Female journalists expected to humiliate themselves for column inches

// 29 April 2009

UPDATE: As Steph points out, Jill Parkin has been responsible for articles like this one about schools being ‘feminised’. I also found this, erm, interesting Mail column headlined “Why does food drive so many women insane?” and this anti-fat column. This is totally my fault for not at least Googling before I wrote the post. So, yes, not feeling particularly sorry for her right now, but I’m leaving it up as I think she is right in drawing attention to this trend.

Jill Parkin is an experienced freelance journalist, who has identified a trend in female journalists increasingly being asked to write self-deprecating, humiliating first-person columns, particularly about their bodies and eating.

In the media supplement of today’s Guardian, Parkin says:

The soul-baring confessional has become the biggest market in town for women writers. It’s cruelly exposing and it eats away at your professionalism, but right now it’s just about the best-paid thing there is because the appetite for fem-humiliation among commissioning editors is insatiable.

What finally pushed her over the edge and prompted writing this piece – and for her to break the golden rule of freelance journalism, never turn down a commission?

It’s a truism that we freelancers cannot say “no” because we may not be asked again, yet in the last year or so I have had to say no several times: to a confessional piece on sexual differences between husbands and wives, to sending my 12-year-old out to buy alcohol and to being a life model for an artist, among others.

But one recent request stands out. Would I go undercover and try to get on the next series of How to Look Good Naked? The email left me speechless for a while. It’s the sort of trash I feel polluted by watching, let alone taking part in. The initial application form for the show demands pictures of you from front, side and rear in your underwear. I have never made great claims for the seriousness of my patch of the journalism trade, but it’s moral high ground compared to this.

How does this fit in to the already existing trend within opinion-style journalism, that women columnists are already scarce and tend towards being relegated to ‘softer’ topics?

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 29 April 2009 at 1:47 pm

This is part of the reality when women are now commonly turned into men’s sexualised commodities. The ripple effect is not just women’s bodies but their minds too, being commodified.

Of course female journalists are not capable of writing investigative journalism – their efforts must be used to promote low self esteem among women and ensure the lies and myths media tells women are repeated ad naseum. I do not blame Jill Parkin but I do hold male-dominant and male-owned media responsible. Media management continues to be male-dominated which is why when a female journalist suggest a subject deemed ‘radical or feminist’ it is dismissed as irrelevant.

Ripple effect – it is everywhere but sadly far too few women see it because we are all supposedly individuals having the freedom to choose how to use our intelligence.

Recession will increase pressure on women to ‘fit in to men’s definition of female journalism.’ So we can expect more naval gazing irrelevant articles from the media in respect of women’s lives and experiences.

Lindsey // Posted 29 April 2009 at 2:39 pm

I noticed this before with the sudden influx of articles and programmes of female journalists “testing” to see if reaching size zero was possible. These women were asked to weaken, even effectively disable themselves, as well as humiliate themselves for the sake of some audience rating.

Steph // Posted 29 April 2009 at 3:14 pm

Is this the same Jill Parkin who used to write for the Daily Express, and who wrote this?

‘Stop feminising our schools – our boys are suffering’

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-432947/Stop-feminising-schools–boys-suffering.html

Hmmmmm :/

bettym // Posted 29 April 2009 at 8:50 pm

perhaps not directly related, but i wanted to draw people’s attention to this:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00k794z/Kirstens_Topless_Ambition/

there are one or two bits in it that i think parallel this story (ie when she is told she should discuss personal tragedies in public in order to further her career) and it is quite interesting in general. it’s up til next tues.

Jen // Posted 30 April 2009 at 9:53 am

I was about to respond to this post with a big “well duh what do you expect?”, but I still think you’re right to cover this.

Now maybe you could look at how you engage with opinion columnists in general in a new light, particularly female ones because as Jennifer Drew says (and I don’t usually agree with you Jen, but this time you’re spot on):

Ripple effect – it is everywhere but sadly far too few women see it because we are all supposedly individuals having the freedom to choose how to use our intelligence.

and I would add to that that the “intelligent woman” stereotype is just that, a stereotype, whatever a woman has to contribute to her own writing in terms of her own intelligence is totally irrelevant to the content.

