OTI Online
Summer 1993

How the Media Distorts Women's Progress
by Elayne Rapping


Color me confused. Things change so quickly and radically in today's media-dnven world that I'm having trouble keeping up with the Official Feminist Program. Last year, if I remember correctly, was "The Year of the Backlash," when things could not have looked worse for women. We were supposedly losing every significant battle - with the media, the government, the corporate structure, and the courts. Best seller and talk show guest lists were top heavy with doom-and-gloom sayers assuring us that the score was Feminism: Zero; Rich Old White Men: All. Whatever successes and advances we Second Wavers imagined we had achieved 'were proven to be mirages - tricks played upon our minds to distract us from the far more powerful and malevolent forces of the Beauty Myth, the Glass Ceiling, the Old Boys' Network and other reactionary forces.

And then, suddenly, the headlines changed. The clouds broke, the boot lifted from our necks and we emerged as phoenixes from the ashes in full Wonder Woman regalia. It was now, we were told, "The Year of the Woman": The year we stormed Capitol Hill; the year three new studies by female economists showed that women's incomes had risen significantly in relation to men's in the 1980s after all; and the year the New York Times finally admitted in a two-page report that single women in their 40s and 50s are far happier than their male counterparts and mostly chose not to marry.

While the individual facts, in each of these "Year of's ...," may be valid, any instant conclusions drawn from these contradictory configurations of data should mostly be ignored. They are "here today, gone tomorrow" effluvia, born of the postmodern media's need to distort, trivialize and sensationalize social reality in an endless quest for instant, ever- changing, ever-sexier stars and headlines.

It is always possible to pick and choose among facts and events relating to any social phenomena or issue to demonstrate convincingly that it is either The best of times or the worst of times. If you are working within the confines of the media's time-space parameters for creating sensational snapshots of reality out of two or three faces and a handful of simplistically interpreted "events," that is.

So last year it was Susan Faludi and Gloria Steinem looking dour and defeated on the cover of Time. This year, it's been the far-from-dour faces of women like Carol Mosely Braun, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Ann Richards proclaiming that suddenly, while nobody was looking, what seemed like abject defeat had been miraculously transformed into victory.

I could list endless, paradoxical examples of how quickly and dramatically the media view of women's situation has changed in the last few months. But there is one - the overnight shift in our common understanding of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas affair - that most clearly points up the folly of paying too much attention to the tabloids and pundits. Last year it was decided that Hill was a loser, a hopeless victim of the "obvious" forces of backlash, so quickly and definitively that three new books are filled with this overly simplistic "truth" of the moment. Today, in a night-to-day shift in perspective, she has emerged as a winner after all: A woman who singlehandedly changed the course of women's history.

And so it goes. We ride the tides of media "reality," allowing "The McLaughlin Group" and Times Best Seller List to tell us how to feel about ourselves and how to interpret our own long-term, collective experience according to sound bites and photo opportunities. How will 1993 rank for women? Will we go forward or backward? Will Madonna's newest incarnation be a' 'positive" or "negative" image, a sign of our continuous rise or precipitous decline?

Personally, I have never put much stock in the backlash hysteria. In fact, I am on record in several places as among the few cockeyed optimists who insisted, against the tide of political fashion, that things were actually going much better than anyone was noticing. Perhaps it is a mistake, I said, to wallow in hopelessness and defeat at a time when women - especially younger women - were already so overwhelmed by cynicism and victimization narratives as to be immobilized with despair and depression.

It seemed to me that whether we were, like me, veterans of the Second Wave, or, like my daughter and my students, inheritors of that legacy, we were doing ourselves a disservice in not recognizing and giving credit to the many women over the last quarter century who, out of sight of the TV cameras, have been quietly working hard to change the world for women in profound and permanent ways. Women's history is not made by superstars or documented in glitzy headlines. It is, and has always been, made by armies of both organized and independent women everywhere - in high places and low - fighting to change the definitions, images and conditions in and with which we live.

