The University Record, February 15, 1999

Attitudes of mainstream media a type of gender censorship

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

To see who is being censored in American mass media, you can’t round up the usual suspects, said columnist Katha Pollitt of The Nation in leading off the three-day conference on gender-based censorship held by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) Feb. 5–6.

Women are writing all sorts of spicy memoirs about pleasurable or abusive sexual experiences, Pollitt noted, and these writings are vigorously attacked by boycotts, lawsuits and the withholding of grants by would-be censors. But rather than silencing the authors, these attacks help them enter the profitable media and entertainment world, she said. And in legal contests over “these scattered cases of censorship . . . the proponents of free speech usually win,” she noted.

Pollitt was not saying, however, that censorship poses no threat today to freedom of thought and speech in America. She moved her focus to arenas and forms of censorship described by the panel’s chair, Domna Stanton, professor of romance languages and of women’s studies and director of IRWG’s Gender-Based Censorship Project, in Stanton’s published statement of the conference’s objectives. “Few people think of censorship beyond the boundaries of laws that govern the rules of expression,” Stanton said, “but there is a whole other realm to censorship that touches our lives—particularly the lives of women.”

Pollitt, the first of more than two dozen panelists, examined this “other realm” by asking, “What things do women write or say in America today that don’t get published?” and what things might women say or say differently if they didn’t censor themselves?

Pollitt offered several answers. She began by describing the tone and content of feminist columnists and pundits. A straightforward, logical, factual presentation won’t do for a feminist, she said. That rhetorical mode would be deemed “shrill, strident, boring.” An unwritten law requires feminists who want to get mainstream mass media exposure to be funny. She cited writers like Molly Ivins, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ellen Goodman and even herself as examples. Feminists must write “from home,” she said, and be “down-to-earth, heterosexual and nice.”

Susan Faludi didn’t play by these rules and found her exposure cut back amid accusations that her writing style is “paranoid, shrill and boring,” Pollitt said. By implicitly requiring a certain tone and style for feminists, the mass and elite media censor the public discourse of columnists and media pundits.

African American feminists like Donna Britt and Barbara Reynolds must meet the additional requirements of talking about their “spirituality” and regularly referring to a “large extended family,” Pollitt said.

Women in the anti-feminism camp, however, like Phyllis Schlafly, aren’t required to “come on” in a light-hearted, charming way, Pollitt maintained, and male columnists can run the gamut from homey charmers to arrogant scolds like William F. Buckley. No feminist can get away with the Buckley stance, she said.

Pollitt said Maureen Dowd of the New York Times presents herself as a “cute, mouthy kid,” and in doing so can produce columns that are so light in reportorial content as to be “fact-free” compared with her Times counterpart Frank Rich. “Highly opinionated girl talk is OK,” Pollitt said, “though a male columnist wouldn’t write like that. [Feminist columnists] are granted the transcendent validity of their own personal experience—that’s the box they come out of. But a feminist George Will would look abrasive and conceited.”

Another form of censorship, Pollitt said, arises from the construction of a phony left counterpart to rightists like Buckley and Pat Buchanan. So a male centrist like Michael Kinsley gets the “left” seat against Buchanan, rather than a real feminist leftist.

A third form of censorship, Pollitt said, involves the editorial framing of coverage of social controversies. She cited the coverage of the Charles Murray’s Bell Curve argument that intelligence is largely genetically determined. The mainstream media presents the Bell Curve proponents as “daring” thinkers who are telling “painful truths,” Pollitt said, while referring to Murray’s foes as “ideologues” who favor censoring ideas and research.

Pollitt said the abortion controversy is another arena controlled by an invisible hand of mainstream media censorship. Thus, any woman who says abortion was a “good and easy decision” does not enter the public mass media, Pollitt said. The popular media also seem unwilling to report studies that find that “teenagers who aborted unwanted pregnancies have higher self-esteem” and higher levels of achievement than do teenagers who carried such pregnancies through, Pollitt said.

In his introductory remarks to the eight-session conference, President Lee C. Bollinger, professor of law, placed the conference’s subject matter within the context of the First Amendment, an area of his expertise.

The conference, he said, “informs how we think of the First Amendment.” Much of “what we take to be First Amendment law arises out of the civil rights and anti-war movement of the 1960s,” he continued. “The current doctrine was forged out of a particular era and with particular sensibilities, and has evolved over time in such areas as speech, privacy, obscenity and fighting words.”

The reactions in these First Amendment areas against “restrictions on what are seen as First Amendment rights” lead to new cases through which competing social interests and legal interpretations refashion the relevant doctrines, he said.