CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Power, Politics, Positionings: Women in Northern Ireland (Report No. 4)

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Power, Politics, Positionings -
Women in Northern Ireland

Confined to Stereotypes

Liz Fawcett[1]

It has been put to me that the media in Northern Ireland are not "as guilty" of stereotyping women as the British tabloids, particularly in promoting women as sexual objects.[2]

Leaving aside the weekend tabloids, the Sunday World and Sunday Life, it might be said that the regional dailies are indeed less blatant. But the morning News Letter has certainly proved itself capable of rising to the challenge, given a suitable excuse. (By beginning with an example from its coverage, I do not mean to imply that it is more sexist than the other two dailies. They all stand guilty of that crime, as we shall see.)

A golden opportunity for some sexist stereotyping was provided by the legal row over the planned opening of a 'School Dinners' restaurant in Belfast, complete with waiters and waitresses saucily wielding canes to 'punish' recalcitrant customers. When the case was heard in the High Court in October 1995, the News Letter ran pictures of the would-be waitresses in their St Trinian's-style 'uniforms'. One of the waitresses was quoted as saying that the waiters actually wore less clothing than they did. (Sadly, there were no pictures of the men to support this point.)[3]

When the restaurant finally opened earlier this year, the News Letter ran a two-page colour spread. Again the emphasis, both pictures and text, was on the waitresses. The first half of the article reviewing the restaurant dwelt on the waitresses, starting by quoting one of them: "We're not bimbos, you know."[4]

Unfortunately the (male) writer then went on to declare: "The waitress at School Dinners was eager - too eager, perhaps - to point out that, despite her miniskirt, suspenders and St Trinian's style outfit, she has a brain." After being told that the waitresses "strike a variety of suggestive poses" and adopt "bimboesque" names, we finally get on to the waiters - for one paragraph, halfway through.

"The near-naked male waiters are a jovial lot, too, sporting lycra cycling sports and dickie-bow ties. They strut around like peacocks, although one was oblivious to the sniggers from diners who'd spotted his Dunnes grey Y-fronts sticking up from his waist." Perhaps not the most successful example of a male sex object. Yet, as a representative of the School Dinners company reportedly pointed out, the waiters were being represented in exactly the same context as their female counterparts. It was an "equal sexual situation, we have waiters and waitresses.

The News Letter editor, Geoff Martin, told me readers had not taken offence at the paper's rather risqué coverage.[5] I suspect there would have been complaints, however, if it had devoted as much space to the theme of 'male waiters as sex objects' as to that of 'waitresses as sex objects'. The latter fits comfortably into a familiar stereotype. But men as sex objects? Is Ulster ready for such a revolution? I think not.

Needless to say, the News Letter was not the only Northern Ireland newspaper to bite eagerly at the 'School Dinners' bait. "I am sure we are guilty of some seriously chauvinistic work at times," Mr Martin admitted. He does not believe other newspapers are less so.

When he spoke to me, however, he proudly pointed out that the News Letter had just run a story in which a woman was featured in a serious, authoritative capacity, warning of the possibility of a rash of suicides amongst Northern Ireland farmers.[6] I commented that the lead paragraph referred to the woman as a "farmer's wife". Mr Martin thought the label had been one she had chosen. Having spent many years as a journalist, I can believe this.

In my experience, women are not eager to put themselves forward as spokespeople. They are often anxious to stress they are only so-and-so's wife or helper, or that they are not very good at speaking in public. Women's internalised beliefs are every bit as much a product of the patriarchal society in which we live as the stereotypes that saturate newspapers, television and radio.

The News Letter's nationalist counterpart, the Irish News, issues guidelines to its journalists on avoiding sexism.[7] This includes avoiding sexist comments in reports and captions, and steering clear of terms such as 'businessman', 'mothers' (why not 'parents'?) and 'manning'. Recently, the Irish News ran a full-page preview of a special conference on women in business, with quotes from a number of women who ran their own enterprises.[8] The underlying theme was undoubtedly a positive 'you can do it, too' message to women. Yet four of the accompanying advertisements were concerned with a different message - how women might enhance their looks.

