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.
It changed before I could get a screengrab of it, but News.com.au 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 News.com.au, 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.