden (called a “mad F#@*ing witch” by a government minister Peter Dutton), Mel McLaughlin (propositioned on air by cricketer Chris Gayle) and, now, the Chanel 7 reporter Monika Radulovic – hugged by her male colleague Hamish McLachlan on her first day on air, of all things. It’s largely thanks to the writings and analysis of these women’s professional sisters that we can now so swiftly call these men and their behaviour to account.

Friedan was writing for women’s magazines when she noticed something wasn’t right with women in the middle class suburbs of America: she couldn’t get her investigation published by a magazine, but her work famously became The Feminist Mystique. Steinem donned a Playboy bunny outfit for an undercover investigation for Show magazine before making her name as a leader, along with Friedan, of second wave feminism. When Greer published The Female Eunuch she was already writing columns for the radical magazine Oz, and she was founding, and stripping for, the underground magazine Suck. Media-savvy Wolf has worked as a columnist, journalist and as a media advisor to Al Gore’s fated presidential campaign, all while churning out always provocative books, from The Beauty Myth to a biography of the vagina. Summers, of course, published the epic Damned Whores and God’s Police, and then later took on arguably the top job in feminist publishing: editor of Ms. Magazine. Faludi was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal writer before she wrote the influential 1992 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

Feminism owes a great debt to these women – and many others, including Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a journalist of her time and author too. These are women who’ve straddled feminism and the world of activism, academia and the media.

Look closely at their work – particularly The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth and Backlash – and you’ll notice it is this last world, along with the world of advertising, that they’ve identified as so much a part of the problem. And if you just scoured Hollywood or popular TV for representations of female journalists, you wouldn’t know these great writers and thinkers ever existed. The popular image of a journalist (as Hadley Freeman has already noted) includes women using their job to find a man: think Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, or Sex and the City’s dating columnist Carrie Bradshaw, or Drew Barrymore’s undercover reporter who goes back to school and finds romance (Back to School), or Kate Hudson’s magazine writer in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Then there’s the reporters who are incredibly both incompetent and lovelorn: think Renée Zellweger’s eponymous turn in Bridget Jones’s Diary. At the other extreme, we see female reporters swapping sex for leaks and using their bodies to get information: see House of Cards (the young reporter who tries this dies, the older one is banished to the boring academy – nice). In an episode of the British TV show Black Mirror, a female reporter dashes into a toilet cubicle in the middle of a working day to sext a nude pic to her source in the PM’s office.

In between the choice of being a feminist icon, or a reporter more intent on getting the man, not the story, or a vixen who just can’t keep her clothes on, most female journalists in real life try to find a middle ground and the quiet life where they can just get on with their job. A space where they don’t make an issue of the sexism they confront, nor where they try to use their own gender or sexuality to personal advantage.

In recent days many have argued the fact that the three journalists at the centre of the most recent affairs have all attempted to shake off their incidents as just banter, as not worth getting worked up about, is evidence that the incidents don’t matter. Rather, I’d say it’s simply evidence that, for most female reporters, drawing attention to sexism is to be avoided because it would mean turning into the kind of reporter who, like Steinem or Friedan, is only able to talk about sexism and feminism forever after. And not everyone wants to be remembered as a feminist icon.

Chris Gayle should be condemned for his actions – and so should Hamish McLachlan (although I’m keeping an open mind that this more recent incident was a creepy and cynical set-up, as Lauren Rosewarne suggests). But much more importantly, we should also condemn a system which values men for what they do and what they know, and women for not just what they know and what they can do professionally, but also for how they look. But a reporter such as Mel McLaughlin can’t feasibly continue to do her job while simultaneously launching into a total critique of the system she works within. Few manage to consistently launch a running commentary on sexism whilst continuing to report and write on other topics. Annabel Crabb is perhaps a notable exception, in part because her wit, charm and intelligence is also exceptional (incidentally, Crabb’s 2014 book The Wife Drought deserves a place alongside the books mentioned at the beginning).

For female journalists to report on and expose sexism invariably means being willing to put their own lives and bodies on the line, to turn themselves into the story: to make a point of the very thing we are asking men not to make a point of. The roll call of writers and journalists at the beginning of this piece came to prominence by doing what reporters are taught not to do, but which feminism has taught women to do: to investigate their own lives, to expose and put their own bodies through public experiments. To make the personal political. A recent article in the New Republic noted a trend for aspiring young female journalists and writers to make a name for themselves by documenting their lives – turning their personal battles with food, rape, sexuality and love into the story, keenly serving themselves up to a media hungry for confession and intimate exposure. I don’t think that’s necessarily what earlier feminists had in mind. And not every woman wants to go to work and wage a war against sexism every day or talk about herself all the time. Nor should we have to.