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Sexism Sells! But Is Knowing That Supposed To Make It Less Offensive?

wonderwomenIf you want to write an article that gets the people talking, one good way is to just start classifying women in random groups, related to age and hot sexxx. Hot sexxxy cheetah ladies cannot resist this delicious media bait!…The headline of this story should be, “I Really Hope Many People Get Very Vocally Mad About This Story, And Talk About Sexism, Because Then It Would Be Funny How Seriously They Took This Story.” — Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan responds to Spencer Morgan’s piece in today’s New York Observer.

This morning, like much of the New York media world it seems, I woke up to Spencer Morgan’s New York Observer piece ‘Rrrowl! Beware Cougar’s Young Niece, the Cheetah.’ Not so much because the first thing I do on Wednesdays is click on NYO.com to see what’s new (there was a day, however, when that was the case), but because it was blazing up my G-chat and Twitter. And for good reason. It is at the same time utterly offensive and utterly idiotic. The column, for those of you with other things to spend your morning on, is about ‘cheetahs‘: “woman, presumably single, who wants to get laid and preys on some poor sap who is too drunk to fight back.” (Sadly, there was no mention of a corresponding label for the guy who hangs around till the bar is closed, hoping to prey on drunk girls: oh right, he’s mostly just known as a (sometimes) single man in New York City.)

So while on the one hand I was angrily spewing away in numerous g-chat windows, frequently in ALL CAPS, and a number of times with persons quoted in the article, I was at the same time irritated with myself for getting so upset over a piece that was clearly intended to result in my spending my morning doing just that. As Hamilton Nolan observes, “A mad reader is an engaged reader!”

This we know. Everyone who has ever worked in media time-out-of-mind knows this. The blogosphere is built on this model. Cable News increasingly so. Still, knowing that didn’t stop me from being angry; angrier still that it had worked. And it does work. But why does it always seems to work best when women are shown at their marginalized worst? The answer: Sexism sells.

Don’t think so? Two weeks ago angry reactions to Newsweek‘s Sarah Palin cover stormed the air and Internet waves. Newsweek, once the co-king of the newsmag weeklies, has struggled more than most this year to maintain readership. But wow, did they generate a lot of eyes with their ‘what to do about a problem like Sarah Palin in short running shorts’ piece! Sex and political incorrectness! Voila. The idea the it never crossed long-time editor Jon Meacham’s mind that that cover would elicit cries of sexism strikes as too naive.

And then there’s the Huffington Post. HuffPo is not a media empire desperate to retain its glory days. It is a website arguably in the midst of its glory days, built on a model of mostly free contributors (of which I am sometimes one) doing everything it can to stay there by generating traffic. Traffic equals advertising equals profit. As someone recently involved in launching a website I am well aware that certain content decisions sometimes have to be made with traffic in mind. HuffPo however, has lately taken this to an often disturbing extreme with their slide shows; something they’ve been increasingly coming under fire for. Amanda Hess noted the phenomonem earlier this year in an article titled ‘Huffington Post: Liberal Politics, Sexist Entertainment.’ And while I am not one to begrudge someone their Hollywood starlet slide show, this recent, utterly offensive NSFW slide show seriously crossed the line. It also received more than 400 comments and was on their most viewed list for weeks. HuffPo’s fearless that way.

Yes, of course I am aware sex-infused images of (or columns about!) women are not new. Nor is it new that they are offensive. Nor is it new that they sell. What does seem to be relatively new though is the intentional use of particularly degrading images of (or columns about!) women as a tactic to generate chatter, or more appropriately and importantly, links! Clicks! TRAFFIC. We are now living in a world where not just sex but sexism is being intentionally exploited as a way to sell (prop up) struggling media entities. And just because I know that, and I know they know that, and I know that in their real lives the people generating this sort of thing probably know better, doesn’t make what they are doing any less infuriating, or insulting, or marginalizing. Maybe more so, actually.

Related:
Rrrowl! Beware Cougar’s Young Niece, the Cheetah [NYO]
Sexism and The City! Another Cringer From The New York Observer [Mediaite]
Hisss! Grrrrowl! Article Goads Lady Cheetahs From Their Lairs, On Purpose [Gawker]

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