This article was originally published by RH Reality Check.
Early last Friday morning, I started a workout at the gym by getting on the elliptical and plugging my headphones in so I could alternate between two of the four televisions provided. One of those sets is tuned 24-7 to sports (which I don't usually watch at the gym), another one to VHS1 (for who knows what reason), a third to CNN and a fourth to a changing array of other channels.
That morning, I alternated between CNN and the fourth channel set tuned to Good Morning America, and found to my amusement and disbelief that both programs devoted themselves to "bad men."
First, came the one on CNN entitled Bad Boys A Dangerous Trend? CNN's Carol Costello spoke about a trend of "dirty boys," warning, "they're crude and sometimes violent."
Costello then went on to point out the many popular male comedians who use raunchy sex talk, the profusion of popular male performers who focus on easy sex, the proliferation of male morning drive-time talk-show hosts who use violent, sexist, homophobic and otherwise offensive language, and the vast array of prime-time programming depicting women only as sexual objects for the purpose of entertaining men. She raised questions about the most recent spate of sexual violence and infidelity among highly-paid athletes, the culture of rape in our society and recent studies revealing that relatively little is being done to punish serial perpetrators of rape on our campuses.
And, noting there are so few good role models for male behavior, Costello asked, "Is this something men need to worry about?"
Then, I flipped to GMA, which spent nearly 7 minutes on a segment entitled "Runaway Dad Wanted a 'New Life'" about a man who suddenly left his wife and one-year old child. The focal point of this story was widespread disbelief that any man could leave "his precious one-year-old daughter."
It was soon discovered that, in search of that new life, the man had run off with another woman of "questionable character." The spurned wife and her family appeared on national television to plead for the husband to return, promising forgiveness. Friends and members of the same church as the man in question wondered, "how any father could ever leave his child?"
And I thought: Sad story, but this happens every day. The fact that a man leaves his wife and children is prime-time national news?
Except it wasn't. And it wouldn't have been.
Because both stories were instead about "bad girls."
And those of course were "national news." Even though they shouldn't have been.
Both programs had that air of forced urgency and drama, that sense of living tabloid, including the fake-ominous sounding tone of reporters trying to convince you that this particular story was so important that what once passed for major news organizations in the United States were willing to put their names on them. Both "reports" relied on and simultaneously perpetuated deeply embedded sexist stereotypes. And basically neither one of them would likely have aired if you put the words "boy," "man," or "men" where you otherwise heard the words "girl," "woman," or "women."
First take the CNN story. It was a sorry piece of journalism if I ever saw one and there is a lot of sorry journalism out there these days.
As a mom (and a woman) I was first drawn in by the headline: Bad Girls a Dangerous Trend? The clip veered from a couple fist-fighting on Jersey Shore (haven't seen it, but hey, I grew up in New York) to the George Carlin-like material of Chelsea Handler, a female late-night talk show host (so what), to the movie Kickass (haven't seen that either) and then on to Kei$ha's song about drunken sex. By this point, I was already completely confused as to what this segment was supposed to be about and what it was trying to tell me.
But then, Carol Costello came on to put it all together, presumably anyway: "While it may be just a catchy dance tune, a funny shtick and a clever movie, is this something women need to worry about?"
Is what something women need to worry about? And which women? At first I thought we were supposed to be talking about "girls," a term I took to mean "near-children" or adolescents. But now we were talking about women. Who are these "bad-girl" women?
Then an unidentified "expert" is shown stating that "It's like a hazing ritual or a badge of honor: How drunk can you get; how bad can you behave; how close to the edge can you go."
"I don't get it," she says.
I didn't either, frankly because one minute and five seconds into discussing this "bad girls trend" I still didn't know what or who we were talking about or in what age group they supposedly resided. Who was wearing drunkenness as a badge of honor? And what made it a trend among women in the general population?
By then, however, we were on to "girls celebrating the worst of frat-boy behavior as a way to female empowerment."
So was this about college women? My 13 year-old daughter? Women in my group of friends and acquaintances ranging from 20-somethings to 60-somethings and beyond?
The answer came in the form of a single "woman on the street interview" whose answer to an unaired question was: "Yeah, definitely, that's it. I think it is women trying to challenge men."
Ya followin' me? No? I don't blame you. I was not following them.
The program took a sharp--very sharp--turn to binge drinking, and warned us that "when it comes to binge drinking, sadly women are up to the challenge."
Binge drinking among women we are told "shot up" from 33 percent in 1996 to 40.9 percent in 2008.
These stats, however, are false and misleading or at least are not easily available from the source cited by CNN.
According to the program, they come from Southern Illinois University, which tracks drinking among college students and has set the standard for tracking alcohol abuse and alcohol abuse prevention programs on campuses throughout the country. I tried for a couple of hours to find these very stats on "women" on the reports cited on SIU website, but could not. I did find information about something I already knew--drinking is a problem on college campuses and binge drinking is a problem among a segment of students, particularly those belonging to fraternities and sororities which generally (though not universally) have the highest rates of alcohol abuse.
So was this segment on CNN supposed to be a program about binge drinking on college campuses? If so, they never let me in on the secret. And they certainly did nothing to report on this issue responsibly.
According to SIU's Core Institute most recent report:
The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey assess[es] the nature, scope, and consequences of alcohol and other drug use on college campuses. The following statistics are drawn from a sample of 71,189 undergraduate students from about 134 colleges in the United States. These colleges conducted Core Survey during 2006. All institutions used methods to insure a random and representative sample of their respective student bodies.
