Media representation of violence against women: why do the papers give celebrities a pass?
This blog is the fourth in a series in which Claire Simpson, PhD student at the University of Stirling discusses the results of her media monitoring project. Read her first, second and third blog here. Over the next few weeks we will publish blogs from Claire where she takes in an in depth look at some of the results of her study.
During my media monitoring I noticed several stories on Violence Against Women (VAW) involved a celebrity. The reporting on these incidents varied greatly between celebrity as perpetrator and celebrity as victim/survivor. Eight articles mentioned a celebrity: two as perpetrator and six as victim. All but one column were in the tabloids. This blog will examine the difference in representations of VAW dependent on the celebrity’s role.
Both stories where the celebrity was the culprit detailed Danny Dyer’s attempts at obtaining pornographic images from one of his fans. The two articles1+2 were front page news for The Sun as well as a double page spread inside. Dyer and the woman exchanged messages over Twitter where he sent her photos of his genitalia and “begged”1 the woman for sexually explicit photos and videos. There is no mention of what Dyer had asked of the woman on either front page3+4, they only refer to the images he sent her. The initial story includes a humorous headline written in cockney rhyming slang, mocking the way Dyer speaks1. Such headlines trivialise VAW and therefore downplay how serious and prevalent it is. The UN reports 10% of women in the EU have been subject to explicit or offensive messages or images via text, email or social media5
Alongside this article is a photo of Dyer with the caption “Dyered and Emotional”1 suggesting his behaviour is a result of a poor mental state. Showing an image of the perpetrator appearing weak will generate sympathy for him and distract from the woman’s experience. The following day The Sun reported on the threatening messages Dyer’s daughter had sent to the woman2 There was also a column discussing concerns of Dyer developing a sex addiction6. This is used to justify his multiple affairs and the interaction with this fan. Sex addiction appears to be a popular justification for VAW by the Scottish press; it was mentioned in several reports of an alleged rape by a Navy sailor7-9. Linking Dyer’s mental health to his acts helps perpetuate myths about sexual violence being a result of uncontrollable urges and desires when it is the opposite.
“Not one story spoke to the woman, instead centring the column on the perpetrator, his thoughts and feelings.”
Stories on celebrity victims of VAW received significantly less column space than that of Dyer. All of the articles occupied less than half a page, one third had no by line and none qualified as front page news. The headlines of these stories in The Sun used alliteration, sensationalist language and terminology downplaying the seriousness of the violence for instance, referring to a stalker as a “pest”10. Not one story spoke to the woman instead centring the column on the perpetrator, his thoughts and feelings.
Four of the articles discussed the prosecution of Jemima Khan’s stalker with three of them mentioning the perpetrator’s statement that Khan “doth protest too much”10-12 and two where he calls her a “silly woman”10+11. The column in the Daily Mail included a statement implying the stalker’s medication for skin cancer influenced his behaviour11.
These comments have a two-fold effect. They lessen the trauma and seriousness of the crime whilst portraying the man as mentally unstable thus perpetuating the fiction that those who commit VAW are not sane, rational, and therefore normal, men. Khan’s stalker was more than a “pest”. A pest is an irritant whereas stalking is much more than a simple nuisance, it is harassment and it is a crime. Ms Khan was subject to this unwanted attention for years causing her fear and distress. The sexual harassment Dyer inflicted was considered big news where he was the victim of an addiction and poor mental state but, in comparison, the harassment Khan suffered barely registers, at least according to the press.
Women’s experiences of violence need to be acknowledged. The justifications of such actions need to stop. All forms of VAW are serious crimes and they must be reported as such.