Women In Journalism Movies

By Paul E. Schindler Jr.

[see e-mail ID at the bottom of this file]
Revision History

In March 2007, I got this note:

I am currently completing my final year of schooling at Hornsby Girls' High School in Sydney, Australia. As part of the Society and Culture course, a personal interest project is required and I have chosen to do mine on the portrayal of female journalists in film and television over recent decades, how accurate these representations are, and the values they promote to women.

Now, as a rule, I believe such questions are better answered by Prof. Joe Saltzman of USC and his site, Image of Journalists in Popular Culture. However, I do have a page of my responses to previous queries about the depiction of women journalists in the media, which, when googled, continues to bring me such queries directly. Here are her questions and my answers for your (edification?)

1. What are some of the most common stereotypes you have come across of female journalists in film and television?

Basically, female journalists are depicted as fearless and talented individuals, ready to drop their career at the drop of a marriage proposal--the same image they've had since the 1930s (you really should read Girl Reporter by Howard Good). They are usually childless and marry later in life.

2. What are the sorts of stereotypes of male journalists you have come across?

Until the 1990s, most male journalists were depicted (with reasonable accuracy) as alcoholics with bad marriages. They were married to their jobs, and they self-medicated for their adrenaline addiction by drinking. Now they are depicted as faceless members of a threatening, undifferentied mob of print and electronic reporters and photographers--as are female reporters. Reporters used to be the good guys. Now they are the bad guys.

3. Do you believe these stereotypes are in any way justified? What would you say they reflect about gender assumptions in our society today?

When I started in journalism, there was a bottle of alcohol in every other desk in the newsroom. By 1982, when my old paper was closed, having alcohol in the newsroom was a firing offense. It has taken the media a while to catch up with the new reality. Again, based on my own experience, the best women reporters are single and/or childless, although that is starting to change. The media business expects you to love it more than you do your personal life.

And, of course, the societal sterotype is that a man who loves his job more than his family is a hard-working hero whose wife doesn't understand him, while a woman who loves her job more than getting married is a frustrated soon-to-be spinster, who will, as I said, drop everything to get married when the right man comes around. A double standard to be sure.

4. To what extent are gender prejudices still evident in film and television portrayals of female journalists?

Many more women are depicted in journalism jobs today, which is an accurate reflection of the changing complexion on newsrooms. As with every other kind of role in tv and films, bald, old, ugly male journalists are acceptable, but female journalists must be young and drop-dead gorgeous. And, they must be dressed in a way that is wildly inappropriate. Any woman reporter who dressed like the ones in films and television would be laughed off the street, because between the tight dress, the low cut and the high heels, she literally, physically, couldn't do her job.

5. Popular figures such as Bridget Jones and Ugly Betty would appear to be exceptions to the stereotype of glamour that is often portrayed. How would you say they have contributed to the image of the female journalist in popular culture?

They are the exception that proves the rule. And Bridget Jones and Ugly Betty are still prettier than 50% of all women journalists--and 90% of all men.

6. Female journalists are often depicted as embodying the ideal of 'having it all'. Do you believe this is a positive image young people should aspire towards, or a negative image that results in unrealistic perceptions of the world of work?

They are frequently shown as "wanting it all," but are generally shown having to make a choice between career and family. Women make both choices on the screen, but are rarely depicted as living a successful and balanced life--which a lot of women journalists do. Choice, of course, makes for good drama, but if TV and the movies were in the business as serving as role models for young people to aspire to, they'd occasionally show a woman who--just like a man--can have a family and a journalism career.

All depictions of journalism in films and on television result in unrealistic perceptions of the world of work. Journalism is frequently likened to other career fields, in which long periods of waiting around, doing nothing and being bored, are interrupted by brief periods of frenetic activity. I, myself, used to read the entire morning paper, then the first edition of the afternoon paper, then suddenly shifted gears and spent two hours frantically pounding out copy for the noon deadline of the afternoon paper I worked for. Screen depictions either leave out the long boring parts or make short shrift of them. A realistic depiction of journalism would be as boring as hell.

7. Do you believe that the tendency in Hollywood blockbusters to show journalists working for top fashion magazines or TV stations rather than for small local newspapers or radio stations has been a significant factor in painting an unrealistic picture to audiences?

