When Phyllis Schlafly is forced to concede that not all feminists are ugly, it’s clear that something has gone awry on the right. Sure enough, in April, Schlafly, a conservative crusader who has been peddling stereotypes of women’s activists as physically and socially unappealing for decades, thought she should warn cadets at the Citadel not to fall for one. “Some of them are pretty,” she said. “They don’t all look like Bella Abzug.”
Schlafly’s anachronistic dig at Abzug, a boisterous New York congresswoman who has been dead for 14 years and whose name and fondness for large hats probably don’t ring alarm bells for many undergrads, betrays the anxiety undergirding her warning. The aged, arid vision of feminism on which conservatives have long relied (and that Abzug embodied only in caricature, never in reality) is finally losing its power.
The image of the feminist as a mirthless, hirsute, sex-averse succubus is a friendly-fire casualty of the Republican “war on women.” It’s a grave loss to conservatives, who have used this faithful foot soldier as a comfortably grotesque stand-in for the real people whose liberties they have sought to conscribe: women.
In a famous 1992 fundraising letter, television evangelist Pat Robertson described feminism as a movement that “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” while conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has stated that “feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.” The characterization is so potent and pervasive that lefties have also availed themselves of it. In 2005, liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas dismissedfeminist complaints as the “humorless, knee-jerk . . . tedious” stuff of “the sanctimonious women’s-studies set.”
Painting those with a commitment to gender equality as brutish killers of buzzes and babies has been a useful tactic, not only in distracting the public from anti-feminist policy, but in sending messages to young people. Generations of kids, including my own 1990s cohort, have prefaced feminist statements with, “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played girl-power icon Buffy Summers, once told a reporter that she hated the word “feminist” because it “brings up such horrible connotations and makes you think of women who don’t shave their legs.”
In activism, an image problem becomes a structural problem: Twisted but resonant stereotypes make women hesitant to identify with the movement to expand their rights. And if women won’t organize and advocate on their own behalf, the work of anti-feminists is done.
But the recent Republican incursions against women’s rights have been extreme enough to make women finally see beyond the wraith, to recognize that this battle is in fact about them. As presidential candidates sparred over birth control and state legislatures enacted punishing restrictions on reproductive rights and opposed equal-pay protections, newly vocal feminists resisted publicly. By doing so, they transformed the stereotype, putting youth, sex and humor on the side of the long-denigrated women’s movement. Conservatives such as Limbaugh, Foster Friess and Rick Santorum, dealing in sexual censoriousness and musty utterances, suddenly looked like the sexless relics of a bygone era, while the women shouting back at them presented a new, cool model of feminism — young, funny, socially nimble and appealing enough to tempt young men from the Citadel.
The popular dismantling of entrenched feminist stereotypes began, perhaps, not with the feminist movement itself, but in comedy. Performers such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Samantha Bee and Kristen Schaal have happily made gender politics part of their acts. In March, Schaal even performed Republican policy as stand-up on “The Daily Show”: “What’s the difference between a fertilized egg, a corporation and a woman? One of them isn’t considered a person in Oklahoma.”
Some of this season’s most furious feminist comedy didn’t come from women at all, but from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose steady coverage of misogynist policy highlighted a reassessment of another stale presumption — that feminism is an all-girl ghetto into which no self-respecting man would venture. In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Larry Farnese (D) proposed Viagra restrictions intended to make antiabortion measures look “ridiculous,” joining other lawmakers, such as Oklahoma’s Constance Johnson (D), who proposed banning the deposit of sperm anywhere but a woman’s vagina, in battling Republican misogyny with satire. Meanwhile, two young men launched “Texts from Hillary,” a site that showcased Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s efflorescent cool and stood in bracing contrast to the images of guys holding “Iron My Shirt” signs during her 2008 presidential campaign.
In March, online denizens “sarcasm-bombed” the Facebook pages of conservative officials. Virginia state Sen. Ryan McDougle, who backed a bill that would require women to have an ultrasound before an abortion, received a message about “a possible yeast infection . . . since you’re so tuned [in to women’s] bodies I thought you might have some natural remedies.” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback got requests to schedule pap smears and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose anti-Planned Parenthood policy cost the women of his state $35 million in health-care services, was asked for his opinion on methods to detect cervical mucus for fertility. So it wasn’t exactly a march on Washington, but it made right-wingers look slow and out of step.
Fighting funny may not be inherently more effective than fighting mad, but it does help correct abiding misapprehensions about feminism as a cheerless vortex: anti-male, anti-sex, anti-porn, anti-fun. In 2012, the anti-everything platform was occupied not by feminist agitators but the GOP politicians they were battling.
