Media’s judgement reflex continues to crush women

Media’s judgement reflex continues to crush women
Coughlan (right) as Penelope in Bridgerton (credit: Netflix)

The criticism of Nicola Coughlan once again shows society’s judgement reflex and how women are socialised to tear each other down. As an industry, we need to say enough is enough.

A media narrative that continues to demean and body-shame women is symptomatic of the industry’s shameful judgement of women.

Imagine writing that Nicola Coughlan, the standout star of Bridgerton, cannot be “plausible” as a romantic lead because of her weight.

Writing in The Spectator, a magazine that claims to “feature the best British journalists, authors, critics and cartoonists”, Zoe Strimple did just that.

She wrote: “There’s nothing wrong with fat — it’s hardly a moral shortcoming — but a zest for equality and diversity (and in this case good acting) just isn’t enough to make a fat girl who wins the prince remotely plausible. In the cruel visual semantics of the screen, poor plump Penelope may be set up to win her man, but will she win her audience? The jury, dear reader, is out.”

Bridgerton, the show that successfully brought costume drama into the TikTok era, has diversity running through its veins. The third season, with Coughlan as its star, has achieved phenomenal success. According to Variety, the first four episodes netted 45.1m views in its opening weekend on Netflix.

The jury isn’t out — it’s binge-watching the opening episodes and anxiously awaiting the drop of the next four this week.

Yet the narrative remains that the star of this phenomenally successful show is too fat for the job.

So ingrained is this judgement reflex that much of the subsequent criticism dished out to Strimple focused on her looks rather than her hateful words.

The judgement reflex

This culture of continual and casual judgement means the serial abuse and belittling of women in the media has flourished with little attention for all of my professional life.

Many of us grew up working at and reading magazines and newspapers in which women’s bodies were routinely under attack. Cellulite was circled, pregnancy was policed. Women made of flesh and bone were berated for not “snapping back” into their pre-baby bodies.

We still joke about the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” as if it causes no real harm. As an industry and as individuals, we have contributed to crushing, misogynistic narratives, with devastating consequences. Our media ecosystem places women’s bodies under such intense and sustained scrutiny that we now have a generation of women and girls who are fundamentally disconnected from what their own bodies can achieve.

Our daughters face an unprecedented crisis of confidence. Girls as young as five define themselves as “not sporty”. According to research from Women in Sport, by the time girls reach 17-18, just 28% describe themselves as “sporty”, compared with 58% of boys.

The bystander effect

As women, we internalise these toxic narratives — paying them forward on ourselves and each other. While you cannot imagine putting pen to paper to body-shame an actress, women are not immune from the sharp edges of misogyny. Ask yourself honestly: what are you saying, or not saying, behind closed doors?

As an industry, we hold women to impossible standards. In our media platforms and within our businesses, we praise men for their passion, while policing women for their “emotion”.

Think about the women you routinely criticise. The performance reviews you write. The criticism of other women you repeat. Ask yourself: do you judge women too harshly? Do you speak up when another woman is unfairly criticised or are you too busy trying to be liked?

A culture of silence

Women are still socialised not to offend. To stay silent. To internalise the judgement they face. This internalised misogyny is dressed up as “selflessness” in popular culture.

As Tamu Thomas writes with such precision in Women Who Work Too Much: “In a society that conditions women to please people, it is not uncommon for women with clear boundaries to be seen as selfish or inconsiderate if they do not absorb the emotional state of others.”

In fat-shaming Coughlan, Strimple is simply doing what is expected of her. Women are socialised to tear each other down. A woman at the top of her game being punished for her success is nothing new.

This judgement reflex is suffocating women’s potential. It pits women against each other as if we are somehow destined to be natural enemies. It turns trans+ women, the most vulnerable and persecuted women in our society, into political footballs.

Calling time

The brutal truth for women is that, even after a century of feminism, judgement is the omnipresent soundtrack to every single aspect of our lives.

As I type this, I am aware of the mounting piles of life gathering at the bottom of my stairs. Some simply won’t see beyond their judgement of this perceived domestic unravelling — the growing pool of evidence of everything I haven’t picked up. The invisible labour left undone while these words were being written.

If we wish to succeed in both our industry and in our lives, women must be vigilant in challenging our own judgement reflex — both for ourselves and each other. The answer to the relentless judgement women face cannot be solely about building individual resilience. We must rise to this challenge as an industry. We must recognise that advertising is funding narratives with the most deadly of consequences.

The way we use words has power. Refusing to accept the judgement piled upon you is a radical act. Yet it’s not just on the women who are told that they are too big for their boots to stamp out this toxic behaviour. We must all be intentional about turning the tide on this tsunami of judgement.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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