Sometimes, being a feminist makes you feel like you’re going mad. It can feel like misogyny is everywhere, and you’re the only one who can see it. I often find myself going through life in a permanent state of muted incandescence, knowing that if I did explode it would be totally useless anyway — like a dog barking at thunder.
Never is this feeling more piquant than when reading the papers, where misogyny is as palpable and gratuitous as a pair of tits staring blandly out from page 3. So I must admit it was a breath of fresh air to see four articulate women at the Leveson inquiry spelling out the sexism most feminists knew was there all along. In truth, it was just nice to see women making feminist arguments publicly, without being ridiculed or interrupted.
And yet I must confess I was a little disappointed with the recommendations that came afterwards. Journalists should be trained, publications should be restricted, suggested the experts. All very well and good, but not once did they point out the single glaring, searingly obvious problem with media sexism: most of the news is written by men. According to Kira Cochrane, just 22 per cent of newspaper articles are written by women in a typical month. If we’re wondering why the media denigrates women so unrelentingly, maybe that statistic is a good place to start.
These male-dominated environments create what blogger Natalie Dzerins describes as a “mutually reinforcing system of dominance”: men are dominant, therefore men make the news, therefore men feature more heavily in the news, therefore men are dominant, ad infinitum. This isn’t a case of nasty, brutish men pushing women out of the journalism scene — it’s the creation of a culture where male ideas rule and women must compete on a male playing field. Maybe that goes some way to explaining the fact that a lot of sexist articles are written by women: women who might feel the need to differentiate themselves from negative female stereotypes in order to be taken seriously. In 2009, the Workplace Bullying Institute seemed to ratify this, stating: “In male-dominated organizations, where men hold all the executive positions, women tend to adopt male-sex-typed behaviour to survive and succeed.”
Is it any wonder, then, that issues affecting 51 per cent of the population are often relegated to the Life and Style section of newspapers? If most of the people making the news aren’t affected by women’s issues, then they are niche in the eyes of editors. It is acceptable to put articles about knitting patterns and rape side-by-side, as though both are as trivial and marginal as each other.
Making sure women input equally into the news is, in my mind, the only way of ensuring the output is equal too. It’s a classic case of “nothing about us, without us.” It also means that the next time there is an inquiry into media ethics, women can represent themselves as news-makers with agency, rather than passive victims of a callous and sexist media.
Evening out the playing field upon which media is produced is a lot more tricky than a group of (most likely male) lawmakers quickly introducing regulations to protect women. But the only way we can ensure the news is equal is by ensuring newsrooms are equal, too. Without that, any steps we take will simply be papering over the cracks.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae