Man as the Default, Woman as the Other: Fox News’ Ridiculously Pointless Sexism

Although I would be curious to see the results of an empirical look at the question, my own experience has been that Fox News is the most horrible of all major media organizations when it comes to a very old, very tired and insidious version of sexism: the concept of male as the default, and female as the “other.”

Whenever I watch Fox, I am constantly cringing at their coverage of every day news events. “In Texas, a woman motorist was involved in a collision…” “At the CDC, a female research scientist working on contagious diseases reports that…” “A conviction for embezzlement was handed down today for a female trust fund manager…”

Sometimes — sometimes — these characterizations are not all that offensive or nerve-grating, particularly where the gender ratio of the descriptive noun being used is very large. For instance, describing someone as a “female suicide bomber” might be appropriate where, in the context of the news blurb, the gender is unusual and there is no other way to convey that information in a brief sentence. And, of course, where the person’s gender is actually relevant to the story, providing that information is acceptable and expected, even when done in the clumsy “female [noun]” structure.

But, generally, Fox News simply attaches “woman” or “female” in every instance that a noun happens to refer to someone with an XX chromosome. Because male is the default; male is the normal, the average, the expected. In Fox News’ world, people are male until indicated otherwise.

In think in particular it is Fox’s constant use of “woman motorist” that drives me the most batty. By definition, easily half of motorists are women, and, equally by definition, “motorist” is completely gender neutral. Just in terms of writing style, it is offensively clumsy and jarring to the ear — why on earth use that descriptor when in the next sentence you’re going to clarify any confusion anyway by referring to her with a pronoun anyway?

Today, while on Fox News’ page to skim another article, I noticed a link to the day’s most popular stories, and it included the following headline:

Report: Female Trainer Killed at SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium.

The inclusion of “female” in the headline is, on the scale of things, a relatively minor offense. But it is only because habitual gender essentialism and female othering is so pervasive in the media that such a headline can exist. Augh, why? Why is it necessary to ensure that her classification as “female” is specified there? The poor woman’s gender is quickly revealed in the story — so how could it possibly be worth wasting valuable headline real estate on declaring it? And why is “orca whale trainer,” of all things, considered to be a default masculine term? Is there really some sort of cultural precept that considers whale trainers to be a predominantly male category?

I don’t mean to claim that any intentional sexism or even deliberate thought went into crafting that headline; in fact, what I am pointing out is directly the opposite. It is a reflexive and natural-seeming act for the authors to use such phrasings, even if the result is an awkward and wasteful sentence. But it is still sexism, of a kind, and the only way to combat the sort of sexism that is the force of ingrained thinking and not of the slightest malicious will is to acknowledge and call out its existence. Fox News ought to fix its style book; the “woman motorist” and “female trainer” bits do nothing for the quality of its reporting.

-Susan