Jane Devine: Unfair portrayal of female achievers

Media still portrays female achievers (for good and bad) as either unsexy saints or unwomanly devils, writes Jane Devine
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: APGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: AP

I’ve heard lots of women talking and talked about in the media this week; I’ve read the newspapers and watched the news and from coverage I was exposed to this week (all my own choosing and often down to chance) something I have been aware of for some time was made crystal clear. Women are treated differently in the media than men.

Now, pause that drum roll please: this is not a new sociological or psychological discovery, but this week, two stories in particular brought it home.

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I watched a programme on the rise of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. I was genuinely interested in her story. Disappointingly though, much of the documentary focused on her appearance. There were comments about her lack of make-up and the fact that she used to “dress like a scientist” – whatever that means. Later in the week, there was a spread of pictures of her in the newspapers showing her range of colourful jackets set out in a pantone-like tone chart.

This is arguably the most powerful woman in the world: she’s probably just won her third term in office and has steered Europe through economic crisis, yet the details the media highlight about her (and we as consumers seem to have an appetite for) are completely irrelevant to her success. Do we ever see documentaries looking at Obama’s suits or Cameron’s hair style?

Why can’t Angela Merkel just be profiled as a successful politician, why does she also have to be cast as a dowdy, mousy, quiet scientist? There seems to be an inability to view women who have accomplished great things on their relevant merits, they also have to be seen as sex objects, dragons, jugglers, failures, ugly, boring… the list goes on.

This is a trend that is exposed even further when it is inverted: when women are involved in terrible things, they are seen as so much worse because they are women, forget the irrelevant details, their gender alone is sufficient.

The media portrayal of Samatha Lewthwaite this week has bordered on what should be termed as ridiculous, were it not so serious. Lewthwaite has become a world-wide sensation under the absurd moniker “the White Widow” following the Westgate Mall atrocities in Kenya. Despite neither Interpol nor the Kenyan authorities officially linking her to the event as yet, she is the only terrorist we know anything about.

A woman, who might not even have been present, has become the poster-girl for this horrific terrorist attack. Why? Because she is a woman and for a woman (and a mother to boot) to even be linked to terrorist activity is apparently much worse than a man, in the same position.

It feels like we can’t see women being successful without bringing them down a peg or two by passing comment on some other irrelevant aspect of their life; but if they have committed terrible crimes, nothing needs to be added, being a woman is bad enough.