Written by Katie Conlon
The earliest appearance of the infamous “feminist” nomenclature in American society can be traced to the early twentieth century and the women’s suffrage movement. However, over its 100 years of development, the term has morphed with each generation, taking on a meaning far from the original. In the third wave of feminism the term, and those who subscribe to it, have come under heavy scrutiny by the media. As everyone from undergraduate columnists to heavyweight government officials have weighed in, it is nearly impossible to find a consensus on the topic. However, one thing is abundantly clear: the media heavily influences men’s and women’s views about feminism. Through its form, values, sources, politics, and rhetoric, American media is influencing a movement that has the potential to shape a generation of female leaders and to build upon the gains and sacrifices of earlier generations.
As such a hot topic in the United States, it is no surprise that feminism has received a plethora of media attention. A search for “feminism” in the LexisNexis database yields results indicative of this extensive coverage: 990 newspaper articles, 320 magazine articles, and 227 broadcast transcripts. Because it is such a politically and socially charged topic, most of the articles on feminism are editorials. It would be nearly impossible for a news outlet to present feminism objectively, hence the necessity for individuals to tell their personal stories and give personal opinions on the subject.
The 2012 presidential election sparked heated debates about feminism. One of the most recent catalysts in this ongoing political debate came from Fox News. The traditionally conservative news outlet published an editorial by Suzanne Venker, “The War on Men,” where she covered the extreme right-wing opinion by making outrageous, stand-alone statements such as “women aren’t women anymore…women are angry.” She ended with the ultimatum: “There is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature—their femininity.” Venker’s commentary on the state of present-day women outraged those on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Her editorial sparked dozens of rebuttals, articulating the liberal reaction to Venker’s conservative values.
Alexandra Petri’s editorial, “Feminists are Ruining America,” appeared in The Washington Post just days after Venker’s article. In a direct reaction to Venker’s opinion, Petri expresses bitter outrage at many of her assertions. Interestingly, Venker never used the term feminism in her article, but it appears in the very first sentence of Petri’s. Petri calls Venker’s values “straw feminism,” a fringe form of feminism that “blame[s] those terrible fire-breathing females [of] the 1970s” and refuses to acknowledge that contemporary feminism has evolved. However, Petri’s argument is so politically polarized and bitter that it loses most of its effect. So, instead of addressing the problem of redefining feminism, both of these women, and unfortunately most of the American media, do nothing more than feed a vicious, uncompromising political debate, fueled by the recent election, which proves to inflame the problem instead of mitigate it.
Fortunately, there is good news for feminism. Some media outlets are consciously trying to focus on understanding how the term has evolved over time, before political agendas beat it into an unrecognizable shape that fit their selfish re-election needs.
Two of these outlets, PBS and AOL, teamed up in February 2012 to create a documentary titled MAKERS: Women Who Make America. After a year of collecting interviews with over 100 women, the media series aired on PBS last Tuesday night. Makers focuses on the individual stories of women, and in so doing constructs a kind of quilt of feminisms. As Charlotte Bunch, an international women’s rights activist said, “When you take away the term feminist you have a hard time … The loss of the term and the political battle over terminology is a very powerful thing … and we are certainly facing the consequence of it being seen as a dirty word.”
By interviewing women from all walks of life Makers illustrates that there is no one definition or kind of feminism. To watch Makers visit www.makers.com or check out your local PBS channel.
Katie is a freshman at Ohio University studying history. Follow her on Twitter @kattcon or email her at email@example.com.
Image via StoryvilleFilms.org