The Bullying of Women in the Media

I’ve been following the hubbub over Wisconsin TV anchor Jennifer Livingston for the past few days with only a passing interest, but after reading the latest news of Kenneth Krause’s half-hearted apology (“I’m sorry you were offended” is never a proper apology), I’d like to express my thoughts on the matter.

Part of Krause’s rationale for his email was his experience being “obese as a child.” I’m tempted to go into the fat-kid-internalized-childhood-hate-and-now-spews-it-as-an-adult territory, but the email reads as more condescending than hateful — a more subversive kind of harassment.

My first question is, how much of his motivation lay in the fact that Livingston is a woman? Women are routinely held to a stricter standard in terms of appearance, and they are also easier to harass because they don’t fight back. Would he write the same email to a male anchor?

When this topic was brought up in my Writing & Reporting class, some of my classmates said it was unprofessional of Livingston to take time on-air to address a private letter. Livingston has said that she only addressed it because of the response she received on Facebook after her husband posted the letter; I’m sure that being a mother of three daughters also influenced her decision. While I don’t think I would’ve made the same decision as Livingston, I support her actions. Any time a woman defends herself in the media is a victory. Women are frequently criticized publicly: If she’s attractive, she’s probably fake or a slut. If she’s ugly, well, she could go die in a fire and nobody would care. If she doesn’t want children, she’s a selfish, emasculating dragon lady. If she’s a mother, she’s probably doing a million things wrong like feeding her children processed food and being too tired to have sex with her partner. This unrelenting public criticism makes it even easier for private individuals to judge one another and believe that it is necessary (and even good) to call out a woman’s “mistakes.”

In his email, Krause suggests that Livingston is a bad example “for this community’s young people, girls in particular.” OK, first of all, what kind of young people are watching the local news and using the anchors as role models? When I was a teenager, those people were old and boring as far as I was concerned. (Kids these days are too glued to their cell phones anyway.) Second of all, as a woman news anchor, Livingston is an excellent example to girls who want to be successful professionals and working mothers.

There’s been some controversy over Livingston’s use of the word “bully.” Stephanie Hanes at the Christian Science Monitor argues that Livingston’s misappropriation of the word “stops the conversation and leads to a fight over the label rather than the content.” Um, the drastic irony here is that Hanes, who begins to make a substantial point about Krause’s “unacceptable” and “sexist” criticism, veers off to point out how one email doesn’t equal bullying. Wow. And Linda Stasi at the New York Post (why was I reading that anyway?) actually goes so far as to accuse Livingston as being the bully (what?). The “you can’t complain about your life because people out there/people like me have it worse!” argument is not valid. And the way Stasi describes other female anchors’ “ample chests” makes it pretty clear that she has no problem judging other women. The fact that most of the commenters agree with her reasoning just makes my head hurt.

It’s worth reiterating Livingston’s point that overweight people know they’re overweight — especially if they’re women on TV — and have probably tried to combat it and don’t need the condescending advice of others. The only issue I have with Livingston’s response is the line “…your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.” Whoa, lady. I know what she’s getting at, but as much as the word is used in that manner, I don’t accept the word “fat” as a flat-out insult, and it’s not helpful to frame it that way.

Other than that, Livingston’s response was measured and well thought out. She didn’t bother naming Krause because she wanted to use the situation as a jumping-off point for a lesson about the true example people set for their children. We need to foster an environment where children choose healthy lifestyles out of self-love and not self-loathing, and I think that both Livingston and Krause were trying to promote that message (the latter in a more…roundabout way). The fact that his identity was even dug out was, I suppose, an inevitability of this era. But it does make for a better discussion, and I hope that women in positions to speak publicly continue to defend themselves should the chance arise.

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