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Opinion

Bigoted language takes centre stage in American media

Recognising untruths about people portrayed in the media requires vigilance.

Last Modified: 02 Mar 2013 17:10
Kate Sedgwick

Kate Sedgwick is a storyteller, comedian, and writer who's spent most of the last five years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is director of Second Story Buenos Aires and her favourite topics are sexuality, gender, and politics.
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Last week, the front page of popular search engine site Yahoo contained many stories with "bigoted" language

American media reflects and defines the way we (here in the US) see the world. From tabloid journalism to reputable publications like the New York Times, there's no shortage of examples of bigoted language and ideas tossed out casually as "truth".

Individuals and groups of people are painted, consistently, with attributes that make bigger statements than the words themselves - statements that show how we are taught to see women, other cultures, and minorities. These are messages like: Look who isn't trying hard enough to be pretty, or trying too hard. Watch out for lascivious black men. Palestinians leaders make "targets" of companies, because they make "targets" of everything.

Countless reality shows highlight things to mock about people so viewers can feel better about themselves. This reality-show centred culture is simply a culmination of a long, and now highly marketable history which sets its superior sights on anyone who isn't white and male, and every facet of the media participates.

To illustrate how this works, I have selected two outlets: Yahoo and the New York Times.

The fluff: Just a little off the top

Yahoo is the number one US news site, according to Alexa, and Oscar night is as good a time as any to get a sample of what my country finds compelling. Yahoo's homepage* banner's top five stories at a little after 1AM EST the Monday following the ceremony is a buffet of speculative racism and sexism. In Academy Awards "news", the best-actress winner falls, and another actress wears something "tacky". From the Daytona 500, 50 Cent's greeting to reporter Erin Andrews is characterised as "awkward". Oscar-going female stars' looks are highlighted. And since Tiger Woods showed up in public with his ex-wife and family, speculation about what it all might mean must be raised.

Bigoted language is easy to detect in each of these stories. With fluff like this (though it's fluff full of barbs, like stuffing a pillow with thistle and down), that's not a surprise. At Yahoo, the foibles of successful white women and black men are apparently the stuff of high rankings. It's all about characterisation.

In the top story, Jennifer Lawrence's fall on her way to accept her award is jokingly attributed to her statement that she hadn't eaten all day rather than the length of her gown before the reveal: Oops! It really was the gown. Is it wittily tongue-in-cheek to imply that a case of nerve-related loss of appetite might be an anorexic fainting spell? If you work for Yahoo, it is.

Television star Brandi Gladwell's dress is headlined as "tacky", and the article wraps up comparing her to other actresses who have shown skin in a "classy" way. The piece mentions that Gladwell's dress is of her own design from her fashion line. Shame on her for being an entrepreneur - a tacky, "nude" (read beige) gown-wearing designer. Probably the only person at the ceremony to wear something of her own creation, it's not only her look that's being lambasted here, but her audacity in putting a product of her own mind on display. It's a low, hypocritical blow from someone who churns out run-of-the-mill copy for the entertainment of uncritical readers.

The story about 50 Cent is much ado about nothing at the Daytona 500. He moves to kiss Fox reporter Erin Andrews in what seems to be a flirtatious joke, and she offers her cheek, not missing a beat. "50 decided to show his appreciation for Andrews' work, and, well, Andrews didn't much dig it," the article says. Apparently "Andrews' work" is the way she works her good looks, and 50 Cent's "appreciation" is an inappropriate kiss. If you watch the video, awkward isn't the first word that comes to mind as Andrews continues to acknowledge rapper's smiling presence at her side in her fruitless search for racer Danica Patrick prior to the event. 50 Cent's pre-Daytona 500 joking tweet, "Damn I don't see no black people lol," is described in the article as "surely rais[ing] the blood pressure of NASCAR officials" in closing. Raised blood pressure is the intent of the Yahoo blurb, but the hyperbolic "scene" might not have been noteworthy at all had a white celebrity greeted the reporter in a similar way. Hide the white women! 50 Cent is on the loose in a crowd of thousands, hamming it up for the camera. Someone call the "awkward" police.

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Are the Oscars becoming politicized?

The language in the red carpet slideshow featuring actresses' looks is so commonplace it's just another eye-roller for feminist readers, many already getting so dizzy from eye-rolling in the Oscar aftermath that they're in danger of falling down themselves. Or maybe they just need a sandwich. Or a new dress. A false rivalry is manufactured between the first two featured photos' subjects: Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron. Since both wore white (or whitish) strapless Dior gowns, Theron is characterised as giving Lawrence a "run for her money", and the fashion house is painted as wanting to create a "fashion faceoff". Accomplished women don't have better things to worry about, apparently, than imagining their dresses are offensively similar. One wonders what a "fashion faceoff" would consist of. Would it include breast-exposing bodice-ripping? Flame throwers or deliberately spilled red wine? Beyond the first two photos, there's no commentary, though women pictured alone make up about half of the total (108) photos, dresses and bodies on display, while men pictured alone add up to about one-fifth of the photos.