So, you need to consider what any opinion columnist says in light of what the publication they are writing for would have expected of them, and the agenda of the publication as a whole. If someone says something you agree with in the Telegraph – you need to consider it. You can’t just take it and comment on it at face value.

So maybe you can extrapolate from this. Jill Parkin is a relatively fluffy female columnist (by her own admission) who has written for the Daily Express (and surely in light of this it’s kind of crap to discredit what she says here because she spouted some right-wing crap before, in view of the fact it was for the Express).

Now maybe you could consider the following:

(a) how this applies to any feminist columnists who are “thank god for a great feminist voice in the media!”

(b) why a newspaper would want a feminist columnist in the first place (yes, even the Guardian, especially them in fact)

(c) how come they want feminist columnists on Comment is Free and then they’re so crap about the comments policy

(d) whether someone like Julie Bindel would ever have the option of changing her mind about anything, even if she wanted to, and still, like, put food on the table.

I don’t have the answers to any of those for sure, but maybe they’d just be good things to consider. I’m also interested in the fact that I’ve been questioning how much value we can place on opinion columnists for like two years now, and got a distinct vibe of, well, she’s just being a bit cantankerous. Why is it easier to take from Jill Parkin? (not offended or pissed off or anything, just curious)

Also, maybe this could inform your relationship to “feminism in the media!!”. Might be interesting to tie this in with the discussion in Charlotte’s thread about independent feminist media as well, particularly some of the stuff Debi was saying. And also, is a relatively elitist independent feminist media really the answer? Or just a temporary thing on the road to necessary change?

Why do we need magazines and lifestyle columns anyway? Isn’t that an indication of how white middle-class femininity affects the way we like to get our information and entertainment? Isn’t the whole idea of having magazines somewhat capitalist?

Again, I don’t have the answers to those for sure, I’m interested in hearing what people have to say though.

Jen // Posted 30 April 2009 at 11:37 am

So, yes, not feeling particularly sorry for her right now, but I’m leaving it up as I think she is right in drawing attention to this trend.

Well, it doesn’t change anything to the fact that she was asked to do all that humiliating stuff. Just because you’re right-wing and wrong about a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of sympathy. No one should be asked to do that stuff for money. It’s not just a question of whether she gets to have a livelihood, but a lot of women will be growing up wanting to be investigative journalists only to be relegated to writing bullshit for lifestyle columns.

Sure, there’s an amount of accountability. But accountability is also a function of how much power you have in the first place. In this case, a woman has just described how little power she has over what she writes, and you’re saying “yeah but that woman wrote those other wrong things, can’t condone her”?

At the end of the day, if you’re a journalist, particularly a columnist rather than a journalist with a speciality (and really, there are loads of prominent female columnists, especially compared to like war correspondents and stuff), you’re a mascot, or a mouthpiece for whoever you write for. Maybe you can choose who that is, but really, that choice is limited. I’d be willing to bet that a freelance female columnist with integrity would never get anywhere. Maybe she just really wants to be a journalist and it’s a choice between writing bullshit or giving up completely, in which case a woman should have the same chance as a man, I’m sure you agree.

You really need to stop confusing “women in the public eye” with “powerful women”, and giving them all these responsibilities and expectations they can’t possibly live up to. “She’s in the public eye, she has a responsibility to girls and women everywhere” – yeah, right.

I mean, you can and should disagree with stuff female columnists write. But consider who exactly you’re disagreeing with – is it a person, or is it a glorified advertising slogan for the publication she writes for?

I dunno, you’re a young female serious journalist with a speciality, how does this make you feel about your own chances in the profession? What, aside from your own hard work and integrity, enabled you to get to that relatively enviable position? Do you consider your job description to be remotely similar to Jill Parkin’s? Does it make you reconsider writing opinion columns for the Guardian?

Steph // Posted 30 April 2009 at 11:40 am

You’ve raised some really interesting points there Jen.

On reflection, it wasn’t my intention to purely discredit Jill Parkin as such – especially as I think the Guardian piece is very good – but I do think it is important to add some context, especially as I was dissapointed when I read her other pieces.