It was presidential candidate Santorum and not, say, feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who complained in March that pornography “contributes to misogyny and violence against women.” Santorum also could be seen, in a widely disseminated interview, barely able to bring himself to say S-E-X, opining instead about how contraception encouraged people to do things “in the sexual realm” that are not “how things are supposed to be.” Virginia Del. David Albo (R), who sponsored the mandatory-ultrasound bill, was too Victorian to utter the word “vaginal,” and spoke instead of “trans-V this” and “trans-V that” in a tale he told on the Virginia House floor . . . about his wife’s decision not to have sex with him after the ultrasound story became news.
Meanwhile, feminists were being credited — by their detractors, no less — with having robust erotic lives. Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke did not say much about sex in her congressional testimony in support of mandated birth control coverage, but her views nonetheless prompted Limbaugh to imagine her carnal activity in florid detail and to suggest that she — and all the other women for whom Limbaugh assumed her to be speaking — were having “so much sex” that they couldn’t pay for it.
Limbaugh made a tone-deaf misstep in his choice of the word “slut,” an epithet around which young feminists have been rallying for more than a year in “Slutwalk” protests against victim-blaming. There was no insult that young women were better equipped to both brush off and to battle, making Limbaugh’s rant not an instance of simply trading one smear (unattractive) for another (loose), but rather a moment that revealed the limits of name-calling. The world had changed; pathologizing female sexuality didn’t do the trick. Limbaugh lost more than 140 advertisers, and Time magazine — not exactly an obscure feminist blog — labeled him a “sad loud man in a small room.”
The 30-year-old Fluke’s eagerness to speak about gender equality — not just in her testimony, but since — further belied the retro view of feminism as the purview of older women. Young women, we’ve repeatedly been told, don’t care about the freedoms won for them by their mothers and grandmothers. But while Republican bankroller Friess’s comment, “Back in my day, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives; the gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly” made conservative men sound like great-grandpas, young feminist women were getting themselves noticed by the media.
Images of ultrasound wands and all-male congressional hearings and social-media campaigns goosed boycotts, donations to Planned Parenthood and state-house demonstrations nationwide. Youthful engagement zinged through mainstream popular culture; on “The View” in May, 20-year-old actress Eden Sher recommended Jessica Valenti’s “Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters,” raving that the book “makes it absolutely impossible for anyone, but specifically young females, to not want to take action.” Women’s rights activism enlivened even small towns such as Dunkerton, Iowa, where residents protested an appearance by Bradlee Dean, a conservative Christian preacher whose bandhad recently told a group of high school girls that they would “have mud on their wedding dresses if they weren’t virgins”;demonstrators included female students with signs that read: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
This is what feminism looks like, despite generations of having been told something different. While Republicans have been scrubbing their Facebook pages of jokes and decrying the rich sex lives of liberal women, actual feminists — and not just conservative puppeteers — seem at last to have devised a way to wrest control of feminism’s image.
The hairy harridan of yore isn’t totally vanquished. She’s too useful for the right. Without her, it becomes clear that Republicans are fighting not some made-up monster but women themselves. Contemporary activists who have recently replaced the yellowing cartoon of feminism with a living, breathing, nuanced version of what women’s liberation means in 2012 must keep fighting with humor and zeal if they ever want to finish off the old bat.
Perhaps someday they’ll even avenge her by hoisting a banner of their foes as fogeyish, woman-hating, humorless prudes and carrying it into future battles.
Charges of media bias have been flying like a bloody banner on the campaign trail. Newt Gingrich excoriated the “elite media” in a richly applauded moment during one of the Republican debates. Rick Santorum chewed out a New York Times reporter. Mitt Romneysaid this month that he faces “an uphill battle” against the press in the general election.
Meanwhile, just about every new poll of public sentiment shows that confidence in the news media has hit a new low. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center in the fall said the media “tend to favor one side” compared with 53 percent who said so in 1985.
But have the media really become more biased? Or is this a case of perception trumping reality?
In fact, there’s little to suggest that over the past few decades news reporting has become more favorable to one party. That’s not to say researchers haven’t found bias in reporting. They have, but they don’t agree that one side is consistently favored or that this favoritism has been growing like a pernicious weed.
On the conservative side, the strongest case might have been made by Tim Groseclose, a political science and economics professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Groseclose used a three-pronged test to quantify the “slant quotient” of news stories reported by dozens of media sources. He compared these ratings with a statistical analysis of the voting records of various national politicians. In his 2011 book, “Left Turn: How Liberal Bias Distorts the American Mind,” Groseclose concluded that most media organizations aligned with the views of liberal politicians. (Groseclose determined that The Washington Post’s “slant quotient” was less liberal than news coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.)
