The Femo: What recent sexual assault should teach us about women and the media

by Sarah Rubin

The prosecution of two male high school students in Steubenville, Ohio, for the rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl further heated tensions in recent conversations about rape and sexual assault in the U.S. The Steubenville case joins a series of recent occurrences centered around rape, including the appearance of Zerlina Maxwell on Sean Hannity’s television show, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) statements to military officials about their handling of sexual assault cases in the armed forces at the Senate Committee Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearings. It does not take very much to realize that this country has a rape problem.

But it does take some closer examination to realize that this country also has a media problem — in particular, a “women in the media” problem.

The CNN coverage of the Steubenville case has been widely criticized, generating public outrage at the slant of the newscast, as well as and petitions demanding an apology. CNN anchor Candy Crowley and reporter Poppy Harlow focused their coverage of the case on the “promising” futures of the high school boys charged, their emotionality and distressed reactions to the verdict, and the sad consequences of juvenile rapists being labeled “registered sex offenders.” Other than labeling rape a “very serious crime,” the CNN coverage of Steubenville eroded the agency of the boys in raping an unconscious victim and instead chose to focus on their ruined futures. The female victim was hardly mentioned in CNN’s coverage, and her point of view was completely ignored.

Many critics of the Steubenville coverage noted the ways in which coverage of this sort perpetuates rape culture and partakes in “victim-blaming” and the tolerance of rape and sexual assault in our society. The powerful backlash generated by CNN’s broadcast was a justified response to unfair and distasteful news coverage of this issue.

Yet the Steubenville coverage is just one more example of the ways in which the media adversely affects women: as leaders, as advocates, and even as high school students. Activist Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Sean Hannity’s show early in March to discuss the role of gun violence in sexual assault. When emphasizing that women should not need to be armed to prevent rape, but that rape itself should be prevented, she was interrupted and dismissed by Hannity’s response. Furthermore, Maxwell subsequently received incredibly offensive hate mail, death threats, and derogatory feedback, including tweets and Facebook posts expressing desire for her to be gang raped, beaten, and killed.

On the political leadership end, Gillibrand’s response to hearings on military protocol regarding sexual assault has also been widely discussed, and a video of her statements about the proceedings is circulating online. In it, Gillibrand speaks to military officials about the inability of authorities to claim that they are maintaining “discipline and order” when 19,000 sexual assaults a year currently occur in the U.S. armed forces. Gillibrand offers an articulate and poignant response to a U.S. general’s claims that a prominent sexual assault case was not mishandled.

Yet media coverage of these proceedings and Gillibrand’s response use inappropriately stereotypical and sexist words to describe her actions. In particular, a Capital New York article headlines the proceedings with “Video of Kirsten Gillibrand scolding military brass on responses to sexual assault,” and follows by saying: “Here’s a video of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dressing down military officials…” The use of “scolding” and “dressing down” to describe a female senator holding military officials accountable for doing their jobs is a blatantly sexualized way of describing a woman in a leadership position. Anyone would be hard-pressed to find media coverage claiming that a man in such a prestigious position had “dressed down” members of the U.S. army. This sort of coverage is a gigantic part of our problem.

When our news outlets portray a U.S. senator as a sexualized matron “scolding” military officials, ignore sexual assault as a serious crime but lament the loss of the “promising futures” of teenage male rapists, and cut off a former rape victim and serious political activist on television when discussing rape prevention, what does that say to young American females who aspire to be in public leadership roles, which often involve appearing on mainstream media outlets?

And what does it say to American females of all ages about what our media thinks about our roles and opinions relating to sexual assault and rape?

It undermines and discourages women from speaking out against rape and sexual violence, perpetuates stereotypical views of women’s subordinate or sexualized position in our society, and gives little incentive for women to try to seek positions of leadership that could potentially influence and improve policy.

Indeed, news coverage that sexualizes, ignores, or discounts female opinions and prominent female figures is far too common in our society, so much so that it often goes completely unnoticed. Women in leadership positions are too often portrayed as cold, angry, matronly, and bitchy. The popular documentary “Miss Representation” demonstrates the ways in which the sexualization of women in the media discourages young girls from seeking leadership positions in the first place because it places value almost exclusively on women’s “youth, beauty, and sexuality.”

In these examples, the problem is made worse by the fact that each relates to sexual assault and violence, an issue that disproportionately affects the female population. In these instances, female voices should be those heard most clearly, and the Steubenville victim’s future should be the main concern of news broadcasts.


photo of Kirsten Gillibrand by Freedom To Marry: