How can 'mother' be a sexist stereotype?

Carolyn Moynihan
4 Jun 2010
Reproduced with Permission

While most Europeans worry their heads off about what is happening to the euro and the economy, certain members of the European political bureaucracy are getting on with more important things. Like drafting long resolutions about how to combat gender stereotypes in the media and having even longer meetings to get their ideas endorsed.

Let me say, straight off, that there are media stereotypes that undermine women's dignity and in some cases are downright insulting. Why, for example, does the weather girl -- I should say female weather person -- on my local television network always, always, summer and winter, appear with half her chest exposed, unless it is to add sex appeal to what is an intrinsically boring segment of the news hour? Since her male counterpart is always well covered up (and still more interesting to listen to) we have to conclude that the value of a woman announcer is her sexuality, not her personality, let alone her expertise.

But when Doris Stump, Swiss member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and Third Vice-Chairperson of its Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, lumps the sexy announcer thing together with the portrayal of women as mothers, I'm afraid she has lost the plot, and the attention of most women.

That is what she does in a (long) draft resolution discussed at a meeting of the above committee on May 26. In her summary she says:

When they are not under-represented or invisible, women are often represented in the media in roles traditionally assigned by society, portrayed as passive and lesser beings, mothers or sexual objects. These sexist stereotypes in the media perpetuate a simplistic, immutable and caricatured image of women and men, legitimising everyday sexism and discriminatory practices and establishing a barrier to gender equality. (Emphasis added)

In a section amplifying that paragraph she cites a Belgian study to show what is gwrongh with media portrayals of women:

Women, for their part, focus their pronouncements on physical appearance or condition, are presented as emotional and family-centred, and are shown in prone positions, in passive, suggestive postures, and with a fragmented body (harking back to a fetishist image of women) or a body displayed so as to evoke sexuality. (Emphasis added)

OK, so we definitely do not want sexualised images of women, but how are these in the same league as pictures of family-centred women? And why does Ms Stump go on to say that an emphasis on what is gfeminineh or gmaternalh (in quotation marks, as though she doesn't believe in such concepts) contributes to women's ginvisibilityh in the world's media. The majority of the world's women are mothers, are they not?

This confusion of the merely sexual (and denigrating) with what is feminine (and dignified) arises from a sexual ideology that denies the reality of the body and sees all social roles, even motherhood and fatherhood, as socially constructed.

Certainly, women play a wider range of roles today and the media should reflect that (though spare me interviews with women politicians talking about gender, please) but the idea that the distinctly feminine role of being a mother and the qualities that go with it are somehow unrepresentative and insulting to women is simply wrong.

And the idea, being promoted by Ms Stump, that they should be officially suppressed along with really sexist stereotypes is undemocratic and should be fought tooth and nail.