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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice

SEX SELLS: What the Media is Doing to our Female Politicians

By: Caitlyn Beatty

During the 2008 presidential primary election, you could buy a “Hillary Nutcracker.”  A presidential candidate, a former US Senator, was made into a nutcracker. And people actually bought it. This is just one of the many examples of sexism that female politicians face.

Our female politicians are being treated in ways that are both harmful to their political careers and harmful to women thinking about running for office in the future. These women, who serve as role models to other ambitious women, are being targeted and manipulated to make the news more appealing and entertaining. There are multiple ways in which female politicians face bias, and the media only perpetuates them. In the 2008 elections two women, Palin and Clinton ran for the two highest offices in the land; the levels of biased coverage were unprecedented. Looking ahead to 2016, this is cause for concern.

Since the first televised debate in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon, American politicians have been subjected to public scrutiny over their looks as well as their speech. The 2008 election brought us countless examples of women’s looks not only being scrutinized [Is Nancy Pelosi’s pantsuit ugly or did Richard Nixon sweat too much?] but sexualized in a way that male politicians have not been subjected too. Tracy Morgan said that Sarah Palin was “good masturbation material.” The Hillary Clinton nutcracker is still available on Amazon. Tucker Carlson famously said “When she [Hillary Clinton] comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.” And Sarah Palin’s head was photoshopped onto the bodies of women dressed in bikinis. These comments exist because sex sells, and these comments tragically get a lot of airtime.

Female politicians have to face a multitude of forms of gender bias and stereotypes as they are portrayed by the media. Some of the most pervasive in our culture are:

  1. The Iron Maiden: Hillary Clinton provides a great example. The Iron Maiden was a nickname for Margaret Thatcher  [a strong willed British Prime Minister and general badass]. Unfortunately, women who find themselves victims of the iron maiden stereotype are caught in a double bind. To show emotion would mean they are perceived as weak but to not cry or show emotion would seem cold and calculated.
  2. The Pet: This stereotype exists when women are not viewed as real players, but as a pet or novelty of the party. This frame in which the media, or politicians themselves, portray women causes them to look like they need protection. Sarah Palin provides a good example of the pet stereotype. She is often referred to as the “darling” of the Republican Party or the party’s token woman. Many criticized the Republican party’s treatment of Palin, saying that they were often overprotective of her, shielding her from the media, or speaking of her as if she was Sen. McCain’s daughter.
  3. The Mother: Sarah Palin, sometimes by her own doing, but also by the media, was constantly being introduced as “a mother of five.” Being a mom is an honorable and praiseworthy occupation, but our male politicians are not viewed in a “father first” manner.

Now that the 2014 Midterm Elections are over [insert sounds of sobbing, or cheers of celebration, here], the next big predictions are who will run for in the 2016 Presidential Elections. Some likely contenders? There’s a wide field on the right (Chris Christie, Jeb Bush). The front-runner on the left is Hillary Clinton, which leads us to wonder, in a field (once again) with almost all male competitors how Clinton will be portrayed. There is no doubt that there will be some sexism in the 2016 elections.

However there is some hope for those of us who were totally alienated by the 2008 media coverage. First, Twitter has become more popular in the past eight years and the platform lends itself well to getting the word out about social movements and public outcry. The media will have to be more careful in 2016, particularly since the public can organize so easily behind hashtags and the collective and viral voice that Twitter lends to its users. Second, the public is somewhat more aware of this problem. By the end of 2008 election, an understanding that each side (both Democratic and Republican) had been victimizing its candidates entered mainstream culture. (See Amy Pohler and Tina Fey’s sketch addressing sexism and politics here.)

It is important for the public to be aware of the bias in the media so they can gauge whether or not they are getting a holistic view of each candidate, but it is also important as feminists (on both the left and the right) to acknowledge the bias and make sure that it does not limit the progress of women being elected to Congress and [fingers-crossed] the presidency. This means making sure that female candidates are being represented in a holistic manner and ensuring that what bias does exist does not discourage any woman who wants to run for office.

Here’s to hoping a female presidential candidate will run, and to hoping even more that the media will clean up its act.

PS. If you are interested in media bias in relation to women, Miss Representation, a movie available on Netflix is definitely worth the watch. Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women is a great read as well.

ClintonPalinpolitical sexism

worcuga • December 12, 2014

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