Of course, it supports very much her argument that in the pursuit to regularly get work, she’s felt she’s been under pressure increasingly to write these sort of ‘fluffy’ pieces in the Daily Mail, etc. I guess, therefore, the question is: how far would any of us also compromise our beliefs, feminist integrities when it comes to food on the table and bills to pay?

There’s no doubt as Jennifer says, that the male dominated media and newspapers are hugely responsible for trying to push and sideline the sort of stories they expect both women want to read, but also what women journalists should write about too.

But at the same time, I think it’s pertinent that you mention Julie Bindel. I find myself not always agreeing with she writes, but I think its fair to say that’s she never appeared to pander to tabloidy newspapers and editorial pressure to write things which go against her beliefs and ideologies – just because it might get her more work if she ‘toned-down’ her writing?

Jess McCabe // Posted 30 April 2009 at 12:07 pm

Just because you’re right-wing and wrong about a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of sympathy

No, indeed. She still raises good points. However, her own opinion pieces are part of creating and sustaining the same kyriarchy that she is now finding herself at the pointy end of.

Look carefully at the Guardian piece – Parkin is not saying ‘I’ve been asking to give opinions that are not my own’, she’s not saying ‘I’ve been asked to put my name to anything I disagree with’.

She’s talking very specifically about the particular assignments where female journalists are expected to put themselves and their bodies (and in one case her daughter!) in the story.

I’ve never been pressured or asked to write anything I don’t agree with; one of the reasons that my freelance opinion writing (such as I have time and energy to do these days) mostly appears in the Guardian, is that other newspapers have not got much interest in publishing feminist perspectives.

That is an issue, in that if you’re a freelance columnist there are more right wing papers, and more opportunities to work – if you’re prepared to go down that path. Parkin isn’t responsible for there being a market for fat-hating, woman-hating, messed up rants. But still, she’s put her name to them, she’s decided to go down that path within journalism, and really I think it’s very difficult to sustain that kind of opinion-led journalism if you’re writing something that is wholly at odds with what you believe in.

When I’ve been approached by the Guardian to write for them, they’ve not tried to shape or mould what I have to say to any editorial line. But then I’m not trying to pay the bills with feminist opinion piece, and my staff job is as a reporter not a columnist. It’s a very different type of journalism.

Jess McCabe // Posted 30 April 2009 at 12:51 pm

I dunno, you’re a young female serious journalist with a speciality, how does this make you feel about your own chances in the profession? What, aside from your own hard work and integrity, enabled you to get to that relatively enviable position? Do you consider your job description to be remotely similar to Jill Parkin’s? Does it make you reconsider writing opinion columns for the Guardian?

Just to follow up a bit more on this, I think it’s important to distinguish between opinion-led journalism and working as a reporter.

My actual paying job is as a reporter, and if anything my career could be negatively effected by my willingness to loudly express my opinions ;-) It’s just… well… very seperate. I do not expect (or particularly want) to give up reporting and make a living being a professional feminist columnist. Actually, I quite like that my job is something which is very seperate from The F-Word/feminism. (Not to say I don’t bring some feminist/social justice analysis into my job, of course, it’s inevitable really. But it manifests itself in things like, trying to make sure I’m not filing stories which only quote white men, etc)

It’s somewhat a different discussion for that reason. But, yes, class privilege in particular has most definitely helped me along in journalism – particularly in terms of how easy it is for me to interact with contacts, in government, industry, etc. Although it’s not as simple as that, in that there’s a big downside in being a young(ish) woman, in not being taken seriously.

Class privilege also meant I could actually afford to take my first job in journalism, which is extremely badly paid at entry-level, to build up some experience.

Jen // Posted 30 April 2009 at 1:44 pm

But at the same time, I think it’s pertinent that you mention Julie Bindel. I find myself not always agreeing with she writes, but I think its fair to say that’s she never appeared to pander to tabloidy newspapers and editorial pressure to write things which go against her beliefs and ideologies – just because it might get her more work if she ‘toned-down’ her writing?

Well, personally I tend to find what Bindel writes to be 99.9% of the time every bit as bad as those Jill Parkin articles. But, for what it’s worth, it does come across as sincere.

