Why Is There A Media Consensus That Women Are Oppressed?

In as much as it is animated by a desire for bona fide neutral coverage, recent debates about broadcast media impartiality are welcome. But one theme which, it seems, no one has started to talk about is how impartial broadcasters are vis-à-vis gender matters, though the subject is a vital one. It can often seem as though inadequate thought has been put into what impartiality in this domain means.

Despite differences between them, a large number of mainstream feminists agree that women in the West live under patriarchy, which means that women’s subjugation is “structural”, and that they, women, constitute a discrete oppressed class.

But not every commentator on the theme is of a mind with this view. Starting in the 1990s, a number of renegade feminists, Christina Hoff Sommers, Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and Naomi Wolf, started turning one or two sacred cows out to pasture. Such is the progress that has been made, they argue, that constructing women as victims is simply inorganic, not to mention patronizing. Sommers, for example, concludes that even though American women are still more economically exposed than men, “The major battles of American women for equality and opportunity have been fought and won”. The picture is more mixed in our times: in some respects women are disadvantaged (hence the need for some form of feminism today), but that does not add up to anything systematic; men, after all, are disadvantaged in other domains. Hence it makes no sense to speak of “patriarchy” in the West today, even if it is conceded that it existed in the past.

Mainstream feminists seem loath to admit that an organic opposition has emerged. Rather than accept this division in feminist ranks, there has been a concerted effort to push Sommers et al out of the feminist fold. They are “anti-feminists”, it is argued. Or they are wrong because they are conservatives – an instance of the fallacy of the “poisoned well”. However, much to the chagrin of mainstream feminists and despite their concerted efforts to render it a non grata view, this vein in feminist thought has retained its cache, and new renegades such as Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge are taking this tradition forward, while Sommers et al continue to produce work on gender.

Mainstream feminists seem loath to admit that an organic opposition has emerged..

Of course these two groups would also disagree over what the actual nature of the opposition is. The renegades say that their opponents are “victim feminists”, but, while defending the idea that women today in the West face structural oppression, mainstream feminists would deny that they have constructed women as victims in their writings. The sociologist Rebecca Stringer argues that mainstream feminists have indeed emphasized women’s agency, thereby challenging the links between the concept of oppression and the language of victimhood, on the one hand, and freedom and the language of agency on the other. But even if we strip away that contentious point, an organic opposition remains. Does it make sense to think of Western women as an oppressed class or is it the idea simply inorganic now – and should the state and institutions in the Western world persist with interventions designed to improve the lot of Western women at this stage of history or do such interventions only serve to make everyone less free?

Contrary to what you might think, broadcast media has the latitude to deal with a number of unspecified issues in a partisan manner. Making it clear that in theory it has free rein to discuss issues as it deems fit, the BBC’s editorial guidelines, for example, state that neutrality “is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints.  Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue…” Consequently, when it comes to gender – the subject of this piece – the BBC and other media outlets may chose to deal with this area of interest in a somewhat partisan manner. But let’s assume that the BBC and other outlets “believe in” neutrality vis-à-vis gender issues. If the broadcast media is to achieve due neutrality on this matter, the issue of whether or not Western women constitute an oppressed class today and whether state and institution interventions are wise must remain moot points in its broadcast journalism. Labelling thinkers as neo-liberals or right-wingers is a much-favoured rhetorical strategy in today’s academic work, which pays dividends in that domain, but when the concern is political neutrality, such labels only serve to emphasise the need to absorb the viewpoints in question into broadcast journalism.

Brian Russell Graham

Brian Russell Graham is an associate professor of literature, media and culture at Aalborg University in Denmark. His first monograph, The Necessary Unity of Opposites, published by University of Toronto Press in 2011, is a study of Northrop Frye, particularly Frye’s dialectical thinking. His latest works deal with topics ranging from the poetry of William Blake, to apocalyptic fiction and “illusion and reality movies”. He also produces journalistic work, which critiques identity politics.