Female Journalists: “Leave My Body Out Of It”

Guest Post by Samantha McCann

The Op-Ed Project aims to expand the diversity of voices that are heard in the broader public forum, to include the best ideas, regardless of where they come from. Currently, the majority of voices that we hear on op-ed pages come largely from one slice of our society: mostly males, mostly caucasian.

Journalist Amy Wallace published an op-ed in the New York Times last week on why this might be the case. [To be clear, the Op-Ed Project did not facilitate this piece.] In the op-ed, “Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not?“, Wallace addresses the unique attacks and criticism faced by female journalists. Regardless of the topic on which they write, Wallace argues, women journalists find themselves consistently fending off attacks not on the merit of their ideas, but rather on their physical appearance.

Wallace gives an example of the kind of attacks she’s talking about, this one in response to an article she wrote on the anti-vaccine movement [emphasis mine]:

In online comments and over email, I was called a prostitute and the C-word…sent me an essay titled, “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine”…implied that my subject had slipped me a date-rape drug…Photoshopped my head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress who sat next to Dr. Offit at a festive dinner table. The main course? A human baby.

Her piece was a continuation of the discussion started by Amanda Hess, whose article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” addressed harassment of women online by anonymous trollers. Wallace focused more on harassment of female journalists, not by anonymous internet users, but attacks by well-established organizations. In this CNN clip, in which Brian Stelter interviews Hess and Wallace about their pieces, Wallace notes that “…When we see that these things happen with people from named organizations standing behind them, as if to say this is legitimate public discourse, this is okay, this is funny, that’s really disturbing.”

Photo Credit: Pacific Standard

“It’s a way to attack a woman on her ideas,” Wallace adds.

Online vitriol is not solely directed at women, of course. There are despicable comments and photoshopping of all kind that take place behind the shroud of internet anonymity. But her point is that when women publish on issues not relating in any way to sex or gender, their bodies, not their ideas, are subject to attack.

This kind of vitriol is not designed to hold reporters accountable for the fairness and accuracy of their work. Instead, it seeks to intimidate and, ultimately, to silence female journalists who write about controversial topics. As often as not…these women find their bodies — not their intellects — under attack.

The piece has spurred a lot of conversations, especially in the Twitterverse.

A lot of smart users added a lot smart additions to her argument.

Women mentioned leaving out their gender-specific middle names or using only the  initial of their first name, all in the interest of avoiding such attacks. Writer Parker Marie Malloy (@parkermolloy) added that it was “amazing how different the reaction to my work is when I go by the more gender-neutral Parker Molloy vs. using my middle name.”

Perhaps this is nothing new, tweets New York Times Magazine contributor and writer Elizabeth Weil. “Maybe we’ve been here since Aykroyd & Jane Curtin on Weekend Update”:

And the perhaps expected reaction from a small percentage of users: One wrote “Stop complaining! If u can’t take the heat, change professions. Simple.”

“I can take the heat,” Wallace responded. “Just shouldn’t have to. And neither should u. Argue w/my ideas, not my gender/race/pref.”

Just as online attacks are not new, sexism isn’t either. But these pieces both illuminated the broader effects it’s having on public discourse:

“The intention is ‘Shut up!’ and it has a chilling effect,” says Joanna Pearlstein, deputy managing editor at Wired. Last March, Ms. Pearlstein wrote an info-graphic about ammunition whose headline read, in part, “If you want to stop gun violence, start with bullets.” When it was posted online, she was labeled a “skank whore” and told that she came “across like a 40-year-old virgin giving sex advice.” And there was worse that can’t be repeated here.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors found in 2011 that just 37% of journalists are female, a number virtually unchanged over the last fifteen years. So while the kind of sexual harassment undergone by female journalists may not have (yet) resulted in a mass exodus from the profession, I wonder to what extent, consciously or otherwise, it alters the kind of stories they go after.

As the Op-Ed Project thinks about how to expand thought leadership–how to increase the representation of voices we hear on op-ed pages, the diversity of ideas that reach the decision-makers, the diversity of decision-makers themselves–this piece is incredibly important. Who isn’t speaking up for fear of being the target of such hate and perversion? Is it worth it for certain communities to engage in the public forum when they are threatened with rape or called derogatory names by organizations they’re critiquing? How can we aim to ensure the best ideas are heard, from journalists or from contributors, if, in the words of science writer Kyle Hill (@Sci_Phile) so astutely put it, “your body of work isn’t as important as your body”? The result, argues Hess, is that women are disengaging from the larger discussion. This disengagement and suppression of the expression of ideas is, as LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick noted in his post on the issue, “a huge, pointless loss to society.”

The internet moves quickly, the Twitterverse even faster. Wallace’s followers swiftly changed directions to attack/fawn over her next piece (GQ’s cover story on Katy Perry). But I hope the piece has more lasting effects. This conversation started by Hess and Wallace is important and should spur a greater awareness of the barriers to free expression that female journalists and thought leaders face. This conversation should draw attention to, and suppress, vitriolic and sexist attacks coming from well-established groups. If we as professors, journalists, CEOs, and teachers have a responsibility to contribute our expertise to the public forum of ideas, we must be able to do so without fear that our bodies will be subject to attack.

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