Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Charlie Sheen, Prince Harry and disposable women

That headline is an SEO bonanza, eh?

I was listening to ABC News24 yesterday and in all the stories about former IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, newsreaders and journalists said he was accused of sexually assaulting a “hotel maid”. Her identity has been suppressed, but the mainstream media isn’t even calling her a woman. Had Strauss-Kahn been charged with sexually assaulting and attempting to rape a woman whose job was PR manager or stockbroker, journalists would refer to her as a woman.

The problem with headlines that define people by their job title is that we make assumptions about them. Since cleaning jobs in the service industry tend to be performed by migrants and by people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, we make a class judgement about them. I’ll come back to this point.

There is one good thing about the way the Strauss-Kahn story has been reported. Because the woman’s identity has been suppressed, the language of the story has remained focussed on the person who was charged with committing the crime. The story is about what Strauss-Kahn allegedly did, rather than about the victim. It’s a welcome change from the mainstream media’s usual reporting, which pretends that sexual assault is something that happens to women, rather than a crime that some men commit.

On news websites, referring to women in headlines by certain job titles is a creepy combination of cynical and sinister. Online journos know that if they put “model” in a headline, people will click on it to see how hot she is. It’s an invitation to judge her attractiveness and say yes she’s hot or no she’s not. Or, yes you’d root her or no you wouldn’t. If a woman who works as a model is the victim of a sexual assault, people will still click to perve and journos know this. That’s fucked up on both sides.

The story that got me thinking about this post was across all News Ltd websites in prominent places this morning: Prince Harry may or may not be dating a woman. Holy shit, stop the presses, that’s clearly the most important story in Australia at the moment.

Daily Telegraph image

The Daily Telegraph - any excuse to run a photo of a woman in underwear

It changed before I could get a screengrab of it, but was running a main image of Prince Harry and Florence Brudenell-Bruce, with a caption along the lines of “Prince Harry is reportedly dating a lingerie model, the ex-girlfriend of Jenson Button”. Her name wasn’t even mentioned. So according to, the only things worth knowing about her is that she models underwear and she was with a racing car driver until he got sick of her. Which is why she’s referred to as his ex, rather than him being her ex. Subtle, huh? We all make subtle judgements with our language without noticing, and I am trying to make myself notice it.

I heard about a buck’s party a while ago, in which two naked strippers had the groom-to-be lie on the floor holding a dildo at his crotch and another in his mouth. You can imagine what happend next. Now, if he had done that with two women who weren’t strippers, chances are his partner would be furious. (Of course, this is assuming they have a monogamous relationship that excludes strippers and dildos and I don’t know for certain that they do because I’ve never asked.)

Why doesn’t it count as cheating? Is it because there’s money involved? But if money is all that’s needed to make it ok, then you could just leave $20 behind each time you have sex with someone who isn’t your partner and say you paid for it. Or is it because a woman who provides a sexual service in exchange for money isn’t a “real” woman and therefore you won’t get into trouble. After all, if you met two women in a bar and went somewhere for some naked dildo action, you’d get your arse kicked.

Which brings me to Charlie Sheen, who was until recently the highest paid actor on US television. He was paid $1.2 million per episode for the awful, apparently family-friendly Two and a half men. (That’s terrifying, isn’t it?) But it’s well-known that there’s nothing family-friendly about Sheen’s attitude towards women. Anna Holmes wrote in the New York Times:

In 1990, he accidentally shot his fiancée at the time, the actress Kelly Preston, in the arm. (The engagement ended soon after.) In 1994 he was sued by a college student who alleged that he struck her in the head after she declined to have sex with him. (The case was settled out of court.) Two years later, a sex film actress, Brittany Ashland, said she had been thrown to the floor of Mr. Sheen’s Los Angeles house during a fight. (He pleaded no contest and paid a fine.)

In 2006, his wife at the time, the actress Denise Richards, filed a restraining order against him, saying Mr. Sheen had shoved and threatened to kill her. In December 2009, Mr. Sheen’s third wife, Brooke Mueller, a real-estate executive, called 911 after Mr. Sheen held a knife to her throat. (He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.) Last October, another actress in sex films, Capri Anderson, locked herself in a Plaza Hotel bathroom after Mr. Sheen went on a rampage. (Ms. Anderson filed a criminal complaint but no arrest was made.) And on Tuesday, Ms. Mueller requested a temporary restraining order against her former husband, alleging that he had threatened to cut her head off, “put it in a box and send it to your mom.” (The order was granted, and the couple’s twin sons were quickly removed from his home.) “Lies,” Mr. Sheen told People magazine.

Sheen didn’t get into any sort of trouble until he called Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a half men, a “clown” and a “charlatan”. Gee, that’s so much more offensive than hitting women.

Holmes writes that value judgements “underscore our contempt for women who are assumed to be trading on their sexuality”.

A woman’s active embrace of the fame monster or participation in the sex industry, we seem to say, means that she compromises her right not to be assaulted, let alone humiliated, insulted or degraded; it’s part of the deal.

