Fixing the Female Narrative: Why is the Media so Obsessed with Female Pain?
© Illustration by INJECTION - Laura Holtslag Alvarez
How the media’s focus on a ‘woman in pain’ creates a harmful perception of women in society.
“One is not born but becomes a woman.” Simone de Beauvoir’s infamous statement suggests that ‘femininity’ and ‘womanhood’ are not driven by our biology but by society; It is our experiences that make us women.
With Beauvoir’s statement in mind, it’s easy to question why women are represented the way they are by the media. The media often pushes the idea that female pain comes from a woman’s ‘emotional’ disposition. When in truth, women experience physical pain every day due to biological processes such as menstruation and even childbirth. Women are often perceived as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘emotional,’ and through this perception, pain becomes an expectation of womanhood. As a society that has moved so far past these outdated ideas, why does the media still push this harmful narrative?
We’ve seen examples in the media through film, popular culture and in the news. Women like Britney Spears, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and even Caroline Flack have been victims of the media’s hyper-fixation on female pain, presenting women as ‘weak’ and ‘feeble’ if not ‘hysteric’ or ‘crazy.' Dr Maria Tomlinson, a researcher and lecturer specialising in gender, the body, sociology and the media, tells us: “I guess there are a lot of societal stereotypes about women; we see labels like crazy, or hysterical, obviously being applied to women far more than men.“ So, we ask ourselves, why are these societal norms that women are the ones who are acting irrationally? By representing lots of stories of women in pain or women in distress, the media is perpetuating the idea that women are the ones that are more emotional and who are not as powerful or rational or don’t make important decisions like men do. I guess it comes from a sexist ideology that can be traced back many, many years, where women are called 'hysterical' for expressing emotion.”
Mental illness is often used to contextualise ‘outbursts’ or behaviour from women that don't fit the narrative. Just as the media perpetuates the idea of a ‘mentally ill’ man as someone who is reclusive, socially deviant and thus a psychopathic maniac, the media perpetuates the idea of a ‘mentally ill’ woman as someone angry and aggressive. If a woman becomes aggressive or angry, as opposed to being vulnerable and in pain, she is perceived as ‘mentally ill.’ How could a woman, someone who is meant to be caring and mothering, possibly be aggressive and angry? She must be crazy, hysterical! This is the narrative that is portrayed. Referencing examples of this harmful narrative in the media today, we can look at a film like ‘Blonde,’ which, despite being fictional, left viewers shocked after depictions of violence towards women, abortion and sexual assault. The film presents Marilyn Monroe as a vulnerable woman, tormented with emotional pain, who has little autonomy over her own life, using her as a hyper-sexualised prop for her male counterparts to pass between them.
Another case study is Britney Spears, the 2000’s pop sensation who was the centre of the media's attention for many years. Relentless reporting on the pop star led to a massive focus on her mental health, her sexuality and her role as a mother. Headlines in tabloids such as Peoples Magazine read: “Inside Britney’s Breakdown,” as though to capture the reader's attention with an exposè on a woman’s ‘erratic’ behaviour.
Female pain, or the media's fixation on stories about female pain, is driven by not only the emotional but the physical and biological processes women go through every month. Female pain, whether it be through childbirth or menstruation, has been a defining factor of womanhood since biblical times. Original sin, Eve and the apple spearhead the expectation that women will, and should, bear pain throughout their lives. Dr Tomlinson continues: “As a woman, you’re told: ‘You will be in pain; just deal with it.’" But, often, we feel like we have to hide pain because women are trying to gain this equality so they can have the same rights and opportunities as men. "It often feels like women have to hide the fact they’re in pain to make themselves look stronger. Women hide their pain because they don’t want to be seen as weaker than men. If we say that we’re in pain or that we’re struggling, there’s a fear that it will be playing to the advantage that men have already. I’m not saying that the media is trying to do this intentionally, but it's certainly implicit; the idea is that men are the intellectuals, and women are emotional; that men are strong and women are weak.”
Although it’s true that it is common for the media to represent women as strong, independent and forward-thinking entities, the story of a woman consumed by her emotions remains embedded within our society. Until the mould is broken and we move away from this damaging perspective, the media will continue to sell their narrative of a woman in pain.