The questions journalists ask

Feminism took up many more inches of print in women's magazines last year. But, asks Hannah Mudge, did the media coverage accurately represent the movement?

Hannah Mudge, 4 May 2011

In the summer of 2010, I attended a feminist conference in London. It was a positive and informative experience, but one that was marred slightly by an encounter I had with a journalist and the questions she asked me.

The encounter made me take a step back and think about the portrayal of feminism by women's magazines in recent months.

A woman in attendance had identified herself as a journalist and told us that she'd love to talk to any delegates who were interested in contributing ideas to a feature she was writing for a women's magazine. As a feminist blogger who used to be a journalist, the representation of women and feminism in the media is something that fascinates me, so I decided to go over and chat.

She asked me a series of questions about what it means to be a feminist today - and I came away slightly irritated by the direction the conversation had taken.

In the past year, we've seen many of the biggest mainstream women's magazines cover feminism in a way that previously would have been unthinkable. In part this is probably down to the fact that 2010 also saw the publication of a number of books on feminism, which have been the starting point for many a debate though newspaper columns and blog posts.

It's good if journalists are committed to doing away with these tired old stereotypes which we're all completely sick of hearing, but the media focus in the past couple of years has tended to portray feminism in terms of makeup and fashion, boyfriends and shoes

We've had Natasha Walter's Living Dolls, Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender, Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion and Reclaming the F Word by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune. As the papers have claimed that feminism is back - as if it ever went away - it's been wonderful to see magazines like Elle, Stylist and Company talking about feminism today and even interviewing some of the movement's more well-known names and faces.

With each feature published there has been celebration from feminists who are quite rightly pleased to see the women's movement getting positive publicity in publications read exclusively by women. Alongside the celebration, however, there has been concern that this coverage of feminism hasn't touched on major issues so much as trivialised the aims of the movement.

Something noticed by many has been the focus on portraying feminism as something that has come back into fashion, something that it's now cool to show an interest in. While references to bra burning and dungarees have been made, they've often been identified as something those weird, somewhat-amusing older feminists did - that have nothing to do with today's feminist activists who are supposedly much trendier, much more relevant and much more socially acceptable.

Lipstick.jpgMany magazines have focused on what percentage of young women call themselves feminists, with the implication that once they've read how cool it is these days, they'll be happier to give themselves the label.

It's good if journalists are committed to doing away with these tired old stereotypes which we're all completely sick of hearing, but the media focus in the past couple of years has tended to portray feminism in terms of makeup and fashion, boyfriends and shoes.

The message has been simple: today's glossy-reading woman should have no shame in admitting she's a feminist because feminism is now 'on-trend'. They're saying that sisterhood these days doesn't have to be about not shaving or hating men because it's totally okay to be a feminist and wear lipstick and heels. It's totally okay to be a feminist and want to look conventionally attractive or wear lots of pink. You can make your feminism about baking and shoes and that's just fine.

It is positive that stereotypes about what it means to call oneself a feminist are being broken down. Restricting the movement to academia, or women from from just one section of society is exclusive, plays into the criticism of feminism including and appealing only to middle-class, white, university-educated women and helps no-one. Unfortunately, when this new approach means that articles focus on little more than what lifestyle choices we can make, this can trivialise the movement's aims rather than promote them. Feminism isn't simply the trendy opinion du jour, it's a diverse and extremely wide-ranging movement which fights against myriad inequalities and means so much more to so many women than whether or not it's okay for them to wear lipstick.

By declaring that feminism is back, it's implied that it somehow went away a decade or so ago and is only just surfacing again. Of course this couldn't be further from the truth. The media may have spent the 2000s declaring that "feminism is dead" but as we all know, so much has been happening. It's just been ignored and mocked by the mainstream press and openly derided by lad's mags and comedians. Going through my own feminist awakening some years ago, the wealth of websites and blogs I found which helped me learn about and understand feminist issues were invaluable. And they were most certainly around before 2010.

