This past fall, Prepare was very pleased to team up with Dr. Lisa Weinberg of the CAPS Center (Counseling and Psychological Services) at Montclair State University for a groundbreaking program. An important trend for college psych services centers is to do meaningful and creative outreach to support students who would not otherwise access traditional counseling. Dr. Weinberg created a model to offer Prepare Basics class combined with group therapy, funded by a grant from the American Association for University Women. The pilot program was a success and Prepare will be returning this month to work with a new group of students!
Good intentions, harmful outcomes
The Montclair Times learned of this program and a reporter was assigned to work the story. Assuming good intentions, as the reporter asserted she had, the story was both great and problematic in equal measures. So, what follows is not a critique of the reporter, or her editor, but of the way media in general — illustrated by this particular case – habitually relies on stereotypes and formulas for how to tell a story. The result is to ruin an otherwise inspirational article by perpetuating negative and harmful messages.
Reporters, please do more of this:
- Show a lot of respect for survivors. (She did.)
- Offer a lot of detail and context. This story described the research measures, defined terms, detailed the class and group therapy structure, discussed past research, and explained the need for the class.(She did.)
- Quote accurately (preferably with context). (She was accurate.)
Reporters, please avoid these pitfalls:
The article opened with a provocative quote from one of the students, “I hope you think of me when you put your neck brace on.” Writers are encouraged to start with a something that grabs the reader’s attention.
I wasn’t present at the interview of this person, so I don’t know if she actually said that out loud to an attacker, or thought it, or wished she had said it, or fantasized about saying it should she encounter a dangerous situation in the future. It’s possible she was using a particular type of humor and wasn’t being completely serious. She’s entitled to her feelings and I’d be the last to criticize what someone does or says in the midst of the act of self-preservation.
But, by making that quote the lead sentence for the entire article, and offering no context, it implies that this is how (all, most?) women feel after self-defense class. Man-hating, overconfident, revengeful; a classic worn-out stereotype.
The story implied that the recovery benefit most important to highlight was the ability to perform femininity/conform to gender norms:
- wear a pink necklace and a long dress, feminine and sexy enough for people to notice and for other women to be jealous and
- get back into dating and romance to land a nice boyfriend.
3. The superhero card
The article, both in print and online, was dominated with photos of someone dressed as Wonder Woman. By including the Wonder Woman photo essay with the story, the implication is that women who engage in recovery work and/or women who do have physical self-defense skills are superheroes and those that don’t are, ya know, less than? Not winners, or not brave, or not willing to help themselves, or something not great.
Ways to make reporting on self-defense and survivors more meaningful
- Self-defense training, for some participants, means feeling significantly less physically and emotionally vulnerable. They might express that confidence by imagining warning an assailant about their willingness to resist. They may express that confidence by actually resisting. One student reported their relief that they resisted (verbally and physically) and ended a physical assault against them – this took place while the class was in progress. Several students in fact had to deal with various levels of physical or verbal assault and all utilized skills rehearsed in class to effectively end the encounters.
- These women’s lives, and their recovery processes, are complex and multi-dimensional. It’s a disservice to them to sum up their goals and achievements as attaining relationship status or looking “beautiful.” A deeper look at that might be framed as, “the students felt ready to engage in new and healthier romantic relationships” or “feeling more safe and confident meant that students could begin to express themselves with a wider variety of clothing and self-presentation.”
- Balance that with examples of other benefits, such as: improved concentration in class and at work, making new friendships, setting healthier boundaries with family members, standing up to bias and stereotyping with friends.
- Find a way to tell a story with words if privacy requires no pictures. If indeed pictures are essential as the reporter (post-publication) asserted to me (debatable), how about a picture of MSU’s campus, or the CAPS counseling center? More photos of Dr. Weinberg? Staging a photo shoot was not the only option. After expressing our concerns, the editor agreed to reduce the number of pictures of the Wonder Woman model to 3.
- Examine what being one’s own superhero represents to women. Why is it so meaningful to feel the physical embodiment of power, of emotional and physical self-efficacy? How does that support the healing process? How does that counter societal messages to the contrary? Think critically about why there is such a dearth of well-known examples of women who can defend themselves that the “go to” is a fictional character with super-human powers or weapons. How have we been taught that one has to have super powers to physically resist violence? We know that’s not true (at the same time as we acknowledge not everyone has equal access to the right of self-defense and physical resistance is not the only valid choice when faced with violence) but it’s hard to find examples in entertainment and news stories of women who defend themselves without the benefit of some sort of special power and/or who aren’t ultimately punished in some way for doing resisting. Stories like this reinforce that message.
- Juxtaposing the story of women who are currently engaged in trauma interventions with a superhero like Wonder Woman calls into question what you would say about women (or other survivors) who don’t “work” on their recovery. It ignores that this is not a safe path for everyone, the timing might not be right, or they might not have access to engage in recovery work, for a multitude of reasons.
Please join us each week and invite others to do so as well. Next week, a look at how different media outlets covered the story of Ray Rice and Janay Palmer Rice and the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.
 Reductionism: the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it. source: Dictionary.com