More on Macs
End April 16 Column

Female Journalists in the Media, Again

In March 2007, I got this note:

I am currently completing my final year of schooling at Hornsby Girls' High School in Sydney, Australia. As part of the Society and Culture course, a personal interest project is required and I have chosen to do mine on the portrayal of female journalists in film and television over recent decades, how accurate these representations are, and the values they promote to women.

Now, as a rule, I believe such questions are better answered by Prof. Joe Saltzman of USC and his site, Image of Journalists in Popular Culture. However, I do have a page of my responses to previous queries about the depiction of women journalists in the media, which, when googled, continues to bring me such queries directly. Here are her questions and my answers for your (edification?)

1. What are some of the most common stereotypes you have come across of female journalists in film and television?

Basically, female journalists are depicted as fearless and talented individuals, ready to drop their career at the drop of a marriage proposal--the same image they've had since the 1930s (you really should read Girl Reporter by Howard Good). They are usually childless and marry later in life.

2. What are the sorts of stereotypes of male journalists you have come across?

Until the 1990s, most male journalists were depicted (with reasonable accuracy) as alcoholics with bad marriages. They were married to their jobs, and they self-medicated for their adenaline addiction by drinking. Now they are depicted as faceless members of a threatening, undifferentied mob of print and electronic reporters and photographers--as are female reporters. Reporters used to be the good guys. Now they are the bad guys.

3. Do you believe these stereotypes are in any way justified? What would you say they reflect about gender assumptions in our society today?

When I started in journalism, there was a bottle of alcohol in every other desk in the newsroom. By 1982, when my old paper was closed, having alcohol in the newsroom was a firing offense. It has taken the media a while to catch up with the new reality. Again, based on my own experience, the best women reporters are single and/or childless, although that is starting to change. The media business expects you to love it more than you do your personal life.

And, of course, the societal sterotype is that a man who loves his job more than his family is a hard-working hero whose wife doesn't understand him, while a woman who loves her job more than getting married is a frustrated soon-to-be spinster, who will, as I said, drop everything to get married when the right man comes around. A double standard to be sure.

4. To what extent are gender prejudices still evident in film and television portrayals of female journalists?

Many more women are depicted in journalism jobs today, which is an accurate reflection of the changing complexion on newsrooms. As with every other kind of role in tv and films, bald, old, ugly male journalists are acceptable, but female journalists must be young and drop-dead gorgeous. And, they must be dressed in a way that is wildly inappropriate. Any woman reporter who dressed like the ones in films and television would be laughed off the street, because between the tight dress, the low cut and the high heels, she literally, physically, couldn't do her job.

5. Popular figures such as Bridget Jones and Ugly Betty would appear to be exceptions to the stereotype of glamour that is often portrayed. How would you say they have contributed to the image of the female journalist in popular culture?

They are the exception that proves the rule. And Bridget Jones and Ugly Betty are still prettier than 50% of all women journalists--and 90% of all men.

6. Female journalists are often depicted as embodying the ideal of 'having it all'. Do you believe this is a positive image young people should aspire towards, or a negative image that results in unrealistic perceptions of the world of work?

They are frequently shown as "wanting it all," but are generally shown having to make a choice between career and family. Women make both choices on the screen, but are rarely depicted as living a successful and balanced life--which a lot of women journalists do. Choice, of course, makes for good drama, but if TV and the movies were in the business as serving as role models for young people to aspire to, they'd occasionally show a woman who--just like a man--can have a family and a journalism career.

All depictions of journalism in films and on television result in unrealistic perceptions of the world of work. Journalism is frequently likened to other career fields, in which long periods of waiting around, doing nothing and being bored, are interrupted by brief periods of frenetic activity. I, myself, use to read the entire morning paper, then the first edition of the afternoon paper, then suddenly shifted gears and spent two hours frantically pounding out copy for the noon deadline of the afternoon paper I worked for. Screen depictions either leave out the long boring parts or make short shrift of them. A realistic depiction of journalism would be as boring as hell.

7. Do you believe that the tendency in Hollywood blockbusters to show journalists working for top fashion magazines or TV stations rather than for small local newspapers or radio stations has been a significant factor in painting an unrealistic picture to audiences?

Of course, the majority of the jobs are in smaller markets (in the US, there are virtually no radio news jobs left), so, yes, it is an unrealistic picture. But again, as boring as life really is on a big-city newspaper or glamorous magazine, it is way more boring in Portland, Oregon, where I am from.

8. Many films, even if they are not specifically about journalism, often include it as a subplot, for example as the female protagonist's occupation (eg's would include films such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or Suddenly 30). How would you account for journalism and media-orientated occupations being such a popular choice of career for female protagonists?

Ah, that one is easy, and Prof. Joe Saltzman of USC has written about it on several occasions. Making someone a journalist, even if that career choice is a subplot, allows them to go anywhere, at any time, do anything and ask questions of anyone, including people both above and below their social station. It provides more dramatic means of exposition than having a character talk to himself or explain the situation to his spouse. Plus, you get to do a montage of all those swirling headlines.

9. How would you say the portrayal of female journalists in film and television over recent years reflects: a) the status of women in today's society b) the values of women in today's society

The increasing frequency with which female journalists are portrayed, and the sometimes loft positions they are seen to have, reflect an actual improvement in the status of women as journalists--which is a shame, as the field is in the process of collapsing, just as they get a seat at the table.

The values of women are reflect in the female journalists most frequent conflict: family or career. As this is also one of conflicts most frequently faced by all professional women today, its depiction in the case of female journalists, reflects a values discussion that is ongoing in most industrialized countries.