Were we, as a group of women, giving off some sort of air of exclusivity which had made her feel genuinely left out? Or did this woman simply want me to admit whether or not we're in the business of separating women's choices into 'feminist' and 'unfeminist' categories?

Just recently a scan from a 2003 edition of Maxim magazine has been doing the rounds online. It's a step-by-step guide on "How to cure a feminist" and "turn her into an actual girl". This just about sums up the sort of coverage feminism received last decade and the way it was seen by many mainstream publications.

But although lads' mags may not wield the power they once did (Maxim itself is no longer in print and confined to an online edition while the falling sales of similar titles are a much-discussed phenomenon) they're still reinforcing incredibly problematic and offensive attitudes - as last year's controversy over Danny Dyer's column in Zoo magazine has shown.

These days the fightback against misogyny is more visible to the media - due to Twitter, to the greater popularity of blogs and feminist-themed news sites and due to the debates which rage "below the line" on sites like The Guardian's Comment is Free. Feminism is more difficult for women's magazines to avoid because they see it being discussed much more than in the past, particularly as it relates to major news stories.

Unfortunately, one noticeable trend in this media focus on feminism has been the efforts of some journalists to encourage well-known women to define what is and what isn't acceptable from a feminist point of view. This was a major sticking point when I was asked questions by the journalist last summer - her main aim seemed to be to find out whether you can wear makeup or be a stay-at-home mother while remaining feminist. I felt she wanted more from me than a simple "yes, of course" and I was proved right when she said that she'd got the impression, from being at the conference that day, that as a woman who liked fashion and going to the gym there "wasn't a place for her" in the movement.

What a feminist looks like.jpgI was intrigued and I wondered why she felt that way. The delegates there were certainly a pretty diverse bunch of women and there had been no discussion of femininity and appearance as it directly related to us. So were we, as a group of women, giving off some sort of air of exclusivity which had made her feel genuinely left out? Or did this woman simply want me to admit whether or not we're in the business of separating women's choices into "feminist" and "unfeminist" categories?

I know I'm not the only one who's had this experience.

Catherine Redfern has been interviewed by a number of journalists in the last year - for publicity surrounding her book and for magazine features. She's happy that mainstream women's magazines are talking about feminism, giving publicity to groups and websites - and feels that it's a great entry point for women who might not know much about the movement. On the other hand she worries that the focus on feminism may just have been a flash in the pan, brought on by the books published this year and that most of the articles focused too heavily on portraying today's feminist activists as attractive and conventionally feminine.

It would be great to see women's magazines illustrate their feminism features with something other than a graphic of a burning bra

"Loads of the women's mags have done articles about feminism in general terms; what they need to do next is more articles on feminist issues with feminist activists and writers being invited to comment," she says.

On the sort of topics covered in 2010's features, she says: "The questions are very similar aren't they? 'Can you do X and be a feminist? Can you do Y and be a feminist?' There is obviously a sticking point for mainstream representations of feminism, which is all about whether a woman is 'allowed' to call herself a feminist or whether certain actions or choices can be labelled 'feminist'."

Offering some ideas as to why this might be the case, she adds: "I think it's partly to do with the mainstream media's desire for everything to be simple; there seems to be no space for complex discussions. It's also very influenced by not wanting to do anything which might question capitalism; such as reassuring readers that they can still be consumerist around fashion and beauty products and be feminists."

Catherine also feels it's important not to blame the famous feminists interviewed by these magazines for the way the features turn out. Magazines want specific quotes. They might edit what has been said and they might take comments out of context. And almost always, their questions will set interviewees up to make judgemental comments about other women.

"I do worry that by answering [this type of question] it seems as though I'm contributing to the idea that that's what feminism is about, and that we're not bothered about serious, structural, global issues," she says.

"Unfortunately they - the editors and journalists - are setting the agenda, not us."

