Issue June 17, 2008

Connected Diss – The Lois Lane factor

I have always thought that the creators of Superman missed a bet. Had they been a tad more gender sensitive, they would have realized that as a girl reporter, Lois Lane possessed the power of invisibility, a special power unfortunately still possessed by women in the media today. Despite many gains for women in many areas, the media remains firmly in the grip of very white men. The ratios of bylines and commentary written by women, for instance, are shockingly low. 

To be sure, during the last few years, stories like Don Imus’ racial and misogynist spew about the Rutgers women’s basketball team and the Clinton and Obama campaigns have brought something of an influx of women (and men of color) to the forefront. Their increased participation in the media, however, is primarily limited to those and other stories that focus on gender and race. A recent study by the watchdog group Media Matters found that once the Imus story died down, the visibility of women and people of color in the news went back to where it was before the story broke. 

The number of stories about women reported across the media spectrum is also disproportionately low, and the stories covered more often than not are either about women being victimized or about the latest shocking behavior of a starlet. Rarely are women portrayed as empowering voices. Female members of Congress, for instance, get less press mentions than their male counterparts, and this year’s Time magazine list of 100 influential leaders included only 25 women.

According to a set of statistics compiled by Sheila Gibbons for Media Report to Women (mediareporttowomen.com), a study conducted between November 2004 and July 2005 found that women make up just 14 percent of the guests on Sunday morning talk shows. The women were less likely to be the lead guest or to be asked back for a repeat appearance. And a study by the National Urban League found that between January 2004 and June 2005, only three black women appeared on those shows (Gwen Ifill, Condoleezza Rice and Donna Brazile, in case you are wondering). 

Another study conducted in 2004 found that women only made up 25 percent of the correspondents at ABC, NBC and CBS. As for print media, the male-to-female byline ratio in a study of 11 magazines found that the numbers ranged from 13:1 at the National Review to 2:1 at the Columbia Journalism Review. A 2006 study found that the ratio at The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair was 3:1.

But let’s not delude ourselves that this is just a mainstream media problem. If you look at the guestlists on “The Colbert Report” or “The Daily Show,” for example, women make up approximately 25 percent of the guests. Liberal websites such as Counterpunch and ZNet also offer a disproportionately male selection of opinions.

Female voices in the literary world are also similarly shut out. Last year’s National Book Awards were all given to men. And here in Louisville, just to bring the issue closer to home, of the 96 guests who have appeared as part of the Kentucky Author Forum, only 26 have been women.

At the fourth National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), which was held a few weeks ago in Minneapolis, issues such as net neutrality and media conglomeration were the primary topics. While gender concerns were acknowledged, only two of many panels specifically addressed gender. That is unfortunate, for the simple reason that women make up half the population of this planet and our stories and our voices should be equally reflected in the media, whose job, after all, is to report the news, all of the news. 

Here at LEO, among the brotherhood of pundits, I am, as Jane Fonda puts it, a quota of one. In a speech at an earlier NCMR, Fonda observed that the media didn’t create gender biases, but they do reinforce and perpetuate them. She also pointed out that gender inequality is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we almost consider it a fact of life. But it isn’t, and the media has a responsibility to be cognizant of that reality. 

Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org. Contact her at lucindamarshall@feministpeacenetwork.org