I saw something that disturbed me greatly, across two different networks. The anchors were reporting on a story where two Nascar drivers had a collision during a race; afterward, one driver’s girlfriend attacked the other driver. She slapped him and actually dislocated his jaw.
On both CNN and ABC’s morning show, the anchors found this hilarious. On ABC, one male anchor said of the perpetrator, “She could join the cast of ‘The Real Housewives of Ontario’!” (since the race occurred in Ontario.) The other three anchors sitting with him (both male and female) all laughed.
I’m the mother of a young daughter. I know that the media doesn’t just reflect the world we live in; it also shapes it. And this incident reveals something very troubling about how women’s anger is being marketed as entertainment. What message does that send to our girls? How does it shape their behavior?What struck me after watching how the two networks covered that same incident was that the laughter would certainly not have cut both ways. As in: A male dislocating the jaw of a female would be appalling, not entertaining.
The reference to “The Real Housewives” franchise (and other TV shows of its type) seemed apt to me. Networks get their ratings by stoking the poor behavior of participants. Pettiness, back-talking, and cat-fighting are the reason people tune in. Mature behavior doesn’t earn ratings. Anger management is not in the network’s interest. And obviously, the women know this, and oblige.
There are not equivalent TV shows with men behaving badly. In part, I think this is because violence between men is thought to be serious. Men, it’s believed, can actually hurt each other.
But women do hurt each other when they do little to restrain their basest impulses. And they hurt themselves. When I work with clients who lack self-control–whose anger takes a huge toll on their ability to hold jobs and sustain relationships and can even lead to legal issues–it’s not funny at all.
I’m not saying that most people who watch “The Real Housewives” think of this as aspirational behavior. But there is a trickle-down effect in society. When we watch people engage in toxic relationships, on some level, we think of them as normal. When we watch aggressive verbal confrontations, they seem more acceptable. When we see news anchors laugh at violence perpetrated by a woman, it seems like a joke.
There’s a sexism to it all that bothers me. It might seem, on its face, to be somewhat liberating: Violence isn’t just the province of men anymore; women are free to do it, too! But in fact, it encourages women to engage with the world in a way that’s more brutish. Men have often been told to curb those impulses, and now, women are being told that they don’t need to.
After all, the Housewives are, by and large, wealthy, privileged women. Some of that privilege is funded by their nasty behavior. What message does THAT send to our daughters?
Now, am I saying that no one should watch those shows, or that they need to make sure their kids aren’t exposed? No, actually, I’m not. I don’t think the answer to problems is censorship. I think it’s dialogue.
I think we need to make certain implicit messages explicit. We need to be open about what it means when a news anchor laughs at a women who has dislocated a man’s jaw. We need to make it clear that is not feminism in action; it’s sexism.
Face hit image available from Shutterstock.