Today I was doing my normal pre-work routine: eating toast while doing my hair, wrangling my dog, and listening to NPR in every room. As you may know, I love NPR. My radio is completely locked on NPR and now that I have a smart phone, I can stream my favorite NPR stations at any time and use an aux cable to play them through my car speakers. Road trips just got a lot better.
I expect a lot from NPR, but I was very disappointed in them this morning. Jason Beaubien (which really is a fantastic name) was reporting on a mass shooting at a drug rehab center in Juarez – the second this week. His report was troubling. Mostly because this incident is disturbing and infuriating, but also because of a choice Mr. Beaubien made when describing the victims. He informed us that there were six casualties “including two women”.
Including two women?
Now, let me say, that I understand why, historically, people have included this descriptor when discussing casualties of war and violence. First, there is the notion that women are a protected class because they are defenseless. Killing a woman is like killing a bunny rabbit. Violence against one who cannot defend herself is especially heinous. However, and thankfully, there has (mostly) been a shift in perceptions and we don’t automatically think of women as completely defenseless or automatically innocent.
Next, war correspondents will often report the number of women and children killed. This is basically code for both innocent and civilian. We have a general concept of soldiers as adult men, but haven’t these same correspondents told us over and over again about the children around the world who work as soldiers? Do they still fall into the protected category of women and children? If you’re reporting that there are 10 dead, 5 of them are children and 2 of those 5 are soldiers, then are 10 dead including 5 children or 3 children? If women and children is code for innocent and defenseless, who qualifies?
Which brings me to today’s story. Yes, the drug war in Juarez really IS a war, but are there clear lines between civilians and soldiers? Six dead including two women. Is that four men who died who may have been responsible for bringing about their deaths and two unsuspecting women that were just caught in the crossfire? I don’t understand why “two women” is meaningful news. Don’t use “women” as code for innocent, civilian, or defenseless. Just say it. Say what you mean. Can you imagine a modern-day reporter calling out other traditionally marginalized groups? Can you imagine someone saying “There was a shooting today during a bank robbery, six people were killed including two Jews, two Athiests, an African-American man, and an obese woman?” What does that mean? What are we supposed to understand about the situation by naming parts of their identity? Is the event not as tragic for the families of the men that were killed? Let’s not reduce people to one aspect of who they are. Let’s not rely on a term as complex and overflowing as “woman” to be shorthand for weak. If you mean weak, say weak. If you mean innocent, say it. Don’t use lazy language to strip the power from half of the world’s population. I expect more from you, NPR, and, as a librarian, I can refer you to a great thesaurus.