August 14, 2008

Suicide-bombing headlines specify females, never males

Posted in gender, language politics, New York Times, news at 5:26 pm by LB

UPDATED 8/15

I had this same criticism a month or so back, the last time I saw a newspaper headline about female bombers, but I didn’t write about it then. Today, in reading the New York Times, I read: “Female Suicide Bomber Kills 2 in Iraqi Province.”

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand the significance of female suicide-bombers in particular. While this story doesn’t address it, past articles with similar headlines have at least mentioned,

Fifteen other women have carried out suicide bomb attacks in Diyala Province, according to General Rubaie. Islamic rules prevent men, including security officers conducting searches, from touching women. Compounding the predicament is a scarcity of female Iraqi police and soldiers who might otherwise fill the gap.

While I am somewhat annoyed when stories, such as today’s, mention a female bomber in the headline, but don’t discuss why that’s significant in the story, I take issue more with the persistent selective gender-naming. Male suicide bombers are reported in headlines as “suicide bombers”; female suicide bombers are “named” as such. I have blogged on this in the past in discussing ex-nomination, and Ashley guest blogging over at Feministe interestingly argues that women’s gender is specified when they perpetrate acts of violence to detract from the reality that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violent acts. The repetition of women’s gender in such reports works to mask violence as a gender-neutral activity. My issue is at a more basic linguistic level. Previously I wrote:

In conversation (your own and others’), watch how people are described. Typically, we use “identity” descriptors only with reference to women, gay men, lesbians, people of color, non-Western ethnicities, (and also non-Christian religions)…in other words, the default category for a “person” is a white, hetero, male. A person is only someone “other” than that when specified.

This is what’s referred to as “ex-nomination” (coined by the semiotician Roland Bathes)-being ‘unnamed’. What is unnamed is what is seen as a ‘natural’ commonsensical category. Those of us who are not white heterosexual men become those with “marked bodies”-bodies who must be named to be identified. In other words, people who are women, or black are designated as such (as if identifying them according to said label adds particular meaning to who they are as a person), while white hetero men are simply “people,” and are thus permitted to establish meaningful identities in ways not shaped by said societal identity labels.

These headlines bother me for that reason: that it perpetuates the assumption that an individual is a (white, hetero) male unless specified otherwise.

It’s true that we also specify male for characteristics that are deemed “female” (a.k.a. “male nurse”), which could in part account for its usage in headlines–because we assume suicide bombers to be male. But Western assumptions are no excuse for the persistent usage of gendered terms by journalists. Would it really be so hard to say “suicide bomber” in the headline and then to discuss the gender and its implications, if necessary, in the body of the story? Or since gender is in fact an issue, use male and female descriptors in the headlines? Otherwise, we reinforce the notion of male as default.

UPDATE 8/15: Funny that this is a trend I have been seeing, and as soon as I write about it, the NYT changes its pattern: see today’s “Bomber Kills 18 on Shiite Pilgrimage in Iraq.” The “bomber” is actually a female! Now that’s a first!  I think I have some sort of “special powers” regarding the NYT, because I also recently wrote about how they consistently place stories about women in Fashion and Style (I also sent the editor a displeased e-mail), a few weeks later I see a story that is actually in the appropriate section!  Hmmm…are they reading my blog?!

7 Comments »

  1. ballgame said,

    Sexist bias in the presentation of gender in war cuts both ways. When victims of war violence are female, their gender is often emphasized; when they are male, their gender is often erased, which leads to major distortions in our understanding of reality. For example, more than one major feminist blogger has labored under the delusion that war in Iraq has disproportionately victimized women, when in fact the overwhelming majority of the civilian victims of violence in Iraq have been male.

  2. lindabeth said,

    Sure, that could very well be true, and my guess if the example you give is likely due to traditional ideologies of gender and age that deem “women and children” as vulnerable people who need additional protection, and who are purported to be more sympathetic as victims. Symbolically, women are culturally constructed to be weak and in need of (male) protection; women/mothers are symbols of the nation, giving birth to and nurturing the next generation of citizens. This is an old national symbolism and exists in many cultures, and it is, of course, bullshit. An assault on fragile, nurturing women, who are weak and vulnerable, is seen as an injustice and an affront to national integrity, whereas men as the warriors and protectors of the nation, have a “natural” duty to fight and have the strength to fight back. If what you suggest is true (it’s something I haven’t personally researched, and the post you link to has an Op-Ed as an example of “reporting” so I’m not sure how journalists represent victims in reporting), the erasure of male civilian casualties of war resulting from conservative and traditional gender stereotypes (not to mention a kind of racism–holding up the poor, female, “foreign” woman of color) does a disservice to men in upholding these problematic definitions. (Given that the article problematically uses dresses to represent women, pants to represent men, and a baby to represent children–barf, gag–I’m sure people in the comments also pointed out that soldiers are represented as “male” since the author of the post didn’t.)

