Funny thing about reporting and editorial decisionmaking: the goal is to sell ad space. And what sells ad space? Stories about how feminism is failing women. Not so much, I think, because advertisers want to support a retrograde 50s fantasy of America, but because trying to stuff the little ladies back in the kitchen causes a sensation: the Guys Like Us, We Had It Made crowd loves to wave those stories around like a bloody shirt, saying, ah-HAH! Proof, PROOF that men are naturally meant to be on top and women were meant to serve! Whereas, the You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby crowd tends to take umbrage at the effort by the dominant culture to hold us back, and picks apart the story until it’s exposed for the crap it is.
And all the while, page views go up, newspapers fly off the shelves, people talk about the influence of your magazine, and both ad rates and ad buys go up.
Take, for instance, much of the content of the Style section in the New York Times and its support apparatus on the op-ed page, which has pushed everything from the ill-supported idea that women are “opting out” of careers early on and in droves; that pole-dancing parties are the new Tupperware parties; that Mommy is making you a slut; treat women like cyborgs while men are real people; laugh off emotional abuse as “cute”. And do we even want to start thinking about some of the stuff they run in the “Modern Love” column?
But one of the areas where this kind of thing can be rather blatant is in science and health reporting. Take, for instance, the recent scare-mongering about a study which may or may not have concluded that equality was harmful to women’s health. If that’s all you had ever heard about the issue — and it’s likely it was — you might think that the study actually had some merit. Certainly, the right-wing media seized on it, and loudmouths like Rush Limbaugh waved the bloody shirt.
Echidne, however, has heard more about the issue. Including earlier studies with better methodology that arrived at the opposite conclusion — yet somehow never got the kind of publicity that the Feminism Is Bad For You! Back To The Kitchen! study got:
Do you remember the big fuss the media made over the 1999 study by Kawachi and others which found that greater gender equality appeared to be correlated with better health for both sexes in the United States? How about the even bigger media fuss caused by the 2005 study by Chen and others which found that gender equality appeared to be correlated with better mental health for women? And surely you remember the excitement in the media last year when we all learned about the Swedish study which showed that both men and women have better health when roles are shared more equally at home?
You don’t recall? Neither do I, because there was no such fuss at all. Studies with those findings are not mentioned in the popular media at all or only fleetingly. But when a Swedish study in 2007 suggests that greater gender equality leads to less health for both sexes, what happens? You guessed it. The media is on the study right away:
Warning: feminism is bad for your health
By Roger Dobson
Published: 25 March 2007
Since before Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch in 1970, and even before Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, campaigners have fought for sexual equality, convinced it is the key to a better society. Now researchers have discovered that gender equality may make people unwell.
It is most interesting, is it not? Consider this: Hundreds of studies are published each month in the social science literature, and only a very few of these are ever publicized extensively. How do those lucky studies get picked? Some of them are obviously important in their findings, but many are selected because they might sell more newspapers or get more television watchers glued to their sets. And I’m beginning to suspect (heh) that there is an ideological point to deciding which studies are to be given more advertising. It will not be studies which suggest that feminism is a good thing.
This has two important consequences. The first one is that the general audience obtains a biased understanding of what the studies show in general. The second one is that people like me have to spend an awful lot of time criticizing and analyzing the mispopularization of studies. It doesn’t matter how well I do that, because it LOOKS like all the studies out there are proving points for the anti-feminist side. What is urgently needed is some sort of a way of getting a more representative sample of studies into the popular debate. But this is not something the anti-feminists want to do.
Sigh. I am bitter, bitter.
Things weren’t always like this. Feminism gained astonishing ground in the 70s, until Phillys Schlafly got so offended that other women might be guaranteed the kinds of advantages she enjoyed that she put a stake through the heart of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been overwhelmingly popular. And then the backlash started, and part of that was the rise of right-wing talk radio, which tapped into the lizard brain of the country. And after a while, editors figured out that anti-feminist stories got publicity. But not *too* anti-feminist, please — the trick is to stir up controversy without being so radical that the advertisers get turned off.
Perhaps, soon, newspapers and magazines will figure out that positive stories about feminism also get talked about, also create buzz, and also can sell ad space. Some advertisers may drop out, but others will take their place.
- Kos Gets Real by Lauren June 6, 2005
- WAATFPB? by Lauren February 21, 2005
- So, What Were You Planning on Doing in the DR With That Viagra, Rush? by zuzu June 27, 2006
- “Science” Confirms: I’m Female by zuzu December 28, 2006