The Washington Post’s Subtle Bias Against Women

Media coverage of the Cleveland kidnapping shows how easily misogyny can creep into print.

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Accused Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro.
Ariel Castro appears in Cleveland Municipal court Thursday alongside defense attorney Kathleen DeMetz after he was charged with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape.

Who is the bigger victim of a misogynist culture – the three women who were allegedly abducted, raped and kept hostage by Ariel Castro in Cleveland? Or Katherine Russell Tsarnaev, who has drawn some scorn, suspicion and bewilderment because she gave up a carefree life as a typical American young woman to marry a Muslim, converting to the faith and covering her head in customary fashion?

It's Russell's case that seems to have drawn more perplexed coverage from the media and commentators, who can only imagine that Russell was somehow tricked into joining a religion whose traditions might be viewed as controlling women. Never mind the legitimately disturbing fact that Russell married a man who apparently bombed the Boston marathon. That's offensive regardless of religion. But who is this woman, the media has asked – and why would she willingly align herself with Islam? Tsarnaev, it was reported, had been arrested of domestic assault against a girlfriend in 2009. What was Russell thinking? Surely, it's not a question that would be bandied about if she had become, say, a born-again Christian.

[ Read Peter Roff: How the U.S. Could Do More to Aid Kidnapped Children]

And yet Castro's case has not been framed in quite the same way. Of course, the Cleveland crime has been covered extensively – sometimes without any real new information. But it's been presented as a sort of house-of-horrors instead of what it was: a man who so hated women that he kept them locked in a house, raping them and committing other sorts of abuse that are very gender-based.

This isn't just about a lunatic criminal. This is about misogyny at its deepest and most dangerous core.

So who is Ariel Castro? The Washington Post , in a front-page Sunday story, talks about the horrific things Castro did to the women (after letting us all know, in the opening of the story, that all three females got in a car that took them to their hell – bad, bad girls!). He was a musician, the Post reported, when he met the woman who would become his common-law wife. Explained the Post:

The young bass player had an eye for women, and one day in the early 1990s, he called over a little boy, Ismael Figueroa Jr., who lived in the apartment across the street to ask about his teenage sister.

What on earth does that mean -- "he had an eye for women"? He was a young man, and if he's not gay, it pretty much makes sense he'd be attracted to women, just as it makes sense that heterosexual women will be attracted to men. But the phraseology relies on one of the most insidious insults of women in the media and in popular culture, that women are some sort of indulgence or temptation.

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]

The corollary to that is that men can't really be expected to resist women's charms – they're right up there with wine and song. Assigning some characterization of Castro as a helplessly romantic or sexually interested young man as opposed to what he appears to be – a woman-hating criminal – is appalling and unacceptable in a paper of the Post's overall quality.

Was it a blip? Read on:

Another time, [investigators] heard about a boy who had a crush on [abductee Amanda] Berry, a pretty sandy blonde with twinkling eyes. The boy had been flirting with her at the drive-through window. But … the boy was cleared.

Well, listen up ladies – if you are pretty and have "twinkling eyes," you just might be asking to be kidnapped and sexually assaulted.

The desire to turn a long newspaper story into a narrative, a sort of novella, is understandable. But the Cleveland case is not just a prurient story in a detective magazine. The appearance of the victim is not relevant and subtly excuses Castro's behavior. Hey, he had an eye for women and she had sandy blonde hair – what's a man to do?

[ Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

The evidence against Castro is overwhelming, and prosecutors are rightly determined to make sure he never sees life outside of a prison again. But that is not enough. This case should spawn a much broader and more serious discussion of violence and bigotry against women.

It's unimaginable that if Castro had held, say, a team of African-Americans or Latinos as slaves, that there would not be some government commission assigned to address racism and bias. The women may see their captor get justice, but the national dialogue has not extended to the broader question of gender-based crimes. Perhaps too many people are too busy trying to figure out why an American woman would become a Muslim.