We're So Over The Cliché Of Female Journalists Sleeping With Their Sources

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In real life, female journalists are just that: Humans who identify as female and are journalists by profession. But in pop culture depictions across TV and movies, female journalists tend to fall into a sexist cliché trope of “women sleeping their way to the top." Time and time again, these fictional women reporters have sexual dalliances with their sources and subjects.

The issue is not that it’s out of the realm of possibility that a woman would ever make this choice. Nor are portrayals of women mixing work and pleasure offensive in and of themselves. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, out Friday, Tina Fey’s character — based on war journalist Kim Barker — begins a relationship with a freelance photographer, played by Martin Freeman. They’re both lonely, horny, and in the middle of the Afghanistan desert — and she’s not getting into bed with him to score action shots from the battlefield. Trust us, we’re all about women exercising their sexual freedom and enjoying casual sex without being shamed. And the problem isn’t even that this never, ever happens in the real world. (See: General David Petraeus’ biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell.)

We need to see films spotlight female reporters who manage to perform their jobs without getting naked.

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The Real Problem
So what’s my hangup? It's this: Name a movie or TV show you’ve seen where a male journalist has sex with a source in order to break a story or otherwise advance his career. Drawing a blank? That’s because the portrait of the journalism industry that Hollywood presents is one in which male journalists are completely capable of doing their jobs without dropping trou — while female journalists seem to have an awfully hard time getting the job done without shedding their clothes.

This genre-sprawling cliché usually falls into one of two equally offensive categories — and they pop up in quality films, many of which I enjoyed. Unfortunately, the fact is that taken as a whole, these films suggest that women make sucky journalists. And I'm so over it.

Scenario One: Why Profile Your Subject When You Can Fall For Him?
In this case, the woman is simply so devoid of journalistic integrity or drive that she welcomes the conflict of interest of sleeping with her subject — or she avoids that dilemma entirely by giving up the whole story for him. Shonda Rhimes, of all people, illustrated a perfect example of this on Scandal just last week. A highly respected, Pulitzer Prize-winning D.C. journalist (Annabeth Gish) assigned to profile the President (Tony Goldwyn) ends up spreading her legs for the Commander In Chief instead of interviewing him. She trashes the story altogether — who needs that byline when you can settle for Oval Office sexcapades?

The freshest example in film is sneakily packaged in what was hailed as a subversive, feminist comedy. In last summer’s blockbuster, Trainwreck, Amy (Amy Schumer) is assigned to profile a sports doctor (Bill Hader). Instead, she falls madly in love with him. Another unexpected vehicle for the tired trope is the 2014 comedy Top Five. A New York Times reporter, played by Rosario Dawson, makes out with the (engaged) actor-comedian (Chris Rock) she’s writing about. Oops!

A couple more for you to chew on: In Iron Man (2008), a Vanity Fair writer (Leslie Bibb) assigned to interview Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) spends the night in his bed. In the 2009 indie drama Crazy Heart, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s young journalist is looking for a good story about an alcoholic country singer past his prime (Jeff Bridges). Surprise, surprise: She winds up sleeping with the oh-so-irresistible broken man.


Scenario Two: She’s So Ambitious She’ll Sleep With A Source For A Scoop

In this case, ambition isn’t the problem. In fact, her willingness to sleep with sources is how we're meant to understand what a ruthless career woman she is. She’ll do anything for the story and she has no problem swapping sex for intel on her way to becoming editor-in-chief. The biggest offender in recent memory returns to Netflix for season 4 on Friday. In the first season of House of Cards, D.C. reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) initiated an affair with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) to get the dirt on Capitol Hill. (We all know how that worked out for her.) And her older, wiser coworker Janine (Constance Zimmer) confesses that she “used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story.”
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But House Of Cards didn’t come up with this shit. In the black war comedy Three Kings, which came out 17 years ago, a journalist named Cathy (Judy Greer) trades sex for insider military intel from a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier played by George Clooney. In 2005’s Thank You For Smoking, reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) seduces Big Tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). She publishes the scoop on him and the industry in a juicy exposé using their off-the-record, between-the-sheets exchanges. (Nick’s best line: “I presumed anything said while I was inside you was privileged.”)

In Woody Allen’s 2006 film Scoop, an American journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) goes undercover to investigate a suspected serial killer (Hugh Jackman), but she ends up falling hard for the murderer. Murderers! So charming! Even a harmless sitcom like Parks & Rec perpetuates the stereotype. In season 1, local newspaper reporter Shauna (Alison Becker) scores off-the-record quotes from city employee Mark (Paul Schneider) while getting into bed with him.

A Promising Lede
On Sunday, Spotlight, the drama about the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the Catholic church child sex abuse scandal, won the Oscar for Best Picture. In it, Rachel McAdams plays real-life reporter Sacha Pfeiffer — and she doesn’t have sex with a source or a subject. I suppose a woman just doing her job isn’t quite as sexy or exciting, but her performance also earned her a Best Supporting Actress nod.
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Rachel McAdams in Spotlight.
We need more roles like Tina Fey’s and Rachel McAdam’s journalists on the big screen. We need to see films spotlight female reporters who manage to perform their jobs without getting naked. Journalism is not an easy industry for women as it is. It’s dominated by men and credibility — which typically involves remaining clothed — is key.

Unfortunately, unless you work in media, you’ve probably seen more fictional representations of female journalists than actual, hard-working reporters in real life. And we know that, try as we might, what we see in the movies and on TV influences how we see the real world. Hollywood’s portrayals are not doing anything to boost our ranks or credibility. Instead, pop culture helps normalize the idea that getting undressed is part of the job. The more ubiquitous that image becomes, the less seriously female journalists are taken — and the less likely young girls are to want to enter the industry. So, Hollywood, get your story straight when it comes to female journalists. It’s time to start digging a little deeper.