Then again, the kind of journalism both she and Jill Parkin do is a kind of performance journalism, their names are almost more important than the contents of their articles. They get to do it because of who they are, one way or the other, because the Guardian wanted a confrontational political lesbian or (god knows who Jill Parkin is outside of being a columnist).

What if Julie Bindel changed her mind on one of her major points, or changed the tone of her writing. You mention she might get more work if she toned down her writing – what if, instead of that, she actually lost whatever work she has through toning down her writing? She’d be out of character. Her fans would hate her, the people who previously hated her would be pissed off too. I mean, I don’t want Julie Bindel agreeing with me any more than I want Jeremy Clarkson or the blurb on a shampoo bottle to agree with me. And, I mean, the fact that she’s an out lesbian probably means she couldn’t get a job with a right-wing paper anyway, so she doesn’t have the option to compromise herself. She’s not an academic on the side like Greer, either, she doesn’t write books that I know of – so, really, she’s in a very disenfranchised position.

No, indeed. She still raises good points. However, her own opinion pieces are part of creating and sustaining the same kyriarchy that she is now finding herself at the pointy end of.

Absolutely, but then again she was always at the pointy end of it. If it didn’t exist, her kind of journalism wouldn’t exist either. In a way, she embodies it – you could almost say she’s made up of it, and that she epitomizes it. To a certain extent, everyone who is affected by white middle-class femininity embodies it at least a bit. Our whole concept of womanhood comes from there. We’re not these free-floating individuals who are just held back by these social conventions and we can choose to discard them as soon as we become aware of them. In fact, it makes me kind of do a headdesk when I see people saying “oh, culture is so bad” or “society is evil”, because then there’d have to be this “natural”, pure womanhood that we’re trying to achieve, and well, that just puts us back at square zero, doesn’t it? Anyway, I got a bit sidetracked there. But yeah, we’re all not just at the pointy end of it, it’s a huge part of who we are.

And yes, she is talking about a very specific kind of request that she’s just noticed in the last 18 months or so. But, it’s definitely symptomatic of a wider problem, isn’t it? Feminist writers get published in the Guardian – right, but why is feminism considered the sole preserve of the life & style pages in the colour supplement? (hence me wanting to tie it in with the discussion on independent feminist media, as well) Why are rape and torture and civil rights discussed almost in the same breath as tablecloths (not that they’re entirely unconnected!).

But still, she’s put her name to them, she’s decided to go down that path within journalism, and really I think it’s very difficult to sustain that kind of opinion-led journalism if you’re writing something that is wholly at odds with what you believe in.

Yeah, that’s probably true (though, it’s probably depressingly easy to put your name to something you don’t believe in). But, the point is, for that kind of journalism, it doesn’t really matter what you write, it’s all a performance. I mean, that’s where Germaine Greer is smart (and also in a more powerful position than most), because she’s figured that out, and her pieces for the Guardian are pretty much performance pieces: when you’re offended, or when you’re thinking “what the hell are you wittering about, Germaine?”, that’s exactly where she wants you.

Anyway, I know you have done a couple of pieces for the Guardian and Comment is Free, when do you feel the most politically empowered, really? Is it as a staff writer, where your politics might inform what you do but are most likely irrelevant to the end product? Or is it as an opinion writer, when you’re asked to write, arguably, because you’re a young feminist, and it’s a chance to put your politics out there?

I mean, they might never ask you to change what you write to suit an editorial line, but isn’t the reaction to those pieces always a bit predictable? Don’t you think that’s calculated?

Also, I tend to question with any publication – to what extent the content matters at all, compared to the identity of the publication itself – relative to advertising and so on, as well.

Jess McCabe // Posted 30 April 2009 at 2:06 pm

Well, I don’t think I would use the word ’empowered’ to describe my job-job or the occasional bits of freelance work I get!

(It’s much easier to write for the print Guardian than CiF, though, precisely because you don’t have to deal with commenters.)

I mean, they might never ask you to change what you write to suit an editorial line, but isn’t the reaction to those pieces always a bit predictable? Don’t you think that’s calculated? Also, I tend to question with any publication – to what extent the content matters at all, compared to the identity of the publication itself – relative to advertising and so on, as well.