It's interesting that, even when representing a movement defined by words like 'sisterhood', the primary objective of some media outlets seems to be to get feminists to criticise other women rather than focusing on the good work they're doing and the reasons they're doing it. It's no different to the attitude of the tabloids - which constantly pit female celebrities against each other in often-imaginary 'catfights' over clothes, men and status. It would be naïve to pretend that we all have to get on and that we shouldn't take issue with things other women do, but it's also important that feminists repudiate the dominant stereotype of women as nasty, bitchy and notoriously unsupportive of each other. Women's magazines should seek to do the same.

But I'm also very aware that women's magazines are very much bound by their duty to their advertisers, their overall content and their target demographic - heteronormativity and all. I do, however think they underestimate their readers with the way these features are written and presented. It would be great to see them illustrated with pictures other than a graphic of a burning bra. It would be great to see a bit less of the standard patronising spiel about boyfriends with the implication that getting - and keeping - a man should still be a reader's most important priority - even when fighting gender inequality. But somehow I can't see a move towards a more complex analysis of the feminist movement coming any time soon.

So how did the magazines fare in their coverage? Opinions on the articles themselves were mixed, although one particular aspect of Company magazine's coverage caused particular outrage and dismay. The feature - which opened by talking about bra burning - was accompanied by a quiz, also featured on the magazine's website and based on Ellie Levenson's controversial 2009 book The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, which invited readers to choose answers to determine "what kind of feminist" they were.

Feminism is for lovers.jpgThe quiz was eventually removed from the Company website following a very vocal backlash on Twitter, but Ellie Levenson reposted it on her blog (after discussing the backlash at length and accusing her critics of "sour grapes"). It relied heavily on dated stereotypes and questions centred on issues such as whether you would pay for a meal while out with your boyfriend. Silly as it was, it was again disappointing that a magazine was wheeling out such a bunch of clichés, especially given the fact that the stereotypically 'feminist' answers painted the woman in question as an angry, irrational man-hater and any connection between feminism and politics, or indeed issues happening in the wider world - was completely ignored.

Stylist's feature, which even had the magazine's cover that week, came off much better with its informative opening, although it didn't exactly win much approval for its tactic of asking advertising agencies how they would "rebrand" feminism for the 21st century. TBWA London said: "Our ambition was to position the movement as 'less grrr, more purrr'." Beattie McGuinness Bungay decided that they wanted to associate feminism with fashion and make it "sexy".

And while the magazine interviewed four genuinely inspirational young feminists, they were asked the same predictable questions:

  • Is Katie Price a feminist?
  • Is Samantha Jones a feminist?
  • Is fashion anti-feminist?
  • Is it okay to be a stay at home mum?

References to Lady Gaga and Samantha Cameron: check. Very little in the way of substance: check.

The feature finished with the wise words that such issues are "highly relevant" and that feminism today "is about choice". Now the problem with all this is that it's all very well trying to make feminism "fun" and "sexy" and constantly making it about celebrities and fashion choices, but the most of the wider issues feminists are involved with are, let's face it, neither fun nor sexy. They're often difficult to talk about and upsetting. They're shocking; they involve violence and poverty and hatred and things that can never be referred to as fun.

If these sort of features encourage women who maybe didn't know much about feminism before to go and find out more about it then that's wonderful. But proclaiming that feminism is about fun and choices, sadly, doesn't really cover it. Skirting round the more unpleasant issues isn't going to achieve anything.

The way feminist issues are covered this year will prove whether or not gender equality was just a flash in the pan for the media in 2010

One interesting and, I felt, more productive approach came from Elle, which surveyed readers about their opinions on discrimination and sexism today. Of those interviewed, 75% said they had faced sex discrimination and the feature talked about workplace sexism, differences in pay, rape, pornography, misogyny in films and the abuse that women bloggers face online. This piece was one of a number of articles focused on feminism that the magazine ran in 2010 and it was good to see that the topic is obviously more than a one-off as far as Elle staff are concerned.

So have we seen a turning point in the way the media covers feminism? In some ways yes, in others no. 2010 saw feminist publications, organisations and activists making headlines in a way we hadn't seen for some years - and it was fantastic to see the discussion and debates they sparked. Just last month we celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day and I was pleased to see plenty of coverage and campaigns which got people talking.