The conference itself was featured in the paper's recently-introduced pull-out business section.[9] I was impressed by this as I failed to find coverage of the event in the other regional dailies. Yet, it was not deemed newsworthy enough for more than a small mention on the news pages, despite being addressed by one of the leading female political figures in the Republic of Ireland, Mary O'Rourke, and the republic's insurance ombudsman, Paulyn Marrinan Quinn.

A much more prominent news story in the same issue of the Irish News was devoted to a more familiar theme: 'Women find how they can lose those pounds'. At least the organisers of the initiative featured in this article said they were planning to run a special session for men as well!

The preoccupation of the regional dailies with women's looks was very evident when Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Northern Ireland late last year. In a scathing article in the News Letter, headlined 'Sombre look does little for Hillary', Sandra Chapman castigated the us First Lady's dress sense - or lack of it.[10] "Did she think she was coming to Siberia with that heavy dark coat buttoned up to her chin as she stepped off the plane at Aldergrove?" sneered Ms Chapman. "Hillary has rarely capitalised on her magnificent colouring. She has excellent skin and keeps her hair lightened. At this time of year, she could have added a splash of colour as she stepped out ... Instead, she appears to have been subsumed by the White House officials, many of whom have seen her as interfering too much in politics." Quite so - a woman should know her rightful place.

Ms Clinton's only foray into politics in Belfast was also put in its rightful place by the Northern Ireland press. 'Hillary gets a woman's view over a cuppa' was how the evening Belfast Telegraph headlined her meeting with female community representatives. 'Teatime tonic for First Lady: Hillary sips a cuppa on the Ormeau' was the Irish News version. The News Letter's two headlines stressed the serious side a little more: 'Hillary drops in for chat' and 'First ladies of peace "can teach the world"'.[11] But one article began: "She's small, a bottle blonde, surrounded by minders and she likes jogging - no, not Madonna, the other material girl, Presidential partner Hillary Clinton."

To its credit, the News Letter was more informative about what was discussed at the Lamplighter café meeting. Gail Walker of the Telegraph seemed captivated by the teapot and the "strong smell of turkey roasting in the kitchen". Anna-Marie McFaul of the Irish News described the teapot, the mug from which Ms Clinton sipped her tea, the First Lady's clothes and her make-up, ending: "Presumably it is a visit which Mrs Clinton will ... remember every time she puts her feet up and enjoys a hot cup of tea."

Clearly, her media aides must take some of the blame for the cosy domestic image the newspapers presented. It fits in beautifully with the stereotype so often accorded to women's participation in politics - as concerned with domestic issues and primarily an extension of women's 'natural' homemaker role. Meanwhile, the men-Hillary's husband in this case-get on with 'real' politics. The women just play. Indeed, even though the News Letter did tell us in some detail what was said at the meeting on the Ormeau Road, it trivialised the event in one telling line: "... while Hillary dallied [my italics] with the women inside the Lamplighter café, the crowd [outside] swelled to over 400."

The keen-eyed reader may have noticed that the journalists I have just named as being 'guilty' of promoting stereotypes are all women. Perhaps their copy was edited by male sub-editors; perhaps not. A glance at almost any newspaper will show that many female writers are just as capable as their male counterparts of neatly fitting (whether consciously or unconsciously) into a patriarchal view of society This is not to suggest that the under-representation of women in Northern Ireland's news industry should not be urgently addressed.

The current situation was outlined in stark terms in a recent report by the Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement and Downtown Women's Centre.[12] Who's Making the News? found that only 24 per cent of editorial staff on Belfast newspapers were women, while women occupied just 13 per cent of management positions. This reflects the UK-wide situation. Only a quarter of respondents to a recent British survey of journalists were female.[13]

My own research, concerning women journalists in BBC Northern Ireland, suggests matters may be improving but are still unsatisfactory.[14] In August 1995, 37 per cent of the editorial staff in news and current affairs at Broadcasting House in Belfast were women. At that time, none of the five top jobs was held by a women. One has since been appointed to a senior post.

