Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The News Corp. women: Fair coverage or negative stereotypes? Add to ...

Hurry hurry hurry! Get ’em while they’re still on the shelves – the hottest headline-making sensation of the summer, the News Corp. Female Action Dolls.

There is “flame-haired” Rebekah Brooks, newly resigned CEO of News International, Rupert Murdoch’s go-to-woman, cozy confidant of British prime ministers and their wives, a former secretary who rose to become the highest ranking female media executive in Britain and the most senior person in Murdoch’s empire yet to take the fall for the phone-hacking scandal.

This action figure comes equipped with a wide-toothed comb and two sensible navy blue business suits.

And there’s Wendi Deng Murdoch, who in the twinkling of a televised moment during a crucial parliamentary hearing this week, dressed in a snappy pink jacket, catapulted out of her seat to preserve, protect and defend her elderly husband Rupert from a pie-wielding interloper, taking a good hard swipe at his assailant. Suddenly her image morphed from that of scheming trophy wife to tigress avenger, “smackdown sister” and Internet heroine: “How Wendi Won the Day and Why It’s Good for Rupert” screamed the New York magazine website.

This doll, dressed in an authentic replica pink jacket comes with a cellphone containing the personal numbers of Nicole Kidman and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a set of hand weights.

It’s easy to reduce these to women to archetypes – but they are a far cry from the winsome newspaper cartoon characters that first captivated most women who wanted to shine in a newsroom. There was the beautiful red-headed Brenda Starr, investigative reporter-editor from the Chicago paper The Flash, and the plucky and determined Lois Lane, ace reporter and co-worker of Clark “Superman” Kent. I wanted to be Lois Lane and for a while I think I was her (although Clark Kents were always in short supply.)

Now these two complicated women have vaulted into the news biz headlines, causing endless fascination. Well, they’re actually causing a lot of drivel to be spoken and written, which, given the regularly scurrilous contents of the newly defunct News of the World, the Murdoch-owned tabloid at the centre of the scandal, could be construed as their just desserts.

I didn’t know, for instance, that Rebekah Brooks not too long ago attended a slumber party along with Sarah Brown, wife of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which gave rise to embattled Prime Minister David Cameron snarling to parliamentarians that at least he “never saw her in her pyjamas.”

Nor did I know that Wendi Deng Murdoch, 38 years younger than her megabucks husband, had briefly married and then divorced another older American man before Murdoch who seemed to be instrumental in getting her a green card. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Both these women have been portrayed as climbers and manipulators who have ridden to prominence on the coattails of powerful men. Yet conversely, they’ve also drawn admiration for being smart, strong-willed, focused, and in both cases, extremely competent at what they do.

It is, however, precisely what they do that causes legitimate concern. Wendi Deng, who once had a promising career in television, is now lauded on American breakfast television for “how much power she wields” which, as NY Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman emphasized with a straight face on one show, included getting her octogenarian workaholic husband to wear “hipster jeans” and pay more attention to their celebrity-laden social life.

And Rebekah Brooks helmed a newspaper whose lack of ethics caused endless anguish to the family of teenaged murder victim Milly Dowler when its reporters, who regularly hacked into the phones of royals and celebrities, allegedly erased phone messages from her mobile, leading her family to believe she was still alive.

As a journalist who has worked in newspapers for more than three decades, I cannot believe that a senior executive like Ms. Brooks was completely oblivious to what specifically was going on, or at least unaware that her reporters operated far beyond what was morally, ethically and legally acceptable. She’s thick as a plank if she didn’t know.

So here is my question. Have Wendi Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks been given a fair shake in the media? Or have these undeniably fierce women been turned into negative female stereotypes?

You can argue, for instance, that it is highly irrelevant not to mention trite, to devote, as Robin Givhan did on the Daily Beast website, an entire article to questioning why Ms. Brooks let her red hair hang down during her parliamentary appearance instead of discreetly tying it back: “ Her hair hung thick and loose below her shoulders like a dense tangle of vines. It was free and unruly; it was hair that had been released from any need to be controlled and tidy.” This is clearly prose that has been released from any need to be sensible.

But you also have to acknowledge that under Ms. Brooks’s watch, the News of the World would have taken a juicy character like her, pulled off her knickers and hung them out to dry. So I think comparatively speaking, she has been treated quite respectfully.

And as for Wendi the avenger Murdoch , we need to acknowledge that however nuanced her climb to the top of the trophy wife heap, she has breathed new life into that tired old meme: hey you aging mortality obsessed movers and shakers, if you don’t want to admit you threw off the old bag and married the new hottie for the great sex and new clothes, you can always protest you wanted someone who could kick the butt of anyone who tried to lay a hand on you.

So, we have entered a modern realm here with these two larger-than-life News Corp heroines, blending the old (scheming gold digger) with the new (“honey, that bad man over there is trying to hurt me, think you can take him?”) pitting the stereotypical how did she get to the top, against the implacable self-control that Rebekah Brooks demonstrated during her brief public appearance.

Both these women will no doubt go on to other postscandal chapters. And my guess is that each will undergo, in the media, several more image changes that will defy even the broadest cartoon comic book character arc.

So hurry, hurry, hurry. Pick up these action dolls now before the Murdoch narrative takes another startling turn, in a story so good you couldn’t possibly make it up.

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories