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Selling Anxiety to Women: Harder than one might think

June 3, 2009

(This review was accepted by Journalism, the academic journal, but the book reviews for the issue were cut for space, so I print it here.)

Caryl Rivers
Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women
Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2007. 168 pp.
ISBN 978 1 58465 615 9
Reviewed by Danna Walker, American University, Washington DC, USA

This slim volume of media criticism attempts to make the case that the media
have as their agenda frightening women into believing they will pay dearly
for trying to leave their traditional roles. The author cites as the foundation
for her thesis her work in journalism, her experience as a media observer for
more than 30 years, and specific news stories and events that she says have
become part of the ‘fun house mirror of the news media’ by being endlessly
recycled into a dominant cultural narrative.
With chapter titles such as ‘Superwomen and Twitching Wrecks’, ‘Too
Tired for Sex, Too Late for Babies?’, ‘Hating Hillary, Trashing Teresa, and
Mauling Martha’, and ‘News as Poli-Porn’, Rivers takes an irreverent approach
to highlighting media trends.
Like other books about women’s representation, Selling Anxiety accuses
the media of perpetuating stereotypes, focusing on the negative, and denigrating
feminism. But Rivers distinguishes the media’s past mistreatment
of women – when the nation’s editors thought of women as ‘low-prestige’
and inconsequential – from the current environment in which women are a
highly desirable demographic. This change, she says, has only served to make
women a bigger target of the hyper-competitive, 24-hour news cycle.
As more women than ever earn college degrees, progress in politics, and
advance in the world of business, academia, medicine, law, and economics,
the media message is: ‘Poor dears, the price for your accomplishment will be
unhappiness, regret, failed marriages, wretched children’, writes Rivers (p. 13).
For example, she points out the hyped media coverage of two studies
in the winter of 2005. The studies purportedly showed that men preferred
subordinate women and that women’s likelihood of marrying fell by almost 60 percent for every 15-point increase in their IQ score. Rivers points out what
The New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Toronto Star missed – that
the first tiny study was done on male undergraduates rating the desirability of
a supervisor, peer, or assistant, and the second involved men and women in
their eighties. Numerous other studies debunk these ideas.
Rivers focuses in particular on the now infamous 2003 New York Times
Magazine article, ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’, which she expertly dismisses as
based on a collection of anecdotes from small groups of Princeton graduates
with affluent husbands, many of whom said they weren’t really ‘opting out’
for the long term.
In addition to deconstructing specific stories, Rivers summarizes research
on some of the more dismal statistics about women in media, particularly on
how women are seen or heard mostly as ordinary citizens, crime victims, or
subjects of soft features in television news and in print – not as authorities.
She also is effective when focusing on politics. In a stroke of brilliance,
she perhaps surprisingly characterizes right-wing pundit Ann Coulter as a feminist success story. In doing so, she captures the essence of feminist criticism
by embracing the sometimes unexpected outcomes that can occur with
any robust theory. She notes that what Coulter and other conservative women
who attack feminism don’t understand is that feminism is what has given
them their platform.
Rivers would do well to remember that power and the ambiguities of
feminist and media effects in other parts of the book. Media are an easy target,
which is why it takes deep analysis to give media critique meaning. Many
of the examples Rivers gives are informative, but many are also tired and
dated, including coverage of the death of Jon-Benet Ramsey, the Andrea Yates
child drownings, and the Louise Woodward ‘nanny murder case’.
And, at times, she substitutes short cuts for research. For example, she
cites a word search for ‘selfish’ and ‘parents’ in the Nexis database as evidence
that the media have incorporated these terms into the background of news
discourse, to the detriment of families. But a search for ‘loving’ and ‘parents’
for the same two-year period gets an identical response – more than 1000
Rivers tackles not only television punditry, but newspapers, op-ed
writers, and virtually every other type of media on countless social subjects
affecting women. While undergraduates in women-and-media classes or
media literacy courses would likely enjoy her irreverence and freewheeling
subject areas, her broad strokes are a shortcoming for those seeking an
in-depth investigation into women and media.
Rivers struggles mightily to make women the chief victims of today’s
problem of profit-driven infotainment and media ‘buzz’. But she says little
about women’s voices as independent journalists, bloggers, and leaders in a
growing media reform movement.
A book about women and media with popular appeal is a welcome
addition to the literature. But while trying to be provocative – including on
the book’s cover, which features the face of a woman anxiously biting the
corner of her heavily glossed red lip – Rivers forgets, perhaps, that there is an
essential difference between selling anxiety and scaring women.

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