If some female journalists perpetuate a patriarchal view of society, it is because men still hold most of the powerful jobs, both in Northern Ireland's media and in every other realm in the region. I often gaze longingly at the pages of the Irish Times - filled (relatively speaking!) with pictures of, and quotes from, women in positions of power. Yet the Irish Times does not try to 'positively discriminate' in favour of female subjects or interviewees. According to one of its managing editors, David Nowlan, "persons of both genders are interviewed normally on the basis of their newsworthiness or their interest to readers. To attempt any kind of 'balance' between genders in this respect would make a nonsense of trying to cover news as it happens."[15]

Yet, the powerful define what is news. The media look to government, party leaders, prominent business people, the police and the churches-to make the news and to make the statements that can be treated as 'authoritative in news reports. With a few exceptions, this élite in Northern Ireland consists of men. Those who want to stop seeing women stereotyped and marginalised in its media face two choices: they can wait for society to change or they can try to initiate some change themselves. To its credit, BBC NI has chosen the latter option, and is compiling a directory of female contributors to bring more women on air.[16]

Despite the reservations expressed by the Irish Times, such an approach is well worthwhile. If women in certain organisations start appearing on radio and TV, they are likely to be valued more highly by their own organisations, and their self-confidence is likely to rise. Moreover, they will be providing role models for other women and, hopefully, will help men view women in a new light.

The newspaper editors who wrote or spoke to me in connection with this chapter were all anxious to stress their commitment to equal opportunities for women, in employment and in media coverage. Mr Martin told me he believed women in Northern Ireland should be applying more pressure on the media to change their approach.

Again, however, power and credibility come to the fore. If a senior politician or church leader in the region took the media to task over their portrayal of women, editors might sit up and listen. If a women's group issued a similar statement, would their initiative really be enough to persuade an editor drastically to alter the style of coverage - given the hierarchy of credibility that exists in this society? (Indeed, how much coverage would such a statement receive?)

As they announced their candidates for the elections last May, a number of political parties in the region seemed anxious to stress their proportion of female runners. If those parties stopped paying lip-service to women and started tackling sexism and sexual discrimination head-on, the stifling patriarchal cloud that hangs over Northern Ireland would begin to lift.

In the meantime, those in positions of power within the region's media could do their bit to shift that cloud just a little.


1The author would like to thank the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, Irish Times and News Letter for their help in providing information for this chapter. She would also like to thank the following former students: Steven Alexander, Amanda Coulter, John Fenton, Nigel Oguoko, Rita Silva and Lauraine Summer. Their project work on regional newspaper coverage of the visit in late 1995 to Northern Ireland of the us president, Bill Clinton, highlighted the points made in this chapter about the way the press handled the event.
2correspondence with the author
3 News Letter, October 21st 1995; other issues of the paper that month also covered the story
4News Letter, February 19th 1996
5telephone interview with the author, May 2nd 1996
6News Letter, May 5th 1996
7information provided by the editor, Tom Collins
8 Irish News, April 24th 1996
9Irish News, May 9th, 1996
10 News Letter, December 1st 1995
11 Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter, December 1st 1995
12 Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement and Downtown Women's Centre, Who's Making the News?: Women in the Media Industry in Northern Ireland, Belfast, 1996 (available from DWC, 30 Donegall St, Belfast BT1 2GQ)
13 Anthony Delano and John Henningham, The News Breed: British Journalists in the 1990s, London Institute, London, 1995
14 Liz Fawcett, 'The long haul to equality: women journalists at the BBC in Belfast', in Martin McLoone ed, Broadcasting in a Divided Community: Seventy Years of the BBC in Northern Ireland, Institute of Irish studies, Belfast, 1996
15 quoted from correspondence with the author
16 This information is contained in correspondence received by the author in connection with the scheme.

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