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Hysteria by any other Name: How Media Rely on the Trope of Emotional Womanhood

Hysteria By Any Other Name: How Media Rely On The Trope Of Emotional Womanhood

Complicit and complacent media change women’s narratives with a series of techniques and alter the way we internalize their stories.

Content Warning: mentions of sexual assault

By Leslie Kay Jones, PhD 

On Jan. 15th, 2018, US Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles tweeted with the hashtag #MeToo, naming herself as one of over 250 survivors of sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment by Larry Nassar. Biles is a record-setting American athlete who won four gold medals in gymnastics in the 2016 Rio Olympics at only 19 years old. In an eight-paragraph open letter attached as a screenshot, she wrote:

“I am not afraid to tell my story anymore.

“I too am one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar.”

On Aug. 2019, the media began to circulate a video of Ms. Biles speaking about Nassar, his sentencing, and the complicity of the USA Gymnastics. Yet the titles of the news stories that frame these videos seem to have a different focus:

“Simone Biles gets emotional speaking about Larry Nassar scandal”

“Simone Biles tearfully accuses USA Gymnastics of failing to protect her from Larry Nassar”

“’You Had One Job’: Simone Biles Tearfully Accuses USA Gymnastics Of Failing To Protect Team”

“Simone Biles Slams USA Gymnastics’ Alleged Inaction Over Larry Nassar Abuse: ‘You Had One Job’”

“Simone Biles slams USA Gymnastics over Larry Nassar scandal

“‘You had one job’: Simone Biles in tears over USA Gymnastics’ failures in abuse scandal – video

The headlines of these articles draw readers’ focus to Biles’ emotions (or assumptions about them) without substantiating Nassar’s crimes or the extensive coverup that USA Gymnastics orchestrated. Some of the titles even minimize the abuse as a “scandal,” and her nuanced critique of USA gymnastics as “alleged.”

For media scholars, this is not surprising. It is rare for contemporary news media to challenge the narratives of powerful institutions like USA Gymnastics. On the contrary, news media typically reproduce stories straight from institutional public relations. Organizations can typically depend on media outlets to treat them as objective sources and uncritically reproduce the “news stories” they provide. The prose of the NY Post, Guardian, and People pieces do a particularly thorough job of defending the USA Gymnastics coverup, but it is important to note that copy-editors rather than staff writers typically choose headlines. That means that relatively few people have the power to powerfully affect readers’ first encounter with new information. 

Why News Narratives Matter

The news media play a major role in how we incorporate new information into our understanding of the world. They do so by selecting events that are “newsworthy” and telling stories about those events that resonate with how outlets, editors and other media stakeholders imagine their audiences. Social change depends on the circulation of non-dominant ideas. Because of this, institutional patterns in which ideas are circulated (or not) and how they are framed become closed gates to social progress. 

The United States has cultural scripts for talking about rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. I want to draw particular attention to the way that media covers anti-rape activism in particular — and activism in general — so that institutions appear to proactively identify and solve social problems while survivors seem only to passively react. 

Media framing combined with social media undermine chronological time, replacing it with a new temporality in which abuse victims merely react to the news that they have been rescued by authorities. They undermine the legitimacy of survivor activism by appealing to the widespread beliefs that leaders cannot be both emotional and effective and that politics should not be emotional at all. 

In doing so, media lay the foundation for authorities and media audiences to claim that society is working as it should, and victims are emotionally reactive. This makes change seem unnecessary. In reality, it was survivor activism that prompted a media investigation and forced the Senate to act where USA Gymnastics repeatedly and explicitly neglected to do so. Journalists Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, and Tim Evans broke the story in a piece published in The Indianapolis Star on Aug. 2016.

Less than three years later, Simone Biles is speaking out against institutionalized sexual abuse in the hopes that her platform as a celebrated gymnast will stir the public to hold athletics and educational institutions accountable for enabling and hiding sexual abuse. But her message is not what media are choosing to amplify. Instead, they are covering a brief moment where she tears up while talking about USA Gymnastics’ failure to protect hundreds of vulnerable victims, some as young as six and all seeking medical care from a vetted physician. 

