March: The Language of Patriarchy and the Press

When women are written about in newspapers and represented in works of fiction are they still treated differently from men? Research into children’s fiction and the popular Press has shown some disturbing stereotypes but have things moved on?

The last few months have been filled with news stories of women abused in Hollywood, demeaned in Westminster and insulted on Twitter: if we are looking for practical steps for change we could do worse than think about how language represents women in the popular media.

Thirteen years ago the Global Media Monitoring Project identified that ‘women are more likely to be found in “soft” stories dealing with topics such as celebrities and the arts… and are least likely to be found in “hard news” stories about politics, government and the economy.’

UNESCO in its guideline publication, ‘Getting the Balance Right’ (2009) noted that resisting the culture of the casual stereotype was ‘no easy task when the media are full of images and cliché about women and girls. Many are relatively harmless but some often the most powerful portray women as objects of male attention – the glamorous sex-kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hard-faced corporate and the political climber.’

In looking at language it pays to start young. One of the most well-known surveys in this area, Baker and Freebody, examined children’s reading schemes in Australia between 1987-89.  The research suggested there were key language differences in the way that boys and girls were presented.

In work based on 163 books and a corpus of nearly 84,000 words, it was observed that boys were mentioned a third more often than girls, were more likely to appear as a single character (implying independence), more often got the first mention (as in: Peter and Jane) and tended to be labelled with more positive adjectives (‘brave’ and ‘naughty’) as opposed to girls (‘dancing’ and ‘pretty’).

Though the message was mixed - boys were also found to be ‘sad’ and ‘tiny’ - the research concluded that ‘almost all the verbs of which boy/s are exclusively the subject or object… involve energetic interaction with others. In contrast, the activities uniquely done by, to and with the girl/s… clearly depict what we have called the ‘cuddle factor’ in action.’

One may, of course, pick studies that go back and forth in the loaded gender language debate. A 1996 study suggested the representation of women in British TV soap-opera, ‘Coronation Street’, depended more on context than clear gender bias; yet a few years earlier, in 1993, the media commentaries in a range of women’s sports events were noted to be ‘infantilized’.

In a very quick survey of the home pages of major British newspaper websites on the day of writing (21 February 2018) arguably the serious presentation of men still outweighs that of women - even on a day when a female Prime Minister and Monarch were both leading news stories on these pages. The thrust is generally a male one in ‘The Times’ with an investigation by a ‘policewoman’ (only later referred to as a police ‘officer’), various light-hearted puns on ‘Queen of the Catwalk’.  On the other side of the news spectrum, ‘The Guardian’ seems to avoid crediting women’s power roles, where, Victoria Cleland, Bank of England chief cashier (and largely responsible for setting up Britain’s strategy to avoid another banking crash) is labelled ‘the woman who signs Britain’s banknotes’ and, on the same page, South Korean Winter Olympic athletes are described in the headline ‘Garlic Girls’.

More dramatic stereotypes remain in the tabloids, as language commentators Miller and Swift famously noted in the US over forty years ago, leading to their ‘Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing’. Yet today we can still read of dating stories in relation to three separate, celebrity women on the lead webpage of both ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Mirror’, and numerous references to emotional pain, suffering and physical description in relation to women but not men.

In language theory there is a view that our thoughts and actions follow the language we receive. If we are hearing and reading about women in words that are different from the presentation of men, we can expect little change from the blunt view that, in media language terms, ‘life is a bitch’.


For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language



Next blog, April: English Agent Nouns. Most agent nouns in the English language presume the agent is a man. Bride/bridegroom and widow/widower are rare and significant exceptions.