But it's not all celebration. We're facing so many issues both at home and abroad which need more widespread attention. The coalition government's cuts have had a huge impact on women and services which help them. There may not be as many feminist books on the horizon but the issues are still here are we're still angry - take the Sky Sports sexism row, David Willetts' recent attack on feminism, or the case of Julian Assange.

Undoubtedly, the other issues currently dominating the news are important and extremely serious. But the way feminist issues are covered this year will prove whether or not gender equality was just a flash in the pan for the media in 2010, or whether the issues they touched on last year still matter this year, even when they might not be 'bang on trend'.

It would be fantastic to see magazines regularly offering discussion of gender equality issues to a mainstream audience in a positive way. This may come across as decidedly hypocritical when featured alongside articles full of crash diet tips and analysis of celebrities' bodies but the capacity women's magazines have to create empathy and relate to their readership means that focusing on feminism as a positive force could bring great things, raise awareness and build support.

Many people today either feel that the need for feminism is long gone or that it's an extremist view that they're uncomfortable with. The sort of campaigns and activism we're involved in are often something they feel is not for them. But feminist issues affect all of us. They make a difference in women's lives. Maybe this should be the year that women's magazines make an effort to show that feminism really is for everyone - doing away with the silly stereotypes and quizzes and trying to make a difference.

Picture of lipsticks against a flowery background taken by Flickr user Eun Byeol. Picture of "This is what a feminist looks like" graffiti (slogan on a drawn t-shirt with a pink background) taken by Flickr user mbf2012. Picture of "Feminism is for lovers" poster taken by Flickr user the justified sinner.

Comments From You

Vita // Posted 21 May 2011 at 18:36

And, in the meantime, the media isn't asking the question "Is he a misogynist?" while the spotlight is on feminists and who and what we are. They might occasionally ask "Is he an abuser?" based on specific acts (being very careful to protect the innocence of individual men of course) but no "picture" of a misogynist man is conjured up in the media's eye. And, yet far more recognisable traits exist in misogynistic men than they do in "feminists" (excluding those you reference, based on stereotypes). These magazines profess to be interested in women's interest in men don't they? What question could be more important?

Jess McCabe // Posted 22 May 2011 at 19:56

@Vita I have to say, I am far from convinced that misogyny is a personality trait, or confined to a specific set of men that can be identified like that. The only way to identify misogynist men is surely to observe them acting or speaking in a misogynist fashion?

Sexism is a systematic problem. It's not so much that you can just identify 'the misogynists' and stay away from them?

Vita // Posted 22 May 2011 at 21:40

No, I agree with you. I didn't quite mean it like that. I meant the spotlight is on what women and feminists do, not what men do.

Hannah // Posted 29 May 2011 at 23:58

Thanks for an interesting article! A paradigm shift in the editorial styles of magazines needs to occur before we can really be stimulated by the offerings in these magazines.

Strangely enough I really like Pop magazine which has alot of focus on female artists/ writers etc but as it's a fashion magazine also has lots of objectified semi nude models which I find jars with it's content...

Any hoo enough half baked musings for this evening!


Haphazard // Posted 25 June 2011 at 14:26

We need to ask where these stereotypes of the dungaree wearing make-up shunning feminist came from in the first place. I clearly remember back in the 80s talking to another woman at work who described a colleague as "a feminist" mainly because she was cranky and dressed in unflattering clothes. I said in a conspiritorial way "well, we're all feminists at heart" and she equally conspiritorially agreed with me. The male dominated media back then was just as keen as it is now to divide and conquer. Labelling feminists as ugly, sartorially challenged, man haters was a tactic which unfortunately worked. Asking questions like "can feminists wear lipstick" is like asking whether Labour supporters can wear jeans (they're blue!). Feminism isn't a tribal thing or a football club it's a philosophical standpoint. Wear what you like.

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