Even with conservative-leaning sources such as the Drudge Report and the Washington Times factored in, “the aggregate slant is leftward,” said Groseclose, who describes himself as a conservative.
But that’s not the end of the story. A “meta-analysis” of bias studies — that is, a study of studies — shows something different: When all is said and done, left-leaning reporting is balanced by reporting more favorable to conservatives. “The net effect is zero,” said David D’Alessio, a communications sciences professor at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.
D’Alessio drew his conclusion from reviewing 99 studies of campaign news coverage undertaken over six decades for his newly published work, “Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage 1948-2008: Evaluation via Formal Measurement.” The research, he says, shows that news reporting tends to point toward the middle, “because that’s where the people are, and that’s where the [advertising] money is. . . . There’s nuance there, but when you add it all and subtract it down, you end up with nothing.”
So why the rise in the public’s perception of media bias? A few possibilities:
l T he media landscape has changed.
There’s more media and more overtly partisan media outlets, too. The Internet has given rise to champions of the left — Huffington Post, Daily Kos, etc. — as well as more conservative organizations such as Drudge and Free Republic. This means your chance of running into “news” that seems biased has increased exponentially, elevating the impression that “bias” is pervasive throughout all parts of the media.
“There’s a kind of self-fulfilling perception to it,” said Robert Lichter, a pioneering media-bias researcher who heads the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. “Once people see something they don’t like, they notice things that reinforce the belief that there’s bias” in the media as a whole.
l There are more watchdog groups focused on rooting out media bias.
Long ago, a few watchdog groups, such as the conservative AIM (Accuracy in Media) and its more liberal counterpart FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), kept an eye on reporters’ work. Nowadays, not just politicians criticize the media for their alleged bias; an entire cottage industry exists to highlight the media’s alleged failings. This includes ideological outfits such as Media Matters for America and the Media Research Center; the satirical “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report”; and blogs by the hundreds.
All that scrutiny of the press may suggests an inescapable conclusion: There’s something wrong with the news media. All the time.
Journalists have gotten that message, too. “Reporters have heard the criticism from the right so often that they lean over backwards to be fair to them,” said Eric Alterman, a journalist, college professor and the author of the best-selling “What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News.”
l In the public’s mind, “the news media” encompasses the kitchen sink.
Few people make a distinction between news reporting — which attempts to play it straight — and opinion-mongering, which is designed to provoke and persuade. Tellingly, when asked what they think of when they hear the phrase “news organization,” the majority of respondents (63 percent) in Pew’s news-bias survey cited “cable news,” and specifically Fox News and CNN. But while cable news networks do some straightforward reporting, their most popular programs, by far, are those in which opinionated hosts ask opinionated guests to sling opinions about the day’s news.
“A big part of the conversation on cable is [people] telling you how the rest of the media is getting the story wrong,” said Mark Jurkowitz, a former press critic and newspaper ombudsman who is now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based research group affiliated with Pew. That, he noted, is likely to sow more doubt about the media’s integrity or accuracy.
Of course, reporters have helped blur the very lines they want the public to respect, Lichter said, by writing up news stories and then appearing on TV or going on social media to tell people what to think about their stories.
“The modern way [for journalists] is to be edgy and opinionated and to call attention to yourself,” Lichter said.
l We know more and can second-guess.
Thanks to technology, people have more access to more sources of news than before. Which means they can check several accounts of the same event. This can create its own kind of suspicion; savvy readers often ask reporters why they ignored or played down facts that another reporter emphasized.
l People believe their preferred news sources are objective and fair, while the other guy’s are biased.
Pew’s research suggests that people think the other guy’s media are spreading lies while one’s own are, relatively, a paragon of truth.
A clear majority (66 percent) say news organizations in general are “often inaccurate.” But the figure drops precipitously (to 30 percent) when people are asked the same question about the news organization “you use most.” Jurkowitz said this is the analogue of how people feel about Congress — most give low marks to lawmakers in general, but they vote to reelect their incumbent representative more than 90 percent of the time.
“If you watch the Channel 2 newscast night after night, you trust the people on the air,” he said. “The mere fact that you’re a habituated user makes you think better of them.”
Despite the low esteem the public seems to hold for “the news media,” the good news may be that it’s all relative. Pew found last year that people said they trusted information from the news media more than any other source, including state governments, the Obama administration, federal government agencies, corporations and Congress.
The lowest degree of trust? By far, people named “candidates running for office.”