Women have achieved incredible milestones in the 21st century, smashing through glass ceilings at unprecedented rates. And yet, if you look closely enough, stunning disparities remain, particularly in media coverage of powerful women as opposed to their male counterparts.
Encouragingly, people are watching and calling out these infractions. At Brave Media Network, we are dedicated to amplifying, celebrating and rewarding those brave voices who are speaking up. And of course, we are adding our voices to the fight as well.
Let’s examine three examples from recent history.
The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Trial Coverage
Regardless of who you believe or how you feel about the sensational trial, it is indisputable that there has been a stark difference in media coverage and public reaction to the two parties involved in the defamation suit.
Both Depp and Heard claim to have suffered domestic abuse during their marriage to one another, at the hands of the other party. Shocking details and jarring stories have been shared by both sides. What could be treated as a catalyst for an important discussion about domestic violence, committed against both sexes, has turned into a meme-fueled campaign of misogyny aimed at Heard.
Writer Patricia Grisafi describes one viral TikTok video to NBC News:
A Starbucks drive-thru with competing jars set up at the pay window, one saying “Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow)” surrounded by hearts and stars and another saying “Amber Heard” surrounded by frowning faces and a drawing of a turd. In the video, you can hear someone say, “Go, Johnny!” after a dollar is placed in the jar with his name on it.
Commenters expressing support for Heard are being bullied on social media, their DMs overflowing with threats and ridicule.
A clinical psychologist who testified on Heard’s behalf had her practice flooded with 1-star reviews.
Merchandise and memes have been created, celebrating Depp and vilifying Heard. These pro-Depp accounts are being heavily pushed on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, creating more than enough fodder for media outlets of all calibers, from click-bait mills to respected news institutions alike. The result has been a deluge of anti-Heard (aka, anti-woman) content flooding the internet.
The overall response in mainstream and social media has been extremely far off-balance, giving distinct “Britney Spears circa 2007” vibes. It’s as if the media has learned nothing, despite what seemed to be a very public attempt to acknowledge past mistakes and apologize.
It’s not a stretch to imagine we will see this same type of post ten years from now, offering a far-too-late apology to Amber Heard. Though, to be fair, Glamour is currently using its platform to confront issues surrounding misogyny in the trial.
Still, there are voices speaking out against the sexism being weaponized against Amber Heard and her supporters. Op-eds (mostly written by women) are being circulated on major media outlets like CNN, The Independent, Vogue, and The Atlantic. These efforts need to be amplified, shared and multiplied.
Vice-President Kamala Harris
Misogyny in the media is not always so in-your-face. Subtle yet consistent differences in language reflect a deep problem in how women politicians are portrayed.
Jamie Harrison, Chairman of the United States Democratic National Committee, took to Twitter in April 2022 with the observation:
She is Vice President of the United States so let’s respect her and the office. The same standards used for others who held this esteemed role should also be used for VP Harris! “Harris,” “VP Harris,” &“Kamala Harris” are all appropriate and consistent with previous VPs.
This, in response to a tweet and article shared by an MSNBC and Politico reporter that asked “Why did Kamala take the Pfizer pill?”
Commenters quickly pointed out that the press has never referred to a male VP by their first name. The hypothetical headline “Why did Mike take the Pfizer pill?”, referring to former VP Mike Pence, immediately sounded absurd and disrespectful.
Similarly, in the 2016 US election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it became normalized to refer to candidate “Hillary”, while articles written and headlines about “Donald” were virtually non-existent.
This begs the question: Why?
Is this a tell-tale sign, peeking out from behind the supposed “equality” of fourth-wave feminism, that our society actually has much farther to go than we think? This certainly seems to be the case.
The problem extends globally as well, even in countries that have a history of electing women to positions of power. A study by the Reyjavik Index shows that women leaders are consistently regarded as less trustworthy and less capable across cultures, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, India, Kenya and Nigeria.
In Japan, just 38% of people said they were happy with a female head of state or female CEO. In Germany, only slightly better, with 41% expressing satisfaction with the idea of a woman in charge.
Interestingly, when respondents were asked explicit, direct questions about prejudice against women in leadership, there was an overwhelming denial. No, of course I’m not sexist! Of course women can be president too!”
The study revealed a very strong “Who, me??” vibe, especially among young men, who consistently far overestimated how many women are actually already in leadership roles.
Political scientist Yohsikuni Ono of Waseda University in Tokyo, explained this:
Young, male voters think that women are already represented in politics because at schools, at universities, they see more women. These days, there are many more female students in college than men. Generally, if you think that gender balance already exists, you’re less likely to think it’s important to elect women leaders.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young
In Australia, instances of blatant sexism against female members of Parliament have become front-and-center in recent years. Accounts of institutional sexism and sexual harrassment in the halls of Parliament, perpetrated against MPs and staffers alike, hit the news.
A 2021 study revealed that one in three Australian parliamentarians have experienced sexual harrassment. One person who was interviewed stated:
Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual… the culture allowed it
An incredibly toxic misogynistic culture resulted in the rape of a staffer inside a minister’s office, and a public and ultimately successful defamation suit launched by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Hanson-Young’s suit stemmed from a November 2018 exchange in the Senate, when she spoke out about violence against women. In response, Senator David Leyonjhelm shouted “You should stop shagging men, Sarah.” When she asked him to confirm what he said, he told her to ‘f-off’.”
Hanson-Young’s epic response is a masterclass in combating the toxic masculinity of bullies like Leyonjhelm. She stood up and took him to court for defamation. And she won.
Hanson-Young was awarded $120,000 after a judge agreed that her male colleague attempted to “publicly shame” her. She called the win a victory for all girls and women who have had to be silent in the face of misogyny and sexual harrassment. She donated her settlement money to Plan International and the Working Women’s Centre in South Australia. You can read the full account here: ‘A line under this behaviour’: Sarah Hanson-Young’s $120k defamation win against David Leyonhjelm
Stand Up To Misogyny
Today, women assume more leadership roles than ever before, but we are doing so in the face of far too many obstacles, most of which are rooted in deep, poorly acknowledged misogyny.
We need more people to call out unbalanced media coverage, thinly cloaked derogatory language and the toxic internet culture that feels entitled to threaten and ridicule women. It’s time to stand up, call out and demand consequences in the face of misogyny, sexism and harrassment.
Our mission at Brave Media Network is to bring issues like this to the forefront, to get loud and amplify brave voices fighting for equality and to fight against misogyny and sexism in all its forms.
Join us in our mission to amplify brave voices aligned in the fight for women’s equality and respect.