Practically in the same breath, the Today Show on March 20 reported on the ongoing investigation of the Steubenville rape case (whether additional charges will be filed) and the "admirable" plea from a high school senior, Jake Davidson, to land supermodel Kate Upton as his prom date. What the... ?
Over the past few days, the media was rightly criticized for their inept coverage of the Steubenville rape case, particularly after the two boys were convicted. Most media outlets practically lamented the fact that these "promising" high school football players were caught and faced time in juvenile detention. But to distract us from this is Jake Davidson.
Jake made a short video asking Kate Upton to accompany him to the prom. At first glance, you could call the video awkwardly cute and perhaps even "innocent." Kate, after all, oozes sexuality (most recently on the cover of the Sports Illustrated "Swimsuit Issue") and undoubtedly "appeals" to lots of media consumers. But, how is Jake's plea to Kate news? It isn't.
Then for what reason do the media decide to cover this? This question seems particularly salient at this historical moment when citizens fed up with the media's outrageously poor and sexist handling of the Steubenville rape have taken to social media in full force, even signing petitions demanding major news outlets apologize. So why in this of all moments, and practically in the same breath, do media cover this non-news story? Are they trying to "redeem" high school boys' aggressive sexuality as "normal," "cute," and "laudable" or it is a frighteningly mindless attempt to boost ratings? Let's just think about what Jake did for a moment. First, he created a video, aimed at a woman he never met. Thus, he probably doesn't know much about Kate beyond the fact that she is "hot" and likes sports. In the video, he spoke directly to Kate while he, among other things, performed push-ups and showered. He then uploaded this video to YouTube for the world to see. The result? Fame for Jake.
The Today Show anchors, in their coverage literally applauded Jake in their introduction, told him, "We appreciate your aspirations," connected Kate Upton with Jake with an on-air phone call telling him to "make his pitch" and told viewers they would keep us informed of this "love connection."
We do not know if the Today Show intentionally attempted to rescue and normalize aggressive teenage boys' sexual behaviors. However, by mindlessly covering Jake's video, particularly paired with the Steubenville case, it does just this. As a society we have not just accepted (hyper)masculine and aggressive sexuality, we have come to expect it. We've also come to think we should enjoy it. Most viewers of the Today Show were probably entertained by Jake's story. And high schoolers who might have watched it, received the message that male sexual overtures are desirable and sexual aggression is normal.
If we desire gender equity, we need be better consumers of the media. We need to tell them that there is no need to sensationalize high school boys' aggressive sexuality or reframe it so it is more palatable. Beyond this we seriously need to think about timing and fairness. Isn't the real newsworthy issue right now how badly the media fouled up coverage of the Steubenville rape?
Co-authored with Scott Richardson, Ph.D., Millersville University, author of eleMENtary School
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