By Carl Sessions Stepp
How the News Media Scare Women
By Caryl Rivers
University Press of New England
168 pages; $24.95
"Selling Anxiety" has little new to say, a fact that, strangely enough, actually adds to its power and value.
Its main theme has been sounded for years if not decades by veteran author and critic Caryl Rivers and many others: The news media routinely demean and patronize women, long after they should know better.
Rivers, who lived through the hopeful awakening of 1960s feminism, sees a social transformation stalled at midpoint. "The revolution is only half complete," she writes, "even though enormous gains have indeed been made."
She finds today's media full of alarming storylines "such as the selfish mother, the menace of day care, the threat of ambition, and the notion that only women are designed to care and nurture," conveying the message that "only by returning to traditional lives can women find happiness."
What "Selling Anxiety" really asks is: Why, when we turned the intellectual corner toward gender equality decades ago, do the media still treat women so stereotypically? This is not a new question, but continuing to press it is a public service.
Though Rivers doesn't fully answer it, she offers a tantalizing hint. The faster conservatism spread in media and society, she contends, "the more feminism was delegitimized." Scoffing at the myth of the liberal news media, she questions why they seem so reluctant to point out the extremism of the "Bush administration's war on contraception" or the "radical appointees who, some critics say, are decimating U.S. science," not to mention its judiciary.
There is more than a suggestion here that journalists are followers not leaders, observers rather than agents of change, willing to edge toward upsetting the status quo but soon settling somewhere safe near the middle. This is an important point, worth pursuing much further.
Still, "Selling Anxiety" performs important accountability journalism by illustrating continuing, if evolving, distortions in coverage.
"You can't tell women anymore that they can't achieve (except in math)," Rivers writes. "Who'd believe you? But you can tell women that, if they do achieve, they'll be miserable — as will their children."
She records numerous examples of what she calls "chain reaction stories," superficial, dubious trend reports "flashing from one media outlet to another." They deal with topics like "miserable career women who have lousy sex...day care kids who become nasty bullies..children of divorced mothers who face lifelong problems..selfish mothers who neglect their children..scary women who get power."
Instead of arriving at a stage where "women would be covered much as men are," she declares we are heading "full speed backward."
Rivers is at her best challenging sloppy research and "silly science" underlying many so-called trends. As to stories about exhausted, stressed-out, sexless working women, she points to research showing that "married career women with children" are "best able to handle the stress." As to the unhappiness of women without children, she quotes a finding that "childlessness did not have a significant impact on a woman's well-being."
A notable weakness is that the book, like some of the journalism it criticizes, is selective rather than systematic. Rivers reports with insight and skill, and her many examples and specifics reinforce her point. But many counter-examples come to mind, too: the serious treatment of Sen. Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, or of Condoleezza Rice as a key Cabinet-level adviser to a wartime president, or the wealth of earnest media attention to gender, relationships and related issues.
Also questionable is her answer to why these problems continue. "Market forces drive these stories," she writes. "Stories that create anxiety over women and achievement sell well."
But that seems simplistic and, what's more, she doesn't prove it or even offer much evidence. Sure, sensationalism and infotainment sell, as they always have. Yet the market has also supported serious journalism, and it remains unclear just how representative Rivers' bad examples are.
To be fair, she does show, with hard evidence, the dearth of "women's voices discussing serious issues in the nation's elite media." She cites convincing evidence that women are underrepresented as op-ed writers, media executives, authoritative sources and "professional and political voices."
What Rivers clearly demonstrates is that many bad practices linger in what should be more enlightened times. No matter how many times we have heard that message, it's time to listen again.
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.