Our culture has decided which women count and which women don’t count, and I don’t know what to do about that. But I do know that the language that journalists use to refer to women influences the way we think about those women. It isn’t about taking a strident, pro-woman stance in the way you use language, but about asking yourself why you would mention a woman’s previous relationship before you mentioned her name. You can call me nit-picky, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with suggesting that journalists think about the words they use because words are their job.

34 responses to “Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Charlie Sheen, Prince Harry and disposable women

  1. It is really difficult to decide where to draw the line between being ‘nit-picky’ and calling people out for their insidiously sexist discourse. Thanks for another fantastic article.

  2. David Fawcett

    Probably the most irritating and frustrating response I hear to these sorts of (legitimate) complaints is that the media has to present the news in a way that it will reach the largest audience.

    Or another way of putting it is, ‘We aren’t racists/misogynists/bigots our readers are!’

    I hear the same thing in politics, ‘You have to keep your message short and simple or people simply won’t understand what your saying/listen to you.’ usually with the subtext of: ‘People are stupid and you have to speak to them as such.’

    Now, there is an element of truth to these arguments. If more people were offended by the biases you’ve described, then perhaps they would be more vocal about them or simply stop reading news that offends. It’s also true that if you use a lot of jargon or if you waffle too much people will stop listening to you – this doesn’t make them stupid of course it simply means that you aren’t communicating effectively.

    What that doesn’t mean is that the media (or politicians) get a pass on their bias simply because it’s popular in culture. Especially when the bias is at an unconscious level like this usually is.

    I firmly believe that when I have an overly complicated thought that I wish to express then it’s up to me to find a way of being clear, concise. A short and simple message doesn’t have to empty fluff it can be profound, insightful and within reach of the majority. BTW I’m not suggesting that I’m an expert at it!

    In the same way the media shouldn’t pander to misogynist bias in Australian culture, they should seek to avoid it. With less misogynistic bias in our media the culture may come to intuitively see it for what it is because it would be an unusual way of phrasing something. If it was more jarring to hear and see things phrased that way maybe we’d be more aware of why they are phrased that way.

    All of this reminds me of one of my favorite riddles. A young man and his biological father are in a terrible car accident. The father dies on the scene and the young man is rushed to hospital. The surgeon in the emergency room says, ‘It’s unethical for me to operate on this boy; he is my biological son.’

    Whats the simplest answer as to how this can this be?

    Fantastic post BTW. I know I learnt something.

  3. ” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with suggesting that journalists think about the words they use because words are their job.”

  4. David, funny you should mention what happens in your head when you know the thought you are going to express is overly complicated. I had the same trouble with this post. I knew that Strauss-Kahn, Prince Harry, Charlie Sheen and buck’s parties were all linked, but explaining it in a simple way was quite difficult. Hopefully I succeeded.

    I think the mainstream media has monumentally misjudged their audience. As they’ve dumbed things down in an effort to attract more readers/viewers(“oh look, boobies”), they’ve driven away their existing audience. But instead of questioning that maybe there’s a problem with their strategy, they just dumb things down further. Intelligent reporting doesn’t have to be long and boring. Just look at The Economist – their sales are soaring at a time when most news outlets are struggling.

    • David Fawcett

      I’m a funny guy. 😉

      I’m glad you mentioned the Economist. I’ve consistently been impressed with the articles that I’ve come across from them and I’m glad to hear they are profiting from it too.

      As to the clarity of your article, you got through to me just fine. I suspect you went back and forward on this but the only complaint I really have was the picture in the middle of the article. The picture breaks up the article and my brain intuitively disregarded it as advertising. Of course my male hind-brain then went ‘oh look, boobies’ and I realized it was advertising but advertising that was making a point.

    • Every time I hear one of the Murdochs or their minions banging on about the importance of “quality journalism” (generally followed by an attack on the blogosphere, or another attempt at nobbling the ABC/BBC), my response is “so why doesn’t your organisation produce any?”.

      The current death-spiral of the traditional media is almost entirely self-inflicted.

  5. Great article. There is also some degree of contempt involved for a man whose only success with women seems to be those who are sexually accessible through money.

  6. “Our culture has decided which women count and which women don’t count”
    A great point, but more complex than it might seem, and it puts the most fundamental catch-22 of being female on appalling display: what gets you valued as a woman is also what gets you devalued as a person. The MSM behaves as if the only thing that can make a woman valuable is her sexual desirability to straight men, but if she is “hot” that in itself forfeits her the right to complain about abuse (because she’s brought it on herself, she’s cashing in, she’s a whore, she knew what she signed up for, and so on).

  7. “what gets you valued as a woman is also what gets you devalued as a person”
    Goodness me, I’ve been trying to describe why women can’t win under patriarchy for 15 years and you’ve just done it in 20 words or less.

  8. David Fawcett

    Quality mansplaining Orlando. Well done.


  9. Last time I looked orlando was female, although that was about 30 years ago when we bathed together regularly.

  10. And now that disgusting man looks like he’s going to get off scot free, like all the others before him. I don’t know why I keep hoping for some kind of breakthrough in the pursuit of justice in sexual assault cases.

    • And the reason is because they went digging around in her past and discovered that she knows a drug dealer. So what? Can’t women who know drug dealers be sexually assaulted?

      The problem is that we only know what’s been reported, and as many lawyers will tell you, journalists often get it very wrong.

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