Sexism in the Media: Female Journalists Face Sexist Internet Backlash Based on Looks


A recent article published in New York Magazine purports that the internet has become a warm and fuzzy place. Photo sharing apps like Pinterest and Instagram have allowed people to unabashedly share their most private moments in a public forum and receive oodles of positive reinforcement. Your cat posing next to a freshly baked apple pie in a garden full of gnomes just got 23 likes on Instagram. Your his-and-hers monogrammed pillows with accompanying naval stripes got Their own category on the nautical wedding theme section of Pinterest. Your favorite cooking blogger just published her own book, and says you can do it too if you just believe!

Yes, it appears to be a tame new digital world. Like turning on our favorite politically charged evening news shows, you can filter out all oppositional viewpoints until your digitally crafted personality becomes your own version of reality ... Until that fantasy is cut down by the ensuing masses who you are exposing yourself to on a very intimate basis.

It’s not the pedophiles who stalk tweens in chat rooms that are the ones to look out for. (They get their own special place in internet hell.) It's the anonymous blogs and tweets and comments that often cut a user down almost single handedly based on gender and appearance alone. Lately, in an effort to contribute to the dialogue, female journalists are getting critiqued on every level except their credentials.

One of my favorite femme fatale writers, Jessica Coen (formerly of NY Mag fame and now the Editor-in-Chief at Jezebel) recently appeared on CNN to discuss race relations as an authority on the subject. In return for her contribution to the dialogue as an expert pundit, she was sent a diagram outlying the flaws of her face right down to her “masculine jaw line,” “thin upper lip” and an anti-semetic judgement of her well-defined (and perfectly suited to her face) nose. Her picture on Instagram is flawless ; she’s got great style and great hair. And she's being ripped on by some nobody who certainly isnt qualified to speak on CNN or speak on the authority of any subject. Yet, here she is, being paraded around like some perverse form of the DaVinci Diagram of Beauty.

Lucky for her, she’s got brains to fall back on, and a great sense of humor. She actually posted the photo of herself on instagram for all to see with the kicker “The best hate mail reflects a thoughtful investment of time and effort.” This is obviously an exceptionally good humored, well balanced and accomplished woman who can move past such teasing.

But what about the 13-year-old girl cowering behind her Facebook account after school when mean messages are posted on her wall and beneath her tagged photos? Does she dare come to school the next day or even tell her parents? In the case of Phoebe Prince, such cyber bullying can lead down the darkest of roads.

The roots of Facebook are fundamentally anchored in these behind-the-screen games of anonymous loners judging far superior female counterparts. The scene in the Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg is sitting at home (probably on a Friday night) alone in the dark with another uber-geek judging the sea of college coeds surrounding them is entirely based in fact. The site started out as a simple game of “hot or not?” pitting women against each other simply to see who was deemed hotter.

While seemingly a harmless college prank, when this judgment becomes the basis of social networking as we come to understand it, the zeitgeist becomes inherently sexist and flawed. Is the internet run by geeky adolescent boys? It appears that behind the curtain of internet Oz is a hoodie-clad teen in serious need of proactive and some fresh air. But what happens when these teenage boys grow up and get big boy jobs at major media networks?  

It’s hard enough agreeing to go on camera as a respected journalist and being judged by one’s looks. But what about the women who appear on air because of their journalistic savvy and looks? I’m talking about that super breed of looks, media savvy and intellect all combined into one uber-babe: the oft quipped “money honey."

Yes, Megyn Kelly, I’m looking at you and your ilk. While some of these women do invite intense scrutiny (particularly the variety that only seem capable of reading off a teleprompter with the remarkable inability to move anything on their face besides their lips), some are actually qualified to be giving you your daily news intake. Megyn Kelly was a lawyer at Jones Day, one of the toughest law firms around. She was published and accomplished in her own right before even moving on to a risky career move in television.

During the election, when Kelly took her own producers to task on whether or not they could call the election for Obama — a major decision for such a heavily Republican network — the conversation the next day wasn’t her assertiveness and standing up to Karl Rove. It was the long lens wide shot that caught her long legs strutting in heels down the Fox news corridor. She might as well have been walking the runway at a Victoria’s Secret Fashion show.  

As one user put it, “Sending an attractive woman to do that embarrassing work rather than letting her continue to do her anchoring job, to fake concern for the integrity of election results, and to send her in part so you can her legs out from behind her desk is strikingly juvenile and strikingly retrograde.” But of course, Fox did so unabashedly, and the ratings soared.

It’s no news that attractive people get attention. Even babies look at more symmetrical faces for longer periods of time; it's human nature. But when that takes away from their actual credentials and their ability to judge an important topic, like the election, without resorting to circus tactics than the American media has a problem.

60 Minutes, arguably the most respected news magazine on air, allows their male hosts to practically decay on camera, until they appear to be walking corpses. I hate to be crass (rest in peace, Andy Rooney), but really? Ed Bradley? I was worried his eyelids were going to wilt and burn off when he interviewed David McCoulough under the sunlight of his summer home.

Meanwhile, women suffer for their beauty, either by being stretched within an inch of their lives so as not to age on camera (like Leslie Stahl) or they risk giving up themselves as targets and objects on dangerous assignments (like Lara Logan). Is the American media committing a cyber sexual assault of all female newscasters? Are they just as complicit in the objectification of women?

I wouldn’t be surprised to find the mastermind behind the site Egotastic! is holed up in a cave somewhere, but it’s probably within plain sight. (It may even be a cave tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, that’s where Perez Hilton resided last time I checked.) In case you too have been under a rock somewhere, Egotastic is a site whose sole purpose is to link to women who have "wardrobe malfunctions,"like Sharon Stone's in Basic Instinct or Janet Jackson's in the Super Bowl.

The editors of the site don’t discriminate against who they include: They are equal opportunity offenders. The site is as likely to catch Lindsay Lohan’s nip slip tumbling in the surf of Malibu as it is a respected newscaster arguing about the fiscal cliff. One re-cross of the legs and boom: Busted! Granny panties! The caption below the video reads: “We're a very serious journalist covering important serious topics, but we're also a hot female type person, so our producer bosses insist that despite our advanced degrees in finance and our outstanding professional track record, we have to to wear super short skirts when appearing on television.”

I seriously doubt that the journalist in question was told to wear this outfit. I do, however, believe that women do get ahead by using both their looks and brains to their advantage, which can be used in tandem to be very powerful. Then you throw funny in the mix and you’ve created the ultimate conundrum, a triple non-existent threat. (Anyone ever heard of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey?)

Sadly, even as Rachel Maddow’s viewership continues to increase she’ll never get the eyeballs Megyn Kelly has. On paper, they're both pretty intimidating, but on camera one is pretty and one is intimidating. Of course, everyone says JFK lost to Nixon in the 1960 presidential debates to those who tuned in via radio. But despite his ruddy complexion and loose jowls, even Nixon eventually got to be president.

In this day and age, there’s a lot more to worry about than poor lighting. In the age of tweets, blogs, and message boards, even the most qualified women are built up only to be cut down limb by limb.