Keeping Sexism At Bay

by Oi Lin Chew

29 May 1997

There are many areas in our society that women do not have respect from men. The mass media portray the female beings either as sexual objects or as people who fight too hard in order to survive in "a man's world." The women's liberation movement in the 1970s has released them from some stereotypes and oppressions. Nevertheless, the media continue Lo shape our society and reinforce certain attitudes that encourage sexism. Today, this bias is still evident in the world of television news, whether consciously or not. The problem will persist because those who engage in such remarks fail to realize its seriousness.

Acknowledging the existence of sexism in the broadcasting field may not eliminate the discrimination but that will certainly bring awareness and consciousness to prevent reoccurrence.

However, it is a massive task for women and same men to undo the things that have been going on in the world of broadcasting. The "big boys" of television news consider women's rights to be rather trivial. Sometimes, they even see no wrong in their perceptions towards women.

At the 1987 Pam Am Fames, for example, millions of people in United States watch U.S. basketball player Jennifer Gillom dribbles the ball across the court. They also get to hear CBS commentator Billy Packer say, "Doesn't Gillom remind you of a lady who someday is going to have a nice large family and is going to be a great cook? Doesn't she look like that?

She's just got a real pleasant face."(1) Although this comment is not directly offensive, it certainly discredits Gillom's ability as a basketball player. If he interviews her in her kitchen while she is cooking, that statement will make more sense. But in this case, it just does not fit the context of the sports program.

Similar incidents have happened to women with social and political influences. Hillary! Clinton and Margaret Thatcher are but a few women who are educated and highly capable in their professions. They subject themselves to be "scrutinized" by the large percentage of men in politics. Moreover, the media also fail to highlight their contributions except to point out their mistakes as a result of trying to play "the boys' games."

Networks having outstanding and famous news anchors do not necessarily represent the absence of sexism. In 1984, the NBC coverage of the Democratic National Convention shows the first woman nominated for national office by a major party. Geraldine Ferraro has that honor to stand in the midst of the cheering crowd and receive a resounding acknowledgment from her supporters. At that point, Tom Brokaw says on the air, "Geraldine Ferraro... The first woman to be nominated for Vice President... Size six!"(2)

Once again, an insensitive comment from a supposedly credible television news anchor that reduces the value of a possible Vice President of the United States who happens to be a woman. Brokaw has trifled with a serious and important event in Ferraro's life by including a remark that has no relevance to her.

These happen probably because "between the lines and between the transmitters is an invisible shrug about the status of women in America."(3) We seem to hear that the problem of sexism is improving; however, we usually do not know how severe the situation lingers, The media can be a tool to correct that but it is highly unlikely because television news companies are "bastions of male supremacy themselves."(4) Therefore, it is inevitable that the media act as fundamental contributors to the problems women face on television and in our society.

In 1989, men held 94 percent of the top management positions in the U.S. news media. Researchers found that female journalists reported only 22.2 percent of the nightly news stories on CBS, 14.4 percent on NBC, and 10.5 percent on ABC at the respective networks.(5) These figures are rather low in comparison to news stories reported by men.

Marlene Sanders, a longtime reporter and producer at ABC and CBS television, offers her opinion about the phenomenon. She believes that women will continue to be present in the field of broadcasting. However, she sees a retardation at the networks from 1981 to 1989. She says, "The move for affirmative action has been played down. The pressure is off the people who hire. The women are there, but at a quarter of staff."(6)

A study in 1988 shows that, indeed, mere is only a small fraction of women holding higher positions. At commercial television stations around America, approximately 18 percent of the news directors are women.(7)

In an interview with Linda Ellerbee, a news reporter since 1975, USA Today reports her frustrations concerning the presence of sexism in the broadcasting networks. She agrees that there are fewer women on air at the networks. She also points out that the situation is worse further up the hierarchy. So why do people watching news fail to detect that something is amiss?

Ellerbee says, "The reason you see us on TV is so you don't notice our absence in the room marked 'executive producer' or CEO' or 'network president'...You get to a certain place where you would reasonably expect that the next executive producer job will be yours...Then you see younger, less qualified men promoted over you."(8)

Besides news reporters, most media commentators are men. Barbara Kellerman observes the fact and comments that "women are by and large still excluded from the select group that constructs our national reality...for a female to play the role of commentator, expert, or analyst that is, to be the resident sage is still disturbingly rare."(9)

All these statistics, studies and opinions simply show the presence of sexism in the broadcasting industry. The distressing truth is the "ignorance" from the male counterparts at the networks thinking that everything at work is normal, even though the employees' sex ratio is approximately 9:1 The reason may be that some men are really unaware of the "mistreatment" and see sexism as natural. Others probably know but insist on riding on the wave that favors them instead of jeopardizing their career opportunities.

Women's unique rights are therefore, shadowed and sometimes misunderstood by the existence of male supremacy in the television networks and their programs. The ongoing congressional debate concerning abortion is one example where men determine a woman's responsibility towards her own body. In 1989, the Supreme Court commissioned state legislatures more liberty to intervene with termination of pregnancy.

However, the problem is that the judicial and legislative branches of government are also predominantly men. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority,feels that Washington observers on television are biased too in their commentaries. She says,'The major national talk shows are white male conservatives...The Washington gangs that you see on Sunday morning are all men essentially..And on a subject like abortion, don't tell me a 55 year-old man feels like a 35year-old woman, I mean it's just impossible."(10)

Media's involvement in the abortion controversy only adds fuel to fire because television, for example, fails to appropriately present the two sides of the argument. Activists and supporters of making abortion~ion legal consider that option pro-choice. That is because women are the bearer of the child and their bodies are their own.