Of course, the majority of the jobs are in smaller markets (in the US, there are virtually no radio news jobs left), so, yes, it is an unrealistic picture. But again, as boring as life really is on a big-city newspaper or glamorous magazine, it is way more boring in Portland, Oregon, where I am from.

8. Many films, even if they are not specifically about journalism, often include it as a subplot, for example as the female protagonist's occupation (eg's would include films such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or Suddenly 30). How would you account for journalism and media-orientated occupations being such a popular choice of career for female protagonists?

Ah, that one is easy, and Prof. Joe Saltzman of USC has written about it on several occasions. Making someone a journalist, even if that career choice is a subplot, allows them to go anywhere, at any time, do anything and ask questions of anyone, including people both above and below their social station. It provides more dramatic means of exposition than having a character talk to himself or explain the situation to his spouse. Plus, you get to do a montage of all those swirling headlines.

9. How would you say the portrayal of female journalists in film and television over recent years reflects: a) the status of women in today's society b) the values of women in today's society

The increasing frequency with which female journalists are portrayed, and the sometimes lofty positions they are seen to have, reflect an actual improvement in the status of women as journalists--which is a shame, as the field is in the process of collapsing, just as they get a seat at the table.

The values of women are reflect in the female journalists' most frequent conflict: family or career. As this is also one of conflicts most frequently faced by all professional women today, its depiction in the case of female journalists reflects a values discussion that is ongoing in most industrialized countries.

Here is a query I received, and my answer. I thought you might be interested (in the same way the New Yorker thinks you might be interested in how toothpicks are made).