In fact, to use the case of Anita Hill and the sexual harassment issue once more, it was not a single woman - no matter how noble and brave (and Hill most certainly was both!) - who created the shift in public understanding and behavior around the matter of sexual conduct in the workplace. Back in the early 1970s, it was feminists (most prominently, but not solely Catharine MacKinnon, to use another momentary media celebrity) who, in the context of feminist upheaval in both discourse and activism, invented the concept of sexual harassment.

Largely through the efforts of many, many women working within the media, the courts, the universities and individual workplaces everywhere, sexual harassment has over time gained prominence in our collective consciousness and public practices. Anita Hill, like thousands of others of us, heard about these ideas. Gradually, always gradually, she no doubt stewed about them until a certain moment when she was moved, heroically, to act upon them publicly. But she is only one of many such brave women who have been doing the same thing - sometimes winning, mostly losing; sometimes to public notice, mostly invisibly - to whom we owe honor and gratitude for pushing the struggle forward.

Nor is the much-maligned media as free of heroic stories of feminist struggles and occasional victories as the backlash theorists would have us believe. Dan Quayle, I'm sorry to say, was more on target on that score than feminists cared to admit. In an effort to make a black/ white case - the kind the media itself loves because it plays so well on "Crossfire" and "Nightline" - we lost the opportunity to claim our rightful credit for that true emblem of feminism's successful struggle to infiltrate primetime: "Murphy Brown." In fact, Monday nights on CBS - from Barbara Corday's "Cagney and Lacey" to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's "Designing Women" and Diane English's "Murphy Brown'' - have long been testaments to the quiet power of feminists working invisibly in media jobs of the lowest and highest order to change the way gender issues are represented. To insist that the media is a wholly masculinist conspiracy to degrade women (and that, by implication, Quayle is crazy to see feminists at work in the construction of "Murphy Brown") is to do ourselves and our many hard-working sisters in the media industry a disservice.

We need only look at TV today and then think back to its beginnings in the 1950s to see that our progress has been slow, incomplete and not-yet-enough, but pretty damn impressive anyway. To take only the most obvious examples, look at Oprah Winfrey and Roseanne Arnold. These women are two of the most powerful people in the media and they are, I daresay, a far cry from looking or sounding like June Cleaver or Lucille Ball! Far from glamorous or model gorgeous, Arnold and Winfrey are outspoken in their identification with, and support of, women oppressed by beauty standards, class and race bias and the scars of sexual abuse. And they are women who could not possibly have reached their present positions without the existence of in-your-face, potent feminism as a major social force over a period of many years.

Similarly, the very real triumphs of women in the electoral arena this year did not occur, almost overnight, as a result of a sudden burst of female activity in response to a single TV image (Anita Hill being grilled), or a single best seller (Backlash) as the headlines and evening news anchors would have us believe. If you watched the Democratic Convention on C-Span, which filled its time with lengthy interviews with actual grassroots delegates, as I did, you would have seen and heard from scores of activists, from teenagers to octogenarians, representing groups and organizations from gay rights to welfare rights, from hospital workers to teachers, from environmentalists to prochoice lobbyists. All of these activists had been at work in their communities for a very long time, with no help or inspiration from the media, building the base for the feminist and other progressive victories which we have recently begun to enjoy.

I could go on with endless examples of women's political and media advances in the last two decades that resulted from slow, invisible, collective struggles by feminists in high and low places all over the country. But I don't want to fall into the very pit of one-sided hyperbole I am criticizing. The truth is that most of what's on TV, most of what goes on in politics, most of what's happening to women - especially poor, minority and other disadvantaged women - is not good news, but bad.

But it is not all bad. A backlash only emerges after all in response to a major, scary threat against established power to which that power feels the need to respond. They are right to be scared and angry at feminists. Look at what we have achieved, against all that opposition. We haven't created a revolution. A handful of women on Capitol Hill, no matter how many times their pictures are blown up and flashed about, does not spell women's liberation.

But no matter what the headlines tell us next, we need to keep our eyes on our own charts and remember where we started from and how far we've come. And we need to create and support our own media and our rituals so that no matter what the latest fad, those of us who are fighting the good fight - every day and every year and everywhere - will be recognized and honored by those whose opinions really count: Ourselves.

That is the lesson of this strange year of paradoxical highs and lows in the media history of women.

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