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'Enlightened Sexism' in Media Obscures Reality

Friday, April 23, 2010

In her latest book, Susan J. Douglas finds the treatment of women on TV is putting a haze over young women's awareness of sex discrimination. In real life, writers at Newsweek and NPR and business researchers are speaking out.

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In her latest book, Susan J. Douglas finds the treatment of women on TV is putting a haze over young women's awareness of sex discrimination. In real life, writers at Newsweek and NPR and business researchers are speaking out.
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(WOMENSENEWS)--American women turn on the TV to prime-time dramas and see powerful mature women everywhere.

They are surgeons on "Grey's Anatomy," district attorneys on "Law and Order" and high-powered cops, lawyers and politicians. Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer anchor the newscast, often spotlighting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's state visits. Television has even seen female presidents of the United States, something yet to be achieved in reality: Cherry Jones on "24" and Geena Davis on the short-lived "Commander-in-Chief."

Isn't that just so empowering?

No, says Susan J. Douglas in "Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work Is Done," published by Henry Holt this month.

Douglas says TV is such a powerful medium that it can shape people's real-world views, creating the false impression of equality. When that happens, the door is open to more sexism.

The implications of TV's take-charge women, she writes, is that sexism is dead, so now it's fair game to caricature and lampoon women as shrews and bimbos in fare such as "Real Housewives" and dating shows where women viciously vie for the favor of male contestants.

Douglas told Women's eNews she coined the term "enlightened sexism" when she began noticing a wedge between programming geared towards her cohort versus her students and daughter.

On one hand, there were highly successful, ambitious female characters. On the other, particularly in reality TV, there were young women who were "shallow, materialistic, obsessed with guys they barely knew, involved in cat fights."

On one hand, women had "made it." On the other, that idea was being exploited to put women back in their place. Neither extreme reflected what Douglas saw as women's actual lives, where inequalities are reflected in everything from the workplace to impossible beauty standards.

Sexism Despite Broken Barriers

Douglas joins other authors of recent books--including Barbara Berg ("Sexism in America") and Jessica Valenti ("The Purity Myth")--focused on the continuation of sexism despite the breaking of some major barriers.

Douglas argues that young women live in a "Girl Power" bubble, where progressive policies in school and an upbeat youth culture shield them from the realities awaiting them in a workplace, where their salaries falter and subtle sexism abounds.

At this moment, she says, young women may experience an "aha" moment.

Three writers at Newsweek detailed such a moment last month in a cover story, "Sexism at Work: Young Women, Newsweek, and Gender." The piece cited Douglas and Berg, among other writers, who helped confirm the trend they had diagnosed. The writers thought their employer had not entirely eliminated sex discrimination from the workplace, but at the same time they found themselves refraining from diagnosing the problem outright.

"This wasn't something any of us noticed in school because women were excelling so much and we were surrounded by female educators," Newsweek Senior Writer Jessica Bennett, 28, told Women's eNews. Bennett is one of the authors of the cover story. "It wasn't until we set foot in the work force" that they caught on to anything amiss.

Eventually, after reading about a landmark Newsweek sex-discrimination lawsuit in the 1970s, they decided to go public about their feelings, with their editors' consent. Since then, the writers say they've been getting responses from women in all careers, from classrooms to courtrooms to construction sites.

"Most of what we're hearing has been people telling us it resonates for them," said Newsweek Assistant Editor Jesse Ellison, 31, another author of the story.

Similar Findings

NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard shared similar findings about NPR in an April piece entitled, "Where are the Women?" In it she says that though NPR has been an industry leader in staffing, with a nearly 50-50 balance of female and male correspondents and hosts, women are the minority of commentators and news sources (26 percent). "NPR needs to try harder to find more female sources and commentators," Shepard wrote.

Douglas hopes those "aha" moments reflected by the Newsweek cover story and NPR piece will become more frequent and that young women, whether they label themselves feminist or not, will resist negative media depictions and organize around workplace issues such as child care and maternity leave.

"We have the worst public policies in the Western industrialized world for women, children and families," she said, speaking of subsidized day care and mandatory parental leave. "It's just pretty scandalous. If more and more young women knew this, they would get active."

Two studies by the women's business advocacy group, Catalyst, Inc., based in New York, bolster the premise that real women still face a battle for equity.

"Pipeline's Broken Promises"--also cited by the Newsweek authors--finds that even women with MBAs, with CEO-level ambitions and without family obligations faced routine salary discrepancies. On average, women made $4,600 less than men after receiving the same degree, according to the study, which surveyed over 4,000 male and female graduates of full-time MBA programs.

Women perched at the top are often precariously balanced according to Catalyst's other recent study, "Opportunity or Setback," something TV shows don't often show. The study reports that since the beginning of the current economic downturn top female executives were more than three times as likely to have lost their jobs because of company downsizing or closure than male peers: 19 percent of women in this category versus 6 percent of men.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City. Her work is available at www.sarahmseltzer.com.

For more information:

"Where are the Women?" report, Alicia C. Shepard:
http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2010/04/where_are_the_women.html

"Opportunity or Setback," Catalyst:
http://www.catalyst.org/file/305/opportunity_or_setback_final_081209.pdf

"Pipeline in Peril," Catalyst:
http://www.catalyst.org/file/340/pipeline's_broken_promise_final_021710.pdf

Newsweek Writer's Blog::
http://equalitymyth.com/