The report states:
Despite the best efforts of many colleges, the national rates of
heavy drinking and other drug use have remained unchanged for
over two decades.
Yet, the rates of substance abuse vary greatly from college to college, and some colleges have demonstrated remarkable success at combating alcohol and other drug problems on their campuses.
This conclusion was supported by surveys conducted throughout the University of Wisconsin system (my own alma mater is UW-Madison) where recent data show binge drinking is declining, and at Louisiana State University, where active prevention programs are apparently having a positive effect.
Among all students included in the 2006 survey data (from freshmen through seniors, graduate students, non-degree students and "other" students), 31.7 percent of males and 30.6 percent of female students reported "non-frequent heavy use of alcohol." Thirty-four percent of males and 18 percent of females in all categories reported "frequent heavy use" of alcohol."
A problem for the US in alcohol abuse on campuses?
A problem that means there is a national trend of "bad girls" (whatever that means) among a non-descript category of "women?"
Indeed, it is clear that binge drinking is still primarily and unfortunately a problem among male students.
Yet the CNN program went on to interview our respected colleague Jacelyn Friedman, whose sound bites on this program I can only imagine were carefully crafted to fit whatever the story line was supposed to be (and it never does become clear).
"It's a really troubling message," Friedman is clipped as saying, and Costello continues to--conveniently--finish Friedman's sentence, "that is disturbing to feminist editor Jaclyn Friedman. She says women having fun or making stupid mistakes is one thing but adopting destructive raunchy behavior is...scary!"
Freidman is then quoted talking about the connection about alcohol and sexual assault. On campuses? In the general population? Where? Who? What was the question posed to her?
Indeed, Friedman, a leading thinker and writer on rape culture, was herself furious about the final product. In an interview with Friedman, Kate Harding cites this very exchange and writes:
If you're looking at that part I bolded and going, "WTF, Jaclyn?" well, you should be. You're absolutely right that it sounds nothing like the position of a feminist activist who spends half her life explaining and decrying rape culture. Mostly because it's not her position. Not even a little bit. On Twitter, Jaclyn's explained that she actually "said there was a double standard worrying about girls' drinking and not boys', and that the trouble with the binge drinking culture in general is that it gives plausible deniability to rapists. And that we should be telling men that THEY need to drink responsibly, because alcohol's not an excuse to rape! ARGGGGHHHHHH."
Still, undeterred by the facts (or lack of them), CNN's Costello goes on her merry way:
"So is this something women need to worry or is this just entertainment?" Costello asks, adding in conclusion, "Experts say that is something parents ought to ask their daughters about."
In effect, this program was a montage of unrelated and unconnected tidbits of sensationalist media aimed at building an unproven and probably unprovable case of a "bad girl" trend. Do some women "behave badly" according to someone else's standards? Sure. I probably have more than once in my lifetime according to at least some standards. Do some men behave badly? Yes. Does the fact that some women behave "badly," again whatever that means (do they dance too provocatively? drink too much? dress inappropriately? what?) mean there is a trend?
Using apparently untraceable and certainly unrelated information depicting some unproven trend among "women," CNN wants us to believe we should be worried about being "bad girls" because of "messages" they are receiving. They suggested we "talk to our kids" (a parental intervention on which, thankfully, I do not need CNN to advise me). But I did ask my (13-year-old) daughter and my (10-year-old) son about this, and shared with them the video. They both rolled their eyes and proceeded to tell me the ways in which they each thought it was "stupid."
Even they were not taken over by the program supposedly adult people at CNN program created a non-controversy about. It would be one thing to air a responsible program on campus sexual abuse, campus alcohol use or anything specific to actual data and real trends. It is quite another to create a non-specific, deeply sexist, stereotypical and false trend aimed at calling women "bad girls." Except given the culture right now, it's a popular thing to do.
So that's why I was not surprised when I turned to GMA and got the story about the "bad mother."
It's not that I condone running out on your one-year old daughter, whether you are a mother or a father. But I also know enough about life to know that a) there are so many cases of child and family abandonment in the United States that if this is "news" we need a whole new channel devoted just to the topic; b) if this were a story about any old guy (not the disappeared governor of a southern state), we'd never hear about it; and c) we have no idea what was going on in that marriage.
So to answer Carol Costello's lament, I am not worried about the role models I provide for my kids, because I know who those role models are: They are friends, family, members of our synagogue, neighbors, and people like the president. My son, the ultimate sports fanatic, was the first one in our family to state quite emphatically how "stupid" it was that Rothlisberger was not being held responsible for his actions.
I am not worried about "women gone wild" writ large, because for one thing there is no proof such a thing is a trend for women generally, am not sure what it would mean anyway, and yes, there are some women who are "challenging" men in both conventional and not-so-conventional ways. I do know that any small step out of the roles women are expected to play is deemed "wild" no matter how wild men are or have been. I think the real fear is that women are challenging their prescribed roles. Period.
And right now I am not worried about binge drinking and sexual abandon in regard to my kids, because I talk to them all the time about what is ok, what is not and where to draw lines and when.
But I am worried, especially for my daughter but also for my son, about a culture that constantly seeks to sensationalize the behaviors of some women and apologize for those of some men; to cover women with a broad brush and excuse the behaviors of (some) men because they are powerful, wealthy or make someone else wealthy. I do worry when a supposedly respected national news source makes a mockery of reporting on something as serious as alcohol abuse (again, if that was the point) or child abandonment (not the point of the GMA story).
And on that score neither CNN nor GMA gave me much hope.