However, some media insist on calling the supporters "pro-abortion[ists]." In an introductory section on ABC's Nightline ,Jeff Greenfield "repeatedly used 'proabortion"(11) to represent the people who deemed it rightful for women to decide on being pregnant or not.

The media's misuse of words conveys sexist attitudes against women and implies to the audience that "supporters of abortion rights fare] trying to maximize the frequency of] also mask the realities of abortion as a last resort."(12)

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, is a woman who has gone through the pains of an abortion. She says, "[4 was forced to confront this decision,l can assure you that it is rare for a woman to want] to have an abortion." She adds: "Our position, and the position of the vast majority of Americans, is pro-choice, not pro-abortion."(13)

In this case, television networks need to rethink and reevaluate their perceptions concerning women in order to have a better overview of the issues that surround them. If not, media framing of issues such as abortion, will bring us to a point where "the fetus is viewed almost as a freestanding individual, while women have all but disappeared."(14)

As mentioned at the beginning, our society sometimes distorts women's image to become "things." The mass media may not be the main culprit but the press, broadcasting networks, and magazines do participate in "dehumanizing" women.

Ann Simonton, the cover model for the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue in 1974, agrees. She says, "The media indoctrinates the masses to view women as consumable products. Women, [then] are much easier to violate and to ham, because they aren't seen as human beings."(15)

Unfortunately, people pay more attention to abuses against animals than to those done to women. The city of Chicago, for instance, has "three times as many shelters for animals as for battered women in 1989; the animal shelters [have] a total budget several times higher too."(16)

Thus, since women are mere objects and lesser than an animal, we consider their abuse cases to be unimportant. Should that be the case? The media seem to think so with continuous portrayal of sex with violence and fall short of clearly addressing the issues such as rape and domestic violence.

In 1989, there was an extremely brutal gang rape of a woman jogging in New York Central Park. Although it was highly publicized, the media rarely discuss problems like that. Even when six male panelists appeared on ABC's This Week With David Brinkley to discuss the rape at Central Park, it is "just another instance of how male voices dominate the media, defining what the 'issues' are, and are not."(17)

According to FBl's national statistics, there is one police report of coercive rape in every six minutes, and one in ten women will be raped during her lifetime, Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Brooklyn district attorney, describes rape as "an act of violence, degradation and control..Society should stop identifying sex with violence and with degradation of women, and that includes images on [TV] and in the other media."(18)

Violent crimes such as rape, are usually unseen, unheard and underreported, There are times when authorities and media confront them. But most of the time, they are "written off as the product of a sick mind, unconnected to the cultural attitudes that go unchallenged and routinely fueled by the dominant media."(19)

Lee and Solomon criticize that the media usually report rape figures "fatalistically - as if rape was a natural occurrence."(20) When a woman charged Senator Brock Adams for sexually assaulting her, U.S. News & World Report reported: "The senator is not the first politician accused of hanky-panky." According to the two authors, it is unacceptable for the media to equate sexual assault as "hanky-panky" because that will only perpetuate the society's inability to recognize rape as a serious threat to women.

The news media need to thoughtfully report rape for what it is - - a crisis in the U.S, and an iniquitous and brutal crime. Until that happens, society will fail to consider it that way and the "dominant public messages about rape will lonlyl imply acceptance.(21)

The impact of mass media is great on the American Society. It does more harm than one realizes when sexism against women continues to linger in the media industry, such as television networks. TV is capable of influencing people's actions. If not, major corporations will not spend billions of dollars to buy the networks' shares and advertisers will not pay thousands for a commercial spot on prime time. Hopefully, media can find a way to revert from prejudiced views in order to establish a more balanced importance between the two sexes in America.

(1)Packer, Billy, Ms. magazine, "You Call This Adorable?", October 1988.

(2)Lee, Martin A. & Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources, pp. 229, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990.

(3)As above.

(4)As above.

(5)University of Missouri and Washington-based Communications Consortium, Studies of Figures on Women Within the Journalism Profession . 1989.

(6)Lee, Martin A. & Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources, pp. 229, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990.

(7)Stone, Vernon A.. Communicator ."The Percentage or Female TV News Directors:' August 1989.

(8)Lee, Martin A. & Solomon. Norman, Unreliable Sources. pp 230. Carol Publishing Group. New York 1990

(9)Kellerman, Barbara, Dean of Graduate Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Christian Science Monitor. op-ed page. 20 July 1988.

(10)Lee. Martin A & Solomon. Norman. Unreliable Sources. pp 230, Carol Publishing Group, New York. 1990

(11)Greenfield, Jeff, Nightline. 3rd July 1989.

(12)Lee, Martin A. & Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources, pp. 231. Carol Publishing Group. New York, 1990.

(13)As above.

(14)Ehrenreich, Barbara, New York Times, op-ed page. 28 April 1989.

(15)Lee, Manin A. & Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources, pp. 233, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990.

(16)Page, Clarence, Chicago Tribune, "Chicago Shelters Figure: 14 December 1988

(17)Lee, Martin A. & Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources . pp. 214. Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990

(18)Holtzman. Elizabeth, New York Times, op-ed page. 5 May 1989

(19)Lee, Manin A & Solomon, Norman, (Unreliable Sources. pp 214, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990

(20)Lee, Manin A & Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources.pp 214, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990

(21)Lee, Manin A .& Solomon, Norman, Unreliable Sources, pp. 215, Carol Publishing Group, New York, 1990.


Editor: Jim Upshaw