A quick primer on how not to write about women
The Rio Olympics were groundbreaking in one aspect. These were the Olympic Games which saw the highest female participation ever, at 45 per cent. Of the 10,444 total competitors, 4,700 were women. And while that is just short of actual parity, we have come a long way from 1900, when women were allowed into the Olympics for the first time. That year, of the 997 competitors only 22 were women (making up an abysmal 2.2 percent).
But while female participation has changed the look of the Olympics in no uncertain manner, what hasn’t changed is the sexist tone to the coverage of women athletes and sports stars. In fact sexism in sports reportage is so rampant that it has even generated its own hashtag on twitter: #CoverTheAthlete. It was started last year after a commentator asked Canadian tennis player, Eugenie Bouchard to “give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit”. (No, I am not making this up. Though I wish to God I was.)
The reportage of the Rio Olympics provided us some gems of this genre as well. A BBC presenter congratulated Andy Murray for being “the first person to ever win two Olympic gold medals”. (Murray, to his credit, corrected him instantly: Venus and Serena Williams have won four gold medals each.) The Hungarian swimmer, Katina Hosszu, won gold and broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley, but one NBC commentator instantly pointed to her coach-husband watching from the sidelines to credit him with her performance.
And then, there was the constant comparison of women competitors to their male counterparts. Ryan Lochte, now in the news for having made up a story about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, said this about record-breaking swimmer, Katie Ledecky, “She swims like a guy…I’ve never seen a female swimmer like that. She gets faster every time she gets in and her times are becoming good for a guy.” It was in keeping then, that the day Ledecky set the world record in women’s 800 freestyle, one paper chose to lead with “Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly.” And that the Daily Mail referred to her, with a certain predictability, as “the female Michael Phelps”.
It took Simone Biles, the Golden Girl of Gymnastics, to call out this false equivalence. After winning the gold in the gymnastics all-around, she executed yet another perfect landing: “I am not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I am the first Simone Biles.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just sport that suffers from sexist reporting. Politics is no better. The night Hillary Clinton won the nomination as Democratic candidate for the US Presidency, you would have thought that she had earned the right to be on the front pages the next day. And you would have been quite wrong. All across America, newspapers great and small went with a larger than life picture of her husband, Bill Clinton. Hillary may have shattered that glass ceiling into a million little shards but it was still her husband who got prime billing (pun entirely unintended).
Clearly, we in the media have still not got the hang of covering high-achieving women without a side-serving of sexism. So, in the spirit of helping out, here’s my ready primer on how not to write about women in the news.
• Try to focus on the woman herself, without being distracted by the significant males in her life. Don’t be like the Chicago Tribune, which referred to Corey Cogdell-Unrein, who won a bronze in women’s trap shooting, as the wife of a Chicago Bears linesman. (They apologized after a backlash on Twitter, conceding sheepishly that she was “awesome on her own”.)
• Don’t compare her to a man. Or announce that she is like a man, with the air of conferring a rare tribute on her. (As in: “Indira Gandhi was the only man in her Cabinet.” No, she wasn’t. She was a woman; albeit one who kicked ass.)
• Set yourself this simple test: would I ask a man such a question? If the answer is no, then don’t ask that question of a woman either. (Sample: How do you manage a work-life balance? Is having kids the best thing you have ever done? Or even: When are you settling down?)
• Stop hemming a woman within patriarchal constructs. She may be someone’s daughter, sister, wife, mother. But that is not her defining characteristic. So don’t act as if that is the most important thing about her.
• Don’t reduce a woman to a sum of her body parts. If she is a politician like Theresa May, it is not relevant to point out that she occasionally flashes ‘a hint of cleavage’. A woman, every woman, has breasts. Get over it. (If it’s one of the Kardashians, however, go for it; that’s exactly what they signed up for.)
• Stop with the body-shaming euphemisms when describing women in the spotlight. She is flaunting her curves; i.e. she has gotten a bit fat. She is sporting a baby bump; as opposed to what exactly? Leaving it behind at home? And then, there’s that zinger: She is a ‘real woman’ (which roughly translates as: Oh my God, can you believe how big she’s gotten!).
• And most of all remember, no woman is a ‘female’ version of any man. Sania Mirza is not a female Leander Paes. P.V. Sindhu is not a female Prakash Padukone. Every woman is a person in her own right, with her own identity. Try and respect that; it’s really not that difficult.