Wednesday, January 7, 2009

By Their Works Ye Shall Know Them; Or, How to Spot a Women Do Story

First off, congratulations to Adam Gaffin and Shannon Larkin for their speedy work dispatching the task I set before you all. Also, the vintage (circa 1907) story Adam posted is incredible, and deserves its own entry at a future date. More on that later.

I feel a little business is in order.

It must be said: Not every story about women--not even every story about women doing things--is a Women Do story. It can, at times, be tough to tease apart good upstanding journalism featuring women from the works of the Beast. But that, O Readers, is our task. And with a little natural history, everyone can learn to distinguish proper news from Women Do, as easily as telling a Cinnamon Bittern from a Yellow Bittern in the field. (It's the bar-shaped pupil. Duh.)

Every proper Women Do story has three hallmarks, and they are three, and these are them:

1. Irrelevance. The true Women Do story is not about medical issues, or gender discrimination, or anything properly related to women qua women. Oh no. It is about the shocking spectacle of women doing stuff that people generally do. At its heart is typically an earth-shattering revelation that some women, for instance, like to drive motor-cars or eat ice-cream. The reporter sets about tackling this topic with all the barmy innocence of a two-year-old child, a Betelgeusian anthropologist or a time-traveler from 1769.

(Inside tip: As a rule, reporters and editors are not actually all that amazed that women can do stuff. But they think you are.)

2. Bullshit. You will often read, in the pages of your local News-paper, that some femiphenomenon is "increasing" or "on the rise" or that "more and more," women are doing it. You might be tempted to think that somebody has actually counted something. No! Rarely in your true Women Do story does what Jeff Vogel calls "Science, that cruel bitch-goddess" rear Her quantitative head. Science is indeed hard, and J-school graduates tend to hate and fear Her with a loathing typically reserved for oil magnates and bacteria found in sample bottles at the Macy's beauty counter.

But, because no news editor can possibly bring him/herself to run a story unless something is presently increasing or decreasing or physically on fire, things must be On The Rise. And thus, reporters will duly find a few examples, toss around some vague verbiage and call it a day.

(It's well known among news types that Three Makes A Trend. It is also said that the Plural of "Anecdote" is "Data." You are advised to take these slogans with the mighty grain of salt they deserve.)

3. Perkiness. The perpetrators of the classic Women Do story will inflict on us any number of stale puns, cliches, slogans, witticisms and bons mots. They will lard headlines, subheads, captions and ledes with great glops of insufferable cuteness. They will, in their gormless way, encourage girls to go.

I propose a ten-point scale for evaluating the excrescence of individual stories. Three possible points for Irrelevance. Likewise for Bullshit and Perkiness. And one point at the discretion of the judge, to be awarded if it seems clear that the reporter ought to have known better, if it clearly took space from a more important story, or best of all, if the story actually contradicts some earlier story the paper has run on the same topic.

What do you think?


  1. What about entire newspaper sections on "Women in Business" in the Herald, Patriot-Ledger, etc.? Other than free PR for people who seldom need it, what is their purpose? ("She's a woman and she sells real estate! Unprecedented!")

  2. Their purpose is evidently to browbeat women into coughing up advertising money to newspapers. Much like the Pride Guide does for gays, and the Globe's Diversity Boston does for those of "ethnic categories."*

    While I am generally for anything that involves people giving money to newspapers, I see no reason to let straight white guys off the hook.

    *For what it's worth, I no longer have anything to do with Media Farm.

  3. I've probably told you before that I love you, but just in case I haven't, I do.*

    * In an "already happily married" way, just in case you were getting scared that I might become a stalker or something.

    1. Here's the part where I go "Oh dear, I most sincerely hope I haven't given off some kind of 'HEY SULDOG, I THINK YOU'RE A STALKER, GET OFFA MY LAWN' vibe, because that guy is the proverbial tits."

      You can stalk my blog any day, my good man. *happily married fistbump*