A woman’s worth

We’ve come such a long way, but there is still so far to go.

Despite our advancements in representation, or perhaps because of them, women’s voices in the media continue to be marginalised and denigrated. We are often segregated by our sex – female-indentifying individuals are put in boxes, or indeed newspaper sections; our work is literally painted pink, and those of us with children are reminded constantly of our biological functioning and how that makes us different.

A recent example of this marginalisation occurred as The Age made its historic move from broadsheet to tabloid size. The website, too, underwent a transformation. The new Age online is cleaner, with easily defined columns and sections of content. If you are one of the 588,000-strong audience of the Daily Life subset it would have taken you some time to find its section – and then discovered that it had been re-branded under the banner of ‘Women’s Perspective’.

Cue social media shit-storm.

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The site, much beloved by women and men, had been reduced to a niche interest, 1950s style news-lite afterthought. (Note: Daily Life the publication is still called Daily Life, it was only the section header in The Age that had been re-named, which ‘was not Daily Life’s decision,’ says editor Sarah Oakes.) Daily Life is ‘proudly female-biased’ in terms of contributors and content, for the purpose of redressing the imbalance in the rest of the media. The problem with Women’s Perspective was all in the name. It suggests, ‘You’ve read the real news, now here are some women yacking on about women’s stuff.’ It suggests that women’s issues and interests are only important to women, that only women have these perspectives, and it suggests that only women read and write for DL. All of which are false, and it reveals the sexism behind the decision to label DL as such.

It only took about a day for Women’s Perspective to be changed back to Daily Life, but one thing about the reformatting remains – its physical position on the website. To find DL one must scroll past nine other sections: Federal, Editor’s Picks, Video, Business (including Executive Style), Entertainment, Lifestyle, and Food & Wine. DL is still essentially a flimsy lifestyle blog by The Age’s standards.

While placement and ill-fated branding marginalised the voices of the women contributors (and even the men contributors writing on ‘women’s issues’) of DL, there are other media industries in which this occurs.

Take the term, ‘mummy blogger’, for women who write blogs about life and motherhood. That writing about something as profound, stimulating and difficult as motherhood is reduced to this babyish and light-sounding label goes to show how much the mother’s voice is valued, even if some bloggers apply it to themselves (hello, internalised sexism!). There is no ‘daddy blogger’ label, and if there is, it is nowhere near as widespread as the maternal equivalent. A man who writes about fatherhood – like the man who publically pushes a pram – is regarded as a shining example of manhood, a rarity, as a man going above and beyond the call of duty – when, really, they’re performing the absolute basics of parenting. When the woman writes about motherhood, she is seen as irrelevant, unimportant, or worse: fussy, emotional, and too bodily and physical with all of her functionings. ‘Mummy’ removes her sexual agency, her autonomy, as she is identified by her relationship to her child. Her writing about her work (as child-rearing is work) is denigrated while her male or childless counterparts are praised and celebrated for writing about ‘real’, relatable issues.

Consider also ‘chick lit’. It refers to a genre of fiction in which women write about womanhood (i.e., their LIFE), often lightheartedly. But publishers also apply the term far more liberally, using it to categorise any fiction written by women. Recently, the famous American Modernist Sylvia Plath’s novel ‘The Bell Jar’ was reissued to celebrate 50 years since first publication. It takes one with only the slightest knowledge of Plath to know that her work would never have been considered chick lit. Plath is perhaps most well known for her internal struggles with mental issues, much of which is popularly extracted from her poetry and prose. Yet, on the 50th reissue, the cover design for the book was positively chick lit – a red cover featuring an image of a woman applying powder to her face, her red, slightly smiling lips reflected in her compact mirror, with the title in delicate, cursive script. It’s an overly feminine and commercial representation, vastly different from the actual content of the book. I use this example because it demonstrates publishers’ zeal to categorise women’s writing – even incorrectly – as chick lit.

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The problem for women has always been that the genre lacks the ‘credibility’ of men’s writing. The genre where women writers make the most money – romance – is likewise denigrated as non-serious, easy, fluff – the stuff you’d be embarrassed to read on the train. When women do write ‘like men’, publishers either want them to write under a male pseudonym or gender ambiguous initials because of a bias against women that doesn’t believe they can write ‘serious’ novels. Otherwise, publishers market the work as chick lit. Women writers either have to masquerade as men, or dress up their work as hyper-feminine. Genuine chick lit is considered unimportant because it lacks ‘masculine’ intellectualism – the bias of which can be traced back to the Cartesian dualism that values the mind (masculine) over the body (feminine). There is little room for the woman writer.

The terms, ‘Women’s Perspective’, ‘mummy blogger’ and ‘chick lit’ have several aspects in common: they serve to infantalise, de-sexualise and de-intellectualise women’s voices. These terms make the woman’s words passive and non-threatening. Nothing she produces is serious, critical, cerebral or aggressive; her work can be safely tucked away into a niche corner, despite women being a majority – 51% of the world’s population.

Her place is reinforced as domestic and social. On The Age website, Daily Life/Women’s Perspective is kept far away from the Business section and its telling blog, Executive Style. Exec Style is a men’s lifestyle section without the too-feminine sounding ‘lifestyle’ label. All men are executives, apparently.

The marginalisation of women’s voices needs to stop. We need to stop defining a writer or media maker’s work on the basis of their gender or familial status. This does not mean abolishing women-only or women-biased spaces, such as Daily Life, as these are important for redressing the current underrepresentation in the mainstream. However we need to stop considering women as a niche, fringe or lesser group – we must recognise the common humanity of male and female-identifying individuals, and the common worth of their voices, experience and contributions.

When we talk about women, we must be including trans women, queer women and women of colour. We must avoid gendering content and using cheap, inaccurate stereotypes and essentialisms.

We must strive for equal representation. Organisations must know their stats and, if a bias against women exists, actively do something about it. Challenge the fallacious meritocracy that under-represents everyone but straight white men. This involves encouraging more women to become media makers, training them, actively seeking their work and making space for their content. This is not about placating noisy feminists; this is about recognising human value, and making our media landscape better because of it.

Jessica Alice edits poetry for Voiceworks magazine, produces Spoken Word and Women on the Line for 3CR 855AM, and co-presents the feminist podcast Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. She blogs at hersute.tumblr.com and tweets @jessica_alice_.

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