Well, sure, it’s a bit calculated. Sometimes. But then again sometimes it’s just ‘relevant’, for example the piece I did about gender and gaming, they wanted to cover it in an opiniony way, and getting a feminist gamer to do so is sort of obvious.

Jen // Posted 30 April 2009 at 2:54 pm

Well, I don’t think I would use the word ’empowered’ to describe my job-job or the occasional bits of freelance work I get!

Well, fair enough, because the word has become kind of meaningless. But there are certain kinds of power that come from writing for the press – earning power, power that comes from exercising a skilled trade, and power to get your voice and opinions out there, among other things. In which situation do you feel those are least restricted?

Well, sure, it’s a bit calculated. Sometimes. But then again sometimes it’s just ‘relevant’, for example the piece I did about gender and gaming, they wanted to cover it in an opiniony way, and getting a feminist gamer to do so is sort of obvious.

Yeah, agreed. Now, why would they want to do a piece on gender and gaming? I don’t think the answer is “because they care deeply about gender and gaming”. It’s for their target audience, because both gender and gaming are big with “the kids” right now and they want to co-opt it a bit, and because a huge part of their audience (and their contributors) is middle-class professionals who are nostalgic for their own youth. I mean, how many times have they covered these controversial groups of radical young people with very select memberships? Of course, youth itself has a very select membership, once you’re over 27 or so – you’re out.

And, don’t you feel like this pigeonholes you according to your identity as well? Being pigeonholed as a woman is most definitely a bad thing in that context, in fact you could say that, in the current state of affairs, anyone who takes a female opinion columnist less seriously than a male one would be quite correct. How is it different to be pigeonholed as a feminist and as a gamer? Only time male columnists get pigeonholed like that according to identity is if they’re gay or not white.

Early radical feminists weren’t wrong when they said that oppression against women was the model for all other forms of oppression – in fact it’s basic orientalism also, Edward W. Said would probably agree. This kind of thing can tell us absolute shitloads about what femininity really means. That’s why I personally don’t like to wade in and go “this is yet more evidence of the male-dominate maleocratic male maleness!!!”, because, really, it’s not that simple, and also that kind of thinking really precludes any analysis that might be very uncomfortable to us.

I mean, we like to shout out, “I’m transgressive, I’m enlightened, I go against norms, I’m not feminine, I don’t have gender!”, but you take away everything you could term femininity, everything we do or think everyday that is directly caused by us being women, how much would be left of our identity?

And to stay on topic, how much would it change the face of journalism? Why, when we make independent feminist media, do we go for stuff that mirrors the format of lifestyle magazines, except covering slightly different topics?

Sorry to witter on so much!

Jess McCabe // Posted 30 April 2009 at 5:28 pm

I don’t think the answer is “because they care deeply about gender and gaming”. It’s for their target audience, because both gender and gaming are big with “the kids” right now and they want to co-opt it a bit, and because a huge part of their audience (and their contributors) is middle-class professionals who are nostalgic for their own youth.

Well, I don;t have a problem with that really. I mean, journalism is an odd mix of business and public service, entertainment and serious news/analysis. They have a target readership, it’s part of being in the newspaper business.

That was something enjoyable for me to write about, which people enjoyed reading, and if it challenged people and informed them of some of the shit that goes on in gaming communities (something different to readers nostalgic for their first ever console) or challenged them a tiny bit that’s a bonus. It’s not going to change any paradigms, but that’s asking a lot.

They want a fluffy lifestyle section because it makes business sense, and because people are more likely to buy the paper if it’s not unmitigated horror – which let’s face it, would be easy given the world today.

And, don’t you feel like this pigeonholes you according to your identity as well? Being pigeonholed as a woman is most definitely a bad thing in that context, in fact you could say that, in the current state of affairs, anyone who takes a female opinion columnist less seriously than a male one would be quite correct. How is it different to be pigeonholed as a feminist and as a gamer? Only time male columnists get pigeonholed like that according to identity is if they’re gay or not white.

Perhaps. I’m not sure I’d want to be go-to girl for columns about anything under the sun though. I’m not completely convinced that it’s a good idea to have random columnist of the day writing about a subject they know nothing about – maybe it’s more an indication of unearned white male privilege that random columnists with no expertise or background knowledge are asked to write about, say, the government response to swine flu?

