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Writing Women's Lives

BU Journalism Professor Caryl Rivers Has A Beef With The Media's Portrayal Of Women.

In your new book, Selling Anxiety, you argue that the coverage of women is alarmist, irresponsible, and often wrong. What’s going on?

I was looking into a lot of research on gender stereotypes, and I was struck by the huge gap between research on women’s accomplishments and the media narrative – it is the polar opposite. Women were presented as miserable: You won’t get married, won’t get a man. There’s this gloom and doom that was at total odds with the research.

Can you give an example?

My favorite example was a story about how men don’t like smart women that was all over the media. The Atlantic Monthly ran the headline “Too Smart to Marry.” One study used in the piece was done in the 1930s on a group of women who are now in their 80s. For those women, the higher their IQ, the less likely they were to marry.

How could the journalists not notice the date?

Some researchers had been looking back at this study, and their findings appeared in a journal. Somehow, when it got out, the date wasn’t attached to the study. So somebody wrote about the journal article, but they didn’t make those second and third calls to check the original source. They didn’t dig deep enough.

You teach journalism. What do you tell your students so they don’t make these kinds of mistakes?
I say, look, there are people in the research world you can call. You can get a better perspective.

You also write that celebrities get too much media attention. What’s wrong with a little fun?
If it were a little, it wouldn’t be a problem. When Anna Nicole Smith becomes the number one story in the country and we’re in a war, you have to say celebrity coverage is way out of hand.

Who is the most powerful yet undermentioned American woman today?
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, probably.

What about coverage of women in the war in Iraq?
I think they’re being covered pretty well. I think the issue is women in this country.

Then what about the presidential race?
It’s interesting how Hillary Clinton is being covered. A lot of words are used over and over, like “shrill,” “witch,” and “bitch.” They are words that would not be used about a male candidate.

But is that new?
No, it goes back to the Stone Age, probably. But the fact that it hasn’t disappeared is peculiar to here. I don’t think [Chancellor] Angela Merkel in Germany was subjected to that. We in this country seem to be lagging behind over issues of women in power.

When we do have a female president one day, what will the media write about her?
At first we’ll be covering her like a strange phenomenon, watching her like a hawk. Then, what seems to happen is, we start to judge her as a politician. Not a woman, capital W, but a politician, capital P. The problem is, can we get her to that point?
– Anne V. Nelson