It is a tough time for Planet Media. Ever decreasing advertising revenue means dwindling budgets while the demand for content rapidly grows, thanks to the Internet and twenty four hour programming. The cult of celebrity goes someway to fill all that air time and those column inches but it isn’t enough. Providers must now create stories where there are none.
One simple, effective way of doing this and one which you are probably very accustomed to seeing, is taking high profile women and comparing them to each other, often ruthlessly, with a fairly inevitable conclusion: one triumphs, one fails and we are royally entertained in the process.
While these ‘stories’ are great gossip fodder, all too often they appeal directly to tired, disproven female stereotypes. As I type, the top celebrity story on the infamous Daily Mail homepage (the most popular news website in the world, by the way) is of a woman who claims other women hate her because of her good looks. Oh yes, that old chestnut – uptight ugly-types slamming pretty girls, especially if they happen to be younger. Aren’t women just so catty? Thank goodness there aren’t more of them in government!
The Daily Mail is far from being a sole offender. Countless magazines, websites and telly offerings use the pitting of women against each other to create content that is then happily consumed as mere entertainment. For example, we are so accustomed to seeing two female stars that had the misfortune to wear the same outfit being dissected as to determine who ‘wore it best’ that it doesn’t even register with us as downright nasty carry on, which it undoubtedly is.
The stereotype of the bitch also plays beautifully into the hands of content-mad media. Cat fights, real or fake, make for a great story. Never mind the idea that people – regardless of gender – have their differences and those in the public eye are no exception, women are continually portrayed as bitchy, spiteful wenches only dying to knife each other in the back.
Whether it is Girls Aloud (Cheryl versus Nadine; Cheryl versus Lily Allen), the Spice Girls (they all hate each other, apparently, but then so do a lot of former band mates) or Lady Gaga and Beyonce opting to go so far as to record a stomping single together as a ‘screw you’ to the powers trying to pit them against each other, the media likes to depict women as embroiled in some unnamed gendered war. Quite frankly, the idea that the likes of Gaga or any successful woman, sits around plotting the demise of her so-called competitors because of her bitchy female streak is absurd and an insult to hard earned achievements.
The toxic comparisons go beyond bitchiness and catfights to weight, image and age. High profile women are compared not just to their counterparts but often to younger, thinner, more glamorous images of themselves so we, the audience, can marvel at the havoc of aging. Men retain their allure but women, we are forever reminded, don’t. For those churning out the celebrity news we so crave, there is no better, or cheaper, way to illustrate this point than juxtaposing a contemporary photo with one from twenty years ago, writing a bit of shoddy copy and calling it an article.
By inviting us to compare and critique women, the media plays into some of one of most prevailing and damaging aspects of femininity: the idea that women are objects whose worth is dependent entirely on their looks. Is it really just a bit of harmless fun to speculate about a star’s inability to lose her baby weight at the same speed as her peers? Is it an innocent laugh to compare how women look in their bikinis? And if it is just fun and games, then why aren’t high profile men exposed to the same levels of scrutiny? Would it be a step too far to suggest that we still get a morbid kick out of putting women in their place, especially those who have supposedly done well for themselves?
What happens when people consume these stories? The sheer volume makes them impossible to escape. Do we realise that what we are reading or watching is designed to appeal to our attachment to basic stereotypes, thereby hooking us in and blinding us to the fact that while we’re arguing over who wore what dress best, in reality, the Emperor has no clothes? I’d certainly like to hope so since the alternative is a very grim prospect indeed, for women and for us all.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.