She's a Woman, not a Unicorn

Unicorn - Full Speed | Image Credit:  Rob Boudon

Unicorn - Full Speed | Image Credit: Rob Boudon

In much of the reporting on the tragic shooting at Ft. Hood, I've noticed a disturbing trend. I've noticed it before, but with all the media attention around this latest shooting, it's been slapping me in the face more than normal, so I felt compelled to write about it.

Consider this report from the April 3, 2014, New York Times, describing the events at Ft. Hood:

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.00.37 AM
Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.00.37 AM

Do you see the problem?

Here's another example. This one is from the April 8, 2014, Daily Beast Cheat Sheet describing a shooting in a Police Station in Los Angeles:

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.08.47 AM
Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.08.47 AM

Do you see it now?

In the first piece, the military police officer was twice described as a "female" officer. Does it matter, in this scenario, that the officer was a woman? No, it doesn't. She was doing her job the same as a man would've done. Including the adjective female in this case makes her sound like something besides a regular officer: a unicorn, some fantastical and mythical creature that was rumored to exist but never seen until now.

The second example is even worse. The male officer is simply described as "(a)n officer," and then "(t)he wounded officer," while the female is the "female officer" who provided help. No. They are both "police officers" or "officers" who were both courageously doing their jobs, not "helping."

If no women had been involved in either of these stories, the gender of these officers would most likely have never been mentioned. Just imagine how silly it would sound if every news report sounded like this:

A male police officer stopped a male suspect who was driving a stolen car. The suspect had a male passenger. The male police officer called for backup and two other male officers arrived on the scene. The owner of the stolen car, a male, had reported the vehicle stolen two days earlier when his son, also a male, had noticed a strange male lurking near the house.

We don't report news like this for two reasons. First, the fact that these people are men really has nothing to do with anything. These people could all be women and the basics of the story would remain the same. The second reason, though, is troubling. We assume that police officers (and criminal suspects, for that matter) are men. We don't feel the need to say "male police officer," because "police officer," seems to imply male. It's the same reason that some people feel compelled to say "male nurse," as if there is something different about the nursing job if a man is doing it than if a woman is doing it. (There's not. They're all nurses.)

It's unlikely that the writers of either of these pieces intended to marginalize women when they wrote this. They maybe even thought they were promoting diversity by pointing out that these heroes were women. It is important to include women in our stories of our military and police. Unfortunately, by including their gender in this way it makes them sound like an "other" rather than part of the team, and that works against diversity and inclusion. A better approach would be to integrate both men and women into our stories as naturally and as often as possible.

In the story about Ft. Hood, that could have been easily done in the second paragraph by making a few minor changes. Instead of saying, "The female officer pulled out her weapon," the paper could have reported, "the officer pulled out her weapon." This positions the officer, a female, as another example of our fine men and women in uniform, not a unique curiosity or exception, while still communicating that many of our military officers are female by using the pronoun her. As for the story about the police station, the original CBSLA.com article that the Cheat Sheet was summarizing did this beautifully:

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.11.48 AM
Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.11.48 AM

(By the way, if either of these stories had been about the role of women in the military or police force, or how men and women work together, or how women can be heroes, then including the gender as they did may have been appropriate.)

This unnecessary use of adjectives doesn't just happen to women. If you are white, and are going to tell me about a "black lady" you saw at the store, you should ask yourself a few questions first:

  1. Does the fact that the woman is black have any bearing on the story? (It might, but if it doesn't, then why are you including this information?)
  2. If the woman were the same race as you, would you include the woman's race? In other words, would you tell me about this "white lady" you saw at the store?
  3. If you replaced the descriptor "black" with another one, such as "blind" or "deaf", would it still make sense to include this detail in your story?

If you answer "No" to any of these questions, then you don't need to say, "black lady." You can just tell me about the lady you saw at the store. This holds true for your gay hairdresser, your Mexican friend, your Asian neighbor, etc.

Adding unnecessary adjectives can make you sound racist, homophobic, sexist, etc., so be thoughtful when you choose your words. The first word you use to describe someone is often perceived to be the most important, so choose it wisely.

As we find ourselves in an increasingly open and accepting society, we can also find ourselves unintentionally offending people. The truth is, we were offending them all along and now they feel comfortable saying something about it. Try not to feel defensive if you find yourself guilty of this. It's part of forming a better society and we all have to grow and change. The key is to talk to each other respectfully and examine our own behaviors carefully. It's ok to feel offended and it's ok to offend, as long as we can talk it out, correct the behaviors, and move forward.

Assume the best. Be the best. Think before you speak and make sure you are saying what you mean.

Be good to each other.