Biles said, “It’s really hard to talk about…I just feel like…I don’t know I don’t mean to cry but it’s just….It’s hard coming here for an organization and having had them failed us so many times and we had one goal and we’ve done everything that they asked us for even when we didn’t want to. And they couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job you literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us…. And it’s just really sad because now every time I go to the doctor or training and I get worked on, it’s like “I don’t want to get worked on.” But my body hurts. I’m 22 and at the end of the day, that’s my fifth rotation and I have to go do therapy. But it’s just hard.”

To be clear, a wide range of media actors are profiting to various degrees by hosting excerpts of this video interview. The original interview was over two minutes long and originally published in the Kansas City Star, accompanied by the caption “USA Gymnastics great Simone Biles opens up about sexual abuse in her sport during Wednesday’s workouts ahead of the U.S. national championships at Sprint Center in Kansas City.”

The Guardian excerpted 49 seconds of the video, added an animated Guardian logo to the beginning, and substituted its own caption. In doing so The Guardian framed the news story to meet its own content publishing and audience engagement goals, and it did so by overstating her physical expression of emotion while avoiding repeating any of her ideas. In this way, it does not differ from how USA Olympics, the organization that Biles is critiquing, tweeted about the interview through their @OlympicChannel account.

Moreover, The Guardian framing minimizes organizational responsibility using words like “handling of,” “scandal,” “disgraced,” and the last paragraph uses emotionally evocative language (“behind bars for the rest of his life”) that implies there is little left to do but emote. 

The new video caption provided by the Guardian reads: 

“Simone Biles was in tears as she spoke about the anger and disappointment she feels about the handling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, only two days before attempting to win her sixth US national title. 

It is just over 18 months since the Olympic gymnastics champion revealed she was among the hundreds of athletes abused by Nassar, the USA Gymnastics’ disgraced sports doctor, who abused dozens of athletes in his care.

While Nassar is now behind bars for the rest of his life and USA Gymnastics has undergone a massive overhaul in leadership, Biles said the organization had ‘failed’ its athletes.”

The conclusion paragraph — where writers usually restate their main point — connects Nassar’s sentence to Biles’ statement using the word “while,” as if to undermine the critique that USA Gymnastics “failed.” It is difficult to see how a reader would comprehend the sheer magnitude of over 200 separate cases of sexual abuse over the course of over two decades or the number of incidents across those two decades of which USA Gymnastics knowingly ignored. In contrast, the 2016 IndyStar piece cited court documents like Denhollander v. Michigan State University where I found the following information: 

“5. From approximately 1996 to 2016 Defendant Nassar worked for Michigan State University in various positions and capacities.

6. From 1986 to approximately 2015 Defendant Nassar also worked for USA Gymnastics in various positions and capacities.

7. For over 20 years, Defendant Nassar had unfettered access to young female athletes through the Sports Medicine Clinic at MSU, and through his involvement with USAG and Twistars, who referred athletes to his care.”

Media, Emotions, and Legitimacy 

News media depend on widespread cultural beliefs to communicate with their audiences. The headlines, pictures, and captains they use are only successful if audiences have at least some shared cultural understanding. In this case, we might ask what is so remarkable about Simone Biles crying that at least six major publications used precious title real estate to highlight it. What work is emotion doing in these frames?

Media practitioners know that audiences tend to dismiss women who cry in public as overly emotional. They also know that the controlling image or trope of the “Strong Black Woman” adds novelty to a story about a young Black woman crying. Americans are culturally socialized to hold different sets of beliefs about how men and women naturally do, and should, behave. Further, these beliefs are racially specific, so that women of different races may battle substantively different stereotypes. 

They are activating their audience’s previously held beliefs about the significance of crying to get them to pay attention to and share a story. These commonly held beliefs include the idea that emotions are at odds with logic, and that women are more emotional than men. When news media portrays the individuals that speak out against institutionalized violence, whose claims are the audience left to take seriously? 