But also I like writing from a feminist perspective, I’m practiced and confident. So, perhaps I’m being pigeonholed, but it’s not something I mind at this stage.

If I didn’t have a full time paid job, and let’s face it a full time voluntary job editing TFW on top of that, and I was spending time pitching for freelance work, it might irk me if it continued. But on the other hand, I’d also be more likely to actually get commissions writing about other things if I was trying to.

Why, when we make independent feminist media, do we go for stuff that mirrors the format of lifestyle magazines, except covering slightly different topics? Sorry to witter on so much!

Well, magazine formats work – they’re readable and digestable? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel? We like what magazines look and feel like, just not what’s in them? (Does TFW do that?! I don’t see it myself…) I don’t think the mix of serious/light is necessarily a problem. TFW blog could become easily a stream of posts about rape, sexual assault, hate crimes, etc, but actually it makes all that digestable (and less depressing as bloggers) if we occasionally post about, say, snarky cookies or some piece of activism someone’s doing, or some art show/film/book, etc. And also that veers into ‘why not just concentrate on the most serious problem’ territory.

Another point about Julie Bindel – I think it’s worth noting that she also does a lot of impressive reporting at the guardian, on issues like women in prison and domestic violence. Again, I think the Guardian isn’t a model of perfection, but you’d struggle to find that anywhere else.

I also meant to mention before, that while it’s extremely difficult to get feminist opinion pieces published anywhere else, what there is a big market for is ‘ex-feminists’. Check out how many ex-feminist pieces you see in the Mail, it could be a blog in itself.

Amy // Posted 1 May 2009 at 3:40 am

Lol Jess, who’s that Rosie.. something or other on the Mail? She writes an article every other week about the fail that is feminism, getting the usual logicless commenters applauding her.

Jehenna // Posted 1 May 2009 at 9:35 am

Why, when we make independent feminist media, do we go for stuff that mirrors the format of lifestyle magazines, except covering slightly different topics?

Sorry to butt in here.

I think one of the things that feminism has done is to make non traditional narrative meaningful. So we, as feminists, tend not to privilege ‘hard fact’ stories but also give weight to personal experience (the personal is political) as being in many ways as important and meaningful as stories which involve hard facts.

So for me, this is why feminist works follow a similar format to lifestyle magazines. Because feminism encompases our whole life, not just hardcore news.

Jen // Posted 1 May 2009 at 9:38 am

Oh, absolutely, I don’t think any of those are problems, I just think they’re interesting questions to ask.

I mean, something like magazines and lifestyle supplements, they’re readable and enjoyable to us, yes. They’re also very culturally specific to Western capitalist countries, and something that was primarily aimed at women (still are, arguably, for generaly lifestyle stuff, male stuff tends to be more specific).

Then, they’re very much an economic necessity for publications that want to survive, it’s not like a newspaper is going to be breaking any news anymore, we have the internet for that, so they have to still sell copies.

So it’s still quite interesting that that’s the kind of format we go for. And having seen copies of feminist zines, for all the content is different (although not, really, that different), in appearance they’re a lot more like women’s magazines than, say, old punk zines.

Unless it’s about subverting the women’s magazine format (which would be cool), isn’t it interesting that that’s what we, as white middle-class women, would find interesting to read.

Isn’t being a female columnist a bit like being a society lady, as well? I mean, there’s a lot of class privilege involved in being one, as well, for all it’s quite a disempowered position in the ways that we discussed. The newspaper has to care what you have to say, and you have to be witty and charming in exactly the right way. And a great deal of female columnists just write about crap as well, but it’s an “intelligent woman” image just by virtue of being there. But, it’s privilege and it isn’t: because there’s not very much these women can do, other than go shopping and witter away in the Times about it.

I just think we need to think very carefully about how we, as feminists from exactly the demographic that would aspire to that kind of social status, go about producing our own media.

Also, I think throwing off superficial feminine attributes (appearance, beauty routines, etc.) is a bit of a decoy for the stuff we’re a lot less willing to give up.