Finally, in this Yahoo top-five wrap-up, there's the non-story of Tiger Woods' public appearance with his children and ex-wife. Described as the "biggest shocker" in Tiger Woods news this week, the article highlights tabloid giant TMZ's revelation that a black man spent time with his family in a public setting following multiple affairs years ago. The article goes on to state, "the bottom line is when you have two kids together there are going to be times when you have to go do things as a family". Thanks for that, Yahoo, but it doesn't excuse the judgmental attention-grab that is the article itself.

Lest you think that this phenomenon is something that can be avoided by not reading non-news news, it's time to have a look at the New York Times. This pinnacle of reporting is not exempt from critique here.

Getting down and dirty with the New York Times

In a February 2 Style section article titled "Prada Goes with Her Feelings", the thesis of the piece (reviewing shows at Milan's Fashion Week) seems to be: "... there is a world of difference between men and women as designers. One difference is that a woman will readily use her feelings to build a collection instead of an outside source..."

The author is, apparently, going with her own feelings as there is no evidence to back up this assertion. Women designers' runway looks in the piece are characterised as "giv[ing] shape and texture to female oppression". What the author deems "emotional territory" is "ugly-chic" which she says is exclusively the territory of one particular female designer: Prada.

This line of logic is clearly meant as a compliment, but the idea, lauding "emotion" as a uniquely feminine trait is one of the very same ones that was used to suppress the suffragettes and keep women and some minorities in their place and out of politics and the paid workforce throughout the history of our country and beyond. The single quote from Prada that is the foundation for the assertion doesn't indicate a factual basis to the writer's interpretation of the designer's process anyway. "I'm obsessed with this problem - that everything is forbidden. There is so much control that you can't abandon yourself to anything." Sounds like an intuitive approach to a professional woman's dilemma to me.

Even the feminine consumer can't make the decision to buy the designer's work without emotion being the motivation. "A generation of women has been peculiarly susceptible to her fashion: they feel exactly what she feels." Apparently, this female designer is emotionally manipulating her consumers, and the author is sensitive enough to just "know" this to be the case.

In the same day's paper in the International section, there's a short article about a potential Palestinian boycott of sponsors of a marathon set to pass through Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. This is a breach of international law, as the area is considered occupied territory. A letter sent by a lawyer on behalf of several Palestinian athletics groups (including the country's Olympics committee) threatens legal action against the sponsors if they continue their support of the event.

The bigoted language is a small phrase, and one that would be absorbed without notice by a casual reader. The line reads, "The letters do not specifically mention the United Nations General Assembly vote on Nov. 29 that upgraded Palestine to a nonmember observer state, but a senior Palestinian official said the companies could be targets if Palestinians leaders decide to use the new status to pursue claims in international courts."

Did you miss it? "...[T]he companies could be targets," it says. Targets. In the midst of an article about company sponsorship and legal action, letters and international law, this line is not a direct quote. As it's attributed to a nameless "Palestinian official", the threat of making companies "targets" is a dramatic little throw-away that characterises the protest as more sinister than it is and of having potentially unforeseen consequences. It's a misquote, or a half quote, or a conjecture based on a statement that the reader will never read, and it implies more than it states. Or maybe it's just sloppy writing. It's at worst an invocation of potential violence, and at best, a poorly written statement paraphrasing an official who said (or meant to say) that the companies could be targeted for legal action.

How do we change?

Examples like the ones in this article are so pervasive, they become an undercurrent in everything we see and read. As we inform ourselves of our society or stand in line at the grocery store, as we ignore billboards that hang over our streets or tune out DJs in between songs on the radio that all reinforce the bigotry we often accept at face value, we are absorbing these ideas even as we ignore them. The only way to observe them is to turn a critical eye to these "truths" we are offered and extract the real truth beneath. The only way to change it is to talk about it, write about it, and make our views known.

* Alexa makes no differentiation between Yahoo's homepage and Yahoo News in its number-crunching, though it's worth mentioning that I have used the homepage for the purpose of this article. Yahoo's dedicated news page is mainly Reuters-generated content, while the homepage appears to be mainly in-house work.

Kate Sedgwick is a storyteller, comedian, and writer who's spent most of the last five years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is director of Second Story Buenos Aires and her favourite topics are sexuality, gender, and politics.

Follow her on Twitter: @KateSedgwick

1921

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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