Are You Done Venting?

Last week, Associate Editor of The Hollywood Reporter Lindsay Weinberg (@WeinbergLindsay) tweeted a video recording of actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Child Rights Priyanka Chopra responding to a Pakistani-American woman in the audience at Beautycon. Ayesha Malik attempted to engage Chopra on the topic of peace between India and Pakistan in light of India’s recent seizure and occupation of Kashmir. The New York Times describes Beautycon as “the Super Bowl of the beauty industry,” hinting at its massive reach.

The video recording focuses directly on the stage by way of what appears to be a large screen projection as listeners can hear Malik say, “You’re encouraging nuclear war against Pakistan. There’s no winner in this. As a Pakistani, millions of people like me have supported you in your business —”

Priyanka seems to cut her off verbally: 

“I hear you. Whenever you’re done venting? Got it, done? Ok, cool. So, um —I have many many friends (thanks girls) from Pakistan and I am from India and war is not something that I’m really fond of but I am patriotic.” 

Chopra used emotionalizing language to draw audience attention away from the critical content of Malik’s content by focusing on the delivery. Chopra thus weaponized the trope of the “hysterical woman” against another woman. Only after Malik was physically silenced by having the microphone snatched from her hands mid-sentence did Chopra use the language of emotion to perform the role of self-defense.

But soon, individuals present in the Beautycon audience began to circulate videos of Malik that clearly show a festival employee yanking the microphone from a reluctant Malik. Malik’s voice can be heard faintly emphasizing “nuclear war.” As these two videos circulated to millions of social media users, Ayesha Malik (@Spishaa) tweeted

Beautycon helped create this narrative by silencing Malik while allowing Chopra to use her platform to completely sidestep the issue of nuclear war. Chopra descended on Beautycon to try to avoid a “political” story that might alienate potential consumers and The Hollywood Reporter to amplify the perspective of a celebrity at the expense of better informing the public. This is just one example of how political actors can leverage media patterns to tell stories, especially when they already have audience trust.

“Venting” in particular has become a popular euphemism for expressing progressive political opinions. News media particularly use the term to undermine women and femme whistleblowers. For men, stories about someone venting publicly can refer to making obscene gestures or being unhappy with your sports team’s strategy. For women, venting may mean interviewing a presidential candidate about low wages or speaking out against school shootings. It is no wonder that Beijing’s official news channel Xinhua used the phrase “emotional venting” in its editorial critiquing how Trump uses Twitter. Doing so is an efficient way of dismissing the content of his messages wholesale.  

These language patterns are dangerous precisely because they fly under the radar without constant observation. Moreover, the never-ending digitally mediated news cycle means that headlines, captions, and images are doing more work than ever helping audiences make choices about what to consume and share. Fans of Simone Biles who would like to share her interview face a potentially overwhelming choice of sources that are basically indistinguishable from one another based on their editorial framing but which vary wildly in the factual information they offer. The recording of Priyanka Chopra’s condescending retort to Malik that Lindsay Weinberg (@WeinbergLindsay) has been viewed over 3.3 Million times, which does not account for the physical audience at Beautycon who only heard what was broadcast over the speakers or any publicity that used Beautycon’s stage footage. In contrast, the combined viewership of two longer videos shared on Twitter by audience members revealing the microphone being removed from Malik’s hands is only 3.1 million. 

This is how news media depoliticize and delegitimize critiques against major institutions and businesses, including news media themselves. News media from “digital-first” legacy publications like the NYT treat news as a marketable product. They use storytelling to sell that product, and they do it with an efficiency that comes from institutionalized knowledge. We owe it to people like Ayesha Malik and Simone Biles to push back against complicit and complacent media by sharing their words rather than media narratives. 

Leslie Kay Jones is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers New Brunswick, specializing in social movements. She draws extensively on the fields of race and gender, critical race theory, and online social media in her study of collective mobilization.

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