Well, I’m saying that as something to think about, rather than a hard and fast opinion, anyway. The reasons why we do things are always a lot more complex and deep-rooted than we think, on the surface of it, sure, it makes immediate sense, but would the same thing make sense to a woman who wasn’t white, middle-class and anglo-saxon. And so, why does it make such immediate sense to us?

Rhona // Posted 1 May 2009 at 11:02 am

Actually, I began my career as a general reporter and the news editor of the paper I worked for ‘de-genderised’ bylines – we wrote under our initials and surnames.

It was always interesting to read readers’ letters (and, by association, their underlying bias) whenever they disagreed with a reporter’s story – one male reporter, in particular, was regularly denigrated as ‘that harpy’!

As Jess points out, as a reporter rather than as a specialist correspondent or opinion writer, the emphasis is on keeping one’s opinions or politics as far away from a story as possible – you are expected to ‘toe the party line’ of the paper’s editorial position instead (one of the rasons why I left journalism!).

It’s interesting to read aout this columnist’s experience and yet another salutory warning about why the patriarchy serves nobody but itself – even if you have been ‘good’, look what happens when it turns around and bites you in the a*se…

Jen // Posted 1 May 2009 at 11:02 am

Jehenna,

So for me, this is why feminist works follow a similar format to lifestyle magazines. Because feminism encompases our whole life, not just hardcore news.

You’re going to have to explain to me the relationship between “our whole life” and “lifestyle magazines”, because I’m not really seeing one.

In fact the only other person I’ve known to say something like that was this post-feminist lecturer I had in uni who said that “women should read women’s magazines, because it’s human interest” – even if there’s a first-person human interest story in a lifestyle magazine, it’s someone essentially being used as a kind of sprite to project a bunch of stuff onto.

Whereas recession, wars… those involve actual people.

I think the idea of subverting the format makes a lot of sense, actually – a great deal of sense indeed. But presenting it as just the one thing that makes the most sense to do, well, no, I’m not satisfied with that – you’re going to have to also take into account cultural specificity – I mean, something like the Suffragist Dreadnought or Mother Earth (extending this beyond feminism for a moment to women’s political movements in general) is going to look a lot different from Subtext or Bitch or RAG – and a publication in a completely different part of the world is going to be very, very different again.

And there is nothing in common between “life” and “lifestyle”, “lifestyle” is essentially when you use yourself as a kind of sprite, same as celeb magazines use celebrities, or fashion mags use models, to project a bunch of ideological stuff onto yourself. If you want to make feminism an evil grinning mirror image of capitalist consumerism, that’s the way to go.

Jen // Posted 1 May 2009 at 11:20 am

Jess,

I also meant to mention before, that while it’s extremely difficult to get feminist opinion pieces published anywhere else, what there is a big market for is ‘ex-feminists’. Check out how many ex-feminist pieces you see in the Mail, it could be a blog in itself.

Well, I don’t read the Mail in great detail, but the fact that right-wing bigotry is so present in, not so much the Mail, but more centrist stuff like the Times, was one of the things that pushed me towards feminism – that and the kind of anti-feminist ex-feminist stuff you mention, which makes me, even though I am skeptical about the current feminist movement, and largely don’t want anything to do with it, want to be at least slightly supportive of it.

The other thing that made me look into active current feminism was, and this is quite relevant to what you mention here, co-option of language, or imposition of language. I once said it was my sanitary towels and the fact that they told me what to do (remember when Always Ultra had inspirational messages printed on each towel? Such as “eat plenty of fruit and veg, shame it’s the last thing you want at the end of a hard day!”) that pushed me towards it – well, that’s kind of a clumsy way to put it, but it’s not so much what they say, it’s the way they put those words in the readers’ mouths. A fuckload of the press is like that – the Sun is especially bad, with all that “readers will be appalled that [insert thing here]” business. The Times kind of do it with their somewhat feminist-leaning columns – they’ll say “oh, feminists just have a bit of a hormonal problem and totally need to suck on a penis” (I paraphrase), but they’ll be all “women’s empowerment, yay!” in the same sentence.

I’ve seen that so much with the left-wing, progressive, independant media also: they use the same language techniques as the tabloids, pretty much, or else they take fragments of feminist theory like “the personal is political”, or lately I’ve seen “deconstruct” a lot, and use them with total disregard for their original context and what they really mean.

