Thus Wrote the White Patriarchy, “Hey, Lighten Up”

This past week brought another incidence of the media disappointingly disregarding women’s bodies. Model Gigi Hadid was forcibly picked up off the ground by an unknown man, later identified as a “prankster” named Vitalii Sediuk, who has previously violated others. Noticeably and understandably distressed by the nonconsensual and terrifying act on her body, Hadid’s reaction to the incident was first reported by the Sun as, “Not model behavior: Gigi Hadid aggressively lashes out at and ELBOWS fan in the FACE after he tries to pick her up.”

Hadid and her true fans quickly rebutted these reports on Twitter by pointing out that Sediuk—who attempted to justify his act as a “protest” and said “don’t be overdramatic” when called out for harassment—was most definitely not a fan. And fan status notwithstanding, no one has a right to violate another’s personhood and bodily autonomy.

Hadid also had an empowering message, highlighted in Lena Dunham’s feminist newsletter Lenny, for young women who face similar situations. Hadid’s response to the incident is particularly important in light of the fact that women are often socialized to deny their own discomfort and intuition so as to be agreeable to everyone around them, especially men. Referencing the Sun headline, she wrote:

What would you tell your daughter to do? If my behavior isn’t model behavior, then what is? What would you have told your daughter to do in that situation?

When my mom first saw what had happened, she texted me the picture of me elbowing the guy and (among other messages of support) said, “Good girl.” My mom has taught me the power of my instincts since I was a kid. She’d always be like, “OK. Pay attention to the people who make you feel uncomfortable. I want you to tap into that and be aware of it.” I continue to use that intuition with the fashion industry and the people who I have to be around. It usually guides me pretty well. I think it guided me in this situation, too.

Denial or disregard of women’s experiences through the language used by the media reflects and perpetuates a system in which women are perceived as less important. And when women are perceived as less important, consciously or subconsciously, there are serious, real-world ramifications. For instance, political candidates who shame women’s bodies and appearances, demonstrating their view of women only as sexual objects, are not scrutinized more heavily on their suitability for government for their dehumanization of an entire gender.

Frequently misrepresented, women, as well as people of color, might not be surprised when I say that the media often commits microaggressions.  Reporters and headline writers all too often demonstrate their implicit biases through the language and tone of their articles. The consequences are terrifying when the channels most tuned into, the news site most viewed, or the magazines most subscribed to all shape public perceptions and conversations surrounding issues of gender and race. For instance:

  • Black victims of shootings are often framed in a way that suggests their actions justified their deaths. Such egregious misrepresentation should be especially concerning to humanists, who also vigorously oppose the death penalty. Meanwhile, white victims are often written more sympathetically, and white suspects of crime are portrayed in a more positive light than a Black person.
  • In the case of reports of sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence against women, their claims are all too often dismissed as doubtful, and they’re heavily scrutinized. Characterizations of these women are often one-dimensional, as they are presented only as victims. However, the perpetrators may be recognized for their other accomplishments and merits in society.
  • Muslim perpetrators of mass killing are labelled as terrorists, while white perpetrators are often framed as mentally ill—a double standard that is troubling for its racism as well as its treatment and inaccurate depiction of mental illness.
  • Women are oftentimes not even mentioned by name in headlines. Instead, they are often referred to by their relationship to a man, even if they are the subject of the article.

This type of language reflects common experiences women have in our society. Women’s expertise is taken less seriously, so that they have to develop strategies to ensure they are heard in the workplace. Women’s suffering is taken less seriously, so doctors treat their expression of pain and their claimed symptoms with a gender bias that invalidates or downplays their feelings. As humanists and feminists, we must be scrupulous in considering where we get our news and how that affects the way we think and treat people from marginalized groups.