There are numerous reports and studies that show us the reality of gender inequality in mainstream media. Women are underrepresented as writers, journalists and news anchors. Women are also underrepresented as subjects of news stories and are used less than men as experts in their fields on news shows.
This plethora of information may not come as a surprise, but it is a surprise to find a radio show that perfectly illustrates the problem of gender inequality in media.
The new syndicated radio show An American Story, hosted by the world-renowned news anchor Tom Brokaw, airs on Clear Channel radio stations every day, three times a day, one different segment per day. According to a press release, the series features “a wide range of topics — from newsworthy current events to historic figures to notable moments in history — which impact the lives of Americans today.” Brokaw tells stories based on his experiences.
The stories focus on his interactions and observations with a range of people, from presidents and prime ministers to football and baseball players. Yet I was struck by the lack of women characters in these stories. If you were from another planet and listened to this series you would think that women barely existed.
In the first 16 segments alone male characters outnumber female characters 26:3. And as the segments continue I find that the gender representation remains hugely disparate. Moreover, female characters lack personal names and tend to be referred to as things such as “homecoming queen” or “third wife.” In one segment Brokaw laments that he didn’t study harder in school and jokingly blames females: “Too many co-eds.”
Why are women secondary in An American Story? Throughout his career did Brokaw only consider men seriously? Since he started his career in the late 1960s I find it hard to believe that he noticed no women making news. He certainly didn’t ignore women. In one segment he refers to an old girlfriend, “Sometimes I just have to say, ‘Get a life Brokaw,’ and I will, as soon as I Google that old girlfriend. Whatever happened to her? And what was her name?”
It might feel like Clear Channel stations aren’t very popular and don’t have much sway in pop culture, but Clear Channel is actually a corporation that owns over 850 radio stations in the United States, boasting 240 million listeners. Needless to say, An American Story is getting good airplay. You might think that a radio series aired in 46 second segments doesn’t affect us too much and should be ignored but here’s the rub: media deeply affects all of us.
We are bombarded daily with images, words, and advertisements telling us stories, reporting news and showing us images. Whether we like it or not, these are messages aimed at us. The stories change daily, but for the most part they are draped over a form that remains constant. In other words, picture a dress form if you will. A cage-like metal shape onto which fabric can be draped in order to create garments. The garments might change with the times, but the form remains the same. The form is the male perspective.
From sports analogies used in political races to references to male figures of history to referring to women and girls as “guys,” many stories from mainstream media are rooted in the American male experience. As women we are expected to relate to the male experience as if it were neutral. When someone refers to a leader we often picture a man – this is the male perspective. It takes the effort to make the image a woman. The repetition of the male perspective in media is a daily reminder that men make the news and women are secondary.
We are still a “rib from Adam” so to speak.
Most of the time we accept this because, like fish in a fishbowl, it’s hard to see something you are never without. Stories may be presented as neutral and affecting everyone equally, but with one phrase we know immediately which perspective we’re gazing from, and it’s rarely female. In one notable male gazing segment, Brokaw reminds us that he worships at the altar of the bikini bathing suit — “Thank God, still tiny and still mighty.”
Brokaw calls his series An American Story. However, it’s really An American Male Story. It’s fine to have a male perspective, but to cloak it in a title that suggests neutrality is misleading.
In a world with true gender equality in media, Brokaw’s vision of America would be very different if he would see women as newsmakers equally with men. But for many who have had the power of the male mirror reflected back to them all their lives, the fabric of women’s stories don’t fit neatly over the male form.
An American Story is a perfect example of how patriarchy maintains itself through repeating stories in history from a male perspective.
It’s time that the power of the mirror becomes a positive reflection of women. I have added my own “American Story from a female perspective.” Listen here!
Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker. She speaks publicly about girls and leadership. Her film Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation is about the feminists of the women’s liberation movement from 1963-1970. It is screening nationally. She is based in Los Angeles.