Twenty years ago, the great Bill Hicks had a classic stand-up bit in which he imagined ad executives watching his rant against advertising, and saying to each other: “Oh, I see what Bill is doing! He’s going after the anti-marketing dollar, the righteous-indignation dollar! That’s a good dollar!” Hicks was pointing out the ability of advertising to, in an utterly cynical fashion, monetize anything and everything…even a foul-mouthed critique of the desire of advertising to monetize anything and everything.
As I watch large portions of the media hand-wring over Trump, without a serious discussion of the role of the media itself in creating the hostile, sexist environment within which Trump’s grotesque worldview can flourish, it is worth asking if the coverage is in large part about the righteous-indignation dollar.
Once again, Trump has exposed himself to be the misogynist many of us suspected. And, again – as with his racism and Islamophobia – the US media has been quick to pitch itself as outraged over his new grotesque comments from 2005.
I do not doubt the sincerity of the attacks on Trump from individual journalists. Nor is this an argument that the responsibility for Trump’s words can be found anywhere other than with Trump himself. But Trump’s disgusting comments are also a reminder that massive double-standards in how men and women are treated in and by the media are important context for the story.
Trump’s words did not emerge in a social vacuum, and, as an industrial collective, the US media’s track record on the representation of women is nothing short of shameful. There is more than a drop of irony in newspapers printing articles attacking Trump, while on other pages of their publications near anorexic models advertise clothing and other fashion items, forwarding an ideal body-type that is not only impossible to attain, but physically harmful. There is similar irony in television pundits shaming Trump’s shaming and glorification of sexual abuse, while at the same time women “over a certain age” are quietly erased from our screens in favor of younger, more “attractive” talent. Add this to the fact that in popular film and television, women are sorely under-represented and under-heard, and the hypocrisy is only magnified.
Of course, Trump is a great way for the US media to check some progressive boxes.
Against racism? Check.
Against Islamophobia? Check.
Against sexism? Check.
The problem, however, is that Trump’s racism, Islamophobia and sexism are not counter-balanced by US media representations of African-Americans, Muslims and women…it is, more often than not, supported by them. Where, one should reasonably ask, were the hand-wringing editorials on how large swathes of the US news and popular media contributed to Trump’s rhetoric by giving credence to the very insults (that women are inferior sex objects) they now condemn? Where were the thought-pieces asking why women above a certain weight or age cannot make it as on-air talent in television? Where were the pundit round-tables looking into the role of corporate control and advertising in US media in shaping representations of women? This lack of critical introspection on the role of the media smacks of a deliberate attempt to deflect and obfuscate. It doesn’t absolve Trump, but it does implicate those who control our flow of news, information and entertainment.
So, yes, Trump is the villain here. But the broader message of current coverage is that structural sexism, racism or xenophobia are only important when Trump says something outrageous. When we consider US media history, that’s as disingenuous as it is hypocritical.