Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Why the media attempts to demonise young women

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Over the last few years we have seen a resurgence in women struggling for social change in many parts of the world. These struggles have developed a renewed understanding of the need to fight back against constant attacks on women’s bodies and women’s rights in all aspects of life. The anti-rape movement in India, the grassroots response to attacks on abortion rights in Texas, and the mass mobilisation of women in Melbourne in response to Jill Meagher’s murder are all examples of this.

Recently we have also seen a rise in the number of headlines depicting ‘out-of-control’ teenage ‘feral’ girls. Numerous stories in the Australian mainstream media have created an image of drunken, uneducated women thugs terrorising our streets. These representations have pushed the idea that women are increasingly the perpetrators of violence as much as they are the victims.

The recent widespread coverage of an incident whereby two teenage girls on a Melbourne train threw their drink at a stranger who grabbed one of them by the leg was an absurd example of this media trend. An older man was allegedly set upon by these young women who were described in articles and news coverage as ‘feral’ and ‘berserk’. Even though the man initiated the physical confrontation, the young women were blamed. The man explained that the incident made him wonder “what is this world coming to?”

The Age newspaper recently published an investigative piece titled ‘Girls Gone Wild’ –searching for the reasons behind this rise in violence perpetrated by young women. It suggested economic disadvantage, little respect from the community and bombardment with materialistic images were motivating factors behind women engaging in crime and violence. This article attempted to set a more serious tone than some other media outlets, but it too failed to identify the real issues.

For women, the reality of life – whether walking down the street, going to a bar or nightclub or using public transport – is daily harassment, ‘catcalling’, threats of violence and sexual assault. These incidents are so common they are rarely mentioned in normal conversations between friends, let alone headlines. The problem is endemic.

The reality of home life for many women is no less terrifying. Half of all reported assaults in Victoria last year happened in the home and against women. Public shame about domestic violence leaves no doubt that the real figure is much higher. Domestic violence is the leading cause of depression, illness and death for women in Australia.

There are constant reminders in the media that women who are victims of violence will have their lifestyles and jobs scrutinised for signs that they were asking for it. Following Jill Meagher’s murder, her husband made the sad (yet valid) observation that if society took violence against sex workers seriously – Meagher’s murderer had previously attacked sex workers and gotten off lightly – she might never have been killed.

This was reinforced in July when Tracy Connelly was murdered in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. Unlike Meagher, her name didn’t even make it into the headline. Rather Connelly was depicted as a St Kilda prostitute ‘who knew her work was dangerous’.

So why then, in a society where violence against women is the norm, is there such an interest in reporting on the much, much lesser issue of violence perpetrated by women?

The demonisation of young women from poor backgrounds in the mainstream press as ‘ferals’ who can ‘give as good as they take’ cannot be separated from the agenda of the political parties that represent the business elite in Australia. Against the backdrop of a worsening economic situation the ruling circles are looking to protect their profits and find ways to justify doing so.

As economic growth slumps the government sees two options: increase government revenue by increasing taxes on business or make cuts to public spending on things like services and welfare. Both Liberal and Labor have made it clear they will not increase business taxes, but will instead implement austerity against ordinary people.

This means reversing or halting policies and initiatives that benefit women, like increasing wages in the public and community sectors (where a higher proportion of women work) in the name of equal pay, increasing funding for childcare, providing a living wage for single parents, ensuring there is adequate public housing for women escaping domestic violence and so on.

Rather than acknowledging the importance of funding these services, the narrative pushed by the government, big business and the corporate media is that the problems women face are of their own making. Such ideas are used to justify cuts to services women disproportionately rely upon and industries they work in.

In this context, the ‘girls gone wild’ stories are just another attempt to strengthen the case for counter reforms to the welfare system. Reducing welfare payments helps reduce government spending. It is no coincidence that in these articles right-wing commentators like Les Twentyman are wheeled-out to suggest that the answer to so-called female street violence is military conscription, rather than providing proper support services.

While socialists are not supporters of anti-social behaviour, we must point out that the issue is vastly overstated and can only be understood in the context of institutionalised sexism and attacks on living standards more generally.

By keeping men and women divided it is much easier for governments to get away with implementing austerity. What big business and their representatives in parliament fear the most is a joint struggle against their profiteering at the expense of ordinary people.

In response, we must unite both men and women in a fight for equal rights, decent welfare payments, accessible public housing, quality public education, job security and an end to sexism, harassment and violence against women. Only such a movement form below can help provide genuine security in people’s lives and counter the ongoing attempts to demonise women.

It is clear that we cannot rely on politicians from the major parties to improve women’s lives. Regardless of their gender, politicians from the major capitalist parties support the profit driven market system. Julia Gillard, for example, initially came to power thanks to the backing of a powerful, anti-abortionist faction within the ALP. She was first and foremost a representative of pro-business ALP politics rather than a representative of ordinary women.

Despite this, Gillard presented herself as a champion of women’s rights. Careful cultivation of this image allowed her to get away with slashing welfare payments for single mothers whilst decrying misogyny all on the same day.

Many women felt that Rudd’s coup against Gillard reflected society’s sexism. This is because the misogynistic antics of many of Gillard’s political opponents gelled with many women’s experiences of sexism in their daily lives. Unfortunately Gillard was no more a representative of ordinary women than any other politician from the major parties.

The only way to genuinely challenge the sexism inherent in capitalism is to take the wealth and resources out of the hands of big business and into the hand of ordinary people. A society that prioritises human need over corporate greed has no need to demonise and oppress women for economic gain.

By Chris Dite


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