The New York Times is looking for an editor to cover issues of gender, identity and sexuality. The job ad, which came out in late August, says: “We are seeking a journalist with a compelling vision of how to expand this coverage, from bedroom to boardroom, from the loftiest corridors of power to the back alleys of the world’s most impoverished villages.” This is a cutting edge and mightily progressive move that is sure to make newspaper editors all over the world sit up and take notice.
Consider this: most newspapers do not think twice about hiring editors to cover politics, economics, education, culture, and society. All these areas are suffused by gender and sexuality issues – women in and out of power, unequal pay, teaching in schools, parenting and family life, transgender lives, gay communities, women in art and behind the camera – and in all these stories gender shapes the lives of people everywhere.
The women’s movement changed everything. For one thing, it became no longer acceptable to view the male experience as universal. Women had their own histories and there was merit in analyzing how being male shaped men’s lives. Studying literature, religion, science, history, law, psychology, and practically every discipline would never be the same again. “Gender” was about understanding the different ways in which men and women behaved, interacted with one another, experienced life, and participated in the religious, social, political, and economic institutions within societies. Heated debates centered on how to define and distinguish between the terms “sex” and “gender.” By the early 1980s, many agreed that “sex” should be understood in relation to fixed physical and anatomical characteristics, or the “biological differences” between men and women, and that “gender” should mean the socially and culturally constructed systems of differences that changed over time and place.
Then there were questions about the nature of women and men. Were women by nature peaceful, passive, nurturing, and emotional, and were men biologically more aggressive, competitive and rational, or were these respective attributes the result of social and cultural factors? Debunking assumptions about an innate, unchanging and fixed female essence became integral to feminist struggles. Pioneering egalitarian-minded Western feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Kate Millet argued against and strived to end the unfair exclusion of women from positions of social status occupied by men. Patriarchy, they claimed, viewed women in essentialist and biologically deterministic terms, which basically boiled them down to their sexual characteristics and ability to reproduce. Treating women in this way resulted in discriminatory, sexist practices and misogynistic attitudes.
The last three decades saw a gradual acceptance of gender as an appropriate category of analysis when talking about every facet of political, economic, social, intellectual, and religious change that had an impact on the roles and activities of men and women. The shift in thinking represented a sea change.
Gender issues are already covered in the normal course of news reporting. The challenge lies in how the coverage can be distinguished from other journalism. What the New York Times wants to do is to integrate gender into the national conversation and intensify the coverage. At the same time, the newspaper wants to broaden its readership. The job ad requests candidates to submit a ‘memo’ that tackles, among others, the following salient questions: “How should we be telling these stories?” “What audiences should we be focusing on?” “How can we build a robust, deeply engaged community around this coverage?”
These questions are strikingly relevant to the Philippines where the news, in the past year, has been saturated with gender issues: The dominant “mother-daughter” motif of Grace Poe’s presidential campaign and why it failed. The appeal of President Duterte’s strong man brand of masculinity. The motivations of Duterte supporters. The election of the country’s first transgender lawmaker. The broad support vigilante justice gets from men and women. The death of a firebrand female senator juxtaposed with misogynist attacks against one of her female colleagues. The fresh battle to legalize divorce. The rising teenage pregnancy rate. The renewed support for the Reproductive Health Law and its implementation.
A gender-focused editor could get to grips with the ways gender roles are in flux and yet, simultaneously, seem to have hardened into out-of-date stereotypes. With the fresh crop of new female senators and presidential cabinet appointees, are the perceptions of women in power changing? Why is a traditional, strong man trusted by digitally engaged millennial men and women?
The media landscape is changing fast. News stories are being shaped by and experienced in a range of formats, from data graphics and other visualizations to podcasts, video and Q&A conferences, as well as print. This is new journalism. Gender and sexuality need to be a part of this. The battle for recognition has been long and hard in all other areas.