Sheryl Sandberg may live in a post-feminist world, but Casey Anthony does not. Neither does the housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of attempted rape. Nor does Michele Bachmann.
Separated by race, class and power, the four women — a Facebook COO, an accused murderer, an accuser and a GOP presidential hopeful — seem to have little in common beyond their gender and their rank as three of the top five newsmakers this last week. And yet those commonalities bind them to particular media narratives that remind us we cannot yet claim feminism’s prize: equal treatment for all.
Let me say, up front, that I do not believe the media is responsible for convicting or acquitting Casey Anthony; trying Dominique Strauss-Kahn; or elevating Michele Bachmann “from the ranks of the long shots to a significant figure in the Republican field.”
Twelve jurors declared Anthony “not guilty” of killing her 2-year-old daughter; New York prosecutors decided to charge Strauss-Kahn with attempted rape; and Bachmann’s supporters in Iowa and elsewhere have led others to take her seriously.
What the media does is make stories of these events, by casting characters, setting scenes and foreshadowing happy or unhappy endings. These narratives reflect our beliefs about gender and they can either support or undermine the culture that gives rise to them.
The post-feminist narrative
In an insightful New Yorker profile of Sandberg, media writer Ken Auletta described the Facebook leader as “post-feminist,” representing a belief that we have moved beyond the need to approach gender discrimination collectively and can instead solve our problems individually. Based on her behavior, I suspect Sandberg’s beliefs are a bit more nuanced than that.
But the “post-feminist” idea has life beyond Silicon Valley. It echoes in a group of female politicians, some of whom recently took to the U.S. House of Representatives to proclaim “I am a Republican woman” (but not a feminist). Instead, some GOP congresswomen, like Washington’s Jamie Herrera Beutler, say they are “pro-woman, just like I’m pro-family, just like I’m pro-man.”
“I never expected special treatment because I was a female,” congresswoman Sandy Adams says.
Neither did Michele Bachmann, who nonetheless has received it from her competitors and the media. Bachmann told Kirsten Powers “I’m a woman comfortable in her own skin. I grew up with three brothers. My parents didn’t see us [as] limited [by gender].” However, others do.
On Wednesday, an adviser to Tim Pawlenty, also running for the Republican nomination, told The Hill that the Minnesota congresswoman would do well in Iowa because “She’s got hometown appeal, she’s got ideological appeal, and, I hate to say it, but she’s got a little sex appeal too.” Vin Weber apologized for the comment. Just as Chris Wallace apologized for asking Bachmann whether she was a “flake.”
The stories we tell
These accounts sound more pre-feminist than post-feminist to me. They evoke master narratives that we recount over and over about women’s lives. Here are a few of the reductive stories we’re telling through this week’s news.
- A politically powerful woman is a joke or a threat. (Michele Bachmann)
- A poor woman is a sympathetic martyr or a scheming monster. (Dominique Strauss-Kahn accuser)
- A bad mother is guilty. (Casey Anthony)
How we reduce reality to mythology
“People generally, and columnists especially, want news that has the qualities of a parable,” writes columnist Bret Stephens in a Wall Street Journal piece about how the media missed “the clues that told a different story” of Dominique Strauss-Kahn:
“…It doesn’t help that in journalism you can usually find the story you’re looking for … sloppy moral categories like the powerful and the powerless, or the selfish and the altruistic, are often misleading and susceptible to manipulation. And the journalists who most deserve to earn their keep are those who understand that the line of any story is likely to be crooked.”
But with little initial information beyond the prosecution’s account of events, the straight line we drew was the one that connected Strauss-Kahn the “womanizer” to “an unassuming and hard-working single mother” he allegedly overpowered while she attempted to clean his hotel suite.
The post-feminist argument made throughout — underlined Wednesday by lawyer Alan Dershowitz and longtime advocate Geneva Overholser — is that accusers (male or female) should not receive the special treatment of withholding their names from publication. Dershowitz writes:
“It is absolutely critical that rape be treated like any other crime of violence, that the names of the alleged victims be published along with the names of the alleged perpetrators, so that people who know the victim or know her reputation can come forward to provide relevant information.”
This argument is not only one for equal justice. Some say that naming accusers would allow journalists to tell more complete stories, in part by vetting all people involved — a practice that some victims say inhibits them from reporting rapes.
“We know how awful it is to be a rape victim,” Overholser told The Washington Post, but “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
“We’re still holding onto this patriarchal foolishness that it’s the right thing to do. It’s not the right thing to do.”
Within weeks of casting her as the “perfect victim,” prosecutors raised doubts about the housekeeper’s credibility and recast her as suspect. The New York post recast her as a prostitute (a claim she says is libelous). Today, Reuters asks “Could Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser become the accused?” Reporter Andrew Longstreth wonders whether the accuser will face criminal charges for allegedly lying on official documents and perhaps to the grand jury that indicted the former IMF head for the attack.
None of this, of course, tells us what happened in the hotel room. The limits of our knowledge and our narrative make it difficult for us to explain this situation to ourselves and to readers.
The danger, as Jaclyn Friedman writes, is “if we accept the narrative that only perfect women are raped, we risk sacrificing justice not only for this woman, but for victims of sexual assault everywhere.”
Imperfect women can be victimized. They can also be criminals. Which brings us to Casey Anthony, who was an imperfect defendant and an imperfect mother — symbolized by the “Bella Vita” tattoo she received in the days following two-year-old Caylee’s disappearance. This questionable behavior was presented as prosecutorial proof of her guilt. As was Anthony’s apparent interest in a life outside motherhood.
The 25-year-old’s mothering became evidence in the public trial, leading to a mass conviction that was unmatched by the jury of her peers. The ending written by the media was not writ by the courts.
Now that Anthony has been found “not guilty” of murder, she has also been cleared of poor parenting. ABC News reports:
“Peg Streep, author of ‘Mean Mothers,’ said she was personally shocked by the verdict.
” ‘Ultimately the myths of motherhood – combined with the descriptions of Casey as a good mother and the photos of a smiling baby with her mom – apparently proved more convincing than the evidence the prosecution presented,’ said Streep.
” ‘In a world where every other kind of love is conditional, people cling to the myth of mother love – and, of course, the myth renders the act of killing a child you’ve birthed, fed, dressed, and cuddled with unthinkable,’ continued Streep. ‘There was plenty of evidence Casey did all of [these] things, even with care.’ “
Can our narrative contain the contradictory possibility that a mother is both a caregiver and a killer? Or do we instead ignore the facts that get in the way of our narratives?
Why we still need feminism
There is a danger to reductive coverage that reinforces confining and inaccurate narratives about women, whether they are accused of murder, accusing someone of rape or aspiring to become the president of the United States. And the danger is not only to them. It is to us.
Feminism and other “-isms” reflect a collective consciousness that race, gender, status are systematic obstacles to equality, ones that may be invisible to us because they are so embedded in the way we live. To make them visible, we create policies and processes that protect us from inadvertently disadvantaging entire groups of people.
These solutions — and problems — do not rest with a single person. Rather, they affect a class of people (though the Supreme Court may disagree).
To declare us post any “-ism” requires more than cultural momentum; it requires cultural evidence that our institutions have moved beyond systemic discrimination. Then, as Facebook’s Sandberg has encouraged, individuals can remove obstacles to their own advancement and that will be enough.