I'm a graduate student at Boston University and I'm currently doing research for a paper on women journalists and their portrayal in film. I'd be curious to hear your opinion on the subject: Are their depictions true to life (in the era of the film ie: His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, The Paper etc)?
By way of introduction, some of my knowledge of women in journalism comes from 25 years as a professional journalist, including two years at UPI and AP and two years at the Oregon Journal, a daily in Portland, Oregon. Some of it comes from watching every movie in my journalism movie database. Some of it comes from reading every book in my journalism book database.
The most widespread depiction of female reporters in the culture, of course, comes from the movies.
Strictly as an oddity, I suggest you watch Big News, [director Gregory La Cava, 1929] which, I believe, features two brief scenes with Vera (Helen "Cupid" Ainsworth), a butch female reporter whom some analysts suggest is a lesbian--and who reportedly was one in real life as well. Pretty risque for 1932. She is large, dressed like a man, and wears a beret in a later scene. Her first scene is about 8 minutes into the film. [NOTE: This paragraph was revised in 2009, correcting the suggestion that the scenes were in Blessed Event, and adding details about the character.]
In Citizen Kane, there is not a single memorable female newspaper reporter depicted; the only women we see (however briefly) are Kane's wife and mistress. The woman Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) saw in the white dress on the ferry isn't even seen, we, just hear about her.
Hildy Johnson, in His Gal Friday, on the other hand, is merely the Hildy Johnson character from The Front Page after a gender-switch. While there were, indeed, women like her in journalism in the 1940s--in fact, only women like her, clones of the men, could survive--they were few and far between.
Two historical facts about women in journalism from this era that I am sure you are aware of: many newspapers hired women during World War II, then fired them when the men came home. Also, Agness Underwood was the first female big-city newspaper editor; her memoirs are called Newspaperwoman. She edited the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner for Hearst. Today (2000), of course, my hometown paper (the one which absorbed the Oregon Journal), The Oregonian, is, I believe, the largest U.S. daily edited by a woman.
The second-best journalism movie ever made, Deadline USA, featured one strong woman--the widow of the founding publisher (a role which recurs in many journalism movies and television shows, most recently and prominently as the Nancy Marchand character in the long-running Lou Grant television series. At least one episode makes it clear she was the founding publisher's widow). This was, in fact, a role in which some women (including, of course, the Washington Post's Katherine Graham) rose to positions of publishing, if not editorial, authority in newspapers.
We see an echo of the Hildy Johnson character in Jack Webb's -30-, made in 1959. The womens' section editor, Bernice Valentine, has a son who is killed in a round-the-world plane race that comprises one of the subplots. She is a tough, hard-bitten woman who, while dressing (as did Rosalind Russell when she played Hildy) like one of the girls, acts like one of the boys. This reflects two realities of the times: women were limited to the women's pages, and they couldn't even get a job there unless they acted just like the men they worked with.
Kathleen Turner in Switching Channels is beneath comment.
But when we get to the 1980s and 90s, we finally begin to see a few female journalists who represent the actual, working version of a modern, equal-rights newsroom. The first of these is Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, modeled after an actual CBS television producer. Still under the glass ceiling, but clearly both a hard-charging professional and a woman who chooses not to become a man in drag.
Julia Roberts in I Love Trouble dresses ridiculously for a field reporter, but is shown as a professional who works hard to get news onto the front page, without much effort to be "one of the boys."
The absolute best, most realistic performance, which also reflects the fact that a few women are now breaking through the glass ceiling in journalism, was rendered by the most oustanding actress to play a woman journalist ever. I speak, of course, of Glenn Close in The Paper, the best journalism movie ever made. Her role, by the way, was written for a man according to the original script. Even Marissa Tomei, who plays Michael Keaton's pregnant reporter-on-leave wife, shows us the conflict generated for women by a serious journalism career in the 90s.
For years, female journalists were either a) not shown at all or b) shown as, essentially, men in drag or c) shown as being restricted to the women's pages. Alas, these depictions were somewhat reflective of the reality in journalism. More recent depictions reflect a more favorable reality, even including the lack of women in leadership roles. Women broke out of the women's page ghetto in the 70s. They are starting to break into the executive suite.
By the way, women have been used much more as love interests, comic relief and stereotypes in movies than in novels. I think this is partly because more women write journalism novels than write journalism movies, and partly because novels, since they reach a more elite audience, can afford to do without the crutches on which movies depend to increase their accessibility.
From your perspective, what do you think about the notion of a glass ceiling...that women still don't hold the upper management/ senior positions because of their gender?
I don't claim to be an equal-employment philosopher. I have always believed that management was a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, and that all people--not just white, European males--tend to prefer to hire people who are the most like themselves. Thus, you find companies full of Mormons, companies full of Cal grads, companies full of Ivy Leaguers, or to bring the discussion closer to your subject, newspapers dominated by the Missouri Mafia (graduates of the University of Missouri Journalism School).
This theory then leads to the theory that the way to change management is to get one person into it with a different perspective: a woman, a state college graduate, an Asian person. That person hires a second. And a new perspective begins to prevail.
Sometimes an organization or a profession "flips." For example, public relations was dominated by white, male, retired newspaper reporters for decades. In the 70s or 80s, it started to flip, and now it is dominated by college-educated women who have never worked in a news organization.
Most newspapers are edited by men, in my opinion, because they've always been edited by men and are owned by men. Another constituent of the glass ceiling is the fact that, while journalism prides itself on being a meritocracy, the standards for judgment are extremely subjective and idiosyncratic. I have seen the exact same reporter, with the same work habits writing the same stories, praised as a genius in one news organization and scorned as an idiot in another.
Also, the skills that make good managers are not the same as the skills that make good reporters. In fact, the skill sets are often inimical, which is why the management of some "promote from within" journalism companies is sometimes so ineffectual and occasionally even incompetent (like the late lamented UPI). That is to say, being a good reporter doesn't mean you'll be a good manager.
Finally, my personal experience has been that women are prospering in fields where they have a modicum of control over their working environment and hours, where they work days, without much forced overtime, and where a year or two off in mid-career is not considered catastrophic. Many daily newspaper reporters in the U.S. work 4 p.m.-12 midnight because they work for morning newspapers. There is a lot of overnight work as well. Broadcast news shifts are even worse, typically starting at 4 a.m for morning-drive radio shifts. Plus, the unpredictability of the news business produces frequent occasions when overtime or travel is mandatory, which is not conducive to good parenting for men or women.

Bernstein's Speech in Citizen Kane

One day, back in 1896 [42 years earlier], I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

Revision History

Content revised 4/23/09 [correcting reference to lesbian reporter]

Content revised 4/4/07 [adding new questions at the top]

Content revised 11/13/03 [correcting Everett Sloane reference; thank you, John Scott.]

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