Which is really a lot like what female columnists are expected to do in newspapers: you don’t have to know what you’re talking about, as long as you have the trappings of an “intelligent woman” – in other words, you’re middle class, you’re female, you’re pretty, you’re clever – just say clever things and don’t worry about understanding them or not, doesn’t matter. Really, you could follow up The Beauty Myth with The Intelligence Myth, pretty much.

It’s interesting also, that you find your politics take the back seat in your day job, more or less – I work in the third sector and I mostly find that too, I’m informed by my politics, but it remains irrelevant. And, I’ve worked with fantastic people whose politics were diametrically opposed to mine, and never been tempted to try and talk about politics at all – compared to getting shit done it always seemed irrelevant.

Yet, you’re an environmental journalist – and environmental issues are a far greater and more immediate feminist concern than anything in a lifestyle mag, or, arguably, than the sexist ads you write about in the F-Word (cause if some company is having a negative impact on the reproductive health of women all over the world, for instance, maybe you don’t want their ads to be a vessel to promote good body-image among white middle-class women in the UK, right? Especially as adverts are partly used to give the company an image – what’s going on behind the scenes is quite different).

Anyway, good discussion – I knew you’d have lots of interesting points to make!

Jehenna // Posted 2 May 2009 at 4:14 am

Hmm, I can see what you’re saying, I’ll try and explain what I meant but it may be that I’m thinking about this in the wrong way.

What is considered newsworthy has always been run to a political agenda that generally isn’t set by women. In the same way that historical contributions by women, and indeed their experience, has been ignored by male writers of history, I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that a lot of news has probably been selectively covered in the same way. It probably still is.

If i read today’s news, not much of it applies to me directly. Some of it may interest me, but it doesn’t reflect my experience.

If I read a ‘lifestyle’ magazine, and I confess my experience in these is limited to the local one, plus Homes and Gardens, and some cookery ones, then these contain things which affect me directly – its why I would read them. To find food to cook for my family, to find out what to plant to solve a certain garden issue, to read about nice holidays I can’t afford but would like to go on.

I understood from what you were saying about feminist publications using a similar format to lifestyle magazines, that you meant that the content reflected similarly ‘fluffy’ issues rather than solely hard hitting factual journalism.

What I like about this site, for example, is that not only does it have articles looking at rape cases, assault statistics, and reporting on the politics of women’s safety, but it has pieces like Suzie FemAcadem’s ‘Thin Privilege’. My understanding of covering something which is not ‘factually based’ like this is because the majority of our experience is … experience. It isn’t fact.

In an interesting discussion on childbirth in CiF (Guardian) one commentator continually referred to all the women’s posts as anecdotal evidence rather than factual, because they had merely experienced childbirth, rather than conducted an empirical survey.

By focussing on ‘lifestyle’ issues, aren’t feminist publications acknowledging that there is more to life than ‘just the facts, ma’am’?

Isn’t it of some value to write an article about the politics of feeding a family, when even though both partners work, only one is responsible for children’s nutrition?

Even if we look at the holiday example, the problems of taking a holiday somewhere that the native population isn’t being seriously exploited by the white tourists would be an interesting article. Can we assess the situation in Cuba and find out exactly whom is benefitting from the UK/US tourists going there?

Arguably this is capitalist, rather than feminist, but like it or not, aren’t we all consumers in some way? I’d rather be an informed consumer, and I can’t always cover all the angles on my own. I’m not advocating that we focus on sofa cushions, either, by the way :) But being a consumer means making choices which can be political. I’d rather be supporting companies and products that match my political view, and frankly, having other people interrogate and deconstruct that is really helpful for me.

I think its important to focus on the ‘newsy’ issues but not all of them are going to be meaningful to everyone. The same with ‘lifestyle’ articles. But I think a mix is a good idea because it reminds us that all of the issues aren’t the big ones making headlines. For some of us, they’re as simple as being frustrated about how much housework we do, or that when we eat we’re publically criticised.

Does that make some kind of sense? It does to me at the moment, but I might be barking up the wrong tree.

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