You've probably never heard the term "cheetah," but that's okay—no one else had, either, until New York Observer reporter Spencer Morgan coined the slur last December. A cheetah, according to Morgan's trend piece "Rrrowl! Beware Cougar's Young Niece, The Cheetah," is a thirtysomething single woman who's "discovered that getting a man [is] no longer as easy as it once was." Her biological clock is ticking and her desperation for a real relationship is getting more pathetic—and, to Morgan and the cronies he quotes in the story, more comical.
If you're wondering why a leading New York City newspaper published a bogus piece of "news" about women past their prime, the answer is simple: The Observer was using the Sexist Media Stunt, a now-classic bit of media bait, to draw in readers and revenue.
Sexist Media Stunts reinforce stereotypes about women under the guise of being "provocative." Of course readers are going to get pissed about an article comparing adult women to predatory jungle cats—that's the whole point. The writer, and often an editor, then responds to ensuing outrage by claiming their SMS was an attempt to "provoke debate"—though dollars to doughnuts the "debate" being exploited is a tired stereotype about women that's been disproved decades ago. And it's a one-two punch when publications (and readers thrilled to see their misogynist worldview reflected in the media) are quick to accuse detractors of tweaking out on political correctness. A sample comment from the Observer's website: "Spencer—and editors—seriously, in a country where one in four women will be the victim of some form of rape in their lifetime, often acquaintance rape, you actually thought this article was—what? Entertaining? Clever? An object lesson?"
But cheetah hunting wasn't the only Sexist Media Stunt in December: That month's Details magazine trumpeted "The Rise of The Hot Jewish Girl," announcing that ladies of the tribe are "the ethnic fetish du jour." The article's thesis was little more than a declaration that Judaism has more to offer than just loudmouthed Dreschers with big schnozzes, and it sang the praises of conventionally pretty Jews like Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz. December also found the website of Marie Claire UK running a post titled "Do All Women Make Bad Bosses?" Despite a reputation as a quasifeminist women's publication, Marie Claire UK asked, in all seriousness, "Is there a reason why men make beter [sic] bosses, or do you feel passionate about waving the flag for lady leaders?"
Women's magazines are notoriously prone to performing the SMS. Perhaps you recall the September 2007 Cosmopolitan article, "A New Kind of Date Rape," in which professional moral panicker Laura Sessions Stepp invented the term "gray rape" and insinuated that women who drank were complicit in whatever sexual violence befell them. And in its brief lifespan as a standalone website, Slate's Double X was a veritable X Games of Sexist Media Stunts, manufacturing daily controversy by disparaging feminists in blog posts with titles like "Whine, Womyn and Thongs: How Feminism Has Failed."
Exploitation and hyperbole are mainstays of mass media, obviously, and sexism has always been so prevalent in mainstream media that it can be difficult to ascertain whether it's being deployed as a sales tactic, or just business as usual. But with the media industry in freefall, Sexist Media Stunts appear to be on the rise as a means of grasping, however transparently, for both money and relevance. "Serious" media outlets, like the Observer, steal a page from the tabloids with attention-grabbing headlines and content predicated on misogynistic stereotypes; even ostensibly progressive media outlets pile on. The Huffington Post, for example, has made waves with a series of blog posts called "The Big Picture," which show blown-up photos of celebrity faces, inviting readers to examine the quality of their skin. [Full disclosure: I am a former employee of HuffPo.] Whether in print or online, the misogynist message is always the same, but the packaging for each media outlet is finessed in such a way to make the degrading and humiliating statements about women not look entirely out of place. The women-bosses post, for instance, couched its misogyny in language that implied the writer and editors were just looking out for their female readers in the workplace.
It's typical for Sexist Media Stunts to be intellectually barren—they aren't meant to be "serious" journalism. (At press time, Morgan's latest Observer investigation was on women who cry in public.) All that matters are pageviews or newsstand purchases. So do yourself—and all women—a favor, and pass on by.