    And with the example you give me, it’s very likely that the headlines would read:

    “15 dead” vs. “15 women dead”

    And while what you say is important, this was actually what my post is about. I wasn’t really saying that there’s over or underreporting going on–that’s a different issues than what I am addressing here. My particular take on this pattern of headlines is that the default (or, as I was discussing in our convo, the neutral human) identity is male (and white, and hetero) unless specified otherwise–that marginal identities are the ones who are “named,” that this happens on a daily basis (in media, but more importantly in our everyday speech), and that this has ideological effects.

  3. Noticed said,

    Thanks for this post. I agree with you that it has less to do with the issue of violence and more to do with the use of white males as the standard for everything. NPR has taken to calling them “female suicide bombers” as well, and it irks me every time I hear it.

    If the article were addressing the fact that female bombers are increasingly common, or more difficult to catch because of rules about men patting down women, that’s a different issue.

  4. arctic_jay said,

    “This is what’s referred to as “ex-nomination” (coined by the semiotician Roland Bathes)-being ‘unnamed’. What is unnamed is what is seen as a ‘natural’ commonsensical category.”

    I’ve read Barthes’ “Myth Today” and from my understanding, this is the exact opposite of what ex-nomination is intended to do. Basically, ex-nomination occurs when a dominant group presents its own self-centered interests as universal interests, thereby suckering oppressed groups into acting, even to their own detriment, toward the benefit of the dominant group. The entire point of ex-nomination is for the dominant group to hide itself in order to avoid critique. Suicide bombing is one of the most detested crimes from the perspective of western society. If, as you claim, gendering “suicide bomber” whenever it refers to a female has the effect of perpetuating the assumption that suicide bombers are by default male, then gendered headlines implicitly negatively correlate suicide bombing with femaleness and positively correlate it with maleness, thereby blaming maleness for that crime. For a patriarchy wanting to ex-nominate itself from that activity, it would promulgate the notion that suicide bomber is not more natural to the category of male than female, which aligns more closely to Ashley’s argument.

  5. lindabeth said,

    arctic_jay…I think that we aren’t really disagreeing. The privilege to be “unnamed” is, as you state, related to universalizing oneself. You and I are simply stating the same thing different ways. I am of the persuasion that any cultural manifestation can be analyzed a multitude of ways. My comment here was citing this trend in headlines as yet another example of how identity specificity takes place only in reference to those who are not the “dominant” identity–while, male, hetero, etc, and works to reinforce the “natural”/universal individual as the dominant group, like you say too. Here, I’m drawing attention to the naming (nomination) as one out of many examples (like the ones in the Random Act) that take place on a daily basis.

    Aside from the ex-nominating effect, I wasn’t really discussing the other implications of this specific headline
    in this post. On one level of analysis, ex-nomination does indeed take place here in the very impetus to specifically name the female. If we want further analysis, we can discuss, as ballgame (not Ashley) was stating, why this takes place in this particular example, where I responded to him saying that the exception of women to this activity (despite any evidence otherwise) has its basis in binary and biological-based identity construction that aligns women with nurturing, vulnerability, irrationality, the home, etc. and men with strength, provision, analytic rationality, protection, the public/civic, etc. This is a secondary, though valuable, analysis to the specific point I was making.

  6. arctic_jay said,

    “My comment here was citing this trend in headlines as yet another example of how identity specificity takes place only in reference to those who are not the “dominant” identity–while, male, hetero, etc, and works to reinforce the “natural”/universal individual as the dominant group, like you say too.”

    While maintaining dominance is the goal sought when dominant groups use ex-nomination, the process is different than what you are describing. Ex-nomination is about hiding, and dominant groups hide their activities and the fact that it is they who are committing them by engendering the perception in the general public that *all groups* participate in or value those activities. If, as you claim, naming only female suicide bombers strengthens the perception of a natural tie between maleness and terrorism, then ex-nomination has not and is not occurring.

    “On one level of analysis, ex-nomination does indeed take place here in the very impetus to specifically name the female.”

    Ex-nomination would not create this impetus, since naming female suicide bombers creates a distinction between them and the male variety as well as their differing frequency in the minds of those who read these headlines. Ex-nomination is about creating the impression that there are no distinctions when in fact there are.

    “Aside from the ex-nominating effect, I wasn’t really discussing the other implications of this specific headline
in this post.”

    The reason why I brought up those implications was to show that naming only the femaleness of suicide bombers is not an example of ex-nomination if we accept your proposition of what such naming does to be true. If we accept Ashley’s argument to be valid, then that is an example of ex-nomination.

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